Category "Photography Books"

This Week in Photography: An Empire in Decline

 

“A new era has dawned in our country,
all the Earth is lit by the light of morn,
glory fills our hearts with an aura of greatness,
in the mighty state a happy time has begun.”

(From the state newspaper “Neutral Turkmenistan, “2012)

 

I’m writing on Thursday morning, (as usual,) July 30, 2020.

It’s the day that many of us have been waiting for, as Donald Trump has officially suggested postponing the presidential election here in America.

The times of our glorious leader are abundant, and let us hope they continue long into the future, when the son of dear leader, the great Barron, will guide is into endless prosperity, safety, and happiness.

Now, the cynics among us might suggest that Trump is baiting people into perseverating about one more distraction.

The quarterly economic numbers came out, and they were abysmal, like the worst EVER, meaning DJT’s plan to open the economy, believing that the coronavirus would simply “disappear” was wrong.

The Big Don doesn’t do “wrong,” so instead, he gave the media a big fat T-bone steak of scary, so that everyone would fret about that, rather than questioning him about the American economic free-fall.

So here we are.

We, as Americans, do a great job of thinking about ourselves, and our country, all the time.

The Trump collapse has even pushed Global Warming fears to the back burner, as who has time to contemplate planetary extinction when there is a fierce political battle going on right here in our own country?

(A colleague reminded me of that a few weeks ago, texting that most of the world lives with fear and difficulty all the time.)

We’ve officially reached the end of the road, with respect to the height of the “American Empire,” and the changes we’re feeling are not only about Trump, but rather a declining power settling down into a lower status.

It’s never easy.

But every great power that has ruled the world has then had to adjust to a time when they were relegated to #2, or #3, or even lower down the table.

(Even my favorite soccer team, Arsenal, is a declining power right now, having just finished 8th in the Premier League.)

Whether or not I start kissing up to China, (O great and wondrous Xi,) no sentient being would think that the US stands much of a chance of balancing their power in the coming decades.

Not if we’re this broken, and we don’t make things anymore, and we can’t seem to move past the divisions of a 19th Century war.

Basically, we’re fucked, and even if Joe Biden wins in November, and Trump is out in January, we’re firmly in the damage control portion of our history.

How can we salvage things, not how can me Make Everything Great Again.

Sorry to be a downer, but a cool dude like Obama couldn’t unite this country, and when there are White Power jerks out and proud in places like Northern Arkansas, we are where we are.

But why am I thinking this way right now?

Where did this particular, giving up isn’t so bad rant come from?

I’m glad you asked.

Like the old days, the glorious past which will always be better than the future, I’m writing about a photo book.

Perusing my book shelf this morning, I came across “Promising Waters,” by Mila Teshaieva, which was published by Kehrer Verlag in Germany, as a prize winning book in the Critical Mass competition. (Published in 2013.)

I’m sure they sent it to me for judging, but somehow, I never checked it out before today.

Thank goodness, because without it, I might not have written that sad bit of realpolitik above.

(We’re #2! We’re #2!)

This book is excellent, and smart, which are not necessarily the same things.

The photographs are bleak and beautiful, and seem to be set in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, though it’s hard to say which one.

Frankly, this is one of those books I like, which teases out the story, bit by bit, asking you to guess, before giving you all the information you need at the end, which then makes you want to look through it again.

Which I did.

(And you would too.)

So it’s excellent, because it’s well made, but it’s smart, as it considers the viewing experience, and then adjusts accordingly.

For today, I’m going to jump to the end, as is my prerogative as a reviewer.

There are two very well written essays, and the second tells us this was shot in several countries around the Caspian Sea.

Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

And the end notes also have a numerical list of places, with a map and a little description, but I didn’t understand how it functioned until my second viewing.

Each page has a tiny number, which I missed on first viewing, and it corresponds to the list, (and the map,) so that afterwards, you can try to figure out where each picture is taken, and then compare some places to others.

(Like a puzzle.)

So that’s why it’s smart…

As to the pictures, and the intermittent text, it all speaks to a place in the world that is reckoning with life after an Empire’s primacy.

These may have been far-flung outposts of the Great Soviet Empire, but now they’re not even that.

There are references to changed alphabets and languages, and rising, empty cites.

Of oil fields that leak and pollute, and sea borders that are in dispute.

One photo, of an abandoned library, is absolutely heartbreaking, but then you read the caption in the back, and learn it used to be a Jewish synagogue, which was decommissioned by the Soviets, and turned into a library, only to be left to rot, once the Cyrillic books were no longer relevant.

Everywhere, we see painted backdrops, to distract from the surroundings, and the text speaks of shiny facades added to crumbling Soviet buildings, or fancy buildings built for a world of rich people that likely never came. (Or will never come? I’m getting confused by time, and with my tenses, this deep into lockdown.)

There are tiny houses, meant to be destroyed for new construction, and an overwhelming sense of decline.

Still, a young man works out on improvised exercise equipment, a young woman has a fancy pocketbook in a washed-out-looking restaurant, and another young man stands before a computer with the word Democracy visible.

Nothing about this book was made for America in #2020, yet it all feels like a cautionary tale.

On a happier note, it is late-summer now, so at least you can go for a walk in the evening, if you wear your mask.

(Sorry, that’s all the optimism I’ve got for today.)

To purchase “Promising Waters” click here 

 

 

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

This Week in Photography: Spoiling for a Fight

 

Part 1: The Intro

 

Donald Trump has unleashed secret police upon America.

For all my repeated criticism of the man, over many years, that is not a sentence I ever thought I’d write.

But here we are.

They are secret, because their uniforms are unmarked, and they have apparently been pulling people off the street into unmarked vans in Portland.

Now, he’s sending them to cities like Chicago and Albuquerque, because he sees his best shot at re-election dependent upon an uprising of Red State voters, who fear for their lives.

(By implying that urban chaos will soon be coming to their small town or cluster of farms.)

 

How did we get here?

One of the biggest causes of our national decline over the last 4 years has been the language of dehumanization.

It began during the 2016 Presidential campaign, in which Trump was willing to use name calling, and nasty language, in a way that no “normal” politician ever had.

Whether calling Mexicans rapists, insulting a Muslim Gold Star family, or saying, of Republican war hero John McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured,” Trump’s insult comic schtick was entertaining to a certain type of American, and it propelled him to the White House.

 

 

Whether or not a person likes Trump, and supports him politically, I doubt there are many, if any, Americans alive who would suggest he has attempted to unite the United States at any point in the last 4 years.

I’ve written about Divide and Conquer before, but really, it’s not a theory: it’s happening in real time. He has attacked cities, and “Blue” politicians all along, while denigrating minorities, banning Muslims from entering the country, jailing brown children, and defending White Supremacists.

And it’s worked so well that liberals are turning on each other by fighting over racial and/or gender-based lines, often trying to takedown those who don’t conform to a specific set of beliefs. (Making it that much easier to be conquered.)

Years of calling people libtards and fascists, thugs and gestapo, and now we find ourselves in #2020, with one faction of the country aggressively risking the health of others over a belief in science, and people who label themselves as Anti-fascists are being deemed fascists by others.

Everyone keeps calling the other side “they,” and there is serious risk in that, as “us” only refers to “our” side.

 

 

Words matter.

And the words that Trump encourages, which make people less than human, (as the Nazis did,) make it that much easier to treat people as less than human.

To risk giving them a deadly disease, because they’re just Blue Staters anyway. (As when conservative Texans come to Northern New Mexico and refuse to obey our laws around face coverings.)

We find ourselves at a crossroads, where protestors believe they can engage in destructive behavior, because it’s justified against Trump’s evil, and then he responds by sending in federal police, (because the military already refused, after the Lafayette Square debacle,) and we all sit here, holding our collective breath, wondering what will happen next?

 

Part 2: The fighting instinct

 

I used the phrase “takedown” a few paragraphs ago, but really, how many of you know where it comes from?

IRL?

It’s a wrestling term, now utilized in BJJ and MMA as well, in which one person attacks the legs and waist of another person, and then either trips or throws them to the ground.

(Including the vicious body slam.)

I have both executed single and double-leg takedowns, and been the recipient of them, and they are violent as hell.

It’s a real thing, and another example of language migrating from the literal to the metaphorical.

I mention it here, though, as I just finished binge-watching “Kingdom” on Netflix, and cannot emphasize enough how good the show was.

 

It is set in the SoCal world of MMA, (in Venice, where I almost moved in 2001,) and ran on a DirectTV streaming platform from 2014-17, which means that pretty much no one saw it.

I became aware of it in 2017, when I was doing some research on the actor Frank Grillo, but lacking DirectTV, I couldn’t watch it, and promptly forgot about it.

As soon as it came to Netflix this month, I jumped at the chance, and have rarely seen a better example of storytelling and acting fused together.

Because it’s a show about fighting, featuring very talented but not super-famous actors, (Like Grillo, Matt Lauria from “Friday Night Lights,” Kiele Sanchez from “The Purge: Anarchy,” Joanna Going from some 90’s movies, and the brilliant Jonathan Tucker,) I’m pretty sure most people would dismiss it as pulp entertainment without giving it a second thought.

However, like other superlative genre fare before it, (“The Wire,” “The Sopranos,”) Byron Balasco, the creator, managed to tell real, human, empathetic stories in a way that mesmerized, perhaps BECAUSE of the limitations of his genre structure. (To be clear, I’m not saying it’s as good as those TV pantheon shows.)

And I read in an interview that they were pretty much left alone, to do what they wanted, which comes across in the creative freedom they expressed.

Alcohol addiction, sex trafficking, the cycle of familial abuse, homophobia, drug addiction, mental illness, class difference, death, the penal system, and corruption; all are woven together deftly alongside positive values like love, loyalty, and determination.

It was just so good. (Though I’m pretty sure if it were shot in #2020, they would have a more diverse cast.)

One core message that comes through, again and again, is that fighting is a mentality, not just a sport.

Some people are trained to fight, and are often born into families that reinforce it.

(Like Trump, according to the new tell-all by his niece Mary Trump.)

Fighting perpetuates itself, and it requires a tremendous amount of discipline to not fight, when the situation presents itself.

 

Part 3: For example

 

For example, I recently came through the most difficult period of my marriage, as we diagnosed my wife with clinical depression in late-March, and were told the recovery would be rocky.

(It was.)

In the beginning of July, my wife went through a rage phase, where all sorts of repressed anger came to the surface, and for a few days, it was all directed at me.

Despite the fact that I was her support system, and she credited me with saving her life, I had said unkind things during the late stages of her illness, and the beginning of her recovery.

I used nasty words, thinking I was justified, because of the hurt her illness caused, and she did not call me on it.

It seemed OK.

But clearly, it was not.

When her anger finally flared, it was palpable, and scared the shit out of me, causing anxiety attacks.

With the help of some very good friends, (you know who you are,) we got through it.

But the key moment was when my amazing friend Ed advised me that the only way to break the cycle was to not bounce the anger back to her.

Not to absorb it into my body, which would make me sick, but to essentially channel it directly into the ground.

To admit what I said, apologize with kindness, and then not aggress back.

We never mentioned Jesus, at any point, but really, it was the theory of turning the other cheek.

And as a martial artist, I’m familiar with the concept of getting power from the ground, so the idea of sending this energy back into the ground, rather than rebounding it, made sense to me.

Thankfully, it worked.

In the weeks since, two readers picked fights with me, in emails responding to my column, and in each case, I used the same strategy.

Rather than perpetuating the anger, and participating in a fight, I refused, and responded with kindness, respect and peace.

It was clear that in each case, the other person was taken aback, and a bit frustrated that I chose not to engage in a disagreement based upon anger, but it defused the situation, and that was that.

On a macro level, that’s essentially what Americans need to do, if we’re going to heal from the misery of the Trump era. (If, god willing, he loses in November and moves on.)

We will somehow need to find the common humanity between political parties, between urban and rural, between cosmopolitan and sequestered.

The alternative is that we eat ourselves, and then eat each other.

 

Part 4: Another Example

 

Here’s what it looks like when you respond to anger with anger.

It backfires.

For example, last week, I saw a tweet by my colleague Jörg Colberg, which drew attention to an Instagram spat involving the renown SoCal artist John Divola.

 

 

Apparently, William Camargo, a Latinx artist from Orange County, made a post about an image he shot that was a satire of, or homage to, or derivation of a series by John Divola, who’s from just up the way in Venice.

It references a series I’ve written about before, as I was lucky to interview John twice, for VICE and the NYT, and have spent time with him in person as well.

In fact, he gave me a copy of the book, which is named after the series: “As Far As I Could Get.”

Divola is known for conceptual rigor, and humor at times, and constantly wrong-footed me during our interviews, (another fighting term,) because his vision of what his work was about was always different than my expectations.

In this series, he set up his camera in the isolated California desert, set the timer, and then sprinted away from the camera, to see how far he could get before the shutter clicked.

I think it’s funny, as it speaks to a certain futility of the human condition.

 

Over time, as he aged, he would presumably cover less distance, but it was always a strategy, and done in an empty desert locale.

William Camargo, the artist who satirized him, set up a scenario in which he tried to see how far he could get from the swap meet parking lot to the liquor store, in ten seconds.

Seen by itself, I thought it was a smart update, an excellent photograph, and by re-contextualizing the scenario, was a takeoff on John’s idea, rather than a ripoff.

Kudos, for sure.

But in his caption, he tore into John for the fact that running is a sport of white privilege, and misrepresented the structure of Divola’s project.

 

William Camargo, who is a part of Diversify Photo, and espouses the language of the current progressive movement, chose to insult John Divola, who is white, in a public forum.

Isn’t it possible to draw attention to the fact that in certain communities, it is not safe to run, (a la Ahmaud Arbery, who’s mentioned,) without the concomitant need to attack someone else?

Especially when Divola’s work was not actually about jogging?

I get that it is fashionable at the moment, to “takedown” old white guys, (I critiqued Martin Parr last year, don’t forget,) but it was not the Instagram post that got John Divola in hot water.

It was his reaction.

He responded with anger, and put words in writing, in public, that looked really, really bad in #2020.

 

Indubitably, I am not defending what he wrote.

In fact, I just spent a whole bunch of words suggesting that letting anger go by, rather than fighting back, can be transformative.

(Not always: AOC was totally right to defend herself from that Florida man’s awful comments.)

But the glee with which some people then further attacked John Divola, as if it proved that all old white guys are unhinged, was equally unsettling.

And that is my final point for today.

If we on the left refuse to see the value of others like us, creative, passionate, liberal people of all races and genders, than how will we ever help heal these rifts with the rest of America?

Do we expect other people to do it for us?

(And there I go using “us” again. It’s so complicated!)

This Week in Photography: Chaos and Class

Part 1: The Intro

 

 

I love it when a plan comes together.

That’s what George Peppard used to say, as Hannibal Smith, in the cheesy 80’s TV show “The A-Team.”

Then, the character was played by Liam Neeson in a pretty-bad movie version of the TV show, which came out in 2010.

This morning, on Twitter, I stumbled upon a video of the comedian Frank Caliendo doing a Liam Neeson impression, pretending to be his character from “Taken,” (which was shot in France,) in which Caliendo-as-Neeson threatens to give a telemarketer a bad Yelp review.

 

I also read in the New York Times today that France would soon require all people to wear masks indoors.

(Elsewhere, I read that a French bus driver was beaten to death for asking his riders to mask up.)

In the Washington Post, I saw that the Governor of Georgia would bar all cities and municipalities from requiring people to wear masks, during our American-dumpster-fire-outbreak.

In a normal year, many Americans of means might be taking their European holiday right now, but of course Americans are actually banned from Europe, due to our anti-scientific, highly politicized handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Our leader, Donald J Trump, has made such a mess of things that I’ve had to officially apologize to my friend, about whom I wrote in this column early in the year, because Trump now does have mass deaths on his hands, if not nearly as many as Adolph Hitler.

DeSean Jackson, a football player for the Philadelphia Eagles, recently made an Instagram post in which he incorrectly attributed a quote to Hitler, while proudly promoting an Anti-Semitic agenda.

And also this morning, on Facebook, a friend posted that she and her family would be moving to Germany, for the rest of #2020, so their son could attend school, and have a “normal” life.

This same friend belongs to a family that famously fled Nazi Germany and came to New Mexico to found a ski resort, in which certain trails are named after members of a failed coup to take out Hitler.

The coup was featured in a movie starring Tom Cruise, who became mega-famous in “Top Gun,” in which Val Kilmer also became a super-star for playing Iceman, but then Kilmer lost a big part of his New Mexico ranch due to The Great Recession, which was the worst American economy until now.

In #2020.

Are you confused yet?

If so, my plan has indeed come together, because after a week off, I wanted to see if I could open this column in a manner that truly reflected the insanity of the moment.

Things change from second to second these days, and my fellow Americans are acting so irrationally that they’re willing to risk killing each other to prove a political point.

For example, in Red River, New Mexico, a town known at “Little Texas,” (which you can read about in a Reuters article written by my son’s former youth soccer coach,) apparently a man walked into the local health clinic, with Covid symptoms, but not wearing a mask, and he tested positive along with 3 other people, so that now the clinic has been shut for 14 days, and the town no longer has a functioning medical office, despite being in a valley surrounded by mountains, cut off from the rest of the world.

Like I said, welcome to #2020.

 

Part 2: Making some sense

 

The American Revolution was really about money, even if Freedom was a part of the mix as well.

Rich guys like George Washington didn’t like paying so many taxes to the King of England, given that the crown didn’t offer too much back in the deal.

We used to worship Old George here in America, but now he’s been cancelled because he was a slave owner.

Donald Trump chose to give a maskless speech on the 4th of July, to a maskless white audience, at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills, on land that was stolen from the Lakota people, despite treaties promising them their ancestral homeland in perpetuity.

(Those treaties were not worth the paper on which they were printed.)

As to the white men enshrined in stone on that mountain?

 

Washington and Jefferson were slave owners, and in the current moment, are considered assholes. (Rightly so, I guess. We may have idolized them for centuries, but slavery was simply inexcusable.)

Teddy Roosevelt was a racist, and now even Abe Lincoln has been criticized, because he promoted the stealing of Native American land in the MidWest.

This section of the column was titled “Making Some Sense,” but I’m not sure that I have.

 

Part 3. Follow the money

 

I was trying, before jumping off the rails, to bring attention to the fact that money and power are, and have always been, intricately connected.

It’s the real reason that the Washington Redskins are finally changing their highly racist, despicable nickname: sponsors like Fedex came after team owner Daniel Snyder’s money, so he folded.

That is literally the only reason he did the right thing.

Money buys power, and historically, power is enmeshed with class.

Here in America, while we’re occasionally willing to discuss race, and are often obsessed with money, class is barely allowed into the cultural conversation.

It’s the hush hush, as nobody wants to be considered lower class, the middle class has been shrinking for decades, and the Upper Class likes to stick to its own, and does a damn good job of keeping everyone else out.

I was reminded of that while reading my friend Kevin Kwan’s new book, “Sex and Vanity,” which both features and skewers the world’s jet-setting .1%, at a fabulous wedding in Capri, on New York’s Upper East Side, and in the Hamptons as well.

Kevin updated E.M. Forster’s acclaimed novel “A Room with a View,” while simultaneously examining entrenched racism in America’s chicest Upper Class apartments and beach clubs.

(It’s a fun read for summer too.)

But it really resonated with me, as I was first introduced to the New York Upper Class as a freshman at Duke, and my clumsy attempt at social climbing pretty much ruined my college experience, and changed the course of my life.

 

Part 4. The Photobook

 

Even though I took a week off from writing, and am definitely hopped up on super-high-caffeine coffee, this column is actually building somewhere.

I promise.

It ties together threads from above, and even from my last column before I took my break, in which I mentioned the students from various ICP programs that I reviewed via Zoom a few weeks ago.

How so?

Well, a while back, my former photo professor, Allen Frame, who also teaches at ICP, wrote to see if I’d be interested in potentially reviewing a photo book by his friend, and former ICP student Martine Fougeron, and I said sure.

(She and I were once in a show together in the Bronx, but I wasn’t able to attend, so we’ve never met or been in contact.)

I opened the book today, and was immediately struck by the fact that she chronicles the lives of her two boys, Nicolas and Adrien, as they grow up.

It hit me quickly, as these last few months, my children, Theo and Amelie, have been each others’ best friends, companions, and social networks, as we live mostly quarantined on our farm at the edge of the Wild West.

The boys featured in the book, however, don’t share much in common with my kids, beyond the fact that my daughter has a French name.

“Nicolas & Adrien” was published by Steidl in 2019, which is always the mark of art world insiders. And the cover features scarlet and gold, the colors of Gryffindor house in the Harry Potter novels, and wouldn’t you know, but I’m reading Book 3 to Amelie, but I’m not sure if we should keep it up, now that JK Rowling has come out as an Anti-Trans activist on Twitter.

(I promise, no more off topic rants in this column.)

From the opening statement, in which Ms. Fougeron writes of her sons attending the Lycée Français de New York, and summering at the family home in the South of France, the book gives off whiffs of the Upper Class vibe.

From the chic fashion within, the strong chins, the subtly entitled body language, I was pretty sure the book represented a look inside the 1%, and as it builds, my suspicions were correct.

There is a reference to Le Bal des Debutantes, which also comes up in “Sex and Vanity,” and the end statement discusses the multi-generational wealth in which Ms. Figueron was raised in France.

That doesn’t make the book less interesting, though, as our prurient desires to see behind the velvet rope also drove work by Slim Aarons, and Tina Barney, among others. (Or even my much mentioned buddy Hugo, whose series, “Upper Class,” was his thesis show at Pratt in 2004.)

This book begins in 2005 though, and follows Nicolas and Adrien as they grow up, changing for the camera, smoking weed and frolicking with their good looking friends.

It it summer escapism?

I’m not sure.

Kevin’s book clearly satirizes the people with whom he fraternizes, and when “Nicolas & Adrien” depicts one of the boys in his Occupy Wall Street phase, I wasn’t sure if the irony was intended.

(I almost choked on my tea, which I drank before my coffee.)

Still, I found this book worth writing about, and recommending, as it crosses the threshold of making me think, making me want to write, and it’s also well-made, so that’s how we got here.

To stick my landing, I’d like to mention that the rich have always ruled the world, and likely always will.

Whenever they’ve been taken down, like when heads rolled in France, or when communists took over in Russia, they’ve always been replaced by other people who like to keep the money and power for themselves.

It’s why all those Chinese politicians are billionaires these days, (which Kevin chronicled in “China Rich Girlfriend”) or why the Soviet leaders kept all the good food and pretty dachas for themselves.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t press against that selfish mentality, (because we must,) but based on the history of human civilization, we should at least understand how big a fight we’re facing, to undo millennia of entrenched inequality.

See you next week.

This Week in Photography: Towards a New History

 

Truly short post today.

(Like, for real.)

I’ve been writing some intricate columns lately, which have required me to spend a lot of time ingesting media in a toxic environment.

So I’m taking next week off, for my annual summer break, and will do my best to recharge the batteries so I can continue to put my finger on the cultural pulse for you.

I’ll have some more book reviews, travel articles from the winter, and then yesterday, I did online portfolio reviews with students at ICP in New York, and saw so much good photography and art that I’ll be writing a “The Best Work I Saw at…” post for you soon too.

As I’m isolated out here in my field, it was a blessing to have so many fun, cool conversations with a talented and diverse group of artists.

In eight reviews, I spoke with six women, and two men of color, so it felt like the most perfect experience for #2020.

The first artist showed me some incredible water color drawings/paintings, and we discussed the idea that it’s important to find the right medium to express our thoughts in the most appropriate way.

(Some ideas or emotions don’t need to be photographs.)

And just last week, I had another deep, intricate conversation with an African-American friend/colleague, in which we got into all the real issues, in a calm, positive way. (It may lead to an interview, so I’m keeping it cryptic for the moment.)

One thing he said, though, was so relevant, I want to share it here.

He suggested, bluntly, that if you asked 100 photographers to name their top 10 in the History of Photography, there was a strong chance almost no Black photographers would be chosen at all.

The established canon skews super-duper-heavily towards white people. (And men in general.)

It was hard to argue, as I began to think of my “favorite” names, and wasn’t sure I would pick a Black photographer, unless I were trying to front.

Which brings me to today’s book, “The History of Photography in Pen and Ink,” by Charles Woodard, published by A-Jump books in 2009. (Right in the eye tooth of the Great Recession, and given to me by someone who is no longer my friend, it’s been so long.)

I thought of this book, at first, because it is light and funny, and I knew I needed to keep it short today. (I rediscovered the book while searching my shelves a couple of months ago.)

Plus, after the NYT did that deep dive into Robert Frank’s famous image from “The Americans,” I figured you’d all like to see one of his other classics rendered as a simplistic drawing.

But these days, even reaching for a cute-little-production led to deeper thoughts, as I turned the pages, and counted how few women were included.

As I neared the end, my friend’s words echoed in my mind, as I recalled one Japanese photographer within, but no other obvious artists of color.

In #2020, if Charles Woodard decided to do this project from scratch, I expect we’d see the inclusion of some Latin American photographers, like Manuel Alvarez Bravo or Graciela Iturbide.

Maybe Gordon Parks would be in there, or Carrie Mae Weems?

I’d like to think so.

But the book, cute as it is, is evidence that our shared history, the History of Photography, (as it’s traditionally been taught,) does not include enough diversity.

Surely this will change, now, and hopefully it won’t mean the exclusion of some of the great Jewish-American photographers, or all those amazing Germans and French artists.

Maybe, just maybe, we can write bigger books, that include all the great photographic artists in history, from across the world, and show respect for what he, she or they had to say?

Just a thought.

See you in two weeks.

This Week in Photography: The King of Atlantic City

 

I used to have a step-grandpa.

But he’s dead now.

I’m not sure when he died, or how, because my grandmother divorced him when they were in their 80’s.

(And she passed away in 2006.)

Grandpa Sam was a 20th Century character through and through; a miniature powerhouse of a man, completely crazy, but charming.

He was a narcissist and a gambler who loved chunky gold things, and tacky objects that implied they cost a lot of money.

His favorite place in the world was any cruise ship, or whichever casino in Atlantic City gave him the best comp deal at a given time.

Grandpa Sam became my step-grandpa when I was 10 years old, give or take, because my real Grandpa, Sy, had died of cancer when I was three. (Just old enough to have a token memory or two.)

Given my youth, I have no idea how Grandma Flo met Grandpa Sam, but it probably had something to do with cruise ships. And as a self-respecting Jersey Boy, I should mention here that he was the most Long Island guy I ever met. (Tri-State area folks will get the barb.)

I remember at my Bar Mitzvah, (which was held on the Asbury Park boardwalk, 30 years before it properly gentrified,) he got so drunk that he fell asleep on one of the tables, and I found him there at 1am when I was cruising the then-empty hotel with a friend.

Or what about the time he invited me on a walk around the neighborhood, which made me light up with excitement, but was only a ruse to chastise the 15-year-old-me for being a bad grandson.

Talk about a blindside hit!

But there’s no way to understand Grandpa Sam, who was about 5’3″ and wider than he was tall, without understanding Atlantic City.

That was where he felt most at home.

Given that he was no proper whale, he’d never have gotten the VIP treatment in Vegas, and you couldn’t get there by cruise-ship anyway.

But in A.C., as everyone calls it, they treated him like a King.

Free dinners, free hotel rooms, and even better, they’d hook up his family if he ever brought them along.

To be perfectly honest, I forgot about Grandpa Sam for about 10 years, and he only flashed into my memory last month, when my son was asking about his family history, and Grandpa Sam popped back in mind.

I can see his gaudy shirts now, opened three buttons down to show off his gold necklaces and fuzzy chest hair.

How did he die?

Was he alone?

I remember he was estranged from much of his family, because he was nuts, and Grandma divorced him for being abusive. It was considered brave, her willingness to be alone at that age, but then she got sick and died within a year or two, so there was no late-life Renaissance to be found.

They used to tell us Grandpa Sam had been a POW of the Nazis, having been captured in WWII, and that was the reason he was such a prick.

It might have had something to do with it, but I think his type, all macho bravado, bad taste, and shady business dealings was archetypical, as was the pull to a worn-down, once important, seedy place like Atlantic City.

The casinos came rather late, compared to its run as a fancy vacation destination in the early 20th Century, and they never brought the wealth and glory that was promised.

Rather, the entire corrupt system was just a sham for money laundering, luring tour busses full of glassy-eyed day trippers to windowless rooms where they pissed their retirement funds away.

And who was King of Atlantic City in the 80’s and 90’s?

Who plastered his name on the casinos, all of which went bankrupt or out of business eventually?

Who used the place as a platform for publicity, and for siphoning poor people’s cash into his own coffers?

Do you have to ask?

Donald J. Trump.

(Still known as the guy who stiffed everyone, leaving unpaid bills in his wake as he scrambled out of town.)

One day, I’ll get tired of writing about him, but that day is not today, as I went to my book stack this morning, and grabbed what may be the last book left over from the spring of #2019.

What did I find?

“Atlantic City,” by Brian Rose, published by Circa Press in London, and I’m not sure if he and I even corresponded at all.

It may be that the book showed up unannounced, landed in the pile, and was finally LIBERATED today, when it has even more resonance than it might have last year.

It’s perfect for now, what with public beaches finally opening around the country, cramped spaces like casinos being abandoned, and a potential new Depression popping up, promising to hollow out many a small city like A.C.

I’m going to cut to the chase, though, and tell you that I found the book to be flawed in its construction and vision, but the photographs and excellent opening essay by architecture critic Paul Goldberger make it worth showing anyway.

(And it allows for a teachable moment.)

I always talk about the relationship between image and text in a photobook, and how it’s hard to get right.

How much information do you provide, and when and where to place it?

We need to ask those questions when we make or judge a book, and this one gets it wrong, after the opening essay.

There is a text blurb opposite each photograph, and the graphic design sensibility is off. The words float in odd places, and I did not like the pressure to pull my eyes away from the pictures to read every time.

It messed with the flow and detracted from the images, which were strong enough to communicate the book’s thesis.

Added to that, many of the text pages also contained Trump tweets, which were also repeated at times, thereby bashing us over the head with intent.

On the flip side, any photo book that has compelling photos that tell the story by themselves should be commended.

So it’s a muddle.

Trump is everywhere, though he sued to have his name taken off buildings he abandoned years ago, and the pictures also do justice to the feeling of empty facade that speaks to both A.C. and Trump so well.

At one point, we read a Shakespeare quote from Julius Caesar, and then the next photo shows a tacky billboard of the Bard, but that was the only example where the text created an unexpected frisson with the pictures.

I think, if rebuilt, this book would be better chunking up the words into a few sections, thereby letting the viewer get the pleasure of flipping through photos that don’t need words.

Sadly, Atlantic City is one of those places that people always think will “come back,” yet it never does.

Then again, that’s what they said about Asbury Park.

My Bar Mitzvah was held in a hotel that opened in the 80’s, confident they’d lead the wave of gentrification.

A wave, like the fickle Atlantic Ocean it abuts, that didn’t arrive for another generation.

So you can keep waiting, or give up.

Your choice.

Bottom Line: A flawed but intriguing look at a zombie city on the Jersey Shore

To purchase “Atlantic City” 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: Recipes for Disaster

 

Part 1. The Heads Up

Heads up.

 

I’m coming in hot today.

Last week, I wanted to avoid staring into the darkest parts of reality, but today I have no choice.

I’ve been chatting and texting with my good friend, and erstwhile collaborator, Iván. (He was my professor of Globalization Theory in graduate school at Pratt, and has a PhD as well.)

We did some successful modeling of potential Great Recession outcomes at its outset, and then properly predicted the multi-polar world that followed, some years later.

But when we spoke at the beginning of The Troubles, it wasn’t any fun, as he always takes the pessimistic, idealistic side of the argument, and I go for the realist/pragmatist/optimistic angle.

There is not much optimism in our current global affairs, so the chat was grueling, and way too soon for either of us to have made any real observations yet. (Mid-March)

In the last two weeks, though, we’ve talked twice and texted ten times.

Before I get to that, though, I should mention one more thing.

When I met Iván, on the first day of class, he claimed he was a Mexican, Marxist Yankee Fan.

I laughed out loud, and challenged him on the spot, saying there could be no such thing.

The Yankees represented the heart of Capitalism, always outspending their way to World Series titles, and Karl Marx invented Communism.

These were antithetical concepts.

(I once compared “Das Kapital” and Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” in an economics paper at Duke, so I am familiar with the material.)

Iván said he was a Guatemalan-by-family, Mexican-by-birth, Jewish, long-time New Yorker, and entitled to root for the Yankees, because he lived in Upper Manhattan, a short subway ride from the Stadium.

(I’ve picked that bone with him ever since, in jest.)

But last week, having finally connected the dots, his words from our second phone call still ringing in my head, I called Iván.

“Well, hello,” he said. “Nice to hear from you again.”

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t have much time. I need to go on a walk with the family, but I can’t get this one idea out of my head. About what you were saying. About Marx.”

 

“Go ahead,” he said.

“As I understand it, Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to force meat-packing plants to stay open, and meat-packing workers to report for work, or lose their jobs.

Because god forbid America goes a week without eating all its cows, chickens and pigs.

But the workers are going to get sick, and they have, and they’re dying too.

 

 

These workers are lower class, and often Mexican or Central American immigrants, who are also demonized in our culture. Given the low status and wages of the jobs, how good will their health care coverage be?

(Or more likely, they won’t have employer health care at all, because surely some of them are part-time or contract workers.)

With the state of the economy, if the workers choose not to work, they might not have food or a home, and if they do work, they might get sick and die.

And because we live in a country without a robust, free public health system, if these people get sick, and don’t have the right insurance, they might go bankrupt.”

“Yes,” Ivan said.

“All so the higher classes can get their meat,” I continued.

“And don’t forget, these plants are also factories of death, assembly lines that kill and dismember live creatures. And the entire industry is also one of the largest drivers of Climate Change.”

“Yes,” he said, “all true.”

“Then I learned in Reuters that China actually owns the largest pork processing company in the US, Smithfield, and that some of the meat processed in the factories, which are being forced open by Donald Trump, is being exported, while American grocery stores are rationing meat.

“That’s Marx,” I told Ivan. “As much as I’ve teased you all these years for calling yourself a Marxist in the 21st Century, what’s happening now is what he described.”

“Exactly,” he said. “The workers must be exploited, surplus value must be derived from them, for the owners to extract profit.”

“It’s a rigged game for the lower classes,” I said. “If they stay home, they don’t eat. If they go to work, they might get sick. If they get sick, they might die. Or if they don’t die, they may go bankrupt.”

“Yes,” said my friend. “That is true, and tragic. And it is what Karl Marx critiqued in the Capitalist system.”

And as to being a Mexican, Marxist Yankee fan…in the end, I apologized for teasing him all these years.

The world is infinitely complex, and one can be a Marxist, and a Yankee fan simultaneously.

(Or an American and an environmentalist.)

 

Part 2. The Book

 

By now, you likely know I published a book called “Extinction Party,” and I’ll be writing about that, in conjunction with the Amsterdam series, soon enough.

Today, though, I was actually inspired by the book I mentioned last week. The one that was really good, but too bleak for my mood.

(It was THAT book, and not my own, that inspired today’s column.)

Like the excellent Sheri Lynn Behr book I reviewed a month ago, this is also self-published, with a similar construction, and a suggestive cover.

The red/white checker pattern, askew, makes me think of restaurant tablecloths, or old recipe books, and the partial circle makes me think of a heat map of the world.

Looking again, now I see the outline of North America.

Open it up, and it’s called “Recipes for Disaster,” by Barbara Ciurej + Lindsay Lochman, an artist team from the Midwest.

Though they haven’t been in the column much before, (if ever,) I’ve been a huge admirer of their work for years.

Barbara and Lindsay do food based, studio, conceptual, still life constructions, using absurd humor, so you can see the connection.

(They showed me a nearly-finished version of this book at Filter Photo in September, so it is definitely not pandemic-response art, despite its timeliness.)

Open it up, and we see, for Chapter 1, what looks like an appropriated graphic poster, which has been partially redacted, of a family around a table. (Black rectangles over the eyes.)

It’s the lead to “Expunge Cake,” which references Trump’s early gambit of removing all Climate Change words, and the like, from government websites.

The cake, though, looks delicious. (Yes, I’m hungry, I’m writing before breakfast.)

Feedlot brownies, with all sorts of statistics about the cost of the cattle industry.

Crust, with a skeleton baked on what looks like desiccated Earth.

Profit Pies, Clearcut Roulade, Rainforest Flambé, all with rigorous statistics.

Can you see why I didn’t want to write about this last week?

It’s so in your face!

Frankly, I feel like some of my favorite work by the team is a bit more subtle, but this is not a subtle moment, is it?

Radioactive Tea Cakes, Extinction Cookies, this goes right for the jugular.

And since we’re all baking these days anyway, now you’ll have this stuck in your head while you’re doing it.

(You’re welcome.)

Bottom Line: Wicked, satirical recipe book about the end of the world

To purchase “Recipes with Disaster” 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: Now & Then

 

I read a great quote this morning.

By Alison Herman in The Ringer.

“Constant dread and anxiety do not pair well with creativity.”

She was writing about why “Mad Men” was gaining an extra following during the pandemic, as it was good enough art to distract, but not so dark in tone as to make one’s thoughts return to The Troubles.

(Hey Northern Irishfolk: May I please borrow the term temporarily to refer to now?)

As to the quote, I will tell you that it’s true.

But last week, I suggested you make art anyway, because it’s good for your psyche, and will help you feel better. (It will take your mind off The Troubles.)

If you take your camera with you on a walk, (of course you do, it’s your phone,) and then slow your pace a bit, on purpose, it might help you see the details that you miss, walking quickly on your daily route.

Maybe that’s what The Troubles are really about, on a metaphysical level?

At first, I called it The Pause, and maybe I will again.

I hoped that it would allow me the chance to slow down, assess my life, and get my house in order.

And in the last couple of weeks, it finally has. I’m feeling better, and going on lots of walks has really helped. (Shout out to Bryan Formhals.)

If you walk around your world, and slow down, what might you find?

Is it possible you’re living in Asia, and despite the enormous cliché we all imagine of Asian architecture, all you notice is the roots of colonialism?

Much like so many of us fetishize elements of Asian culture, maybe you can’t stop seeing what was left by the West?

Maybe this isn’t a hypothetical exercise?

This morning, needing something to write about, my wife handed me the latest book to come in, as my book stack was in my son’s closet, and he was sleeping.

It felt wrong to skip the line, but I knew the book she gave me was good, as I’d seen a preview.

It is excellent, and I’ll write about it another day, but it was bleak for my mood.

I set it down, and then my son woke up.

Rather than jumping the line, I reached into the stack, and pulled out something from April #2019. (All those #2019 submissions need to see the light of day! Free the books!)

What did I find?

Something from Chris Wong, sent from Asia, and wrapped well and tight.

The text on the cover, “Now & Then,” looked to be Chinese in origin, and I’m sure Chris told me about where he was from a year ago, but I don’t remember.

The Polaroid on the cover is a hint, but the block wall literally “blocks” any visual reference we might have.

Open it up, and we get the artist’s name again, the book’s title, and another Polaroid telling us look left, look right on a red brick wall.

Then, a succession of Polaroids.
One after another, featuring Western style, colonial architecture.

Reveling in the details.

Picture after picture, we see columns and arches.
Fancy corner after repeating motif.

And where are we?

It doesn’t say.

For some reason I think Macau, though it could be Hong Kong. At first, it’s mesmerizing, and the washed out colors make it look old.

Are they old?

When were they shot?

Then we see a tank, and shit gets real for a moment, but that’s the only sign of modernity or violence. (This is not a protest movement book.)

Just as I start to get a bit bored, (though the image sizes do change,) we see cathedrals, and the difference, the references to Christianity, snaps me back into my very-curious-mode.

We finish, and then in the bio page, we learn it is Hong Kong. Not sure why I imagined they were Portuguese buildings at first, having seen English architecture in person, but it proves even a pro like me can get fooled.

I get the sense this book is self published, and we learn that Chris is a commercial photographer in Hong Kong, specializing in Polaroid.

But this work is his personal vision for sure.

The image map at the end proves to be much more valuable than in most cases, as it is reveals the Now & Then concept. We learn what these colonial structures are used for now, (often in cultural capacities,) and what they were used for under the British.

Now and Then.

The world has been through many crazy times before, including plagues, and Alison Herman theorized that people were digging “Mad Men” again because seeing the 60’s onscreen, another batshit time, reminded people we made it through that, and we’ll make it through this too.

See you next week.

Bottom Line: Mesmerizing, British colonial architecture in Hong Kong

To purchase “Now & Then” 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: Make Art in Difficult Times

 

I have a confession to make.

I haven’t made photographs, as art, in more than two years.

(Well, until the other day, but that was as a favor to my wife, so it doesn’t count.)

I haven’t made art with a camera in more than two years, and those pictures were crap. The tail end of my Party City series, and none of the 2018 images made the final cut.

Which means, as an art photographer, I haven’t engaged my craft for the longest phase of my adult life.

I’ve made editorial images for you, here in the column, but as a conceptual, studio based artist, it’s not the same thing.

How do I reconcile this?

Well, the way I learned about art, (and the way I teach it,) is that all avenues of creative expression are equally valid. It was assumed that most, if not all artists, would have multiple outlets in their creative practice.

So the idea that one was inherently better than another, or more noble, was never ingrained in my mind.

That I made photographs for my first twenty years as an artist does not have to be relevant to what I’m doing now, or next.

In #2019, I made installations in a museum exhibition, and worked on a set of pencil drawings, based upon portrait jpegs I took from the internet.

That was way out of my comfort zone. And I made a book.

Now, in #2020, I’m leaning into this column, because it’s a stable foundation in an unstable world.

Yet the camera has not called to me.

But like I said, photography isn’t the only way to express ideas, it’s only one of many. (I recently surprised someone on FB by proclaiming her banana bread counted as art.)

I’ve been teaching a long time, so much so that there were certain crutches I leaned on, year in year out, when I taught at UNM-Taos for 11 years.

For teaching composition, for explaining the flow of visual information in a rectangle, I always used the same book: Hokusai and Hiroshige.

That’s right: I taught the crucial element of photography by deconstructing Japanese 19th Century woodblock prints.

Year in year out, this book delivered the goods, as it features Hokusai’s famed “Thirty Six Views of Mt Fuji,” and Hiroshige’s “Fifty Six Stations on the Tokaido Road.”

If we dated it, I suppose the camera was invented in a couple of spots in Europe, with some overlap to this time period, but on the ground, printmaking was the way visual information was recorded in 19th C Japan.

And its mass production allowed the images to be collected by regular people, much like the 17th C Dutch middle class spawned so many great paintings.

I wanted to share the book with you today, because the serene colors, all sorts of blue, and then the snow scenes, white on white, are a visual gift from the past.

Why do I love them so, beyond the color, and the constant change of perspective?

Beyond the curvilinear water, the slope of Mt Fuji, and the ochre contrasts to all that blue?

It’s because this book represents a place in time so deeply, with the clothing and the postures and the boats and the hats.

This is what we have of then.
As in so many other cases, the art becomes the history.

 

Which brings me back to #2020.
To now.

I may not be making art photographs, (other than the other day as a favor,) and maybe you’re not either.

Maybe you’re drawing, or painting, or bread baking or dancing or gardening or yodeling or playing French horn or practicing your French. (Bonjour, je n’aime pas le yodeling.)

Or maybe you are making photographs?

Maybe you’re pushing yourself?

Maybe you’re making your best work, or are about to? Maybe all the frustration you feel, the anger, the anxiety, is going to spring up as something dynamic and meaningful?

I’m asking, because last night, I saw some new work from my friend, and former student, Andy Richter, during an online critique I set up for the alumni and expected attendees of our Antidote Photo Retreat. (Andy was the 2019 Antidote Fellow, as he came out to run a morning Kundalini yoga program for us, along the acequia.)

During our group crit last summer, I pushed him to go beneath the surface. He was showing some aura portraits, with strong colors, were perhaps more style than substance.

As an artist, I thought he had more digging to do, and I told him so.

So that’s the context for understanding why I was so happy for Andy, seeing his new series, currently titled “Walking with Julien,” which received Minnesota public funding for an exhibition in Spring 2021.

All the images were taken on walks with his young son, around his diverse Northeast Minneapolis neighborhood, (he’s originally from MN,) and everyone on the Zoom call, including an important museum curator, was blown away by the work.

The portraits, in particular.

Andy confirmed that certain aspects of fatherhood were tough, as it constrained the freedom to which he was accustomed. (This is a guy who photographs hermits deep in caves in India.)

And now, even worse, like the rest of us, he was literally stuck at home. With his neighborhood as his unexpected muse.

He admitted, as many artists have before him, that the combination of inner necessity and logistical constraints has perhaps forced him to see more deeply.

Are these meditation walks?
Does it matter what we call them?

So I wanted to share the story, and some of the pictures, with you here today. And Andy was gracious enough to agree.

Some days, maybe some times every day, things might seem grim.

Certainly, I never thought I’d long for the insanity of #2019, but here we are.

Please remember, art is best at times like these. It helps your psyche, day to day, and it records the moment for the future.

Stay safe, and see you next week.

This Week in Photography: Drowning in Noise

 

May you live in interesting times.

It’s an old adage, a thing people say, or at least it seems that way.

Maybe it’s a curse?

I think the opposite is likely true, and that periods of calm, (in the world beyond my mini-alligator-filled moat,) are relatively rare.

For every brief Pax Americana, (Post WWII,) there are a thousand Hundred Years Wars. And if plagues come around every 100 years, then many (if not most) people will live through one too.

In the early days of our COVID-19 pandemic, someone asked me if I’d ever seen anything quite like this before.

I had to answer honestly, and said “No.”

“However,” I followed up, “I have seen bits of this that add up to Frankenstein’s monster. If you throw in one part 70’s gas lines, add 9/11 with a dash of the Great Recession, and then chuck in the AIDS epidemic and some SARS/Ebola fear.”

Now, I’m the first to admit, that’s one hell of a witches brew, and I’d prefer we had avoided this mess entirely. But we can’t take the pangolin out of the stomach that ate it, any more than we can seal the virus up behind a brick wall and leave it to rot.

(I had no intention of dropping all these horror references today, but as I’ve told you before, the creativity is the boss, and I’m the vessel.)

A month + into the situation, and the comparisons are to The Great Depression, but I’m not sure if that’s how this will go. (Time will tell.)

Businesses didn’t go out of business, en masse, they were closed for a public health emergency. And as awful as some people have it, financially, there are resources being thrown at the problem: unemployment payments, $1200 IRS checks, small business loans, freelancer grants.

(Not enough, I know.)

There exists at least the possibility of this being a recession that ends gradually, (rather than a lengthy depression,) as most businesses re-open.

Will some not re-open? Will some people go out of business because of this virus economy?

Yes. Definitely.

But I went of business, with my commercial digital studio here in Taos in 2010, because of the Great Recession. And it was the best thing that could have happened, (eventually,) as I shifted my intellectual resources to writing and building my art and teaching careers, all of which have paid off.

Would I have predicted how gig economy that would be? 3 side hustles making one creative living?

Of course not. I hadn’t heard of the gig economy in 2010 because it didn’t exist yet.

Do you catch my drift?

People can’t tell you what comes next, not even the great Dr. Fauci, because no one knows. (Speaking of Italian-Americans, I never knew, nor knew of NY sports photographer Anthony Cauci, who passed away from the virus, but it sounds like he was an amazing guy. Here’s a link to the Go Fund Me page for his family.)

Sorry. Where was I?

This is new ground on which we’re walking, yet it has also been trod by other humans in the past, be it Spanish Flu, Bubonic Plague or Trumpsanity. (Yes, I made that last one up.)

Speaking of Trump, I’ve avoided criticizing him the last month or two, waiting to see if there was any chance he miraculously became a different person because of this crisis.

I remember doing that with W Bush too, after 9/11, when he courageously said nice things defending Muslim Americans. But his general incompetence won the day, leading to two wars, and the aforementioned Great Recession.

So I gave Trump the benefit of the doubt, but numbers don’t lie. The United States of America has lead the world in the number of cases, as a significant anti-science cohort holds sway here.

Tens of thousands of vulnerable people, sick and old, people of color in particular, are dying, and at this point, it would be unconscionable not to point the finger at the federal government, for America’s lack of preparedness.

These days, people want the truth more than anything. They want things to make sense. They want to trust that higher authorities know how to handle this, and that a smart, cogent response will allow the world to move forward.

That’s what people want.

But what they get is a lot of noise.

Trump’s still name-calling on Twitter, like he always has, and now angry hordes in MAGA hats are storming the castles?

Some preacher insisted on keeping his church open and then he died?

The virus is caused by 5G poles, or can be prevented by smoking, or it came from a lab in Wuhan, or Facebook let 40 million misleading posts go through, or Ozzy Osborne bit the head off an infected bat at a party in Florida and started the whole thing there. (I made the last one up, but if somehow it could all be Florida’s fault, that would be apropos.)

Just when we want things to make sense the most, they make sense the least.

We want a Hardy Boys novel, with its satisfying conclusion, and instead we get a fucking Zen koan.

(Welcome to #2020.)

So when I went to my book pile today, I reached again for something I knew to be old. It was a bit unfair to people who submitted books in Spring 2019, as I’d been reviewing books each week forever.

But then Rob and I agreed to try the travel writing, and few books were perused until late last year.

Anything I pull from Spring 2019, by its nature, cannot be made directly for this moment. In fact, when this book arrived, I’d barely begun working on my own book, and I put so many things I’ve learned here into making mine.

If all goes well, today, “Extinction Party” is being featured in the Washington Post, in their In Sight blog, and I was asked to write the article myself. (One of the biggest honors of my career, by far.)

I’ll be telling you plenty about the making of my book, as it’s a big part of the Amsterdam travel series, and I want to share the knowledge I accrued.

Foremost in my bookmaking decisions, as you might expect, was when to give contextual information, and how much to give.

I write about that all the time here. Second big move? Making sure there were connections between images, and sets of images. (My editor, Jennifer Yoffy, was brilliant at building the spine that way.)

Essays at the start, not too long, and titles on each page, to give context throughout. It’s ten years of my work, in different projects that we brought together in rhythm, with intention.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I pulled a box from Radius Books, down the way in Santa Fe, as they’re among the best photo book publishers in the world.

Quality wise.

(I also know they have a strong Arizona slant with some of their artists, like Mike Lundgren and David Taylor.)

It was an unsolicited submission, so I had no idea what was inside, but I was hooked by the cover for sure.

It was “Signal Noise,” by Arizona artist Aaron Rothman, published in 2018 by Radius.

First thought?

Great cover.
No doubt.

And for everyone who says “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” I say bullshit. A great cover is a necessity for a great book.

This, despite its great cover, is not a great book.

At least, not by my standards.

(Though I expect the artist, his dealers and collectors, and the publisher probably give it a 10/10.)

Open it up, and turn the pages.

You see straight landscape images, in the harsh Arizona desert sun, and then some are triptychs. It’s like an anti-aesthetic Cezanne, the repetition with slight changes.

Then landscapes turn digital, and manipulations are obvious.

What is the deal?

There are no words to explain.

More digital effects, like solarizing, and things bounce and weave between styles.

What does it mean?
What is the connection?

You know I treat books like a detective, and as a book maker, I gave all the clues.

This denied me all clues.

Then a series of beautiful blue sky shots, like Richard Misrach, one of the biggest inspirations of the Arizona crew.

Overall, I like the colors, and the noise pictures, when they come, look like digital camera noise. (Hence the book’s title.)

I fell and hit my head last week, (I’m OK,) and have had headaches all week. I’ve also written here, before, of headache art.

This is a headache-inducing book, because trying to figure it out is pointless.

I know this, because the text, in the back, admits it’s a jumble of different projects, made over ten years. (Like mine.)

But it’s designed not to make sense.

At least until the end.

They add a visual map at the finish, alluding to exhibition print sizes, making sure people get that these are big pieces seen on the wall.

As a mini catalog raisonne, I think it’s a hit. (That’s why I said earlier the dealers/collectors would love it.)

And I must admit they do clear up the confusion at the end, with an essay and artist interview, which are meant to answer questions that were up-until-then unanswerable.

This book is the koan for the moment.

The signal and the noise.

So #2020.

Bottom Line: Well-crafted book of several art projects, confusing in its narrative

To purchase “Signal Noise” 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: Surveillance is Everywhere

 

Each week, I write about what’s happening in my life.

And in the wider world around me.

It’s the way of the columnist, and as you know, I’ve been doing it a while. (Is my constant humblebrag about the length of my APE tenure a running joke yet?)

But at times like these, it’s much less fun to write about what transpires outside my moat and gates.

(In case you’re wondering, my moat is stocked with mini-alligators. And they have huge appetites! Stay back, motherfuckers!)

I’m making myself laugh right now, sitting cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom, with the fan on for white noise.

Like many work-from-homers, I used to have the run of the place, five days a week, while my wife was at work and the kids at school, but no longer.

We’ve all been together for a month now, and I must say, we’re holding up pretty well, mentally. (Though we do have a lot of space, this being rural New Mexico.)

So I’m sitting here, alone, unobserved. The shades are drawn, and I have total privacy.

Right?

But what about the webcam on my computer, which I have not taped over?

Is it possible someone’s hijacked it, and they’re watching me? (If so, should I put on proper pants?)

Now I’m staring directly into the camera, (and not at the words typed on the screen,) but with autocorrect, I think I’m doing OK.

Could someone be watching me through my own computer?

A hacker?
Facebook?
Amazon?

Am I OK with it, knowing this COULD be happening, even though I know it’s unlikely?

(Pause.)

I don’t know if I’m OK with it, but I would say I accept the machines are watching us, and the algorithms are processing what the machines are watching.

In China, the level of surveillance they’ve created meant the government could threaten to kill you if you inappropriately interrupted medical workings during their quarantine.

In America, we can barely seem to organize a block party at the national level right now, so I don’t think our algorithms are tracking Uncle Wilbur when he takes the family truck out for a joyride in Northwest Nebraska on a fine Spring Sunday afternoon.

And… Scene:

Aunt Martha: Wilbur, what in the hell do you think you’re doing? You know you’re supposed to be staying at home like the rest of us.

Uncle Wilbur: Martha, you stay out of it, you hear.

AM: What do you mean stay out of it? I live with you, you hardheaded boar! How am I supposed to stay out it? Your germs are my germs.

UW: Well, I’m not going to get any germs. I’m just going out for a ride is all. I need to clear my head. What’s it to you, anyway?

AM: You mean you’re not gonna stop anywhere? No talking to people? No getting in anyone’s space? You are 73 years old, and I see this as an unnecessary risk is all.

UW: Well, thank you for speaking your peace, Mother. I’m going to ride for ten miles, no more, and I won’t even roll down the window more than three inches.

You have my word.

And… Scene.

So that’s how Uncle Wilbur ended up out on the highway. Where it was quiet.

And he was unobserved.

As to the rest of us, surveillance is real. Online and in the physical world.

(Someone is always watching.)

I’m thinking on the subject because I’ve just finished looking at Sheri Lynn Behr’s excellent “Be Seeing You,” a self-published book that turned up in the mail in Spring 2019, just after I took a break from writing about photo books.

Thankfully, the art gods have been kind to us again, as I think this is the perfect time to see this book, in current context.

It’s very well thought-out, in terms of pacing, how much information it gives, and when it gives it.

As I’m always recommending you think about such things, when you make your book, I wanted to highlight the strength here.

From the title, cover, and first four images or so, you know what this book is about, (surveillance) and that there will likely be a mix of photographic styles within.

There are text interruptions, with some black graphic accents against stark white, and the first says “The more we see, the less we pay attention.”

Meaning, the more information that floods our brain, the less any one detail is ever likely to pop out. (Small needle, big haystack.)

The next image is from the outside staircase at the Broad building at LACMA, in LA. (It was once new, but now I’m not even sure if it’s still a part of the newest masterplan there? Does anyone know?)

Of course I’ve been there, and never saw the cameras watching me, as I’ve been to certain places from the book like NYC, of course, or Padding Station in London.

I’ve also watched “Luther,” and “The Simpsons,” and both are featured, as one subset of photographs seems to be the representation of surveillance culture on TV screens.

Those pictures are melded with documentary images of cameras out in the culture, and then pictures of real people in the real world as well.

There’s a menace in this book that shows Sheri takes this subject personally, where I guess I’ve been rather lazy about caring before.

Now that there are real news stories about tracking people by their antibodies, of course the world has grown much closer to seeing things Sheri’s way.

I’m using her first name casually, as she and I have met at festivals many times over the years. I’ve published her stuff here before, but also been critical of it at the review table, as she well knows.

I love that this book closes with a description of the various projects, just so people know what they saw. And then an Edward Snowden tweet, and a selfie in a mirror-dome.

This one’s really strong.

But I’m creeped out now, and maybe it’s time to tape over the webcam?

Bottom Line: Killer, self-published gem about 21C surveillance

To purchase “Be Seeing You” 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 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 Siena 

To purchase “Purtroppo Ti Amo,” 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: 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 cliché, “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 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: “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 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: 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 here