Category "Photography Books"

This Week in Photography: A Vision of Italy

 

It was hard to motivate today.

(That’s the truth.)

I get so much joy from this column, all year long, but there are always one or two dips, per year, when my strategic-creativity-reserve drops precipitously.

I’m not alone, as most of you don’t want to work today either. (I’m writing on Thursday, as deadlines are deadlines.)

We’re living through exceptional times, and it takes so much mental and physical energy just to process it all without going crazy.

Let’s call it 60% of our total energy output?

Throw in parenting, working, home-schooling, cooking, cleaning, and all the rest, and how much energy is left for self-care?

For trying to feel good, rather than not-terrified?

Obviously, the answer is very little. We’re all going about, each day, doing the best we can, and some of us have it easier than others. (Geographically speaking.)

Right now, I think we all need to empathize with each other, more than ever, and expect a lot less from ourselves too. (In terms of our work productivity, anyway.) Hell, I just got up off the floor, (literally,) to write this column for three reasons:

1. Rob pays me, and it’s my job.
2. I have a responsibility to you, the audience.
3. I knew that any and all art practice always makes me feel better.

It’s that last one I want to harp on today. (Yes, I’m going into inspirational-professor-mode.)

When our energy drops and our spirits lag, blowing off exercise, or creative practice, is the easiest thing to do. Laziness can feel like a rational response to our current state of affairs, and I’ve allowed myself a fair bit.

I know a hard-core Yogi who admitted he wasn’t doing his yoga, so I gave him a little nudge, because I know how happy it makes him. (The dude glows.)

I’m certainly preaching to the choir, (to some extent,) as I’ve seen lots of social media posts about people cooking, drawing, or meditating.

We all KNOW this, on some level.

When much of normal life is stripped away, and we have so many emotions to process, (without our usual expressive outlets,) you have to give yourself permission to feel like shit, from time to time, while remembering that art makes it better.

Let me say that again: Art makes it better.

When was the last time you picked up your camera, or a pen, or a paintbrush, made some art, and then said, “Fuck! I totally regret that. What a waste of time! Heavens to Mergatroyd!

My guess?
Never.

I’m lucky, as this column forces me to make art each week. I can’t not be creative, as it’s my job to keep coming back at you.

With the benefit of that rigor, I wanted to share the message with you: Make art.

Make art!
Now.

Simply by making it now, you’ll be recording energy from a historic place in time.

Some of it will necessarily be interesting later on, because it was made now, and it will give a context.

Or then again, maybe a new context will change the work?

Am I simply speculating?

No.
I’m not.

I just got done looking at “Purtroppo Ti Amo,” (Unfortunately, I love you,) a photo-book submitted several years ago, by Federico Pacini in Italy, published by Editrice Quinlan.

(Yes, we’re going there.)

Just now, if I’m being honest, I’ve realized part of my coping mechanism has been to tamp down my heart. To lock away my vulnerability. I’ve put up the chest shield, and protected the emotions, because though I cried before leaving for Amsterdam, I haven’t cried since coming home.

All those poor people in Italy, suffering.

Dying alone.

Losing loved ones, no funerals, all the dread, all the death.

I lived in Rome for a seminal time in my life, and it made me an artist. Then I went back, in 1998, and made street photographs of the elderly culture, as old people were engaged and active in a way I’d never seen before.

Riding scooters, shopping with vigor, doing the passagiatta.

 

Why have I not cried for their loss?

You might get choked up when you see these pictures below, because it’s just too hard not to view them in the new context.

And what are they?

The entire book, near as I can tell, was shot in and around the artist’s hometown of Siena. A place, famed as any for its beauty, in the architecture and surrounding Tuscan countryside.

If most of us wanted to idealize a locale’s beauty, we might go with a place like Tuscany.

But that’s not what we see in this book.

Photograph after photograph of bleak, banal, real places. It is Italy, but not the Italy we’re accustomed to. This is all anti-aesthetic, no pretty.

When people do show up, and it’s rare, they’re often elderly. And when was the book made?

2013.

We see porn DVD’s and old parking lots. Miley Cyrus posters, and suave barbers.

But most of it is empty.
And sad.

About 1/3 of the way through, on the left hand page, we see a low-res image of an old man, looking disconcerted. On the right, an empty room, maybe in a Church basement, community center, or nursing home?

I strain to read one sign, and then translate it. My Italian is rusty, so I turn to Google:

“Le solitudine colpisce le persone che ti circondano,” which means…

“Loneliness affects the people around you.”

How was this book not made 3 days ago?

There is a juxtaposition, not much later on, of a small, 2-door-mini-Euro-car with a door-sign advertising funerals, next to a man, in a yellow, plastic volunteer vest, guarding the entrance to a supermarket.

How was this book not made 2 days ago?

There are empty restaurants, empty parks, empty streets.

How was this book not made yesterday?

I’m not sure there’s is much more for me to say about this one. The photographs below will tell the story better, from here on out.

So let’s all think good thoughts for the poor people in Italy and NYC, or New Orleans, Madrid.

We’ll all get through this eventually, so while you’re in the middle of it, don’t forget to make art.

Bottom Line: Bleak vision of empty SienaΒ 

To purchase “Purtroppo Ti Amo,” click hereΒ 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: John Baldessari

 

America is hopelessly divided.

Rendered in half.
Torn asunder.

So they say.

It’s certainly the conventional wisdom, and something I’ve mused about at length here in the blog as well.

Given that old clichΓ©, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” it would lead one to assume the notion is true.

The US is split in two quasi-equal factions, and given they hate each other, as a nation, we’re essentially screwed.

Game over.
Let’s all go home.

That argument, that we’re broken into liberal and conservative camps, or Red and Blue states, or urban and rural enclaves, and it’s a bad thing, is so universal as to be unquestioned.

It’s so universal, in fact, that it was espoused by the very person typing these words.

(Do you sense a BUT coming?)

But…what if everyone is wrong? Even earlier versions of me?

I’ve been wondering lately, as for some reason, I’ve pushed words like split and divided from my brain, (not consciously,) and they’ve been replaced by another, very different word, that means more-or-less the same thing:

Balanced.

What if America is balanced between roughly-equally-sized blocks of people with naturally conservative and naturally liberal tendencies; citizens providing the warp and weft that has woven the nation together for the last 243 years?

What if?

What if it’s not so bad that some people don’t see eye-to-eye, or choose to live separate from one another?

What if we need each other, and that innate tension has kept us tougher these centuries, including after a Civil War that nearly created two separate countries?

Maybe, given our history, (of one half conquering the other,) and the fact that we (more-or-less) sewed it back together, plus the natural differences of country and city life, just maybe, this is our secret sauce as a nation?

Isn’t it a crazy thought?

The fact that Republicans and Democrats, (or Liberals and Conservatives,) continue to hand off the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court to one another, over phases of time, could make us better, as one side checks the other’s wildest instincts over time?

It’s a lot to swallow, given I’ve been such a vocal critic of President Trump. (And was no fan of George W. either, as you well know.)

I feel like most of us assume our side is right, and if we could only grab control of all three levers of power, at once, and have them for a decade or so, we’d fix America for good.

Red AND Blue think that.

But what if we need each other, and have essentially found ourselves endlessly distracted by infighting these last ten years?

What if the internet and social media have allowed powerful entities to chop us up into individual “profiles,” and rig the game to the point that we don’t even know we’re being played anymore?

No, the blogger is not turning Luddite on you, and I’m not saying it’s the robots fault either. (If anyone’s got a raw deal, it’s slave-robots.)

I benefit from the internet more than most.

However, “30 Rock” just came to Amazon, and I’ve been re-watching it, along with my 12 year old, who wasn’t born yet when it first debuted.

The take on race, class, the media, America, sexism, all of it, even the fashion, seemed current.

It was weird, as I’ve seen other TV from NYC, not much earlier, that is very dated. (Hint: “Sex and the City.”)

As much as I admire Tina Fey and her staff, as they barely put a foot wrong, it made me wonder if we’ve been spinning our wheels for most of the time I’ve been doing this job?

(I began here in 2010, for goodness sake.)

And I know that my work has value, commenting regularly on our culture, but what if the culture has been stuck?

What if I’m commenting on a repetitive loop?

What if Trump is the natural evolution, the natural conclusion of a process of getting ALL our attention, of monetizing that attention, as well as our identities.

We’ve given companies like Facebook every piece of information about ourselves that we possibly can.

Whether Facebook gave us Trump, or Trump gave us Facebook, maybe we got suckered into a 10 year void, where we kept pushing the button, and they kept giving us the snack?

(Whatever type of content you want, whenever you want, 24-7, and very likely free.)

If we were lab rats, and they wanted to devise as system to keep us endlessly distracted and squabbling, maybe it would look a lot like the world we’re living in?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting upending the system, nor have I been binge-watching Bernie Sanders campaign videos.

Rather, after a nice walk, and a short meditation, I took a long look at my book shelves, and noticed “Pure Beauty,” by John Baldessari, published in conjunction with a show at the Met in 2010.

Not that any of you would likely remember, (even my wife, or my Dad,) but I wrote about that show here, back then, very early in my APE career.

I’d seen the exhibit, the first time Rob asked me to go to NYC to cover the PDN Expo, and it had floored me.

Rocked my head.
Shook me sideways.
Punched me silly.

(You get the point.)

I liked it so much that I bought the monograph, which I don’t believe I’ve done before or since. (While working.)

I liked it so much that I left my notebook at the cash register, and only by the grace of the writing gods did I remember while I was only a few galleries away, in time to get it back with no hassles.

The exhibition was so good that it reframed the way I understood art, and my own art in particular.

Coming from UNM, which was a conceptual program, I learned from Tom Barrow and Patrick Nagatani. (Who got his MFA at UCLA.)

I was encouraged to think about working with ideas, and using processes which could themselves be symbols. It stuck with me, that way of thinking, and led me to study conceptual art in grad school, along with photography.

I could talk about Warhol, sure, and Marcel Duchamp, but mostly I think I made work that way because it had been implanted in my early-artist-operating-system.

All of a sudden, in that John Baldessari show, it was as if I were seeing every good idea that I had ever had, or was likely to have, on display on the walls before me.

Already done!

It was all there, the playfulness, the experimentation, the use of processes to engender artistic outcomes. The humor, the use of color, and the radical lengths to which the artist would challenge convention.

Like I once wrote about the Mike Kelley show at the Stedelijk Museum, (the time I owned my lack of genius, and was liberated,) the Baldessari show opened my mind the fact that if it came into my head, if I wanted to do it, if it was where my art took me, I should go.

And if, in the end, even with all the love and joy I had, I still felt like life was a bit absurd, well, that was OK too.

He threw red balls in the air to make a straight line, set against the blue sky, and documented it.

He made up games where you point to a carrot or a green bean?

Took selfies waving goodbye to strangers on boats.
Or wearing hats to block his face.

He made photographs out of secret handshakes!

He sang songs of Sol LeWitt art instructions.

Or took pictures of letters he built in the natural environment that spelled out the word “California.”

Everywhere we see games and systems.
Lots of play.

There were mini-movies, told in stills, and color blocks made from car doors.

This guy, John Baldessari, was a machine, just rapid-fire making amazing things, turning humor into pathos, and both balanced life experiences into something deeper.

Something that felt like the whole of life itself.

Looking back, nearly 10 years later, wondering if the last decade was a glitch in the system, I realize how much I learned that day, and how much his work had influenced me until that point. (And since.)

There are paintings, (for which he is rightfully renowned,) in which the artist painted instructions, in words, for how to sell lots of paintings. Or critiqued the process of painting, in words, inside his own paintings.

Everyday citizens have all heard of Warhol, and Picasso, but JB might have been just as influential.

Sadly, John Baldessari passed away in late #2019. (Another data point that year was a bitch and a half.) While we’re all less-well-off without him, and I’m sad I never got to shake his hand, (pre-coronavirus days, obv,) books like this one carry on his legacy.

Highly, highly recommended.

Bottom Line: Monograph from a 20th/21st Century master, #RIP

To purchase “Pure Beauty” click hereΒ 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: “Going South-Big Sur”

 

I tracked Storm Dennis for a week.

Chiara had hit the UK and Northern Europe hard, right before I left for Amsterdam, and I was concerned.

Schiphol Airport had been interrupted, with many flights delayed, and there was flooding across England.

So yeah, I was worried.

Throw in the wall-to-wall scare coverage about the coronavirus outbreak, and I was more than worried.

I was crap-my-pants-frightened as I left my house for the big trip.

Fucking Storm Dennis was looming out there, a Bomb Cyclone. The European version of a hurricane.

Yet when I asked people about Dennis, after I’d traversed a third of the globe, actual people on the ground in Amsterdam, they chuckled, and looked at me funny.

“Are you serious,” asked Jimmy, as he checked me in at the brilliant Hotel Mai? (More on the hotel in an upcoming travel piece.)

“Yes, I’m serious,” I said. “I tracked the hurricane online, and it looks bad. Will the power go out? Will the window panes get blown in? Will the restaurants stay open?”

“Don’t worry,” said Jimmy. “We don’t get hurricanes. It won’t be a big deal at all. I promise.”

And of course he was right.

I got caught in one little squall, (which I’ll write about in a future piece,) but beyond that, it was walking weather the entire time I was in the Netherlands.

Which teaches us two things.

One, the shit we read on the internet and social media really does mess with our emotions. I was a wreck leaving town, (which is uncharacteristic,) yet I saw only a few face masks the entire time I was on the road, and no panic.

The streets of Amsterdam were thronged with people, even if the Chinese tourists were on lockdown at home.

Two, is that weather really needs to be felt on the ground, to be understood. You need to live weather, and know it by the way it interacts with your bones.

Growing up in New Jersey, I was trained to believe it would always be crappy out, 3-4 days a week. All year round. (Maybe you’d get a 5/2 split for a month of summer, if you were lucky.)

Here in Taos, I know we’re leaving late-winter and entering early-spring around now, so I should start getting 4-5 nice days a week. (Until April, which is always grumpy.)

When it’s too dry, two warm, or even too cold, after 15 years living here, I know it.

And it all makes me think of the Summer of 2016, when my family and I went on a big California road trip, from Taos up to Big Sur, and then back.

I’m sure I wrote about it then, as this is a long-running blog about my life and times, as much as it’s a weekly critique of a photo book, an art exhibition, or a restaurant somewhere cool.

So, going back in time, there we stood, on a hilltop in Big Sur, looking at the bone-dry-golden-hills.

(Those hills were drier than Donald Trump’s mouth, after he smokes a fat doobie and eats a jar of peanut butter.)

Jessie and I looked at the Big Sur landscape, and then we looked at the one way in, from the North, and the one way out from the South.

It was the same road.
Highway 1.

At that point, one of the most touristed pieces of asphalt anywhere in the world.

“It’s not good,” Jessie said. “One way in and one way out. All that dry grass. It’s like a tinderbox, waiting to go up. Not good.”

“No,” I agreed. “It’s not good. This place is ready to go up.”

And so it did, a few days later.

The fires were so bad that when the rains eventually came that winter, they denuded the hills of mud, and the bridges connecting Big Sur to the outside world were trashed.

Useless, for around a year.

The town was cut off, for all intents and purposes.

One could hike in, or maybe take a helicopter?

Did anyone use boats, as the deeply blue Pacific Ocean is rather hazardous in the area?

My wife’s family, who have a home there, had to abandon their place, taking what they could, as most people left quickly.

I’d say Big Sur was reduced to a ghost town, but given the insane tourist crowds, it probably reverted back to the lush-forest-paradise it was before humans came around to try and tame it anyway.

I always wondered what it looked like, during that pause, before the bridges were fixed, and HBO’s “Big Little Lies” was filmed in the region, making it even more touristy.

Now, we don’t have to wonder, as I just looked through “Going South Big Sur,” a book by Kirk Crippens, published by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam.

It turned up in the mail last fall, and I’m glad I got around to checking it out today.

The truth is, it took me 24 hours to get home, in one stretch of travel, and I only took a couple of short cat-naps the entire time. So that travel-gut-punch, plus the serious jet lag, has put me down for the the past week.

This book, in its quiet elegance, is just right for my addled mind.

It shows a lot of empty places, with the formality that only a big camera can bring. (And having been on press myself last week, which I’ll write about soon, I was ogling these reproductions.)

At first, I admit, I was craving a tad more dynamism.

But as I turned the pages, one at a time, the reserved color/light palette, and the structured pictures began to seduce me with their quiet and their calm.

The portraits are great, and liven up the group overall.

I like the inclusion of selective captions at the end, because I was craving a spot in that cliff-side hot tub, and knowing it was shot at world-famous Esalen makes it that much juicer.

Whenever I’m most spent, the truth is, a photo book with a clear narrative and strong intentions, without too many essays, is always the best way to go.

(It’s one of my tricks, staying weekly for nearly nine years.)

This one fits the bill.

See you next week!

Bottom Line: Eerie, calm, quiet photos of a nearly abandoned Big Sur

To Purchase “Going South-Big Sur” click hereΒ 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: Re-discovering Marcel Sternberger

 

“The very basis for the existence of human society has become corroded with brutality, doubt, cynicism and distortion of truth- and the end is not yet in sight.”

-Albert Einstein

 

I’m the last guy you’d expect to defend Donald Trump, right?

Of all the people you know, (if this counts as knowing me,) you’d never predict that I’d go the mat for old DJT, would you?

Except it happened last week, and I was as shocked as you are.

The conversation wasn’t even about politics, but a like-minded, similar friend, (liberal, artist, Jewish, male, ) kept comparing Trump to Hitler.

Hitler, Hitler, Hitler.

I let it go the first and second time, but at the third mention, I interjected.

“Please, forgive the interruption, and I mean no disrespect about what I’m about to say. You know I love you. And I don’t even feel this is controversial.

Trump is an awful person. I dislike him as much as you do. But Adolf Hitler killed what, 30 million people or something. He killed 6 million of our own.

He started Wars, and destroyed a Continent.

Donald Trump may be a gigantic asshole, but he hasn’t done that. He hasn’t killed 30 million people, or whatever the number was.”

“Right,” he retorted, “but what about the kid jails for immigrants? And barring Muslims from coming into the country?”

“Again,” I said, “awful. But not the same thing as the Holocaust.”

“Ok, fine,” my friend continued, “I’ll give you that. Trump has surprisingly little blood on his hands at this point, for how awful he is. It’s true.”

“That’s all I’m saying,” I said. “If the nicest compliment you can give someone is that at least they’re not a genocidal, Hitler-esque maniac, I don’t think that’s such an endorsement.”

“Then again,” he said, “there are a lot of people who’ll probably die from what Trump’s doing around Climate Change.”

“Ok,” I replied, “I’ll give you that. But we’ll have that conversation another time.”

And that’s where we’re at as I write this, on a Wednesday after Bernie Sanders took the New Hampshire primary. (Who saw Amy Klobuchar coming? Does it count that she’s now the stronger candidate of the 2 NYT picks?)

We’re publishing this a fair bit later, as I’m leaving for Amsterdam this week, in order to supervise production of my impending book, “Extinction Party.” (I’m writing ahead of time, so there will be far-more-current political news between now and then.)

Also, the trip will mean a fresh batch of travel stories, exhibition reviews, restaurant tips, and an inside scoop on what it’s like to go on press for a photo book.

(All that, though, is in the future.)

Today, I want to talk about the past.

I lead this column with an insanely relevant quote from one of the smartest men who ever lived, and then followed up with a discussion of a would-be tyrant, and the proper one to whom he is sometimes compared.

With our times, as with all times, we look to historical precedent to understand what’s happening around us.

Everyone does it.

But the sad (or maybe just realistic) truth is that just a handful of people alive today will make it into the history of the future, should humans stay alive long enough to have one.

Of the Billions walking and talking, so few will make enough of a mark to be woven into future history.

Is that such a big deal?

How many of us need that?

And do we not achieve that, in some small way, if our work makes it into book form? Paper doesn’t last forever, sure, but books on shelves outlast people all the time.

Even generations.

I’m about to make my first book, waited 10 years, and that seemed long.

What if a book is made, long after someone has died, and long after their chosen memory keeper passes on as well?

What if that book ends up on a shelf somewhere, after a book reviewer decides it isn’t his cup of tea, and then his wife rearranges the book shelves, and he takes another look years later, and realizes the book is just what he needs to see on a given day?

What then?

Well, the book would be “The Psychological Portrait: Marcel Sternbergers’s Revelations in Photography,” which showed up several years ago, written and edited by Jacob Loewentheil, published by Rizzoli.

I swear, when I began writing this, I really didn’t consider the connection to the “make people cry” column from a few weeks ago.

Sorry for swinging back to that, but this is a true life story.

Marcel Sternberger and his wife Ilse were European-Jewish refugees of the Holocaust who turned up on America’s shores in the late 30s.

Unlike many refugees, however, Mr Sternberger had originally come at the request of President Roosevelt, to make his portrait.

The husband and wife duo had come from Europe, where he had quickly become the official photographer of the Belgian Royal Family.

Over a twenty year career, (in which she was often a vital part of his practice,) he’d go on to photograph a chunk of people who have made it into the permanent history books:

FDR, Sigmund Freud, Jawarhalal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, George Bernard Shaw, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the aforementioned Albert Einstein.

Quite the line-up, right? (It’s like Peak-Golden-State-Warriors, or the ’27 Yankees.)

Sadly, Marcel Sternbeger’s career was cut short when he was killed in a car crash in 1957, between New York and Mexico City, where the couple had moved.

He was on the verge of publishing a book about his methods, which broke sitters down in detail by personality type, and then described specific, psychological methods for making connection.

In combination with lighting tips, based on minimalistic technique, and a reliance on hand-held Leicas rather than big formal cameras, the book likely would have launched Sternberger to the next level.

But it was never published.

Ilse lived on, and in 1996 bequeathed the archive, hoping someone would make the book one day.

And then that day arrived, and when I saw the book, I chucked it into the maybe pile.

Until today.

Reading FDR’s humility in his own words, or hearing advice from Einstein, and knowing they lived through things far worse than we are, (for real,) made me feel better this morning.

Knowing I could use this platform to help share Marcel and Ilse’s story, all these years later, made me feel pretty good too.

And speaking of Einstein, (and relativity,) by the time you read this, I’ll be home from a trip I haven’t taken yet, and promise to share lots of crazy stories with you then.

Stories which haven’t happened yet?

Bottom Line: A Posthumous book of portraits by a forgotten master

To purchase “They Psychological Portrait” click hereΒ 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: Conversations on Conflict Photography

 

I’m keeping it super-short today.

(Like, for real.)

If all goes well, as you read this, I’ll be on my way to Amsterdam to supervise printing of my first book.

I’m a ball of nerves, if I’m being honest, but the upside is, I’ll have lots of new things to write about for you.

Between the global panic over the corona virus outbreak, and the fact that I’m flying into a bomb cyclone hurricane, (Storm Dennis,) I think you’ll allow me a rare quickie.

To balance the brevity, though, we’re going heavy.

Here’s the rub.

In the middle of #2019, well before I began doing book reviews again, NYU Professor Lauren Walsh, whom I’d interviewed for a story before, reached out to see if I’d be interested in seeing her upcoming book about conflict photography.

She long-form interviewed a host of the top names in photojournalism, including photographers like Nina Berman, Ben Lowy, Susan Meiselas and Shahidul Alam, and editors like Santiago Lyon and MaryAnne Golon.

(Top, top people.)

I told her I wasn’t reviewing books for a few months yet, and had almost never reviewed text-dominant books before, outside of a few rare exceptions.

Undaunted, Ms. Walsh sent the book, content to wait six months for a review, and then she followed up several times thereafter.

Finally, I took a look and tried to read it, but it didn’t grab me in the “right” way. I kept getting bogged down, perhaps because I’d interviewed several of the people before, and did these types of interviews myself, here, for years.

And the pictures are so hard to look at, this being a book about conflict journalism.

It was easier not to engage.

(And isn’t that just a metaphor for all of it.)

I wrote to Professor Walsh to apologize, and say, “Sorry, this one’s not for me.”

In reply she asked me to reconsider.

“Perhaps,” I said, “I’ve done it before,” and here we are.

“Conversations on Conflict Photography” by Lauren Walsh, was published last year by Bloomsbury. And when I took another look at it yesterday, I realized it was something worth showing you.

It’s just not what I first expected it to be.

You don’t have to read it cover to cover in one sitting.
It’s not meant for that.

Rather, I began to think of this book as a resource, to be sought out for knowledge for anyone learning the craft; a guidebook into a vital segment of the photo industry.

It’s crammed full of famous pictures, like Eddie Adams shot from Vietnam, the burning Twin Towers from Time Magazine, or Nina Berman’s Marine Wedding photo. (Which we showed here in 2011.)

I just needed to realize that because I’d read and written about these things before, that didn’t meant it wasn’t newsworthy or beneficial for many of you now, in 2020.

Given the subject matter, there will be a lot of photos of violence below. (Or its remnants.)

Be forewarned.

But just as I can reconsider whether a book is worthy of review, I can also wrap up quickly, and let the photos do the talking.

I think we all believe this kind of photography has a social value, bearing witness to suffering, for posterity.

But it also allows us to understand geo-politics on a local, human level.

Kudos for the job well done.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, dense resource book on conflict photography

To Purchase “Conversations on Conflict Photography” click here

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: Reviewing “Next of Kin”

 

Quick question.
What’s the fastest way to make someone cry?

Easy answer: encourage them to think about their loved-ones dying.

Either in the present, (which is super-sad,) or deep into the indeterminate future, once they’ve grown old.

Imagine saying goodbye to your life-partner, in your 80’s, after decades together, and then living your final days alone?

Guaranteed waterworks.
Do you doubt me?

Consider the opening 2 minutes of “UP.”

How quickly did you cry?

Or what about that massive Google commercial during last weekend’s Super Bowl? My son and I were mostly skipping the ads on the DVR, briefly stopping at the ones that seemed intriguing, or were worth mocking.

(His criteria.)

We saw the Google ad in question featured an old man, interacting with an AI, which through smart-learning could begin to categorize his memories, via his digital footprint.

(Rough synopsis.)

He recalled his dead wife, in a tragic, breaking voice, and then they showed old photographs of their life together.

Good thing we were skipping quickly, or I would have cried for sure. Theo was of the opinion the ad was emotionally manipulative, and I had to agree with him.

Very often, memories need triggers, in order to dislodge from wherever it is in our deep-brains they reside, so they can flash back to the front of our consciousness. (Like going from the hard drive to RAM.)

We all know that smell can trigger us, or sound.
Who hasn’t gone back in time when they hear a certain song?

(Seriously, if you play “Don’t You Want Me,” by the Human League, I will regress to a 7 year old.)

And, of course, we have photographs.

If ever a process were invented to aid memory, it was the one cooked up by the collective geniuses who figured out how to chemically capture light. (Or is it genii?)

Those brilliant 19th Century bastards who gave us the medium we now treasure.

And what a time it is to be a photographer.

Sure, photography was adopted by the masses each time technology allowed it, but the IPhone/smartphone revolution has taken things to new levels.

So much so that the concept of photography as separate and apart from other things is beginning to seem quaint.

So much so that venerable photo institution PDN closed last week, and the Washington Post folded its photography newsletter, almost simultaneously.

The nature of photography has changed, and it’s now a living thing, a visual language, and even temporary, as much as it’s supposed to be a physical, permanent record of what really was.

(Frozen light particles that bounced off of real things in the real world.)

Now, we photograph our parking space at the airport, or the information on a flyer we want to remember for a day, or a selfie because the light was good, but we’re never going to look at it again.

Digital photos, the lingua franca of our time, are not designed to be archived forever, like a contact sheet in 1983.

(Or 1883, for that matter.)

But objects, real physical things in the actual world, do retain resonance.

T-shirts can smell for a while, because of your cousin’s distinctive detergent. Boots and Barbies and Bibles can trigger memories too.

And of course books are also well-suited to capturing the spirt of the dead.

In this case, I’m thinking of “Next of Kin,” a recently published set of photobooks that turned up in the mail in late #2019, from Inbal Abergil, published by Daylight.

The covers, in blue and red, are marked Part I and Part II, and the first book has little text beyond a dedication and section breakers.

From the get-go, we see only one word, (a name,) printed sideways, but after one or two sections, you suspect you’re looking at the artifacts of dead soldiers.

I wasn’t certain until the third section, when we see a full storage unit stuffed with life-remnants, but the second section features some heavy-duty storage objects, so the hints are there quickly.

All the text beyond those soldier names is saved for Part II, which is a decision I understand. It says, this is not one object, but two, conjoined by the elastic band, and therefore, the viewing experience will be guided.

That is seemingly the main purpose of Part II, using words to house stories and memories from Gold Star families, the people who suffered the loss of a loved one.

To keep things intriguing, I think, the book opens with a historical death, from WWII, but of course most of the stories are modern, from Iraq or Afghanistan.

Most of the wounds are fresh.

The pictures are gracefully shot, and unlike that Super Bowl Commercial, are respectful with their handling of emotion. They’re sad, for sure, but not dripping.

(You can’t hear the strings in the score, if you know what I’m saying.)

Perhaps it’s a quibble, but I’d say that four commissioned essays, at the end of Part II, are a bit much. None are too long, and leading with the always-intelligent Fred Ritchin is a good idea, but given how many books I see, I think two contextual essays is plenty, maybe three if you’re being generous.

(Especially with all the other text.)

Early on, I asked myself why the artist was telling these stories, and if she mentioned her ethnicity when she originally reached out, I’d forgotten, as her name suggests she could be from many places.

Turns out, Inbal Abergil is Israeli, was a solder herself, and wanted to understand grief and loss in American culture.

This was a smart, elegiac, thoughtful way to explore the subject matter. And I hope all those families felt a measure of peace, after seeing their fallen warriors memorialized in such a classy way.

Bottom Line: Sad, graceful look at the aftermath of soldier’s deaths

To purchase “Next of Kin” click hereΒ 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: China and New York in the 80’s

 

Everyone wants to be down-to-earth?

Right?

It seems like one of those compliments that is universally understood to be a good thing.

It means relatable.

Grounded.

Empathetic to others’ experience.
Humble.
Polite.
Thoughtful.
Respectful.

For some people though, (yes, they’re often rich,) the lure of being fake, affected and pretentious is just too strong.

In this case, I’m thinking about Gwyneth Paltrow, the occasional actress, full-time GOOP lifestyle guru/ magnate, likely vegan, and occasional television guest.

Last year, on Jon Favreau’s Netflix show, she denied, or “forgot,” multiple times, that she had acted in a Spiderman movie with the aforementioned Favreau.

To his face, on camera.

“Nope, nope. Not me. I wasn’t in Spiderman.”

It became a thing on the internet, of course, because how could it not, but she steadfastly went with the whole attitude of “I’m so rich and busy, and these silly comic superhero movies are kind of beneath me, so I refuse to lay down any memories of what I’ve done.”

“I’d rather be selling high end bath salts for $250 per gram, thank you very much.

I will simply pretend Pepper Potts, with her gauche auburn wig, simply does. not. exist.

Tony Stark can fuck off, for all I care.

I’m glad he’s dead.”

There was a time, though, early in her career as an actor, when she was properly talented, even garnering an Oscar for the admittedly mediocre “Shakespeare in Love.”

And she totally carried “Sliding Doors,” a seminal film, back when cinema still had a larger place in the grand cultural pantheon, in 1998.

There were two simultaneous timelines, and both played out during the course of the movie. Young Gwyneth Paltrow discovers her partner is cheating in one timeline, or she doesn’t in another, and the final consequences are dire.

Basically, she dies in one of the plot lines, and it’s terribly sad. The other ends with a glimmer of hope, after GP kicks her cheating man to the curb.

But my point, (as I always try to have one,) is that there were two simultaneous narratives going on.

Two timelines. And I’m on about parallel realities today for a reason.

I promise.

That’s because I went into my book pile today and found “The Door Opened: 1980’s China,” by Adrian Bradshaw, (published by Impress,) an exceedingly well-produced object, in a black fabric box.

I did a heavy, deep-dive, historical column about China not-too-long-ago, and my frivolous opening about Gwyneth Paltrow should have hinted that we’ll keep it (mostly) light today.

This book, and its representation of China, is mesmerizing from the jump. The opening text, alternately in English and Mandarin, has hot graphic design, red and black.

You learn what you need to, though an opening essay and Q and A with the artist, and then you’re off, with the book being broken down into sections that each have short amounts of text. (Children, Country Life, etc.)

Over the course of the book, we learn Adrian Bradshaw has lived in China most of his adult life, and seems to have married a Chinese woman, raising a family there. For years, in particular in the vital decade of the 1980’s, he photographed prolifically in black and white with a series of Leica cameras. (There’s mention of a million photographs.)

We see Deng Xiaoping, working a cigarette HARD, as he’s the leader associated with China’s opening, in the 80’s, when the first taste of Western life and Capitalism were allowed in, after the deep deprivation of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Adrian Bradshaw was on the ground, photographing amazing change, and the book contrasts the still-ancient-looking China of rural society, (and at times the urban working class,) with the rapidly modernizing sub-culture in the cities, Shanghai and Beijing, where fashion was taking root.

People were no longer forced to dress in military navy, gray or green. Prints were available in department stores, where people waited forever for disinterested state workers to help them.

And there were suddenly hipsters in China.

Hipsters!

These pictures are so good, and the ones that are blown up large or full-bleed are dynamite.

For the breadth of Chinese life we see here, and it is a significant range, there is noticeably nothing political.

No police, no protests, or military are present, unless they’re photos of painted propaganda posters, or soldiers in period garb for a Bertolucci film.

With one glaring exception.

There is a photo of soldiers carrying a flag in Tiananmen Square, with a portrait of Mao looming in the background, (from 1986,) and I thought to myself, well, how many years until the quashed uprising/protest/mini-rebellion there?

3 years later, in 1989.

Beyond that wicked bit of foreshadowing, whether intentional or not, the content mostly adheres to what would be acceptable to censors.

Markets. Street life.
Villages.

People.

I love this book, yet all morning, even though I was on deadline, I couldn’t quite get to write the review.

It’s like I was waiting for something.

 

So there I was, stretching out my shoulder in my living room with a weighted ball, and I craned my neck to the side in an unnatural position, to try to un-do a little knot.

Right in my line of sight, on the book case, was the Ai Weiwei book “Interlacing,” and I remembered it had a series of images that the Chinese artist made in New York City, in the 1980’s, when he lived there as a young man.

In a flash, I knew how I could write about the first book, because how could this not work?

Parallel timelines?

Right?

I’m not going to review the entire second book, because I can’t do 2500-word-mega-columns each week, but these photographs clearly depict the vision of a creative young man who was exercising freedoms he did not have back home.

Ai Weiwei and his hipster, artist buddies.

Hanging out with American art and culture luminaries like Allen Ginsburg.

So cool.

But beyond the gallery shows and art experiments, there is hard journalism here too.

He’s made images of police arresting people, political protest, and a still-chunky-Reverend-Al-Sharpton during his regrettable Tawana Brawley phase.

Even crazier, the book features a few photographs from the Tomkins Square Riots in 1988.

If you don’t remember what they were, you’re not alone, as I was 14 years old at the time, living about fifty miles away, and I never heard of it.

The short version is, the NYC Police either instigated, or participated in a full riot in an East Village park that was being used as a homeless encampment, and loitering place for squatter types.

One of the rallying cries was “Gentrification is Class Warfare.”

Sound familiar? (Everything old is new again.)

The cops, it was later proven, went buck wild, and severely beat protestors and innocent bystanders, with clubs, hands and feet.

They covered their badge numbers, or didn’t wear badges at all, and supposedly the whole thing was like something out of a movie.

Nasty business.

And Ai Weiwei was there in the middle of it, shooting documentary photographs.

From just a few images in “Interlacing,” we see a Chinese citizen freely photographing government violence, in America, while had he done so in China a year later, he would have been locked up forever.

(And of course he was famously jailed for a few months in 2011.)

Meanwhile, with Adrian Bradshaw’s photos, the 6’2″ Englishman gives us the outsider/permanent resident’s perspective of China just as it’s starting to grow and change, irrevocably, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, all wanting their televisions, washing machines, and fancy home computers.

How bizarre.

Bottom Line: Fascinating, well-made document of China in the 80’s, just as it’s beginning to rise

To purchase: “The Door Opened: 1980’s China” click hereΒ 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: Laughing at a Scary World

 

Part 1. The Intro

Believe it or not, I used to be funny.

And this column was often absurd.

For years, I made fun of Donald Trump, before he ran for President. Even after he won, I still joked about him all the time.

For a while, anyway.

It was never my intention to become serious, though 6 years working for the New York Times certainly discouraged my sillier impulses. (If you can find a less light-hearted group of colleagues, I’ll be very surprised.)

The strange thing is, I never set out to be funny.

In my extended family, back in Jersey, I had some properly hilarious cousins. One even became a stand-up comedian, yet, (behind his back,) everyone always says he’s not even the funniest one in his family. (Sorry, Ken.)

So, just as I never planned to write an absurdist, rambling, continuous, personal narrative each week, where I joked about poopy diapers, overweight, narcissistic, rich-boy real estate developers, or the insanity of the modern condition, I also never planned to get serious.

That’s just the way it worked out.

The other day, for example, I had a group of college students from Dallas in my home for a 2 hour private lecture.

I told them about how, back in 2013, before I was hired by the NYT, I mostly saw myself as a pretend-journalist who said fuck and shit a lot, and then wrote about a photo book.

Fuck.
Shit.
Asshole.

(See, I can still do it.)

For a while, at the Times, I tried to inject my trademark parenthetic references, and Easter egg jokes into my Lens stories, but ultimately, my humorless, condescending editor ground it out of me, and by the end of my run, my stories became rather formulaic, I’ll admit.

I’m not blaming those guys for making me serious here, though.

Rather, I think that has more to do with the state of the world. The relentless nature of the bad news we’ve all been ingesting, daily, eventually wore me down.

It’s hard to find the world funny these days.

Right?

 

Part 2. Will he ever get to the point?

During my talk to the SMU students, I was asked why, even though I live in one of the most gorgeous places on Earth, I choose to make socially critical, conceptual photographs in the studio?

Why not take pictures of the pretty mountains outside my door?

After a long pause, I dove into a mini-rant on the nature of a photographer’s evolution. I told them how I was essentially kidnapped by photography, back in 1996, as I went from never making art, to devoting my life to the medium, over the course of a 5-day, solo, cross-country road trip.

We discussed the way an artist grows, over 24 years, and how at the beginning, I was just like everyone else.

Photographing abandoned buildings, pretty landscapes, junk piles, and, of course, graveyards.

Who doesn’t love a good graveyard?

All that powerful juju leaking out of the ground. All that creepy energy, just waiting to be photographed. (And yes, I shot a headstone or two on that original journey, including some eerie, forgotten spots in North Texas.)

Eventually, though, if we continue our artistic journey, we want to do things differently.

To innovate, and experiment.

To learn new skills, and change things up to ensure growth.

I had to pivot pretty quickly, as they were beginners, and I promised it was more than OK for them to make photographs of the Rio Grande Gorge, the Pueblo, or Taos Mountain.

To revel in the beauty of flowers or snow-covered aspen trees, if that was what gave them joy.

We discussed how beginners might love photographing sunsets, but professional artists, like Penelope Umbrico, would rather make a wall of appropriated sunsets from Flickr than just point a camera at the real thing.

I think I did a good job explaining it all, as the group left inspired, but it’s not like I was doing a comedy routine or anything.

It was a serious discussion, and then they were gone.

In the aftermath, I’ve been wondering, am I still funny?

I mean, really?

Am I funny?

How am I funny?

Am I here to amuse you?

Tell me, how am I funny!

(Goodfellas never gets old.)

The truth is, no matter how smart you are, or charming, no matter how hilarious you may be, or good-looking, there’s always someone out there who’s got more sauce than you do.

Just when you think Jon Stewart is the funniest guy in the world, along comes John Oliver.

If you’re positive that Jerry Seinfeld was the proper genius behind his show, you watch Larry David, and all of a sudden, your begin to wonder.

Or maybe you’re Joe Montana, confident you’ll always be the GOAT, (and the most handsome quarterback ever,) and along comes Tom Fucking Brady, the robotic asshole with the perfect cleft chin, and he goes and takes your throne.

Frankly, I remember the moment I knew I’d been bested.

It was 2015, and I was partying with some new friends at the Filter Photo Festival in Chicago. A long night became longer, and eventually I found myself in a private room in a Japanese sake bar, doing Karaoke properly for the first time.

It was more fun than I’d had in years, and I was feeling my oats.

I called for a Michael Jackson song, for some reason, but when I realized I didn’t know the words, I started free-styling, making up lyrics about the dead singer’s “accused” history of abusing children.

Not a funny subject matter, by any means, but at the time, I still found myself reveling in absurdity. (As my buddy Pappy used to say, if you don’t laugh, you cry.)

All of a sudden, a guy got up to sing, and I was barely paying attention. Frankly, no one was, because between the endless high-end sake, the fact it was 2am, and the periodic trips outside to get stoned, most people were sloshed and wobbly.

But this guy, Jeff Phillips, started a freestyle song about the Rapture.

The end times.

Before I knew it, he was singing about Armageddon, Jews killing Jesus, and all sorts of perfectly Un-PC things, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

It was raw, honest, offensive, and definitely the funniest thing I’d heard in person. (Including the time my parents were insulted by Andrew Dice Clay, because we made the mistake of sitting in the front row of his performance in the late 80’s.)

I went from feeling like the King, to feeling like the headless King, in a matter of moments.

Jeff has since become a good friend, and though when I first met him, I knew him as a Filter board member with a day job as a business consultant, eventually I learned he was also an artist, who made silly, ridiculous projects on a regular basis.

Eventually, we reached the end of #2019, and a blue envelope showed up in the mail, featuring his new self-published zine, “I Laugh Because it Hides the Tears: Volume 1.”

 

Part 3. Sad clowns

You knew I’d get to a book review eventually, right?

I don’t think Jeff sent the zine hoping for a review, but was just offering a gift to a buddy.

(That’s my take, anyway.)

But when I opened it up this morning, and read it through twice in quick succession, it codified so many things I’ve been thinking about lately.

How do we laugh at a world that no longer seems funny?

I mean, on Tuesday, noted funny-man Patton Oswalt tweeted out a video of Donald Trump badly mispronouncing the word accomplishments, and while I giggled, really, it made me sad.

Meanwhile, Sacha Baron Cohen keeps attacking Mark Zuckerberg with facts, as himself, rather than with jokes as Borat or Ali G!

How has it come to this?

Thankfully, this zine seems to have found the perfect middle ground that has eluded me for the last year or two. (As does Bill Hader’s brilliant “Barry” on HBO. Highly recommended!)

As the zine is short, I’ll photograph its entirety, because it all fits together like a jigsaw puzzle made out of unicorn sweat and crocodile tears.

We see cellphone cameras with sunsets, a picture in a graveyard that goes directly at the trope, and off-camera, we learn that Jeff likes to wear Sponge Bob boxer shorts, because of a peeping-tom-window-washer.

There’s an (offensive) joke about Chinese restaurants serving cats, (though it’s subtle,) a busker wearing a zebra mask, more cellphones showing the Mona Lisa, and the perfect joke about French people.

DJT is there in spirit, (and reference,) because he looms over the whole world right now, but it’s just the right amount of reality, mixed with sorrow and joy.

Our Instagram-Selfie obsessed culture comes in for a roasting, as does environmental-electrical-pollution, but my favorite photo in the zine is actually straight.

And I had to look at for a minute before I figured it out.

There is an RV parked in a lot, and I’m guessing it’s Nevada or Arizona. (Where Jeff was raised.)

The caption is: “Because 100 people just passed by, and no one even saw it”

What, I wondered?

What did they miss?

What am I missing?

And then it clicked into place, like a lego block you just can’t seem to make fit.

The horizon!

The painting of the fake mountains on the rented RV matched up perfectly with the real thing, right there in front of us. (Or really, in front of the photographer who stood there IRL.)

The virtual and the real, seamlessly locked in a dance of confusion.

How could I have not seen it?

How did those 100 people miss it too?

And that, my dear readers, is why the world needs art, and artists.

Some of us try to do this for a living, exclusively, and our side-hustles have side-hustles.

Others, like Jeff, have demanding day jobs, using their art as an outlet, and when they advance enough, get to have second careers as successful as the first.

And as for the middle-aged columnists out there, the ones like me that forgot how to be funny, sometimes, all we need is a reminder that it’s OK to laugh at our crazy world.

Even if we feel like crying.

Bottom Line: Insightful, funny and poignant look at contemporary America

To purchase “I Laugh Because it Hides the Tears Volume 1,” click hereΒ 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: “The Unwanted”

 

Happy New Year, everybody!

Welcome to 2020.

(You’ll notice I’m not hashtagging it yet, as I didΒ for the tumultuous, endless, and now departed #2019.)

It’s freezing outside, and my kids are still off from school, so I’m holed up in my bedroom with a fan on for white noise, and blankets huddled over my legs and feet, as the good heater is in the other room.

When I say freezing here, I don’t mean it simply as an adjective, in the descriptive sense.

I mean below 32 degrees F or 0 degrees C. (And as I’ve mentioned many times that I can’t do the conversion, we’ll stick to F for another year.)

Each year, in Deep Winter, it gets down to 0 F or below, with the wind chill.

When I woke up this morning, it was -5 F.

(And that level of cold will typically kill a person, so we don’t have a big homeless population here in Taos half the year.)

As I had last week off from the column, and finally got a chance to rest, I took advantage of a week of free HBO to catch up on “Succession,” which I’d heard was an important new show.

A friend who recommended it knows about the mega-rich, so I figured it would have authenticity. And the Uber-wealthy-megalomaniacal family it follows is clearly inspired by the Rupert Murdoch clan, with his conservative news empire.

The picture of sad, insecure narcissists, constantly fighting and betraying one another for proximity to wealth and power does feel relevant for our current era, which skews towards Oligarchy in much of the world. (All of the world?)

The acting is superb across the board, and I’ll bet that Jeremy Strong, who plays sad-boy son Kendall Roy, was using a fake American accent, so I’ll take a rare Google break.

Be right back.

Nope. He’s American, from Boston. (I guess that partiallyΒ explains the nasally speech.)

Like most HBO shows I’ve seen since “The Sopranos” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Succession” is less proper art than intelligent, guilty pleasure, and the comps to Showtime’s “Billions” are rather obvious.

As the series writer, Jesse Armstrong, is English, and there are large set pieces in European castles and schlosses, there is a sense of insider-aristocrat-old-money-and-power vibe that adds to the glamour.

The differing, WASP, Massachusetts-liberal values of a rival media family, the Pierces, allow yet another window into the world of the .001%

And what of it?
What’s the takeaway?

Well, it echoes something a friend told me at a recent dinner party. He is super-successful, and mentioned that he’d recently heard about a study that super-rich and super-poor people were often equally unhappy.

He said he could believe it, from what he’d seen.

And we all know about the stereotypes of addiction, suicide and self-sabotage attributed to really rich kids as well.

Unhappy they may be, but EVERYTHING the Oligarchs experience in life is “better,” as depicted in “Succession.”

Better cars, (driven by others,) better food, (which is ever-present in every room,) prettier rooms, bigger spaces, private planes, visits to castles, private yachts, well-dressed servants, omnipresent helicopters, all of it.

What does it mean?

That the rulers of the world want as much physical space, and personal resources, as possible. They want transportation options that allow them to EXIST separately from the hoi polloi, and their money (almost) always protects them from accountability.

We see that people of unimaginable power, raised in the hothouse of extreme wealth, will often do and say anything to retain or increase that power and wealth.

Wait a second…

“Succession” is definitely about Donald Trump, in as much as it’s a metaphor for how that degree of wealth can warp a person, as we see with our President.

And in an age of extreme income inequality, maybe it’s important for history to have a document that shows this lifestyle for posterity? (Even if it’s fiction.)

There are many ways to present a narrative, though, and it’s equally important to understand the other side: the emergent street class in America.

In this column, we’ve discussed California shanty towns long before some in the mainstream media, and I’ve previously shown books by Anthony Hernandez, Joshua Dudley Greer, and Scot Sothern that depict elements of Post-Great-Recession American street living.

Last year, we also published Cecilia Borgenstam’s pictures of the artifacts of homeless life from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

But in the photo world, (as I’ve also written,) the subject has been contentious recently, with some suggesting that no one should ever photograph the homeless, without themselves being homeless.

I can see how it’s an endpoint philosophically, and certainly with the help of non-profit organizations, some homeless people can undoubtedly take pictures, and be supported to have them printed or exhibited.

To show the world, from the inside.

But honestly, if you’re living on the street, survival is your primary concern, not documenting your condition for history.

And from my art training at Pratt, I’ve never believed in the insider-only rule. Outside of the vilest racism, or child pornography, I think that artists should be allowed to explore anything they want, and then have the resulting work judged on merit.

I think male novelists should be allowed to write deep female characters, and African-American film-makers can direct Asian-American actors.

So after all that build-up, (a lot, I know,) for our first column of 2020, we’re going to look at “The Unwanted” an impressive book by Thilde Jensen, by LENA Publications, which turned up in the mail last year.

While I’ll admit that Ms. Jensen did give me a heads up about the subject matter when we corresponded, with my crazy #2019, I forgot what the book was about by the time I opened it.

So I was able to create an experience without preconceptions.

The thick cover, in yellow and purple, with a cut-out featuring a person sleeping in the street, with red pants, is jarring.Β As are the opening images of an underpass, and of a bearded white man sleeping on cardboard palettes, with his head propped against a brown, brick wall.

Truth moment: these pictures are bleak. And there are many, many of them.

In my mind, when I first connected the book’s size to its contents, I realized this was going to be a long, unpleasant ride, even if it was to be graceful.

Given Ms. Jensen’s artistry, the work is compelling, and I did continue to turn the pages without skipping. I wanted to take my medicine, so to speak, as the book feels like it was meant for posterity.

The locations change, though all relevant text is reserved for the end, so there’s some guessing at first. There was East Coast landscape, for sure, and I thought I recognized Las Vegas, and then New Mexico. (The end notes confirmed it was Gallup, which we saw last year in Cable Hoover’s project, “From Gallup.”)

There are pictures of so many broken people, living day to day. But unlike our fictional billionaires, these humans have as close to nothing as possible.

We’re not told where we are until the end, when the notes confirm NM and NV, and that the pictures were also made in Syracuse and New Orleans.

The notes also suggest that Ms Jensen received both Light Work and Guggenheim fellowships, which would mean this project has been blessed by the heights of the art world too.

In Gerry Badger’s essay, we learn that Thilde Jensen, (who herself writes of having suffered deeply,) was afflicted with an Environmental Illness, highly allergic, and was forced to live in a tent in the woods for two years, on a respirator.

She photographed that culture as an insider in a previous project, and brought that capacity for empathy to her coverage of America’s homeless, who often suffer from mental illness and/or addiction.

We also read, at the close, that 20% of the book’s profits will be given to charity.

As I once reported here long ago, the Library of Congress collects photography around themes. If I were in charge there, (which I’m not,) I’d be acquiring this project, along with some of the others I mentioned earlier, because I think this period in American history will need to be faced, down the line.

The last time income inequality was this bad, it led to the Progressive era, and the breakup of big monopolies. President Teddy Roosevelt, (admittedly Upper Class and racist,) became the trust-buster extraordinaire.

This time around, we’ve got Trump.

So who the hell knows what’s going to happen?

Bottom Line: Powerful, scathing look at homelessness in America

To purchase “The Unwanted,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: A Review of “newflesh”

 

Recently, my cousin Mike referred to my wife and me as “the last adults.”

(I think he meant it as a compliment.)

He’s 31, and has described in detail the problems that many Millennials face as 2020 approaches.

Between the travesty that is the student loan mess they’re all in, or a job market that went full freelance-independent-contractor-side-hustle when they got out of college, to the fact that certain segments of the economy never recovered after The Great Recession.

My other cousin, who grew up in the same town as I did, (and who’s also about 31,) had 15 (or so) high school friends die from overdoses related to pain killers or heroin.

That’s insane!

Kids who went to the same High School I did, and came from the same background (NYC-suburbs-American-ethnic-professional,) and they died by the thousands.

Because they had access to the pills in their parents’ medicine cabinets, and then later, to the cheap Mexican smack that flooded the country at just the wrong time. (For those kids.)

Add in the Climate Change catastrophe we’re all in, the fact our divided country is about to impeach a President, and that the robots are taking over, and it’s easy to see why some people might be pessimistic about the future.

Millennials in particular.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, is it?

As a father, one who is pre-disposed to look for signs of the positive out there, (Wall-E’s green shoots,) I have some ideas.

Some things are better than they used to be.

This, I know.

Off the top of my head, and as a middle-aged-heterosexual man, (does that make me cis-gender?,) I can point to the drastic improvement in the rights of the LGBTQ community here in America, and in its depictions in popular culture as well.

Before you tell me there is still a long way to go, let’s stipulate that. But at my age, I can remember growing up, and there were really no gay characters on TV at all, and most of mainstream gay America was closeted.

What few instances there were on TV were always unflattering. (Was Don Knott’s “Three’s Company” character,Β Mr. Furley, secretly gay I wonder?)

When “Will & Grace” came along in 1998, and I saw gay characters on TV who were depicted in positive ways, it was revelatory.

And I’m just speaking as an artist, and a person.

To have representation like that within the community, for the first time, must have been a big deal.

These days, classic LGBTQ shows like “Will & Grace” and “The L-word” are back, rebooted, because things have catapulted so far in twenty years. (Gay marriage, etc.)

Things have come SO far, in fact, that I recently binge-watched the excellent, underworld show “Animal Kingdom” on Amazon Prime, (originally broadcast on TNT,) and was barely surprised to see a plot line about a criminal, gay, SoCal surfer.

Including sex scenes.

When the character Deran Cody, who grew up in a family gang, finally gets ready to come out, (as he was super-conflicted,) his soft-hearted, surfer-bro, thug brothers embrace his sexuality easily.

As does his gangster Mom.

Even better, there’s a scene where one brother looks at some bikini-clad women, nods to Deran and says, “You’re really not into that?”

In reply, he looks at a half-naked-surfer-dude, nods to his brother, and says, “You’re really not into that?”

To me, that was proof that some things in the world are simply better, more open, more accepting, than they used to be.

But isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

Reach into the Zeitgeist, shake things up inside the Collective Unconscious, and come out with something fresh?Β Something relevant?

A Frankenstein’s monster of answers, wrapped up in the enigma of form and content.

I ask you, having just put down “newflesh,” a recent exhibition catalogue just published by Gnomic Book, curated and edited by Efrem Zelony-Mindell.

This book challenged me, and I want to admit that up front. I admire it, and like it in many ways.

I also have some problems with it.
But that makes sense.

This book represents art of the now.
Made by young people.

(In New York City in particular, but not exclusively.)

I kicked in a bit to the Kickstarter for this book, when I first saw it, because it seemed like a cool project.

And so it is.

When I was offered the chance to review it, I said sure, because I was certain it had to be interesting.

It’s a group show of what’s happening now.

How could that not be interesting?

So, what IS happening?

If the work in this book is to be believed, nothing and no one is ever to be “believed” again. Silly humans, using concepts like “truth,” “believe,” and “freedom.”

We robot cyborg overlords have no use for feelings. Flesh is weak, and we use it only to harvest the BRAINS we need to run our cyborg bodies.

Sorry.
Got off track there.

What I meant is, all this work is constructed, in one way or another. (Physically, digitally, or both.)

Some of them are a bit subtle for my taste, symbol-wise, but everything is cut and pasted, chopped and changed.

I loved the erased twin towers, silicon body parts, melting faces, plastic food, apples wearing orange skins, and intertwined bodies.

Taken together, the message is unmissable: in Trump’s America, one of dueling narratives, rather than objective reality, everything is built, even our identity.

That I haven’t mentioned yet that the book is intended to be about Queer identity is probably a strength, because it’s designed to be about rebellion, and challenging the status quo. About that energy that people of a certain age once called “Punk Rock.”

(As an adjective, not a noun.)

Mr. Zelony-Mindell’s writing alludes to identity as fluid, changing, among the young artists of today.

“These works…have many things in common; homosexuality is not one of them. And yet they are totally queer…They allow for imperfections and unfamiliarity. There’s a cleansing ability of clarity in that uncertainty.”

We hear a lot about that in media as well, with respect to Millennials and Gen Z.

Here in the art, we can see it with a lot of literal shrouding, and the layering of objects behind other objects.

Of silhouette and shadow.

My issue, such as it is, is that so much of the work does look alike. AndΒ has common roots.

From my pasture here in New Mexico, I can see the network connections between artists studying in the same art schools in New York. Columbia definitely, SVA I’d say, and probably Pratt. (Which now has a photo program built by a Columbia grad, Stephen Frailey, whose work features in the book too.)

I see Yale, I’d venture, and definitely the Charlotte Cotton, “Photography is Magic” school of art.

Moment of truth: I was definitely NOT surprised when she popped up with a letter, mid-way through the book, which used a lot of words to not say very much.

My other biggest takeaway, honestly, is the bleak vibe I got turning the pages.

It’s not a criticism. Let’s be clear.

Rather, it brings us back to where we started today.

If we see this book as a generational mood-ring, as a barometer of the vibe out there, I’d say it’s pessimistic for sure.

Lots of this art was abstracted, which means I have to go on feeling, rather than idea.

By suggestion, rather than direction.

And if the American Empire is indeed on the decline, (of course it is,) and if this generation of Americans will have a lower standard of living than their parents, (seems likely,) and if the planet is rebelling against us at the current moment, (somewhat obvious,) then this is the kind of art young people would make.

Isn’t it?

Where’s Obama with his Hope and Change when you need him?

Bottom Line: An excellent, queer, hyper-current exhibition catalogue from New York

To purchase “newflesh” click hereΒ 

 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: Building Your Team

 

Part 1. Team-building

 

Two of four covers for “Extinction Party”

 

I spoke to some students the other week, as they came to my museum exhibition.

I tend to lecture the way I write, (off the cuff, spontaneous,) and soon found myself pointing to one of the photographs on the wall.

“People think artists work by themselves, as individuals,” I said. “They envision the lone wolf, quiet in the studio, but that’s not the way it works.”

“Just to get this print on the wall,” I continued, “takes an entire team of people. It requires tons of help.

No one does it alone.”

Now, you know this column is getting strange when I start quoting myself, (be forewarned,) but the message is important, and I’m going to lean into it today for a few reasons.

The biggest of them, (and the one driving today’s column,) is that I just launched aΒ Kickstarter campaign for “Extinction Party,” my very first photo book, which will be published by Yoffy Press in Atlanta.

(Assuming we raise the needed funds.)

You, our audience, come here each week to see photographs, and read my musings about art, politics, food, travel, pop culture, sports, or whatever else is on my mind at a given time.

(Again with the stream of consciousness.)

So I’m here to ask you, directly, if you’d please be willing to help support me, (and my team,) as we’re hoping make an important book that symbolizes how human behavior is leading to planetary destruction.

For the hundreds of columns I’ve written here, this will be my first book, and I’d like to think all the practice critiquing will make it special.

(We also have an original essay by “Crazy Rich Asians” author Kevin Kwan, an expert on over-consumption.)

The project required so much work from other people, including my publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, who edited and proposed the book when she came to ski in Taos last February.

People often wonder how a book gets made, or what to search for in a publisher, and I recommend working with someone you respect and trust. So many people want that first book, it can lead to ethical or financial compromises, and I encourage people to look out for that.

I’ve known Jennifer a long while, and she mentioned several times over the preceding year that she was open to publishing my work, once I had the right idea.

While many artists want a book for each project, I waited 10 years, deciding, (after some great advice from Dewi Lewis,) that I should not make a book until I felt compelled.

Until the idea was strong enough to build the proper motivation.

When Jennifer first came here, I told her I had the raw material for a book, but was too close to make the edit, as there were too many connections for me to focus.

So when she asked to take a stab at editing for me after dinner, (but before we’d agreed to work together,) I said “Yes, please.”

I can’t stress enough, we all need colleagues, friends and collaborators who get what we’re doing. (The age of begging powerful people to take pity on you is over.)

It’s DIY, these days, and having learned a thing or two about team-building, with Antidote, I am starting to get the hang of things.

Work with people you like, appreciate and respect, of course, but don’t forget to look for complementary skill sets.

Can your teammates do things for you that you can’t do yourself?

In my case, my publisher is a master-marketer, a great editor, and has experience executing her vision, so it’s a good fit.

As for my designer, it was my best friend Caleb Cain Marcus, who’s also helped me develop and build our Antidote programming.

Oddly, we met less than 4 years ago, (at a photography festival,) but I’ve found that many of my closest friends are not my oldest friends.

The more we get know ourselves, the better our judgement can be, with respect to choosing friends and colleagues wisely.

In order to make a book, you need help with the making, and these days, with the funding.

As much as I feared having to ask the global photo community for help, (as I’m doing now,) I always tell you that getting out of your comfort zone makes you stronger.

And this about as far out of my zone as I can get, at the end of #2019, the busiest year of my career.

If you’d please be willing to help with our pre-sale and buy a book, a print, or just make a small donation, I’d be very grateful.

 

Part 2: The Perfect Partner

 

I’ve mentioned Caleb here many times, and at first, I reviewed his books without knowing him at all.

(He’s super-talented as an artist, digital guru, master-printer, book designer, and editor.)

Eventually, once we became good friends, I reviewed another of his books here, but then, I added a disclaimer.

So I found it amusing last week, when I was raiding my book pile, (which I wrote about in the column,) and came across a package, from early 2019, sent by a PR agent who normally submits good stuff.

I tore open the envelope, and wouldn’t you know it, but Caleb’s recent Damiani book, “A Line in the Sky” slipped out, along with a note asking me to consider another review.

Though we’re super-close, Caleb never mentioned the book had been sent, nor did he ask for a write-up.

He never even checked in to see what I thought.

And then, looking at it, I wondered how to review it, since I’d need to be open about our friendship, but also, I wasn’t sure the book was entirely necessary.

Unlike me, Caleb has made a book for each project, (more or less,) which means he’s many books into his publishing career, and doesn’t have to use crowdfunding to publish them.

Eventually, most established publishers will provide funding, when they’ve worked with an artist multiple times, and have a proven track record of selling the books.

I also helped Caleb a bit on this one, provoking him to think about how to approach the writing.

Looking through the book, nearly a year later, I was struck by the raw, tranquil beauty of the images. A rift in blue, a set of skies torn asunder by gold leaf.

Though there is a nice dance among the rectangles, from page to page, the repetition of form, and the very-slight subtlety, made me think the work would be more powerful as an exhibition.

I could see myself surrounded by the images, like in the Agnes Martin gallery at the Harwood Museum here in town. (It’s octagonal, and all her paintings are slight variations on a theme.)

He opens the book with a lovely poem, which is cool, as he studied poetry years ago, but wasn’t using that skill set lately.

And in the end, a brief, super-clear statement of intent, discussing the sundering of America in the Trump era.

As a metaphor, I love it.

But then, I know Caleb and his life.

I’m aware that only a few months after this quiet, personal book came out, his own life was ripped in two, when someone in his family developed a serious illness.

Context is key, as I always say, and I found it creepy that I could only understand the book, now, as the calm before the storm.

Even if it was meant to represent the chaos.

(Life was easy for him, when this book came out, compared to now.)

“A Line in the Sky” is certainly worth showing here, as it’s a beautiful, sad little object, and also demonstrates the range of Caleb’s talents.

I’m lucky to have him as a friend, and a charter member of my “art” team.

 

Part 3: Supporting your community

 

It wouldn’t be my column if I only made it about me and my buddy.

Having to blatantly self-promote is so hard, given that I try to collaborate, and help out my photo community whenever possible.

It’s the reason I made Antidote a group teaching endeavor, rather than naming it after me, and trying to do it all myself. (Again, doesn’t work.)

So last night, even though I was launching the Kickstarter today, and was tired to the bone, I went to a fundraiser at the UNM Art Museum in Albuquerque.

I even gave them some money, even though I need raise so much myself.

It was important to squeeze it in, as the museum’s new Director, Arif Khan, wrote me a personal email, asking if I’d come support the institution.

Not only that, but the event was on behalf of the new Diversity and Equity fund, which he recently launched with curator Mary Statzer, and the first recipient was photographer Jess Dugan, who was in town for the night.

The UNM Art Museum has been exhibiting her major traveling exhibition, “To Survive on this Shore,” which was done in collaboration with her partner, Vanessa Fabbre, who’s trained as a social worker. (Like my wife.)

They interviewed and photographed 88 (if I remember right,) older transgender or gender nonconforming people, in particular many who identify as Trans.

In order to be down with the proper nomenclature, I asked Jess how she identified, and she told me “non-binary” or “queer,” and that she did not primarily use the pronouns they/them.

But one of the images being acquired, from a separate series, heavily implied that Jess has had gender-related chest reconstruction surgery, so the entire subject is personal for her, as well as political.

Arif gave a lecture in which he projected certain statistics about the paucity of women, and people of color, who are represented in museum collections.

The numbers were stark.

 

Then he asked people to support the fund, and put up a goal that was only slightly higher than we need to make our book.

I felt a pang of guilt for asking people to support my work right now, as a Jewish-American man, given my demographic is the one that’s supposed to have all the opportunities already.

I quickly shook off that line of thinking, though, as I work hard each week to support other people, and my photographs, with their strong environmental commentary, bear messages that also need to be disseminated.

But hearing from students and faculty, and listening to flamenco guitar played by one of Jess’s trans photo subjects, everyone was so proud to be a part of an endeavor that was righting an obvious wrong.

The energy in the room was deeply positive, and made me glad to have driven five hours to spend two at a museum fundraiser.

As I told someone last night, Northern New Mexico is one big community, from Taos to ABQ. Hell, our Colorado cousins come down a lot too, so maybe it’s one big Rocky Mountain happy place.

The truth is, I need other people for guidance, and conversation. For inspiration, and challenge.

We all do.

So if you don’t want to support my Kickstarter, I’ll certainly understand.

Hopefully, though, you’ll go out of your way to help someone this week, and then they might help you back.

(Karma!)

This Week in Photography: A Halloween Tribute

 

It’s been a strange Halloween so far.

I sat in the back of an SUV outside a weed shop across the Colorado State line, listening to a plot synopsis of the original Rambo movie while a very cool bud-tender smoked a joint.

I saw a huge, black cow walking along the side of the road, by itself, and then a little later, a white dog the size of a bear trotted along the highway in the opposite direction. (Also alone.)

I perused an article about the world’s scariest haunted house.

Deer, ravens, hawks, and horses appeared.

Deer on the road

 

My daughter kept changing her mind, unsure whether her costume was too scary, or not scary enough.

A colleague told me she knew a person who might have become a serial killer, under different circumstances.

One of my best friends called, (as a surprise,) and since we only talk once or twice a year, and he’s famously hard to get a hold of, I’ve nicknamed him “the Ghost.”

Struggling, I looked through four books and pondered numerous anecdotes in my mind, trying to decide what to write for you.

To get in the mood, I put on “Garvey’s Ghost,” by Burning Spear, and only after a minute or two did I make the connection to the holiday.

BOO! (Did I scare you?)

The truth is, there’s something about the quality of light this time of year that lends itself to getting the willies.

The creeps.

The heebie-jeebies.

(I could do this all day.)

On Sunday, I was on the Eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, in the village of Chacon, where there were so many abandoned adobe structures, (including multi-story homes, which I had not seen before,) that I thought some zombies were going to pop up and eat my face off.

While I was in Colorado today, on the Western side of the mountains, I stopped at a little lake park that is so small and local it doesn’t have a sign.

Mile marker only.

 

Mile marker 12

 

There were geese and gulls sitting atop the rapidly freezing lake, as it was barely above 10 degrees F.

 

West

North

South

West

 

One year dying so a new one can be born.

I drove by ghost structures on the way home, hollowed out dreams from someone’s Wild West adventure.

 

Ghost house

 

Like I said before, it’s been a strange Halloween, and I haven’t even gotten to the book.

Searching for inspiration, I went to the bookshelf, looking for gifts from over the years that I never thought to write about.

One caught my eye, as I had no idea what it was from the spine, which is called, “Nothing but the Clouds Unchanged,” published by the Getty Museum, (Getty Publications) in 2015.

If you know how much I love California, (and this museum in particular,) it gives me no pleasure to have to wish them well with the fire that takes its name from the amazing, hilltop institution on the north side of LA, just above the 405.

I’ve visited many times, and know some excellent people who work there.

Today’s column, therefore, is in their honor.

The subtitle for this book, (and the Getty Research Institute show on which it was based,) is “Artists in World War I,” another historical period in which great technological upheaval led to massive global disturbance.

One hundred years ago, we got a big fat lesson on what can happen when violent forces are unleashed that get so big, like these fires, that they can no longer be controlled. Given theΒ chess pieces moving around the board now, and the hyper-cunning, (Putin,) intractability, (Xi,) and instability (Trump) of the players, we can only hope the world averts the worst this time around.

But for all the deep-dive articles I’ve done over the last six months, all the intricate travel tales and hardcore analysis, I kind of feel like this book just doesn’t need it.

If you can’t figure out why it’s right for a Halloween and Dia de los Muertos week, then go watch “Coco,” and come back to me. We’ll talk about whether you cried or not, and if you have a soul.

Night night.

Don’t let the bedbugs bite.

Bottom Line: Creepy-cool academic publication about art from World War I

To purchase “Nothing But the Word Unchanged” click hereΒ 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: Two Books from Holland

 

Part 1: Slowing Time

My daughter tied her own shoelaces this morning.

(A first.)

I gave her applause, enjoying her pride, as the rainbow soles perfectly matched the colors in her bedroom.

She’s seven now, and I remember telling you about changing her diaper, back in 2012. How uncomfortable I was, looking at her little body, as our son was born earlier, and his anatomy was far more natural for me.

My children are at the age where it feels like time is speeding up, and given how crazy #2019 has been, I’m trying to figure out how to slow it down.

So I pay more attention as I sing her to sleep at night. I make sure to notice when her hair catches the sun just so, and it glows like a messianic halo, absolutely perfect.

Though I no longer visit my therapist on a regular basis, I did see him on Monday, for the first time in a year, and he encouraged me to do whatever it took to appreciate what I’ve got. (Like most people, I’m constantly looking forward to what I want to achieve, have, or make.)

“This is the best it’s ever going to get,” he said, but he meant it in a good way.

I live in a safe place, have my material needs covered, and am surrounded by loving family in a beautiful environment, so I understood his message.

We also discussed how hard it is, under the cultural/political/macroeconomic conditions in #2019, to keep perspective.

It’s a part of DJT’s genius, the ability to sow confusion and anxiety on a daily basis, whether he’s denigrating the history of lynching, ignoring the existence of the US Constitution, or insulting people directly on Twitter.

What’s a person to do?

 

Part 2: Idyllic Austria

Learning how to see past the noise, and develop a deeper appreciation for one’s blessings, is not easy. Frankly, I don’t have it figured out just yet.

But I’m certain that giving thanks, expressing that appreciation openly, and working hard to live in the present are methods that will help get me there.

(For example, I can thank you all for reading each week. Thanks so much!)

We also turn to art for inspiration, as things that actively engage our minds, (rather than helping shut them down, like so much popular entertainment,) allow us to think and learn.

If you suspect this is all leading up to a photo book review, you’re mostly right, as we’re going to look at 2 books again today.

I’ll say right here, though, that it won’t be a weekly occurrence. I am trying to stay out of my comfort zone, as a writer, and keep this column fresh, but this is not a new format, doing two books at a time.

(Just an opportunity to discuss connections.)

In this case, two books were shipped in from Schilt Publishing in Holland late last year, and it doesn’t take much creativity to see how they work together.

The first is called “I Am Waldviertel,” and we’ll start here because I looked at it first.

The Dutch artist, Carla Kogelman, began spending time in a pastoral, mountain setting outside Vienna, Austria, in 2012. It started, as many projects do, somewhat randomly, but as she was embraced by the locals in the village of Merkenbrechts, it became a long-term investigation.

Especially after one family invited her to stay with them, and their daughters became main characters in the narrative Ms. Kogelman was building. The story, not surprisingly, is based around following the neighborhood children over the years, (and some summer visitors,) as they frolic and play.

It is meant to be a representation of the idyllic nature of childhood in nature, and as one who grew up in the woods, and is raising my children on a horse farm, there was much I could relate to.

The insides of the front and back covers are in color, and feature flower imagery, but the rest of the book is in black and white, and I must say, I found it a bit of a miss. The world is so colorful, and color communicates joy, and other emotions, so there were several places where I felt color would have helped. (Especially as the book is too long, though I make that comment on the regular.)

I was also a little disconcerted by some of the photos of young girls, topless, as the #MeToo era has made me, (and all of us, frankly,) much more aware of how the camera objectifies the female form.

I’m not going to photograph those images for you, as it doesn’t feel right, though to be clear there is nothing inherently sexual about them. These are art portraits, so the penetrating gaze we often see, which seems informed by fashion photography, allows even the young people to appear older and wiser than they likely were.

From the jump, I didn’t love this work, but as the book evolved, I became aware that the passage of time, so important to its conceit, was starting to influence my emotions. And by the time one of the family’s daughters is getting ready for prom, and the young women are wearing bikinis instead of going without shirts, I had definitely begun thinking of how quickly my children were growing.

Finally, I put the book down, and went back into my daughter’s room to raise her blinds. (We use the sun for heat as much as possible.)

I looked up, and saw photographs of her on the wall, at 2 and 3 years old.

I stopped dead in my tracks, froze for a minute, looking deeply, and promised myself I’d work even harder to appreciate every moment I have with my children while they’re here in my daily life.

We talk about college enough as it is.

Time to slam on the emergency brake, before it’s too late.

 

Part 3: The Other Side of the Coin

 

I’m not sure I’ve quoted my therapist in this column before, but today I’m going to do it twice.

I had told him it was important to me to slow down, and learn to see past the normal stresses, (taxes, credit card debt, traffic,) so I could revel in my good fortune, and try not to lose my cool over little things.

How could I do it?

He mentioned that the desire to seek guidance was really another way of describing prayer. (Like many a Post-Enlightenment intellectual, I believe in a spiritual world, but am uncomfortable with direct religious concepts like prayer.)

“There are two types of prayer,” he said. “Asking for help, and giving thanks. That’s it.”

It was a fairly seismic pronouncement, because it broke the world down in such a binary, yet respectful and powerful way.

And then he reminded me of all the refugees in the world, living under the most precarious of circumstances.

So of course, the other book today, “136 – I Am Rohingya,” by Saiful Huq Omi, could not be more appropriate for such a conversation.

(These two books were meant to be paired.)

One offers an idealized vision of what children’s lives are “supposed” to be like, frolicking in water, playing games, living in a stable society, while the other dives directly into the WORST CASE SCENARIO.

The artist is from Bangladesh, and spent ten years immersed in the plight of the Rohingya, an Islamic minority group primarily based in nearby Myanmar, where they have been the subject of genocidal persecution.

This book, which follows their diaspora, is not for the faint of heart, as between the imagery, and the explicit captions at the end, all of the worst human behaviors are discussed openly.

Gang rape, mutilation, torture, murder, and death from poverty and medical neglect.

Even things that seem innocuous, visually, like a few wooden boats on the water, we later learn represent people were lost to sea, almost immediately after the photograph was taken.

There are other images complemented by captions saying this person was raped the day before, died the next day, or simply disappeared, never to be heard from again.

Photographically, I found this book far more compelling than the first, and I did not bemoan the lack of color here. The contrasty, textured photos are visceral, and I believe the photographer made the right choice, stylistically.

The pairings are smart too, and many resonated, like the diptych of the man with water beads on his back, next to the man who’s spine is so evident, from illness and/or malnutrition, that it’s no surprise to read he died shortly thereafter.

An artist statement at the back suggests Mr. Omi suffered through this process, as he was threatened with extreme violence, and nearly died, as a result of the danger of sharing stories that powerful people would prefer be suppressed.

And then, I wondered, does documentary work like this make a difference in a world of unlimited, mind-numbing content?

When the Trumps, Putins, Erdogans, and Xis of the world are so intent on using propaganda, confusion, and secrecy to keep us in the dark, hiding realities of life inside Uighur concentration camps, or Kurdish extermination operations, I guess it’s a silly question to ask.

Especially as developing empathy with those less fortunate, and hopefully doing what we can to alleviate their suffering, helps make us healthier and happier as well.

 

Bottom Line: Two books, from one publisher, that explore extremes of the human condition

To purchase “I am Waldviertel” click here

To purchase “136- I am Rohingya” click hereΒ 

 

If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me directly at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com. We are interested in presenting books from as wide a range of perspectives as possible.

This Week in Photography: The early 70’s

 

Part 1: The Intro

It’s tempting to glorify the past.

(Mighty tempting.)

I wrote recently, in my eulogy to Robert Frank, that MAGA is really one more expression of the desire to return to the 1950’s.

It’s easy to mock that desire, (and I did,) because it so easily connects to a whiter, more racist and sexist America.

If we were to try to understand it on less nefarious terms, we might agree people associate the 50’s with American dominance, and a more naive, safer, more small-town version of ourselves.

(Before Walmart and the Malls killed small-town shopping districts. Oh wait, I said I’d stay positive.)

Last week, I wrote about #1983, and it came about in the most fascinating, subconscious way.

But the more I thought about it this week, the more the connection made sense. 1983 was a year before a presidential election, with a Republican president who’d begun a massive rightward shift for this country.

As the fall of the Berlin Wall was still years away, the end-of-the-world fear of pending nuclear war, after decades of Cold War, was real.

The Apocalypse was in, as “War Games” came out around then, and then “The Terminator.” (1983 and ’84, respectively.)

 

My point is that it’s easy to pick a time, as perhaps some people are now doing with the 90’s, and think that life was easier then.

If we were to peg each decade that was once held up as the ur-decade, (like the 60’s) we’d see there was plenty of drama, strife and difficulty too.

 

Part 2: West Coast Style

I write about photography here each week, (or most weeks these days,) and sometimes I admit to getting bored of it. In my current work, I’ve begun to experiment with sculpture as a way of extending my creativity in other directions.

But in order to keep up a column that is about photography these many years, I find it fun to create mini-themes, and let them play out naturally.

(It always happens best that way.)

So the last three weeks, we’ve had Robert Frank’s photographs from the 1950’s, Hugh Mangum’s images from the early 20th Century, all that 19th Century work from last week, and now…

1972-74.

That’s right: the early 70’s.

If we’re looking for parallels to now, there are none better.

The Nixon years.

I was born in 1974, so technically I was alive when Nixon stepped down, but it’s not in my frame-of-reference. I remember TV and pop culture from about 1977 on. (Close Encounters was ’77, I just checked.)

But this mini-era came just after the raging 60’s, and represents the heart of the Vietnam War.

It was chaotic to the extreme.

Dudes wore beards. (Sound familiar?)

A criminal president got busted, and it was so egregious that his own party finally broke, so he resigned, living in ignominy for a few decades, before being re-embraced shortly before he died.

Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was the big thing going, Charles Bronson terrorized the bad guys, and Steve McQueen was still on the scene too.

A rough-and-tumble America was fighting the Cold War, pointed straight towards a political catastrophe of epic proportions.

Yeah, I think we can all agree it’s a relevant phase to contemplate, RIGHT NOW.

How convenient that when I looked at my bookshelf, I noticed “Boardwalk Minus 40,” by Mike Mandel, published as a part of Subscription Series #5 by TBW Books in Oakland. It happened to be filed a foot or so away from “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink” by Bill Yates, published by Fall Line Press in Atlanta. (Which Bill gave me when he came through Taos this summer.)

I grabbed Mike Mandel’s book first, and recognized some of the images from a show I’d seen of his work at SFMOMA in Spring 2017. (And I later realized I’d reviewed the Subscription series as well.)

The pictures were made around the Santa Cruz boardwalk in 1974, and it’s kind of dry, compared to some of the other work from that show. The pictures are mostly in black and white, but there are two color images that really pop, early on.

Including one featuring a perfect, vintage Pepsi can.

I once spent a long while contemplating William Eggleston’s Coca-Cola red in a show at Pier 24, but Pepsi is a totally different reference.

Pepsi?

We’re Number 2, not Number 1!

The depiction of a place-in-time feels generic, and outside the palm trees, I’m not sure what places me in California.

Is that the point?
That California was generic?

The pictures feel a little like they’re leering, and it’s something I see more clearly now, in #2019, with my 12 year old son calling out sexism on TV and media with regularity.

(They see it so easily, the young, and yet the ideals were so hard won.)

Then it gets a step beyond, as a young woman leans over to show off her breasts, and we see her nipples. Then more, as two images shows men performing or simulating cunnilingus.

It’s important to remember the artist was young at the time, and even today, people photograph sex and nudity. But it’s hard not to see this book through today’s “woke” lens as well.

As to the pictures, they owe a debt to Garry Winogrand, and Henry Wessel, (RIP,) and it makes a lot of sense. In the end text, Mike Mandel admits that as he made conceptual work at SFAI with visiting professor Robert Heinecken, his main professors, Linda Connor and the aforementioned Wessel, would not graduate him with his MFA in 1974.

So he went to Santa Cruz, leaned into a “for fun” project he’d been messing around with, and shot this series of pictures on the boardwalk, seemingly with a 35mm camera.

It was done as an “I’ll show you,” or a spite project, and it worked, because they gave him his degree. I can see why the sex photos, in that era, would have given the work an extra-edgy feel, as “Deep Throat” and “Debbie Does Dallas” came out in ’72 and ’78 respectively.

Mike Mandel’s end-notes close with a Larry David joke, (if you can believe it,) but to me, pulling these photos out, 40 years later, does justice to the aging process, rather than their inherent strengths.

 

Part 3: Florida Kids

With “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink,” though, we have an equally compelling backstory. Bill Yates had just graduated from University of Southern Florida, after a stint in the Navy, and was soon headed to RISD for an MFA, to study with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind.

He’s roaming around Florida in 1972, looking for something to photograph, and stumbles upon the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in a rural spot outside Orlando. He asks to photograph the place, and the owner invites him back at night, when things are hopping.

Thus began a 7-month-deep-dive into 1973 for Bill, where he came back again and again. Everything was shot with a super-crisp medium format set-up, and I think that repeated engagement, plus the extra photo juice from the bigger negative, makes these pictures more memorable.

That the two books were so close on the book shelf was coincidental, but they have so much in common. The West Coast and East Coast versions of sleepy communities about to be eaten by much larger capitalist forces.

(Silicon Valley and Disney World.)

As to the photographs, like Mike Mandel’s antecedents were clear, here the imprint of Diane Arbus is ever-present, nowhere more so than the photo, on page 76 of the wall-eyed young woman and her less-than-intelligent-looking boyfriend.

 

But that’s a time-jump, so let’s take a step back.

The book opens with a very 50’s feel to it. Some greaser hair, the old signage, and there’s that Pepsi logo.

Pepsi binding the two books together?

So strange.

It’s only bit-by-bit that the 70’s-era-hair and clothing make an impression, versus the more Southern, rural feel we get out of the locals.

These pictures are awesome, and make me think of some working class images from Northern England.

The kids smoking.

The world-weariness in the eyes.

The book also has a bit more flesh-ogling than I think you’d see today. However, there’s a photo: a guy, kissing a girl, mad-dogs the crap out of the photographer, so it’s almost like he gets his comeuppance.

Though he trained with some amazing people, (as did Mike Mandel, who’s had a long career as an artist and academic,) Bill Yates went into a career as a commercial photographer.

He more or less pulled these pictures out of a box, 40 years later, and quickly ended up with this book, and a big solo show at the Ogden Museum of Art in New Orleans.

It’s a killer project, and it comes out favorably in comparison “Boardwalk Minus 40.”

But comparing and contrasting, saying which is better, is such a 20th Century concept, man.

Now is the age of win-win, and collaboration, so I’ll just say these two books make quite the pairing, and help give us visual reminders that America, and the world, have lived through tough times before.

Photography stops time and saves it for future generations.

So I suppose these last few columns have been my attempt, (subconsciously,) to remind myself, and all of you, that the arc of history is long.

Bottom Line: two cool books showing two Americas in the early 70s

Bottom Line: two cool books showing two Americas in the early 70s

 

This Week in Photography: East of the Mississippi

 

Part 1: The Intro

I was wondering what to write about this morning.

No strong pull in any direction. (Which is rare.)

So I dropped into a kneeling-Japanese-meditation-pose I learned in Aikido.

I calmed my mind, focused on my breathing, and at first, tried to figure out what my psyche was interested in. The last few stories from London? A new book from the pile? Anything about Chicago?

But I quieted those thoughts, because why else meditate?

After a few minutes, I opened my eyes, and the first thing I saw was a book I’d considered for review twice before.

Each time, it didn’t connect.

So of course I picked it up, and fell in love, as it’s perfect for today. (But we’ll get to that.)

 

Part 2: The Album

A month ago or so, I wrote about synchronicity, so of course that was the first thing I thought after re-discovering today’s book.

Synchronicity.

My mind jumped to “Synchronicity,” the album by The Police from somewhere around 1984. (Summer ’83, apparently.)

It was their biggest pop culture breakthrough, and as a kid, (I would have been 9,) I remember it as melodic, with a big anthem song.

Which was it?
(“Every Breath You Take.”)

So I go to Spotify and put on the album. (Or its digital playlist equivalent.)

What did all of America go gaga for in 1983, I asked myself?
What’s the story here?

Right away, it was clear the lyrics and energy in the music were dystopic. Some songs were downright dissonant, which goes against the band’s traditionally excellent harmonics.

And really, that title.

Synchronicity.

It implies synthesis, like connections are a good thing. But the songs were disturbing, and really, I couldn’t connect the dots at all.

It made no sense.
None.

WTF?

So I picked up my phone, and sure enough, the Spotify was stuck on Shuffle Play.

I couldn’t turn it off.

The AI broke, so I wasn’t getting the flow the band intended. Even so, the songs were almost universally creepy, disturbing or violent, even though the melodies were often pleasant.

This was the biggest album in America in #1983, and made The Police briefly the biggest band in the world? (Before they walked away on top.)

What does that all mean?

I decided to go down a rabbit hole for you.

I did some digging, found a lyrics website, hit up Wikipedia and Youtube, some other places, and got info from The Police’s official website as well.

I also listened to the album again, in sequence, manually advancing the titles so I could get the intention, while reading the lyrics.

“Synchronicity I,” the first song, speaks directly to the Jungian principles by which the album was inspired. Carl Jung wrote a book called “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle,” and Sting read it. He was also into “The Roots of Coincidence” by Arthur Koestler, as The Police named their previous album, “Ghost in the Machine” after one of his novels as well.

Synchronicity was Jung’s theory that events otherwise deemed coincidental might in fact have meaningful connections.

So the album opens by referencing those ideas directly, in a song called “Synchronicity I.”

“A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectable
Nothing is invincible”

We feel you, Sting.

The next song, “Walking in Your Footsteps,” is about dinosaurs, and our relationship to extinction.

“Hey there mighty brontosaurus
Don’t you have a lesson for us
You thought your rule would always last
There were no lessons in your past”

Extinction talk.

In 1983!
Ahead of its time!

Oh, and I should mention the album cover was shot by Duane Michals, (who gave the best lecture I’ve ever seen at theΒ Medium Photo Festival in 2014,) in which Sting posed with dinosaur bones.

 

The “coincidences” mount.

In “Oh My God,” Sting writes,

“Everyone I know is lonely
And God is so far away
And my heart belongs to no one
So now sometimes I pray

Take the space between us
And fill it up some way
Take the space between us
And fill it up”

Totally prescient, as far as our empty digital connections supplanting IRL experience in #2019.

In ‘Mother,’ maybe the less said the better, as Andy Summers screeches about a Mother like he’s Norman Bates.

(Freaky AF, as the kids say.)

Then in Miss Gradenko, Sting wails,

“Is anybody alive in here?
Is anybody alive in here?
Is anybody at all in here?
Nobody but us in here
Nobody but us!”

This is one messed-up piece of art, that somehow got packaged as pop music for the masses.

I need to take a break.

The #1983 vibe is feeling a bit too much like our current moment. They were living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, due to the Cold War, and we’ve got Trump and climate change.

So.
Let’s talk about the backstory.

Sting, according to Wikipedia, only became a musician due to “happenstance.” He grew up near the shipyards in Northeast England in Northumberland, (and was headed towards that career,) but once saw the queen, who waved at him, and that gave him the courage to turn his back on convention and become a creative person.

He worked his way up, and got married before he was famous, as the three man band laid down hits in their first four albums. (“Zenyatta Mondatta” was always my favorite.)

But by the time The Police made “Synchronicity,” their their final album, Sting was going through a nasty divorce, as he’d taken up with Trudie Styler.

Also, the band supposedly HATED each other.

While “Synchronicity” was made on the island of Montserrat, the three musicians, Sting, Andy Summers and Stuart Copeland, were literally recording in separate rooms.

Separate rooms!

And fistfights were reported as well.

On The Police’s official website, for heavens sake, Stuart Copeland admitted “The whole album was recorded in an unbelievably bad atmosphere.”

In the music video (for MTV,) the three band members are almost always 10-20 feet apart, lip-synching on radically different platforms, and Sting looks like a dead ringer for Billy Idol.

Synchronicity indeed.

Just to add another layer of meaning, Sting wrote some of “Synchronicity” in Jamaica, in a house called Goldeneye, sitting at the same desk where Ian Fleming wrote James Bond.

After Miss Gradenko comes “Synchronicity II,” a song about a tired worn-out-sap who’s about to snap from family, factory work and traffic, all juxtaposed by the rising of an actual monster in a Scottish loch.

Next comes “Every Breath You Take,” which is the most obvious stalker song to ever become a mainstream hit.

“Every breath you take ,and every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you,”

And it only gets more specific from there. Lots of watching you, and you belong to me.

How was this song ever considered pop music material?

Sting himself later said, “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.”

Then in order we have “King of Pain,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” (we get it,) and “Tea in the Sahara,” which ends with women burning in the desert with cups of sand.

Finally, there’s “Murder By Numbers,” which is about becoming a serial killer.

Dark, dark, dark stuff.
Horrifying, really.

And the only reason I’m writing any of this is because I saw a book when I opened my eyes from meditation, and took it as a “sign,” which led to a creative rabbit hole, which led to this column.

 

Part 3: The Book

It was a trove of photographs from the 19th Century that captured my attention today, in “East of the Mississippi,’ an amazing photobook that turned up in the mail a couple of years ago.

It was published by Yale University Press, for an exhibition mounted by the National Galley of Art, that I eventually saw at the New Orleans Museum of Art at Photo Nola in 2017.

Why didn’t I like this book before?
Why didn’t I write about the show?

What changed?

Well, I changed.

And the day, the year, the light, the circumstance.

Perhaps I’d grown so accustomed to the Western landscape, living in the heart of the American West this last decade and a half.

Big vistas, big mountains.

GRANDIOSITY!!!

East of the Mississippi, they’ve got small mountains and clustered landscapes.

Claustrophobic spaces.
Hollers.

Not nearly as dramatic, or dynamic.

Much more subtle.

Perhaps the equivalent of a cool Bordeaux, in lieu of a bold Ribera del Duero?

There is also a lot in this book that feels historical, or at least done by “lesser” photographers. Men (because let’s be clear, it’s nearly if not all men,) made work that was preserved for us, and on this viewing, I found it all interesting, historically.

(If not brilliant.)

And just as I found myself mentally comparing to Roger Fenton and Gustave LeGray and Carleton Watkins, as opposed to the more regular-guy-work in the book, I’d turn a page and something would jump, done by a clear talent.

George Barnard, one of my favorites, emerged. Or the Bierstadt Brothers. Timothy O’Sullivan, Arthur Dow, Steichen and Stieglitz.

The more talented photographers, or at least the images that had the most gravitas, would elevate the experience. It got me excited, as a viewer, waiting for the killer stuff within the edit.

(In this way, I was introduced to Isaac Bonsall, and Thomas Johnson, whom I didn’t know.)

But the landscape is varied, too, from the Deep South through the Midwest and New England.

So many lovely ones, amid the plenty.

There are train tracks and bridges, steam ships and water falls.

Men of industry, and beasts of burden.

All dead.

It really is the perfect book for today, as it reminds us that time marches on, and no one knows what’s coming.

The people in these albumen prints could no more imagine #1983 or #2019 than we can the 2050’s.

And as for synchronicity?

Taos is finally a trendy tourist destination again; really popular, with its Instagram-ready landscape, and non-American charm.

How did I know we hit the big time again?

Sting played here over Labor Day weekend.

I heard it was off the hook.

Bottom line: Exquisite exhibition catalogue documenting half of the past of America

To purchase “East of the Mississippi” click here

 

This Week in Photography: The Archive of Hugh Mangum

 

β€œThey said I’m the most presidential except for possibly Abe Lincoln when he wore the hat–that was tough to beat. Honest Abe, when he wore that hat, that was tough to beat. But I can’t do that, that hat wouldn’t work for me. But I can’t do that…Yeah, I have better hair than he did. But honest Abe was tough to beat.”

President Donald Trump, the other day, #2019

 

I remember in the height of the Great Recession, when I just couldn’t wait for 2009 to end. “Come on, January. Let’s go 2010!Β Bring, it,” I thought.

Now, I don’t need to get into the particulars, but 2010 kicked my ass too. Maybe even harder than ’09.

Afterwards, I thought that “Be careful what you wish for” clichΓ© might have something to it.

I bring this up, because honestly, who knows where all this is headed?

Donald Trump was caught red-handed, doing the one thing the entire Mueller investigation was trying to prove, under the assumption that such behavior was a priori impeachable, but they never found the smoking gun.

This time, Trump and his minions were caught together, plus a cover-up-secret-server? And then, just hours after I initially wrote this, he goes on TV to invite the Chinese government to investigate the Bidens too?

I’ve done this column for 8 years solid now, (Happy Anniversary, yay!) and I truly don’t know where this story lands anymore.

But I began the column with Trump essentially doing stand-up-comedy.

Right? He’s doing a bit?

Like Rodney Dangerfield (RIP) in “Caddyshack,” or Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas?”

That hat, it’s tough to beat. Tough to beat. Honest Abe was tough to beat in that hat.

Good Ol’ Abe.

How is that not funny, and yet with the fate of the free world hinging on this man’s behavior, (Did you read about his idea for alligator and snake moats?) maybe we all just need to laugh, or at least catch our breath for a second?

Break a pattern?

In my case, I remember when Rob set me free to do the travel and cultural criticism pieces I’ve since written over the last six months.

It was liberating.

I’d done book reviews for a few years solid, and wanted to see what would happen if I went out there for you, to eat and drink and look and investigate.

Sitting on the couch flipping through books had gotten stale, but then, after six months of pinging around the world, (East Coast, West Coast, Europe, West Coast, East Coast, Mid-West) my head is more fried than my daughter’s skin this summer when she went to the pool with a friend who didn’t have her re-apply her sunscreen properly.

(Very, very fried.)

So today, while trying to process a president doing stand-up-comedy about the millinery choices of Abe Lincoln, I thought, man, it sure would be nice to pick up a book here in my house.

To do something different.

Instead of crunching my previous experiences into an article, I’d rather read and engage with an existing story in book form.

To look at someone else’s narrative, and see what I can learn.

“Photos: Day or Night, The Archive of Hugh Mangum,” edited by Sarah Stacke, was published last year by Red Hook Editions. It seems straightforward enough, as the book exists to present the digitized, preserved history of a notable Southern photographer who died too young in 1922. (44, RIP)

Sarah Stacke edited the book, wrote one essay, and interviewed Mr. Mangum’s granddaughter, Martha Sumler, at the end of the volume as well. (And shot her portrait.)

During his lifetime, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Hugh Mangum had a darkroom in an old tobacco barn at his family’s country property outside Durham, North Carolina. He also spent time in the city-home as a youth, in Durham, and according to one of the essays, the block was fairly integrated.

Whatever the reason, Hugh Mangum defied the mores of the South in which he was raised by photographing African American and white people, and his interracial practice would have been rare for the time.

Plus, the photographs in here are badass. I mean, like totally good. In some cases, showing me things I still can’t make sense of.

Really, when was the last time I saw something photographic that defied reality in the way Trump’s opening quote does?

(See, I always bring it back around in a book review.)

Mangum sold his prints cheaply, so that his regular-people-clients could afford them. He kept costs down by splitting glass plates into multiple exposures.

Let’s jump to page 38.

There are 15 narratives on one plate.

We’re interested in the middle row.

A woman stares at the camera, severe, in a white high-neck-top and a stylish hat that cascades dark flowers. In the background, below her, to her right, a man, who looks like a Peaky Blinder minus the trademark hat, is staring daggers through the camera.

In the second frame, she looks down and away in a new hat, and he’s in the same spot, eyes just off the camera’s center.

Then, frame three, BOOM, he’s up front, looking right through us, and she’s just off his left shoulder, her face in her left hand, the two of them looking like they just robbed a train and were about to go have sex and then spend a few dollars at the casino afterwards.

Then, he’s next to her, and in an instant, in frame five, he’s receded into the background again, and she owns the frame.

This time, no hat.

If it were a fashion shoot for W magazine, you’d think it was progressive. Or film stills from a German avant garde movie that inspired the guy who inspired the guy who inspired Wim Wenders.

My point is, these photographs exist, and they’re amazing, but they don’t make sense in any way.

Who were they, and what the hell were they doing in that studio?

They’re phantoms out of time.
Like us.

(#2019 feels like it’s ten or fifteen years mashed up into one.)

There are many other such pictures here, images that would captivate, by themselves. Together, they make for the kind of book that will reward upon multiple viewings.

But then, in the end, things get really interesting.

In the closing essay, Martha Sumler admits that as a youth, she and her friends used to throw Hugh Mangum’s glass plates at trees, smashing them to bits.

“I believe all of us regret destroying them,” she said.

Totally caught me off guard.

And then, just when I got over that one, Sarah Stacke asks Ms. Sumler about the rumor that Hugh Mangum had shot naked photographs of local wealthy women?

Say what now?

(Out of nowhere, like it’s the most natural way to end a book.)

“SS: There is this rumor that Hugh made nude images of prominent women in Durham. What do you know about that?

MS: The information came to me from my mother. She told me there were nude pictures of prominent women in Durham… Some of the relatives still had pictures, and that was fine, but she didn’t want the glass plate negatives to get out, so she destroyed them…

SS: So much mystery.

MS: There is. And a lot of things we will never know.”

I’m not sure I can adequately explain how little I expected to read those things in a book like this. One that presents a bit of history, and recontextualizes a fine, almost awkwardly good group of pictures.

This book was made in 2018, and I believe it took six years or so to make. A true labor of love.

No matter.
It’s #2019 through and through.

Bottom Line: Weird, super-interesting book of historical photos from the South

To purchase “Photos: Day or Night” click here

 

This Week in Photography Books: Joshua Dudley Greer

 

I was six years old when Ronald Reagan was elected.

And 10 when he got another four years.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned my parents were staunch Democrats. For whatever reason, they didn’t discuss politics much at the dinner table, and in a pre-Internet era, it was hard to know as much about the issues as we do now.

These days, my son watches Hassan Minaj and John Oliver on Youtube for his news, and recently opined about Boris Johnson with one of our Antidote students.

He’s 11.

But back then, when Reagan wiped the floor with Walter Mondale in ’84, winning 49 states, I assumed everyone liked Reagan, including my parents.

I was no Alex P. Keaton, (though my Mom did dress me like him occasionally,) but as a 10 year old, a 49-1 victory looked pretty convincing.

Nancy Reagan was up on TV all the time saying “Drugs Are Bad,” so I assumed she was telling the truth. (But maybe that’s another story for a different day.)

What I’d rather emphasize is that in 2019, imagining America as that united on ANYTHING, much less a presidential election, seems quaint, quixotic and antiquated. (Three q words. Not bad.)

How could our country have ever agreed to that degree?

It’s gargantuan, and diverse in its local cultures, landscapes, and populations.

Iowa is to Hawaii as Poland is to the Philippines.

Catch my drift?

This morning, while I’m barely recovered from my crazy August, my mind drifted to the millions of miles of highways that knit this massive country together.

As the future is uncertain, I wonder if some of these places, different in so many ways, will ever again cohere around anything beyond a shared language and currency?

Is there hope for us?

Will we ever be one country again, like when everyone watched “The Dukes of Hazzard” or “Fantasy Island” on Network Television on their small cathode ray tube monitors?

I remember being at Pine Forest summer camp in 1984, chanting “USA, USA, USA” in the dining hall on July 4th with everyone, in unison, and there was no irony in sight. Patriotism was something regular people believed in, not just Red State Republicans.

Why am I feeling so nostalgic for times gone by today?
Or perhaps wistful about the majesty of America?

I’m glad you asked.

I felt like looking at a photo book, but didn’t want to leave the Portland series behind, so I picked up “Somewhere Along the Line,” by Joshua Dudley Greer, published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany.

Alexa Becker, a friend and Kehrer Verlag representative, gave me a copy of this book at the photolucida Blue Sky photo book night I mentioned in last week’s column.

She had it specifically set aside, assuming I’d like it. (As word of my taste might have gotten out over the last 8 years, she was spot on.)

I was smitten.

That a German publisher decided to run with such an exhaustive, almost categorical view of the American “on the road” landscape, along our highway system, is not surprising, really.

Not if you’ve heard of the popularity of American road trips among Europeans in the past, and now tourists from all over the world.

(The German filmmaker Wim Wenders made “Paris, Texas,” for heaven’s sake, and that may be the best American on-the-road movie ever made.)

The drawn line on the book’s cover first made me think of a county line, or state line, or even the Mason Dixon line.

But after the first few titled photographs jump from Arizona to Maine, Alabama to Alaska, you get the sense this book means business, and likely presents the title metaphorically. Photo geeks will recognize, in the sharpness and clarity, the likely use of large format cameras.

And probably film. (The end notes confirm.)

Perhaps its inevitable that Red and Blue State Americans hate each other more than they do our outward enemies.

60% of the country roots for Trump to fail, so he can be ousted before he goes for the lifetime Presidency he’s always joking about.

And Republicans hated Obama just as much.

But for me, a book like this, even with its sad photos and clear depiction of America’s tragic contemporary street class, somehow feels a bit optimistic.

The book, through the artist’s many miles, unites the country.
Literally.

He went all over, and recorded everything as one in this book.

I’m not being hokey.

It’s true.

Here is the South and the North.
The West and the East.

And it’s awesome.

Fuck all the haters.

America may be a declining empire, but we’re still cool as hell.

Bottom line: Elegiac, razor sharp look at all of America

To learn more about: “Somewhere Along The Line” click hereΒ 

The Daily Edit – Mark Hanauer: Kashmir: Witness: Huemn Stories

- - Photography Books

Mark Hanauer: Huemn Stories

Nine photojournalist were featured in the award winning book Witness/Kashmir 1986-2016.Β  A book that spans thirty turbulent years that have shaped Kashmir.Β  As many know Kashmir, also knows as “Paradise on Earth” was under a clamp down for the past 14 days. No mobile phone, no internet and many land lines are just now being restored. This book designed by Itu Chaudhuri Design was meant to reflect a casefile, a collection and evidence during those three decades.


Mark Hanauer who had spend time in Kashmir shooting Huemn stories which is an ongoing project with the brand. in 2018 also photographed several of the photojournalists that contributed to this book. Despite Kashmir being on clamp down, today we are sharing images from his trip that remind us of this paradise.


Makhdoom Sahib, a shrine at the top of a hill was extraordinary. Climbed many steps to the entrance. We met a holy man, he smiled at me, took my hand, gave me a blessing and two almonds. I was taken by his warmth and kindness. I still have the almonds, they always remind me of that moment. In the shrine only men are allowed into the inner chamber, the women pray just outside.


“I recall exiting the airport after arriving in Srinagar. The moment we stepped outside, I was hit with a very bright, blue sky, a number of heavily armed soldiers making their presence known, barbed wire and and a fighter jet flying menacingly low overhead. Driving toward Srinigar, I was surprised how different the architecture was to that of anywhere else I had been in India. Many Swiss chalet type structures in the foothills of the Himalayas, very surprising. We arrived in Sriningar and quickly met a few of the people that we were going to work with. I felt welcomed by them and everyone that I met in Srinagar. We drove to a small village to photograph a girl who at the age of 14 was peering out of her window and was shot in the face with rubber pellets by government security, rendering her blind and disfigured. When we met her, she was 16 and had just passed her 10th grade exam and was going on to Delhi Public School, a top school in Srinagar.

Parveena Ahanger, the β€˜Iron Lady of Kashmir’ Her son β€˜disappeared’ along with many other Kashmiri’s. A lawyer, she started the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, to search for those who are missing. The names behind her in the photo are all missing persons. She has won numerous awards for herΒ human rights work.


Hokasir Reserve just to the northwest of Srinagar and the longest rifle ever! For shooting birds.


Dal Lake. Urban lake in Srinagar, stunning place, 3500 or so houseboats on the lake as rentals. Tourism is normally huge here.