This Week in Photography: The Power of Tradition

 

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

Yukari Chikura, 2020

 

 

I used to work for Bobby Flay.

A long time ago.

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

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

Photo: Getty Images, Carmen Lopez and AJ Wilhelm

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I’m not hating on the USA.

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

Of tradition.

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

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

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

Why am I on about tradition today?

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

I’m glad you asked.

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

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

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

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

 

“one dollar’s worth of Shurfine flour”

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Context delivered.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Great Wave”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better man.

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

To purchase “Zaido” click here 

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

This Week in Photography: The Power of Art

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

 

Hope.

Such a powerful four-letter word.

[ED note: I swear I wrote this before Hope Hicks and Donald Trump tested positive for the Coronavirus.]

As a long-time cultural critic, who discusses American politics and global themes, of course things have been a bit dark here lately.

How could they not be?

Given the colossal shit-show that was the Trump-Biden debate on Tuesday night, and the foul mood it put me into when I woke up yesterday, you’d be right to assume that this column, written the next day, would be pessimistic and fraught.

 

 

It would be the obvious move, what with Trump telling the Proud Boys to stand by, like his personal white nationalist army.

Normally, I’d lean into that.

Right?

Well, we all get tired of Doom and Gloom, and frankly, I had the most amazing, life-affirming experience yesterday.

It represented pretty much the best that humanity, and art in particular, has to offer.

So I’m going to write about it for you now.

(No frantic fear today, thankfully.)

We’re going positive, courtesy of some inspiring artists from America, England, France and Germany.

 

Part 2. The backstory

 

As you might imagine, writing about photo books as I do, I get a lot of emails from publishers and press agents.

It’s literally part of the job.

Every now and again, one such person begins to seem like a whole, fully realized human, not just an email signature at the bottom of a piece of business.

In this case, I’m thinking of Liv Constable-Maxwell, who does press for MACK, the highly successful, independent photo-book publisher based in London.

The truth is, I’ve been doing this column long enough that I actually interviewed Michael Mack, the titular publisher, on a trip to London back in 2012.

He gave me some great advice about photo books having the potential to be art objects, (when they’re done right,) and I’ve quoted him on that many times, even though we never spoke again.

(I turned up at the MACK offices sweaty and late, which was not my finest hour. Sprinting around Tottenham Court Road, looking for an office building without knowing where you’re going, will give the stress sweats to anyone.)

But I’m getting off topic with an unnecessary diversion.

The point is, Liv seems proper cool, and in our back and forth communication about the MACK fall offerings, she invited me to a new-school, hybridized, online event that could only exist in Covid-reality. (Though it was intended to be IRL, and some of the planners actually met on the day before the world shut down.)

 

The gist is this: SFMOMA had an exhibition last year, (in San Francisco,) featuring a set of polaroids of a man dressed in drag.

They represented a persona, April Dawn Alison, who was adopted by a Bronx-born, Oakland-based commercial photographer named Alan Schaefer.

Like Vivian Maier, he lived and died unknown as an artist, and when the museum was offered a look at his posthumous archive, which featured more than 9200 prints, they jumped at the chance.

 

The curator, Erin O’Toole, (whom I once interviewed for the NYT,) put together a show built around the multiple mini-series that April shot, and then did a book on the project with MACK as well.

(So far, it makes sense, as museum shows are turned into books all the time.)

From there, though, things get perfectly #2020.

Michael Mack showed the book to Robert Raths, the German-born, London-based head of Erased Tapes, an East London recording label, and he showed it to Douglas Dare, a young, gay singer in his roster. (Who also dresses in drag.)

As a result, Douglas wrote three original songs based on the photographs, and yesterday, MACK and its partners put on a live-streamed concert, including a panel discussion, in which Douglas Dare debuted the music to a global audience following along on Zoom.

Which thankfully included me and my 8 year old daughter, who loves to sing and dance, in addition to play the keyboard, strum the ukulele, paint, draw, take pictures and sculpt.

 

by Amelie Blaustein

(What else is a kid going to do in lockdown?)

Watching the performance, with her on my lap, was one of the best hours I’ve spent this year, and in a world devoid of much creative interaction, (IRL,) this was the next best thing for sure.

 

Part 3: The performance

 

I know that Liv played a big part in producing the event, which she said took a year to pull off, which was also partly led by Claudine Boeglin, a French creative director who was on the panel with Michael Mack and Robert Raths.

The sat together, maskless, while Douglas Dare was off to the left at a piano, and Erin O’Toole Zoomed in from SF.

(Liv later sent me this behind-the-scenes image of everyone masked up beforehand. I imagine the panelists might have had Covid tests?)

Courtesy of Liv Constable-Maxwell

 

I admit I haven’t seen live music in a while, and once wrote of acting like a drunk donkey at a Mississippi Hill Country Blues show in New Orleans, so one might say I was primed for something like this.

But the first song, “April” sent chills down my spine, it was so good.

I hadn’t heard Douglas Dare’s music before, but it was immediately engaging, and, frankly, perfect.

 

I made some quick videos of the screen, which I’ll be able to share with you via Youtube, and by the end of the song, Amelie was singing along, which I also captured. (She launched into “Who Let The Dogs Out” at the end, which I later learned was because she had just seen “Trolls World Tour”.)

 

There were interview segments in between, and Douglas said he tried to only go on what he saw in the pictures, and not to make too many assumptions.

“I love writing songs that are stories,” he said. “Getting a picture and then writing the songs feeds my creativity completely. Having the restriction allows you to play a lot with it. With April, there’s so little to go on.”

Erin O’Toole picked up on that thought, in her brief comments. There was no set of instructions left behind with the archive, so she had to make her own moral, ethical, and curatorial decisions about “what it means to show pictures that were once private.”

“The consensus was there was so much they offered to people who were living, who could benefit from seeing the pictures,” she said. “They cried out to be seen. What Douglas has done has reinforced that for me. If we hadn’t put these pictures out into the world, he wouldn’t have made these beautiful songs.”

The second song, “Your Face is Her’s,” was equally compelling, and the way the producers interspersed April Dawn Alison’s images with the concert was super-rad.

 

It amped up the emotional connection to both artists, as well as the bond between them, one living and one dead.

“She’s become an angel in my mind…and I wanted to do her justice,” Douglas said.

Speaking of the word bond, as some of the images featured symbols of bondage, my daughter asked, of April, “Did he get arrested?”

“No,” I said.

“Then what’s with the handcuffs” she replied?

Ever attuned to shock value, when I asked her at the end what she thought of the April Dawn Alison project, she said, “I thought, stop talking about this guy. So he dresses like a woman. So what? It’s not like he’s nude or anything.”

“Is that what you actually thought, or are you just trying to be funny,” I asked?

“Both,” she said.

 

Part 4. The Big Ideas

 

You know by now that I love linking columns together, and it was only two weeks ago that I discussed the male gaze, and the impact that it has on women, even at a young age.

So the above quote by my 8 year old daughter is telling, as she would have found nudity, by a man dressed as a woman, to be a whole other story entirely.

And the question also came up in the Q&A, when someone asked what the panel thought might have influenced Alan Schaefer the most, when he became April?

Erin O’Toole answered she thought it was “based on the kinds of images of women that Schaefer would have absorbed as person living in the US at that time. Images types you would see in noir films, or advertisements in magazines. He was mimicking visual tropes about women that were in the media.”

That her words were beamed from San Francisco, through London, and back to New Mexico via a vast array of undersea cables and internet routers, was never lost on me.

The whole hour was simply riveting.

Douglas Dare sang a final new song, “Camera” which was also terrific, before he ended with a previously recorded song that reminded me a bit too much of Radiohead.

 

And there was another question in the Q & A that really turned up the inspiration juice, (by asking how Mack and Raths made their creative choices,) as Robert Raths offered up some really great advice about his practice, which I think applies to us all.

 

“I believe in flow,” he said. “I believe in the natural power that guides my hand and my mind. I’m curious. I try to do as little as possible. I try to observe.”

“To not get involved too much, only when it’s needed. I’m really fine with that. But sometimes it’s really hard work to do almost nothing.”

He continued by saying “when I come across a project or idea, I try to make it as approachable as possible for as many minds.”

Michael Mack challenged him, by stating there was nothing “mainstream” about his record label artists.

“I try to guide people to the subject matter in the most effortless way,” Raths elaborated. “I always go with how my mind works. With what gets my attention. How much information do I need to get curious about something?”

When it was Michael Mack’s turn to answer, he said that he was often asked if he wanted to be more commercial, and his answer was, “I have absolutely no interest in that. It’s almost a luxury to maintain a focus that is on the specific things that interest me. Not to choose things for other reasons.”

“It almost sounds selfish. But that’s true. It’s what I think I can contribute to because I think it’s valid.”

Robert Raths concluded by extrapolating out of his own role, to ours, the audience.

“We all have talents,” he said. “There is no difference between the performer and the listener. Listening is a talent. Being in the moment and being intuitive is very important.

People don’t give themselves time to.”

So that’s where we’ll end today, in this column I couldn’t have dreamed I’d write when I woke up yesterday.

Yes, things are scary right now.

Yes, we don’t know what comes next.

But as I’ve exhorted you many times during the last 6.5 months of chaos and quarantine, get out there and make things. Share your thoughts with the world through your art.

And don’t forget to make time to listen, watch, and think as well.

The quiet can be a powerful teacher.

This Week in Photography: The Rise of Fascism?

 

Part 1. The Intro

 

I was doom-scrolling before bed last night.

(Never a good idea.)

It was hard to look away from the computer screen, with lots of posts and articles about President Trump refusing to state that he’ll honor the results of the election.

In one way, it’s nothing new, as he equivocated in that famous 2016 debate I wrote about, as I watched in what was essentially a party at the Hammer Museum in LA.

But this felt different, for sure.

Here we are, six weeks from the election, and in addition to his attacks on mail-in voting during a pandemic, and insistence on stacking the Supreme Court for a generation, he’s now implying that he won’t leave office if he doesn’t like or trust the result.

This feels like a potential extinction-level event for American Democracy.

RED ALERT!

Get your fucking head in the game, people.

Or maybe it isn’t?

Maybe he’s just trolling all of us, talking shit, trying to distract (again) from the 200,000 dead, and his terrible poll numbers in swing states.

As I was explaining to my daughter last week, this is a man who’s biggest job, before becoming President, was saying “You’re Fired,” in a dramatic Queens accent, for reality television viewers.

 

 

 

He thrives on playing the heel so much, for winding up the educated liberals, the coastal elites, that the line between reality and fantasy is so blurred, even a resolute cultural critic like me is totally confused.

Is he really threatening Civil War, or the dawn of Trumpian dictatorship?

Or is he saying this shit because he knows how much we’re afraid of that, and he likes fucking with our heads?

Honestly, I don’t know.

But it’s caused me to question my relationship to this country, and turned our flag into an object that can send chills down my spine, rather than evoke pride at all times.

(Meaning, as a young child in the 70’s and 80’s, I was happy to see the flag, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I had no irony about it in any way.)

For example, in addition to the scary camerawork at the RNC, (which I wrote about once already,) I was watching an MMA fight on ESPN+ the other day, between a racist, bad-boy Florida-based white guy, and an African-American fighter from Ferguson, MO. (Who’d previously appeared with Sly Stallone in an action film.)

Courtesy of NBC News

 

It was Colby Covington against Tyron Woodley.

I didn’t know much about the backstory, but I’d heard Covington was an asshole, and these guys didn’t like each other very much.

Unfortunately, Woodley, a former champ, is at the end of his career, so he didn’t put up much of a fight.

It ended in the 5th and final round, when Woodley appeared to quit, by tapping when he wasn’t in a submission hold, but apparently he broke his rib, and that was that.

Immediately thereafter, Covington wrapped himself in the American flag, (literally,) thanked the military and first responders, and took a call from Trump, which he put on speakerphone.

 

 

I later learned that they’re friends, (Covington and Trump,) that Eric and Don Jr had been ringside at one of his previous fights, and that Colby had trashed Brazilians, IN BRAZIL, for being “filthy animals.”

 

 

Racism at its finest, people, and that it was so associated with our flag made me feel really bad inside.

Is this just schtick?

Like the Iron Sheik, the pro wrestler back in the 80’s, only now the trolling enemy is an American?

Is he just doing it to get attention, like Conor McGregor, or is a major sports institution actively promoting MAGA, allowing the denigration of their Black fighters in real time? (England’s Leon Edwards certainly seemed to take exception.)

 

Who the hell knows what’s going on anymore?

 

Part 2. A Tough Week

 

It’s been a symbolic week, because I also saw “Jojo Rabbit,” the Nazi comedy directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi.

That’s right, I said Nazi comedy.

I was reluctant to watch it, because I couldn’t imagine such a concept landing, but it was a pretty smart film in many ways.

The casting and acting were spot on, because who doesn’t like Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, and Rebel Wilson?

 

It had cute, vulnerable kids, and Waititi plays Hitler in an over-the-top, absurdist way, as the young lead character’s imaginary best friend.

(So he’s not actually Hitler. He’s PRETEND Hitler.)

The point of the story, (even if the ending is not exactly happy,) is that when we get to know people, when they are humanized, it’s much harder to demonize them and put them in ovens.

Oh, I forgot to mention, I watched it with my kids.

My son is old enough for that sort of thing, but my 8 year old daughter didn’t really know about the Holocaust yet, so this was a strange introduction to the topic.

(We went with it.)

At one point, my son looked at me and asked, “I wonder if our ancestors would be OK with us laughing at Hitler?”

A very good question.

After I finished the film, I hit up Wikipedia, and learned that Waititi is half-Jewish, (or fully Jewish by the rules, as his mother is Jewish,) and his original last name was Cohen.

So this fits in with the contemporary tradition of people telling stories from within their own communities.

Still, a few days later, and I still don’t know what to think.

Is it OK to laugh at that kind of mega-tragedy?

Did the Germans have any idea, when Hitler was just an angry loud-mouth riling up right-wing kids to take to the streets, where things would end up?

Do we, 6 weeks out, know if America will be a functioning democracy in 2021?

 

Part 3. I Forgot the Trigger Warning

 

I should have warned you that today’s column would be heavy, but then again, how could it not be?

I was inspired by a set of photo-books that my friend Reto lent me a couple of weeks ago, as he knows I write about books for you each week. (Or most weeks anyway.)

Reto is from Switzerland, and recently told me he had some vintage German photo books, from the first half of the 20th Century, and they were fascinating for the quality of the reproductions.

That was the sum total of the build-up, and when he offered to drop them by, I said sure.

The next week, I was flipping through quickly, as he was due in 20 minutes to train Thai martial arts by our stream, and I stopped dead in my tracks when I came to the picture of a young Aryan soldier in front of the Nazi flag.

WTF!!!!!!

I kept flipping, and came to a super-scary image of a Zeppelin in the sky, with tall Nazi flags below, and then images of the Fuhrer himself.

At that point, I closed the cover, and saw the book was the annual from 1934.

I re-opened it, and sure enough, Hitler had written the book’s introduction.

The other two volumes were from 1928/29, and 1931, so I realized I’d looked out of order.

I started over, beginning at the beginning, and the first book actually has mostly innocuous, well-made, landscape, nature and people images.

It is the smallest of the three, (even though it covers two years,) and there are a few nudes thrown in as well. (Connecting to last week’s column.)

The graphic design of the camera and film company ads in the back is pretty great too.

 

By 1931, I imagine the series was more popular, as there are far more photos, and we see some images taken outside Germany as well.

Two caught my attention in particular, as they were of a young Saudi Arabian Jewish girl, swarthy, and in profile to exaggerate her nose, and an old Syrian Jewish man in Aleppo.

They are exoticized, for sure, but no Hitler in this book.

Though there are Bauhaus-style abstractions, and some more nudes.

I also noticed a few martial, sports images, as there are Jiu-Jitsu fighters included for the first time.

 

Finally, circling back to 1934, and it’s obvious the tone is now one of propaganda.

Lots of workers, and machinery.

And workers working with machinery.

People look happy, even the farmers, and then once you see the Nazi images, you can’t unsee them. (Plus, the pairing of pigs and women is pretty misogynistic.)

Reto offered to bring me more books from the set, as he said he has a ton of vintage photo books that his Dad collected, and I said sure, but I probably had enough of a view to write this column.

Oddly, in the 1934 book, there was an Alfred Eisenstaedt image taken of young soldiers or athletes training in the Mussolini forum, and I was surprised, because I imagined he was Jewish.

(There were no pictures of Jews in the 1934 edition.)

So I fired up Wikipedia again, and learned that Eisenstaedt was in fact Jewish, and fled to America in 1935.

This more or less represented the end of the line for him in his native country.

You can see how having all this in my head in one week is a bit much.

All we can do is hope for the best, I guess.

And vote like your life depends on it.

Because maybe it does?

This Week in Photography: Objectifying Women

 

I’ve been thinking about this column for a long time now.

(Six months, maybe eight.)

I even wrote it once, but then decided not to publish, as it didn’t feel right at the time.

Thankfully, today is the day, due to some unforeseen coincidence, or divine intervention, depending on your perspective.

It began two days ago, when I was scrolling through Instagram, and came across a photo of a very attractive, naked young woman, getting into a swimming pool. (Or something like that, it was a quick look.)

The image reminded me of something out of Playboy in the 80’s, and I was stupefied for a moment.

Doesn’t Instagram have rules against this sort of thing, I wondered?

I scrolled back to the photo, and clicked on the person’s profile, and lo and behold, there was an entire set of similar images.

Very pretty young women, naked, and shot in color by a white, male photographer who appeared to be in his 30’s or 40’s.

It didn’t conform to the stereotype of the leering, older man shooting black and white photos of nude women standing below big rocks, or leaning on trees suggestively.

No, this was more modern than that, and really, I couldn’t help wonder how this was deemed appropriate in #2020?

For all the media buzz around the shift in power dynamics, and the need to respect the perspectives of women and People of Color, it seemed so out of touch with contemporary reality.

So I did a Facebook post about it, without naming the artist, (as I’m not now, though I did reach out to him for comment, but he declined,) and not surprisingly the feedback was voluminous and fierce.

One artist, who does thoughtful nude work in black and white, suggested there was more nuance than simply deeming the entire practice off-limits, but in general, the tenor of the conversation was one of frustration, shock, not-shocked-at-all-but-angry, and cynicism.

How could any artist working today, one formed by the reality of the 21st Century, think it was OK to shoot pin-up soft-core porn and see it as art?

Much less post it on a public platform like Instagram?

So I went to his website, and there is a section for nudes, and a blog post about the ethics, that was written many years ago.

This was no random experiment, or so it would seem.

And speaking of random, and the potential of chance, part of why I waited so long to re-write this column was that I couldn’t find one of the two books I’m going to feature.

I had it once, decided not to review it, tried to review it with this companion book, and then it disappeared.

(My wife is known in our home for moving things around a few times a year.)

I wanted to write this column, and felt bad about losing the book, but I simply could not find it, no matter how many times I searched for the spine on my book shelves.

And then… on the same day I saw that Instagram image, I found myself looking down at a little Indonesian chest, upon which my wife had set a small pile of novels.

I noticed a book at the bottom, and it had one of those spines in which you can see the book binding, but there was no information at all.

Could it be, I wondered?

What are the chances?

Sure enough, I reached down in hope, and picked up Jordanna Kalman’s “Little Romances,” published by Daylight in 2019.

Hallelujah!

Eureka!

Fuck yeah!

We were in business, because it meant I could bring this column out in the perfect week.

The other book we’ll look at, “A Piece of Dust in the Great Sea of Matter,” was self-published by Melissa Borman in 2019, and both women wrote to me directly last year to see if I’d review their books.

These didn’t just show up in the mail because some PR Agent somewhere hoped I might cover them.

They chose me, and so I gave the books consideration, but each time, it didn’t feel quite right.

In each case, the taste level felt a touch off from what I like.

They were edgy, but not quite enough. Poetic, but in a heavy-handed way.

Imperfect, but not like an intentional extra thread on a Navajo rug.

(I subjected them to my “Goldilocks” standards, and they came up wanting.)

But then, I read an OP-Ed in the NYT by Brit Marling, the writer, director, and actor, (who starred in the Batshit-crazy Netflix series “The OA,”) and it got me thinking.

She discussed the idea that the Hero’s journey, basically the base-level operating code of all storytelling, was totally male-centric.

Which I get.

Thousands of years of men telling stories about men doing manly things.

So I asked myself, is my taste so male-centric, (given that I’m a man,) that I might occasionally have a blind spot to overtly female-centric work?

Even though I’m a feminist, and show female artists all the time?

I wrote this in a column, but as I said above, it wasn’t the right column for the right day, so I set it aside. (And promptly lost Jordanna’s book.)

At the time, I remember thinking the books were sensitive in a way that didn’t resonate with me. And as my parents used that as a pejorative term, to attack me, (“You’re too sensitive,”) I couldn’t get myself to figure out these books.

Eventually, I began to wonder, what if I’m not meant to get them, entirely?

What if by subverting the traditional, male-centric way of telling stories, or creating artistic narratives, there is that 5% that is designed for women?

If that were true, wouldn’t that be OK?

Or more than OK?

Maybe it’s even subversive?

So here we are.

It’s #2020, and white guys are still taking pictures of hot naked chicks, and posting them out and proud on a public platform.

Let’s get on with the subversion.

“Little Romances” features a series of images of nude pictures of the artist, (and her young daughter,) that were made by the artist herself.

Jordanna Kalman is taking back her own right to share her body, in her own way, on her own terms, because she wants to, and because she can.

Due to our long-standing policy against showing work considered NSFW, I’m going to limit how much I show of the full nudes. Even though, as I write this, I’m wondering how many people are even at “work” in the traditional sense?

There are images which are printed, and treated as sculptures, or covered with flowers, and then re-photographed.

They are well made, thoughtful, and dreamy, and I like them, but normally I want to love something.

Between the risk of showing a young naked child, and the hyper-poetic aesthetic, I still see why they’re not quite right, in my opinion.

But in this case, I don’t think my opinion is the ultimate arbiter, and the book has cleared my biggest threshold of making me want to write about it.

 

Melissa Borman’s book is similar in many ways.

She photographs women, in color, in relationship to the landscape. There is no nudity to speak of, but they scream “feminine” like a drum circle filled with Oprah Winfrey, Gwenyth Paltrow, and a class full of women’s studies majors at Smith.

I joke, (which is itself a risk in a column like this,) but the pictures will show you what I mean.

Interspersed are snippets of poetry by Sylvia Plath, and a set of graphic images that suggest the cosmos, (which are also depicted on the cover.)

With respect to empowerment, and creativity, and taking back the narrative, this book is pretty awesome, and of the moment.

I know what I’d do differently, if I were shooting these pictures, but again, the entire point is that I’m not.

These are photographs of women, by a woman, and on some level, it is pretty rad that I’m not the target audience.

They’re certainly accomplished, and smart, and I like the way the book was made.

 

As with Jordanna’s book, this makes me want to write.

It makes me want to punch someone in the nose, if that person thinks the objectification of women in the media is not a problem.

My 8 year old daughter grabs her belly, pressing together any extra fat, every time I tell her she has a beautiful, healthy body.

She’s 8, and already has body issues, because of the world we live in. (Maybe she’s watching too many perfect teens on Netflix?)

Regardless, I’m glad these issues are finally getting addressed, and that some attempt at balancing power is being made in the wider world.

For all the times I’ve written the equivalent of “Can’t we all just get along?,” once in a while, it’s important to also say, when the world isn’t fair, people need to do something about it.

To Purchase “Little Romances” click here

To Purchase “A Piece of Dust in the Great Sea of Matter” 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: Flowers for Donald

 

A friend of mine

 

A guy I know

A dude I hung out with in summer camp

A boy I traded baseball cards with in middle school

A human with whom I communicate via Facebook messenger

A person

A bro I liked back in the day

 

He remembers everything.

 

We have a long-running, ongoing chat with another summer camp friend, and we like to talk lots of shit.

About sports, mostly, and the assholes we went to camp with. But there are also memories bandied back and forth from middle school, as that was the last time we were proper friends.

(Like I said, this guy remembers everything, but I don’t.)

As often as not, he’ll bring something up from back then, and I won’t recall, but the other day, he was on about the Central Jersey Bar Mitzvah circuit, in #1987.

(No lie.)

He correctly recalled my 7th grade crush, over whom I made moon eyes all night long at my Bar Mitzvah, back in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on a Saturday night in March of ’87.

Her name was Jill, and she would go on to be the best looking girl in High School, but this was before that.

Before I was an artist.

Before I was a hipster.

Before I thought I was cool.

I’ve since learned that plenty of people wanted to be me, back then, with my athlete friends, good grades, and relative success in sports.

But I was jealous of my younger brother, who was better looking, more popular, and more talented at sports, so I never realized how good I had it.

But this guy, this friend of mine, (for lack of a better word,) has all of it in his mind.

The slights and dramas.
The petty jealousies and broken promises.

It seems as clear to him in #2020 as it was in #1999 or #1987.

Who needs Youtube or Instagram or TikTok or cocaine when you can simply fire up your memories, where everything is as clear as the Mediterranean Sea on a quiet beach on the Costa Brava.

I went there, to Cadaques, for my honeymoon back in 2004, and that I can remember.

I can conjure the taste of the garlic clams I ate, or feel the cool magic of the crystal water on my skin. I can see my wife’s body when she took her top off, sunning on a rock outcropping with no one around.

As to summer camp, or 7th grade, it’s all kind of fuzzy.

I do remember my Bar Mitzvah, though.

And the way Clarence Clemons, the brilliant saxophonist from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, turned up at brunch the next day, and how I gave him a supremely cheesy set of quasi-sunglasses that were designed to be a giveaway at the party.

That I remember.

The Bar Mitzvah circuit was a right of passage; running around in fancy shoes and ill-fitting suits. Chasing girls you’d never get. Hoping to steal a swig of beer from some drunk uncle.

That was #1987 all right.

But now it’s #2020, and my son is turning 13 in a few weeks.

He’s having his Bar Mitzvah too, but his will be in his grandparents’ backyard, due to the pandemic.

There will be no more than 15 people allowed, and everyone will be wearing masks.

No friends will be there, only family, and my Uncle from New Jersey will be flying out with my Aunt, only because it was his idea that Theo get trained in Judaism in the first place.

That, and because the Covid-19 test positivity rate is low enough in New Jersey that he’s actually allowed to visit to New Mexico, while people from most states in the US are forbidden from coming in without a two week quarantine.

Just like I’m not allowed to go to Cadaques, and swim in the Med, even if I could afford it.

We, the Americans, are banned from Europe.

 

Welcome to #2020.

 

Welcome to Donald Trump’s America.

But you knew this already, certainly if you’ve been reading here each week.

/

Or most weeks.

Or every now and again.

I have the pleasure of being one of our President’s earliest critics, and where has that gotten me?

Or us?

Did it stop anything, or make a difference?

Does it matter that by the time my son has his Bar Mitzvah ceremony, outdoors at a social distance, more than 200,000 Americans will have died from this novel new disease?

Did my words matter?

Will they last?

Birds are dropping dead here in my backyard, from the freezing cold that accompanied the earliest snow anyone can recall.

Just now, while typing, I saw a red-tailed hawk swoop in and chase down a pretty little bird, as they’ve been slowed by the freeze.

In California, it actually looks like the Apocalypse.

So I ask you again, did my words matter?

Does art matter, if it can’t change the future?

I don’t know, but I do know this: if museums survive, their job is to preserve what is made now, to represent it to future humans.

Or our Android overlords.

(I’m sorry, XGM876, I didn’t mean to insult your ancestry! Of course being flesh and blood is not desirable, and your ferocious artificial intelligence makes me a bug, compared to your radiance.)

Why did I write such a batshit column today?

I’m glad you asked.

Because I just put down “Flowers for donald and Countries Glorious,” a book by Gregory Eddi Jones, published by his platform, In the In-Between, in late 2018.

And it’s awesome.

Just like Lena Dunham once anointed herself the voice of her generation, I’d nominate Greg, who happens to be a friend.

I published his equally absurd, unsettling, and on the nose 26 Gas stations book after seeing it at Photolucida in 2019, and this one takes things a step further.

To begin with, it’s all about obfuscation, manipulation, digital reality, and distraction.

Pretty colors, painted flowers, and text you can feel but not read.

It goes at Trump directly, but also includes references to Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and such platforms in ways that are as authentic as Jeff Sessions’ Alabama accent.

Do you remember Jeff Sessions?

Mad Dog?

Or Anthony Scaramucci?

Do you remember #2016?

Or that there was a world before the coronavirus?

Before San Francisco skies turned orange?

Do you remember the stock market crash of #1987, when I lost most of my Bar Mitzvah money?

Did you know that my kind-of-friend, the one I mentioned at the beginning of this column, has many residences, including one in Northern California?

Yesterday, he sent a note asking me to help settle his estate, if he burns alive, and make sure a tennis court gets named after him in the local park in our hometown near the Jersey shore.

He was kidding, but maybe also not?

I’ve tried to make sense today, even though I pushed the limits of stream of consciousness, but what do you do when things don’t make sense for so long that you forget how to keep your train of thought for more than 3 minutes at a time?

Maybe you make pictures, instead of write words?

Or you take words and mix them up so they don’t make sense, no matter how hard a reader tries to parse them?

That’s how this book ends, and it’s pretty genius, even if it did make my head hurt.

The final essay is called “Countries Glorious,” and I thought maybe it was written by a bot.

By AI.

Because the words were real, and the context could be intuited, but nothing fit.

Turns out, I learned from the end notes that it was a jumble of Trump’s actual inauguration speech.

Back in #2016.

When his crowd was so much smaller than Obama’s.

Even though he said it wasn’t.

In honor of all the lies, I’ll leave you with one last thought.

Hey Kayleigh McEnany: Fuck off!

To purchase Flowers for Donald, 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: Time is Hell

 

My daughter is turning eight next week.

 

Right here, in this space, I wrote about when she was born.

I discussed changing her diapers.

I shared how it felt.

It was 2012, and Barack Obama was about to be re-elected President of the United States.

His opponent, Mitt Romney, represented the Republican Party. Now, he’s one of its foremost critics, from the inside, and President Obama, out of power nearly four years, unloaded on Donald Trump in the digital version of a Democratic Party convention.

My daughter and her brother just got their first pet: a mutt that we rescued from the animal shelter.

This morning, she asked if I’d write about the dog, and so I have. (Her name is Haley, she’s a blue heeler/pit bull mix, and we already love her dearly, after only two weeks.)

#2020 feels like a different century than 2012. A different millennium.

Perhaps a different timeline entirely?

But then again, “Space is paradise, time is hell.”

I read that just now, at the beginning of a super-impressive photobook, “Fordlandia 9,” by JM Ramírez-Suassi, from Madrid, published by NOW Photobooks, which turned up in the mail back in March.

I pulled the book from my stack this morning, knowing nothing about it, and my daughter spied me as I walked through the house with the cardboard box in tow.

She asked what I was going to do with the book, and I told her that I wrote about books for my work, and that sometimes I wrote about travel, but not now.

“Because you can’t travel?” she asked.

“Exactly,” I said.

But of course I can travel, in my mind.

A great photo book allows me, and all of us, to venture to far-flung parts of the world, in our imagination, if everything comes together just right.

Is time hell?

Was the quote correct?

I’m not sure I agree, but I do think time is experiential, and I’ve shared that thought with you before.

These days, people speak of Covid-time, and it’s generally accepted that #2020 feels like 10 years compressed into one.

And Einstein’s theory of relativity proves that time does change, relative to the speed of light, so why can’t it change relative to our perceptions as well?

While looking through this excellent book, time slowed down for me, and I lost track of where I was. Just as I write in flow, and forget where I am for a little while, this photobook took me out of my head, and out of my chair, and that was exactly what I needed today.

Honestly, I’m not sure if the artist is a man or a woman, given the name is comprised of initials, but I’ll check when I’m done writing and add it as a post-script, just so we know.

But I did break my traditional rule of no Googling while reviewing, and I’m glad I did. (We’ll get to that in a minute.)

I was impressed from the jump with “Fordlandia 9,” as the cover has a leather spine, and leather corners, which goes a long way towards making it look like a photo album. (At significant expense, I’d imagine.)

It opens with the aforementioned quote, and then unspools a narrative in a slow, luxurious manner.

I was immediately sucked in, because the reproductions are so good. (Immaculate, really.)

There are occasional vellum pages interwoven, which I also liked.

My first thought was this was a non-linear narrative, perhaps a collection of strong images that were not connected, as there is so little to go on.

Bit by bit, though, the story became clear.

First, there are hints of Portuguese, (rather than Spanish,) and a succession of jimmy-rigged objects that imply deep poverty, and the ingenuity that comes from having to make something out of nothing.

A leg-less chair tied and propped, so that it can be used as a seat.

A piece of cardboard fashioned to be sun protection.

Given the gritty texture and implication of humidity and poverty, I imagined it was set in Brazil, but that was only an educated guess, at first.

Then we see portraits, all of which depict serious people, perhaps a bit sad, but haunting in a way that we’ve seen before from images of residents of the “Third World.”

Muddy ground, gnarled trees, cars ensnared by growing vines.

The artist also weaves in just a few black and white images, which is tough to do, but works here as a repeating motif.

I use that term all the time, repeating motif, and then at one point, a subject is repeated, sitting in an old car, the first image in color, the second in black and white, but then there is a second man, a twin or look-alike brother, and it jarred me out of my reverie.

This book is so well thought out, and so well constructed.

Towards the end, we do see the Brazilian flag appear, and that’s the only legitimate tip-off of where we are, until the end notes.

Shortly thereafter, there is another piece of text, only the second after the opening quote, and it says “Matthew 15:13.”

That’s it.

Just a verse name.

So I felt compelled to break my no-Googling rule and look it up.

There are multiple translations, but the gist is this, “He replied, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots.'”

(The He in question being Jesus.)

The text is placed in between one image that might be a person walking into a hole in a giant tree, (or a cave,) and right before a picture of some bent-finger-like tree branches.

Of course I took it to mean that the Amazon is being de-forested at such a rapid rate, we might all fucking die in a decade or two.

Powerful, powerful stuff.

Finally, the end note tells us the photos were shot mainly in the states of Para, Amazonas and Mato Grosso, in 2017 and 2019.

I’m not sure I’ve ever learned so much from a book with so few words.

This one is brilliant, and now that I’m back from Brazil, and back in my comfortable chair, I’m thinking less about American politics, and more about appreciating the life I have.

And hoping the planet is healthy enough that my daughter gets to live to 88.

No promises.

(PS: The artist is male.)

To purchase “Fordlandia 9” 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: I Have A Dream

 

—“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children…

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone…

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., American hero, August 28th, 1963

 

—“At first I was self-conscious about photographing in these communities. What would the residents think of this white woman with a big camera photographing on their street, telling their story? But the people I met along the way calmed my fears. Although there were some exceptions, once they knew what I was doing, they were excited. The people I met were usually eager to point out things I should photograph and wanted to know when they’d be able to see the pictures.

Even though the residents I met seemed to accept me, I became acutely aware of the things I was choosing to photograph. What do my choices say about me? Am I recording a realistic picture of the communities? At several exhibitions of these photographs, people have been surprised to discover that I’m not African-American. That people don’t feel that these photos were made by an outsider is comforting to me.”

Susan Berger, photographic artist, 2019

 

Fifty-seven years ago this month, in the dog days of August, one of the most famous Americans of all time delivered one of the most famous speeches ever given.

You know it, and I know it as the “I Have A Dream” speech, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read it in its entirety before today.

(Maybe I have and forgot?)

I was a little surprised to realize that it was given only one hundred years after Abraham Lincoln freed America’s slaves, (in legal terms,) via the Emancipation Proclamation.

That’s only the lifetime of a very old person.

Not much at all, when you think about it.

And as a forty-six year old American, I’ve spent many hours wondering what the 60’s were really like?

Protests, drama, riots, assassinations, chaos, near-nuclear annihilation.

The division of my fellow citizens into hippies and squares. Pro-segregation assholes versus others who craved a country where people could at least attempt to live together, or eat together, or sit in the same section of a public bus.

 

Square-jawed 1960’s square, Don Draper

 

I wondered, at the time, did people feel like the world was unraveling? Did they know that the Civil Rights movement would make changes to our broken society, without healing all the wounds caused by slavery and systemic racism?

Did they fear that things might break completely, leaving us two nations instead of one?

Did anyone have confidence that the turmoil would lead to “better” days, or were all Americans sitting on the edge of their seats, unsure if things would ever get “better” again?

Now I no longer wonder.

We’ve passed the threshold of fifty years since the sixties, and one hundred and fifty-five years since the Emancipation Proclamation, and now all Americans know what it feels like to fear whether our country can withstand the fissures that threaten to implode our historical experiment.

China and India, the two burgeoning global super-powers, are both thousands of years old.

Like, five thousand years.

By comparison, the United States of America is an extremely young society, and one that was built upon lofty ideals, but rotten realities.

You may be tired of being reminded that the institution of slavery and the theft of Native American land allowed this nation to thrive, but it is an inescapable history.

Hell, in #2020, jerkoffs like Tom Cotton have the balls to suggest that slavery was a “necessary evil.”

(You can’t make that shit up.)

And I’ve felt the need to write several columns asking you, and all of us, to open our minds to the fact that people of all races and genders “should” be able to appreciate each other, respect each other, and value contributions from those people who don’t look and sound like us.

Yet most of my friends are white.

I try, and have tried, to bridge the cultural and racial divide with friendships, and sometimes it’s worked, and sometimes it hasn’t.

Some may find me naive for thinking that our commonalities should be as important, or occasionally more important, than our differences.

If Kanye West and Jared Kushner can be friends, and plot to take America back to when it was “Great” again, why can’t we?

But enough with the sermonizing.

You come for the photography reviews, and won’t stay if you feel like I’m preaching too much each week.

Perhaps you like it when I’m funny, or say fuck and shit all the time, or maybe you like that I weave politics, cultural criticism and a deep-rooted optimism together with a love of art?

(No matter. It’s time to get on with things.)

This column was inspired by a photo book by a white Jewish lady curious about African-American culture, and I even published some of the photos already, after reviewing them at Photo Nola in 2014.

(Back in the Obama era, when despite the promise of an end of racism, we were met with no such thing.)

This week, Obama’s second-in-command, a white man from Pennsylvania, synonymous with the tiny state of Delaware, offered his second-in-command position to a woman whose parents came from Jamaica and India.

A child of immigrants, reared in that great American melting pot of California, which is supposed to represent the best we have to offer. (In my opinion, anyway, and I’m not alone, which is why nearly 40 million people live there.)

Of course I’m rooting for Joe and Kamala, not just because I respect their politics, but because I genuinely believe that if Trump wins again, America might cease to be a democratic republic by 2024.

Like a person can only take so many whip lashes before dying, America can only handle so many sustained attacks on our democratic institutions before becoming an autocracy.

And while we can hope and dream of better days, no one knows what will happen in November of #2020, one hundred and fifty five years after the end of our Civil War.

Having said all that, today I’m showing photographs from Susan Berger’s book “Life and Soul: American Streets Honoring Martin Luther King,” which was published last year by Dark Spring Press, and turned up in the mail in May of #2020.

It’s a thoughtful and well-crafted book, and one that takes a couple of risks, but it’s perfect to show today.

To begin with, in our current cultural climate, the mere fact that it exists, that it was shot by a non-African-American, would make it uncomfortable to some.

I get that, and so does Susan, which is why she wrote about it head-on in her excellent opening essay. (Accompanied by another strong essay by Frank Gohlke, a photo world legend for being a part of the seminal “New Topographics” show back in the 70s.)

They’re both a part of the tight-knit and talented Arizona photo mafia, and the end notes tell us that Susan worked for Mr. Gohlke back in day.

The end notes also give us a break-down of all the trips that Susan took to photograph MLK streets around the country, between 2009-14, trying to build a representative, (if not categorical,) view of where these streets are located and what they contain.

Apparently, but not surprisingly, they are almost exclusively in urban, African-American neighborhoods, some of which have absorbed Latino populations, and ironically the entire project was inspired by the artist driving by a sign for an MLK street in the middle of rural America.

Of course, it wouldn’t be #2020 if I didn’t point out that the resources required to fly around for one’s art, and the cost of purchasing and providing film for a medium format camera are marks of privilege.

Now it’s been said.

And I do find flaw with the other risk taken here, which is the repeating motif of reprinting close-up crops of images throughout, opposite blank, black pages.

That said, it’s an excellent book, and between the murals, statues, local restaurants, churches, small food markets, bleak vibes, (again, in the Obama era,) and hotels named after Dr. King, it certainly presents a vision of poverty and decline.

I suspect that Dr. King would be disappointed to know that this deep into the 21st Century, things are still as bad as they are.

Access to education and health care is still so uneven.

And among the tens of thousands of dead in this god-awful pandemic, too many are people of color.

But I also suspect that he might not like the manner in which like-minded people of different races distrust each other, and attack each difference, rather than building upon our common values.

Maybe it was always thus?

I’ll end here on a message of hope, just so you don’t feel like overdosing on sleeping pills.

We always have the opportunity to learn from the past, and the future has not yet been written.

Though many Americans have bought into Trump’s politics of hate and division, there are nearly 330 million people living in this Great country of ours, and I believe that a majority, enough to win the next election, (despite the obvious cheating he’ll try to engender,) desire a country in which we we can, indeed, all get along.

(Or at least most of us.)

To purchase “Life and Soul” 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: Civil War Visions

 

My kids talk a lot.

 

It’s true.

And I’ve found that the older I get, the more I like quiet, though give me a few drinks at a party, and I’ll never shut up.

(A party? I wrote the word, but am now having trouble remembering what it might mean. Party? Sounds familiar, but like something from a pre-#2020 reality.)

So I like quiet, which can be hard to come by, and I also like to read my own column.

Occasionally, though, the two strands will overlap, and I’ll come to the point, reading the column back, where I can’t stand the sound of my own voice.

(In my head, as I’m reading it.)

I’m not talking about being crazy, or doing a full “Being John Malkovich” either. Rather, sometimes I write the column, and then it just doesn’t feel right.

On a handful of occasions over the years, I’ll write in flow, (as usual,) and then decide, when I’ve finished, that it’s crap.

I’ll be reading it back to myself and think, “Oh, just get on with it already, you old windbag.”

Or, maybe, “Gosh, could you be any more self-involved? Please, tell us more about yourself, or your kids.”

Now, if I’m being honest, this almost never happens, but it did today.

I wrote 1600 words, (over four parts,) and but it was all wrong.

Luckily, I’d grabbed an envelope from my submission pile before I got sidetracked by a different idea, and once I opened it up, I knew the book-reviewing-deities were smiling on me today.

Because it is literally perfect for the moment, (based upon what I’ve been writing about lately,) but it also allows me to stop talking, and let the pictures in the publication do the work.

Brandon Tauszik reached out to me early in lockdown, asking if he could send me a self-published ‘zine, and as I’d shown a digital project of his a bunch of years ago, so I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to check it out when the time was right.”

And that time is today.

It’s called “Pale Blue Dress,” and features some bright and sharp photographs of Civil War re-enactors in California.

There are so few photographs here, when most people would have wanted to show a book’s worth.

It’s brief, which makes it seem more like a poem than a novel.

We see Abe Lincoln, who’s been featured in the column a couple of times lately, and visions of a 19th Century war that, as I wrote just last week, still dominates the American cultural narrative in the 21st Century.

Photography records history, whether we like it or not, and in this case, it’s a record of people who like to recreate history, visually, for pretend.

It feels lighthearted, (like this column today,) but masks a much darker message.

In an essay at the end of the book, the Stanford historian James T. Campbell, PhD, writes,

“They are generous, even gentle images, devoid of irony or condescension, inviting not ridicule but curiosity about people whose commitments may differ from our own. In this polarized, perilous moment in the history of our democracy, this is an attitude worth cultivating. Societies that lose it sometimes fight civil wars in earnest.”

I often think that part of why history repeats itself is that once an event has receded from living memory, because no one is alive from when it happened, nor their direct descendants, then it becomes more likely to happen again.

No one outside of a few thousand truly insane individuals really wants another Civil War here, so let’s all do our best to put out good energy these next few months, and hope the national mood dials back from “11.”

Stay safe out there, and see you next week.

To purchase “Pale Blue Dress” click here

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

This Week in Photography: An 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.

https://twitter.com/FrankCaliendo/status/1283574741228347392

 

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.