You can say no.
I realize it’s unlikely.
I’d never heard of a duende either, until a group of my students told me all about them, around ten years ago.
It was my first year teaching in a new program at UNM-Taos, in which high-achieving high school students from around Northern New Mexico came to college on Fridays for free classes.
I’d been teaching teens in another program for several years, by that point, (all from Taos,) but with the new group, the conversations often veered to unfamiliar places.
To answer my opening question, duendes are mythical creatures, a cross between dwarves, elves and gnomes, that are meant to haunt and/or populate the mountains here at the edge of the former Spanish Empire in America.
I’m guessing it’s a part of a mythology common to other former Spanish colonies, but duendes were new to me.
Even stranger, all of the students in the class believed they were real.
I nodded along, first in curiosity, then in wonder, as the kids told me other ghost stories, and hard-to-fathom myths they all believed were true.
(If it were appropriate at the time, I probably would have said WTF, but it wasn’t, so I didn’t.)
My parents first brought me to Taos when I was 14, and though I lived here for short stretches when I was younger, it’s been nearly 16 years since we moved back in 2005, and I definitely feel like I understand the place.
Or rather, I understand parts of the culture well, and other elements will likely always remain a mystery.
In one of my last classes at UNM-Taos, before I left to start Antidote, I encouraged a young student to make a series about her husband, whose job was collecting firewood in the mountains.
He’d go up with a friend, chop trees, and haul the wood down, to sell during firewood season.
Most people have wood stoves here, (for obvious reasons, now that Texans have been without heat for days for lack of electricity,) and many-if-not-most of the local Hispanic and Native American folks harvest their own wood. But among the Anglo culture, many-if-not-most people buy wood, and having a wood guy who’s reliable is wise.
Most wood guys are older, grizzled, and big, but my student’s husband was about 21 at the time, and skinny as a twig, so it made for compelling imagery.
A few years ago, in order to help support their young family, I decided to give my wood business to Andre, who’s unfailingly nice, polite and punctual.
But this being the 21st Century, he’s also a good capitalist, raising his prices each year, and each month in the firewood season, to create artificial pressure to buy early.
Just this morning, on Facebook, (because like I said, it’s the 21st Century,) Andre posted about hunting down a bobcat with his dogs, and killing it in the mountains. There were photographs, of course, and I was shocked to see them.
(And it’s pretty hard to shock me in #2021.)
As an environmentalist of sorts, I stared at the photographs, unable to wrap my mind around the motivation for hunting and killing a gorgeous cat, far from humanity, that was likely causing no one any harm.
But I also realized that the culture surrounding this action, (as evidenced by the scores of likes on the post,) was still opaque to me, even after all these years.
People hunt because their fathers (or mothers,) teach them to hunt. It’s a bonding experience, and becomes ingrained in the memory as positive and exiting.
(The thrill of the chase, to which the post alludes.)
I don’t get it because I’m not meant to get it. I don’t need to get it. It’s not for me.
At some point, our allegiance to our culture, and our tribe, becomes so enmeshed in us that it perpetuates itself.
The myths, norms, and realities of a society are valued because they always have been.
And our cultural specificity is what creates a sense of place, a sense of differentiation, a sense of identity.
I might not believe in duendes, but that’s OK. Instead, I believe that some Jewish fighters hiding out during a war had magical candle oil that lasted for 8 days, which was a miracle, and now we get presents at Chanukah.
Just so we’re clear, I’m not trashing Andre for bagging that bobcat, though when I saw how gorgeous it was, I very much wished it weren’t dead.
I have a friend, Mike, who once told me he’d killed 8 mountain lions, and I hung on his very word as he described tracking one, so I know it gets the blood pumping. (He’d been hired to do it for a private ranch, so his kills weren’t for fun.)
But sometimes, elements of a culture are so crazy, so bizarre, as to seem made up.
Too strange to be real.
And today, we have the opportunity to see one such story, which was imagined, and then photographed, by the creative team of Carolina Dutca and Valentin Sidorenko in the Transnistria region of Moldova.
At the beginning of the year, I published a series by Laidric Stevenson, which I found online, and that kicked off a new subset of the column, as I’d never before shown work that I hadn’t seen on a wall, in a book, or at a portfolio review.
Coincidentally, a couple of weeks later, Carolina reached out to show me this project, “Apă,” and I totally loved it. (How could you not?)
During the covid year, the two artists teamed up with a local woman, Elena Nikolaevna, who made recycled rugs, and together they created the seemingly-real-but-completely-fabricated myth of the ancient Labyrinthodontia buccellatum, a creature living in the now-polluted Dniester River in Moldova.
The rugs look like lily pads, for sure, and the creature slinks through the photographs, including in a made-up historical looking postcard. As they write in their artist statement, “Elena gave the foundling a name – Apă [ah’pə], which means ‘water’ in Moldavian language.”
Don’t wish you’d thought of something like this?
I write about America so often that it’s easy to forget the internet allows this blog to be read around the Earth, and today, we all derive benefit from that.
Carolina is from Moldova, and Valentin is from Russia, at the edge of the former Soviet Empire, near Kazakhstan, on the opposite side of the planet.
And we get to see and discuss their work, as the world is so interconnected in the 21C.
I am pretty psyched they reached out to share this brilliant project with us, and I’m sure you’ll agree.
In #2021, I finally started a new photo series, (with my new camera,) trying to understand this culture in which I’ve ensnared myself, yet I know some parts of the story will never be mine to tell.
Hopefully, Carolina and Valentin will inspire you to get out there and make some crazy shit, because what else are you going to do with your life?
It all began when the Milwaukee Bucks, the putative best team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, decided at the last minute not to take the court for their impending playoff game against the Orlando Magic.
For those of you unaware, the NBA resumed earlier this summer in a “bubble” at the Disney/ESPN campus outside Orlando, Florida.
The professional basketball league created an artificial community, cut off from the rest of America, with very stringent rules and testing procedures, to allow the players and associated staff to stay safe from Covid-19.
As there are no fans allowed in the games, the entire affair has been arranged for broadcast television, (which is now also done via streaming, for some,) so that the global audience, including millions of Americans, could have “entertainment” to soothe them from this psychotic year.
I’m a fan, and the father of a LeBron James super-fan, so I was glad to see the league resume, and have watched many games.
As the NBA is made up of predominantly Black players, and has a reputation for being the most progressive of the American sports leagues, there were special concessions made for this time of protest and strife.
In particular, the courts are painted with Black Lives Matter, and most of the players wear a slogan on the back of their jerseys, where their names traditionally go, which supports the movement as well.
(For the record, the players were offered a list of pre-approved slogans; they could not just choose whatever they wanted.)
Some players, including union leaders Kyrie Irving and Avery Bradley, were concerned that by entertaining America, they were just providing a distraction from the need for social justice, which was more important than a game.
While a few players opted out of the bubble, almost everyone didn’t, but then yesterday, on the heels of the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the subsequent rioting in Kenosha, WI, including the murder of protesters by an unhinged 17 year old with a long-gun, the players went on strike.
And athletes from Major League Baseball, the WNBA, and Major League Soccer followed suit.
I was not surprised, as the day before, I’d read quotes from George Hill, a Bucks player, that expressed anger and exasperation at being in an artificial environment, playing ball instead of being out in the world, making a difference.
As of last night, the NBA players took an impromptu vote as to whether to resume the playoffs, and the LA Lakers and LA Clippers voted to cancel the season, though in an official vote today, the players decided to continue with the playoffs.
On Twitter, (where I learned of the resumption 2 minutes after it was announced,) I saw a tweet from a fellow blogger suggesting that marketers, podcasters, and others in different professions should go on strike as well.
I won’t say I considered it, because I didn’t, as part of having a weekly column for 9 years is that I’m trained to show up for you.
I’ve never missed a deadline, and don’t intend to start now.
However, while I considered writing a super-short column, (a mini-strike, if you will,) that obviously isn’t happening.
(500+ words so far.)
But, (you knew there would be a but, right,) instead, I’m coming at you with a promised column that does the next best thing: it provides direct access to a slate of diverse artists I met on Zoom earlier this summer.
I was reviewing portfolios for the school at the International Center of Photography in New York in early July, and as I wrote shortly thereafter, I saw some terrific and timely photography and art, all of which was made by women and men of color.
You know I’ve written many times, including recently, that I believe all voices in the photography world should be respected. Hell, a few years ago, (in this column) I rebranded myself as a Jewish-American, because I didn’t want to be known as a White Guy. (Ahead of my time, for sure.)
While I advocate against cutting out any particular group, (including my own,) I’ve also spent years championing work by female artists, and artists from a diversity of cultures and races whenever possible, because it’s the right thing to do, and it also affords you, the viewers, the chance to see things you would not otherwise.
A classic win-win.
So today, we’re going with “The Best Work I Saw at the ICP Online Portfolio Review,” and I’m sure you’ll dig these pictures.
Not surprisingly, most of the students I encountered were impacted by the pandemic in some way, including those who were in a 1 year program, but didn’t get to spend much time in NYC, or on campus.
As resourceful artists often do, they came up with elegant solutions, and I’ll share them with you now.
Normally, I say the artists are in no particular order, but today I’ll show them to you in the order I encountered the photographers that day.
We’ll begin with Danny Peralta, and I actually mentioned him in a previous column, as he works with diverse media, and his photographs were not what impressed me the most.
Danny is an educator and community developer from the South Bronx, in addition to being a talented artist, and he showed me a set of watercolor drawings that drew attention to the health effects of environmental pollution.
For whatever reason, eco art is often associated with white hippies, so I hadn’t seen many projects that directly tackled the issue from within a community of color.
Danny drew/painted a series about inhalers, as so many people in his community use them, due to asthma and other breathing issues due to pollution.
(I can’t breathe.)
It’s fantastic stuff, IMO.
Next, I met Zoe Golden-Johnson, who just finished her junior year of undergrad at ICP, having been in a joint-student program from St John’s University in Queens.
Due to the pandemic, Zoe was quarantining in Upstate New York, in a town near Poughkeepsie named Wappingers Falls.
Like many photographers during this strange time, (including me,) Zoe went on walks around her neighborhood, as her family had recently moved to a different part of the village, and it was all new to her. (And filled with creepy, late 19th C and early 20th C East Coast architecture.)
While at first, I told Zoe that this was not the most innovative of methodologies, a few photographs in, she showed me an image of a shadow puppet on the side of a green, siding-clad house.
It stopped me in my tracks, as it was created, rather than found, and it seemed like it had so much potential as a way of making photos.
“You should do a whole series of these,” I recommended.
Zoe smiled, and then a few images later, showed me an exquisite self-portrait, also in shadow, done in the same location.
I found it to be an exceptional picture, and hoped she’d continue working in that way. I also suggested it was brave, and a little risky, to use a stranger’s house, unless maybe it was her own home?
She confirmed it was, (no creeping necessary,) and I hope she continues working in that vein.
Next, I spoke to Madeline Mancini, who was in the exact same situation as Zoe, only 2500 miles away.
Madeline also finished her junior year at ICP, on loan from St. John’s, but was pandemic quarantining at her parents’ home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
(Ever the dorky New Mexican, when she said Las Vegas, I asked, “Nevada or New Mexico?”)
Madeline is into horror and suspense, weird and strange movies, and also looked at her neighborhood, and her immediate environment, trying to find the surreal and spectral in the mundane.
I’m always a sucker for normal-is-odd, so I liked this work immediately.
After a short break, I spoke with Violette Franchi, who spent a year at ICP after studying architecture in her native France.
Violette used her time in NYC wisely, as she learned about, and then devoted her time to exploring and photographing in Starrett City, the largest housing project in East New York, Brooklyn, which is one of the most poverty-stricken parts of the city.
While I often find myself suggesting to students that they try to mix up varied approaches to making their photographs, Violette needed no such encouragement.
She had made friends and contacts in the local community on her own, without any fixers, and used big cameras for the landscapes and establishment shots, smaller cameras when appropriate, and also mixed in video and photographs of found imagery and tv screens.
(Including images of junk mail and advertisements she found on the ground of the mail room, and shots of cheesy TV commercials pimping the development back in the 70’s.)
I found it to be a sophisticated and nuanced look at a place in time, (including the future, as she also has images of renderings of impending development,) and was seriously impressed with her drive, work ethic and talent.
After Violette, coincidentally, came another young Frenchwoman who made work in Brooklyn: Tina Levy.
Tina, like Madeline, likes the surreal and bizarre, but her work shared far more in common with the Roger Ballen, black and white, aesthetic.
Tina had studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne, and was thrilled when I suggested she consider drawing and painting as well, (like Danny,) as that was where she felt her work was headed.
But I loved these photographs, which were made in her neighborhood and local environment in Brooklyn. (Greenpoint, where I lived back in the day.)
After Tina, I met Beverly Logan, who had completed an MFA at ICP, and had a very different process from everyone else.
Beverly had traveled extensively, and taken a lot of pictures in her life, and told me she had an archive of 250,000 images, which she searched for fragments to build collages.
Even in a digital age, these were laborious, as she made prints of the fragments, and then assembled real life pieces, rather than using Photoshop.
They screamed of Americana, and surrealism, but had a snappy, optimistic palette that seemed to contrast with these dark times.
I mentioned Patrick Nagatani’s “Nuclear Enchantment” to her, as her smart work made me think of my late teacher, and in general was super-impressed by what I saw.
Finally, (yes, finally) I met with Kechen Song, who was a Chinese national living in New York for his program. (Soon to move to Syracuse U to attend the prestigious MFA program there.)
He had barely left his apartment for months, during the pandemic, and told me he’d been wearing a mask for most of year, as he knew from China’s experience the chaos and death that was headed New York’s way.
The project I want to share, though, featured images he made by hacking, or mis-using his flatbed scanner, with only objects he found on his desk.
So many of these artists had their process, (and education) impacted by the pandemic, and used those constraints to fire up their creativity. This project is the perfect example of that, as everything came off of one desk, including the art-making equipment.
So I’ll leave you there, along with the reminder that if the NBA players can use their platforms to send a message, and I can show up to enlighten you on the regular, and all these artists can mine the pandemic for creative fuel, I hope you can do your best work, and make a difference too.
It’s a slick new kind of brew, invented by an acquaintance, and gifted to me by a friend.
Jot, they call it, and it’s a bougie concentrate that comes in a glass bottle.
I’ve been using it to power up in the mornings lately, as I have taken some time off from my creativity enhancer, to which I often refer, but rarely name directly. (You may think of her as Maria.)
I’m not going too long today, because the world is fucking bonkers, and I’ve written a lot of heavy, intricate articles in the column lately.
Had I not woken up on the serious side of the bed today, I’d likely have tried to write something absurd, but then again, it would have failed.
Other than my comedian cousin, Ken Krantz, who manages to mine even this chaos for laughs, I just don’t have it in me. (Sample joke from his Facebook feed last night: “I picked a bad week to invest all of my money in racist statues.”)
Thankfully, today has provided me with some apt, and unmissable symbolism, so we’re going with the flow, instead of swimming against it.
As you saw at the outset, I’m leading with Trump, because even for him, the tweet was nonsensical.
He is, if I understand correctly, referring to his defense of Confederate statues, and history, in the media this week.
We have come full circle, in American history, to the point where the President of the United States is more proud of the losing side of the Civil War than he is the winners.
He more relates to the vanquished, racist, Southern, secessionist government than he does to the victorious one he leads.
I’d say Abe Lincoln is turning over in his grave, but I’m pretty sure he’s actually up in heaven planning an invasion to take back the White House.
Can you imagine, Lincoln and FDR, rallying the troops, while telling George Washington he has to stay home because he was a slave owner? Or was GW denied entry into the happy side of the afterlife because he owned other humans?
Does the good outweigh the bad for Old George?
(It’s not for me to say.)
But in what I’d leave to coincidence, if the world weren’t so laden with symbolism at the moment, today, I opened a letter from one of my dearest friends, Edward Osowski, and I extracted a magazine article from August 1970.
Nearly 50 years old, and he saved it all this time, before gifting it to me.
Why me, and why now?
Because the “Evergreen Review” that month featured an insanely well written article, by John Lahr, about Richard Avedon’s major retrospective, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
As I’d like to keep it (kind of) short today, I’m going to photograph the entire article, and really hope you’ll take the time to enlarge the photos and read it.
It’s that good, and relevant.
People don’t write like that today, as I’m a well-respected critic, yet I fill these posts with bad words and pop culture references.
Sample quote: “In present postwar America, normality has become the nations’s most oppressive fantasy. The bourgeois dream is unheroic: life is organized to eliminate physical and spiritual risk.”
Or this: “Obsession is a way of coping with death, and this spiritual and psychic decay clings to modern America like a bad smell.”
Or this: “Society masks its neurosis with a compulsive misuse of power. The impulse is to eliminate dissent, and, in doing, to allow political fantasy to go unchallenged.”
Eliminate dissent, political fantasy?
How is this not referring to today?
Because what happened 50 years ago has come back around again, with the rage of 1970, due to the dumpster fire America was in the 1960’s, paralleling the shitstorm of #2020, in which the pent up anger of People of Color and Millennials in the 21st Century has combusted for all to see.
The Avedon portraits included in the article are pretty sublime, from the uncertainty in Ike’s eyes, the woe in Bogart’s, to the sad resignation of Marilyn Monroe.
Normally, I’d say he’s projecting it into the camera, for the audience, but in this case, I think he goes extra hard, because the man behind the camera was not straight.
Wow, is this a scary photograph.
I look at it, and it makes me feel awful, yet I have a hard time looking away.
And as we all know, back then, a man of Wallace’s racist pedigree was not able to ascend to the highest office in the land, but today, he has.
People compare Trump to Wallace all the time.
And will we let him stay there, or will we vote him out?
And who are we anyway?
Does America still have one “we,” or are we now two totally separate societies?
In the last week and a half, desperate for any sense of social life IRL, I attended an outdoor (safe distance) pizza dinner with my two teaching mentors, and we chatted for 3 hours.
But rather than satisfy my craving, it left me wanting, because it was one of those talks where everyone took their turn, said their bit, and then waited for their next turn.
Nobody but me asked any questions.
And I was accused of “not listening” by someone who was clearly… not listening.
Try as I might, I could not stir curiosity in them, and at one point, when my friend (in his early 70’s,) was so sure that we’d be in a Civil War in a few months, I asked him why he wasn’t planning to move.
He glared at me with anger, which I’d never seen directed my way before, and said, “You don’t know me very well! I’m going to fight. I’m ready to die in this new war that’s coming!”
Rather than lick my wounds and admit defeat, I set up another chat with another “wise old head,” and halfway through our outdoor hang-out, at his place, he dropped the “N” word in casual conversation.
Again, I ask you, WTF???
Each of the three guys told me stories about the riots and protests of the 60’s, but two of them could not make the right connections to today, IMO.
And the one who seemed to most “get it,” was the one who used the most racist word in America.
(In case you’re wondering, I let it slide with a clear, disapproving look the first time, and then I called him on it when it came up again.)
How do I land this column?
How do I keep it short?
Well, I’ll tell you, this review by John Lahr, and the photographs by Richard Avedon, inspired me. They gave me the sense that we have been here before, and the protest movement 50 years ago created change.
But then, looking back over the images, I realized something.
Each subject Avedon photographed, from artists to presidents to murderers to priests to daughters of the American Revolution, was white.
All of them.
So when we hear our colleagues, People of Color, screaming that they don’t have enough opportunities to be paid for their work, when they aren’t getting the jobs, we need to listen.
And I’d also argue that we might benefit more from uniting against a common enemy, racism/facism, than we will from fighting amongst ourselves.
Because the final weird thing that happened this week?
Last Friday, after a 4 hour Zoom party with my liberal, city-dwelling Hipster friends, all of whom were white, I joined the end of another party, with my cousin’s crew, and was among the last three men standing.
A mutual friend was also on the call, a 6’4″ African American guy I hadn’t seen in 15 years, and it turned out he was a Black Republican.
He told me how much he appreciated that I didn’t judge him for having his own opinions.
“I am more interested in creating bridges across which we can experience realities other than our own, whether it be those of marginalized people or not.” Eric Gyamfi
Part I. The Intro
Yes, it’s another one of those articles where I begin with a quote.
For all columns I’ve written over the years, I’ve only done that a handful of times.
Occasionally, it’s the right move.
It was hard to know where to go, in a week like this, because it feels like the Earth is shifting under our feet, minute to minute.
Just last Tuesday, I had a Zoom call with a bunch of my Antidote students, and life seemed at least a little normal.
Not NORMAL, obviously, but we were able to focus on life and work.
Coincidentally, there were folks in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Oakland, LA and Brooklyn.
Within a day or two, almost everyone but me was living in a world filled with riots and protests.
Just like when the pandemic dropped, it seemed a new reality had been created, fully formed, and it was not like the one that came before.
Oh, by the way, almost everyone on the call was white.
Part 2. What to say?
I find myself in the odd position of having already written about almost all of the underlying causes of this new reality, in this column, over the last 8.5 years.
Those of you who have been reading all along know that via photo books, exhibitions, and travel experiences, in my opening rants, I’ve covered systemic racism, class exploitation, Donald Trump, and America’s disgusting history of oppression.
All while trying to maintain a sense of optimism about the future of the country, and the world.
And while I’m obviously a Jewish-American, I’ve done the best I can to empathize with, and humanize, people from around the world.
Male, female, and other genders.
I do the best I can to keep it real, and check my bias at the door, but given the privilege with which I grew up, I know there are some experiences I can’t “know.”
As a Caucasian in the suburbs of New Jersey, I had safety, security, and could walk into a store, or down the street, without anyone profiling me.
(With my big nose, I did hear Jewish jokes, but that’s not the same thing.)
It was all pretty chill for me in Jersey until 2003, when I was began my MFA thesis project at Pratt, which required repeated visits to my hometown of Holmdel, NJ.
Given that 9/11 had happened only 2 years prior, and that the suburbs were known for quiet streets, simply walking along, minding my own business, taking pictures with an early version digital camera, I became a target of the police.
Twice, I was stopped, and harassed, because I had a pony tail, a goatee, and a camera in my hand.
Eventually, my Aunt, who lived in town, reached out to the Chief of Police, and got me an official letter, claiming I was a former town resident, and had his permission to be there.
That alone is a mark of privilege.
But then, a couple of months before we moved away in 2005, I was visiting my Aunt and Uncle’s home, and when we pulled up in front, Jessie and I were arguing a bit, so we stayed in the car for two minutes to sort out our business, before going inside.
After the two minutes, we looked up and saw a police car.
They pulled up, stopped, got out, and approached the car.
By now, I should mention that I had a black Chevy blazer, in decent shape, and the dented back bumper would have been out of their view anyway.
But we had New York license plates, and it was not a Mercedes. Or a BMW.
Or a Bentley.
That was enough, and when they approached, and started asking questions, we told them who we were, and why we were there.
I grew up in town, and graduated near the top of my class. I attended the elementary school that was only two hundred yards behind us.
They profiled us as hippies, undesirables, and told us they would not leave until we were let into the house.
I was scared, even though I’d grown up in Holmdel, and knew my family would open the door.
It was a terrible feeling, and when I complained to my Uncle, he said, “Good, I’m glad they stopped you. People like you don’t live here, so it’s their job to keep an eye out.”
People like you.
This is a true story.
And though I still love my Uncle very much, he is, in fact, a Republican.
Part 3. Getting to the point
I could tell you that my son has been discriminated against in his school, because he’s white.
He had to defend himself in fights, multiple times, and then got cut from the 6th grade basketball team, because it was Hispanics and Native Americans only.
His friends even admitted it to him, openly, because everyone knows that the white kids play soccer.
I’ve felt plenty of racism here too, over the last 25 years, but at least I know it comes from resentment of American oppression.
It’s more what the color of my skin represents, rather than the skin itself.
It represents power, and the fact that America took this territory from Mexico.
Which is why, despite the anecdotes I just shared, I have no illusions that I know what it’s like to be an African-American man in America.
I try to imagine the feeling, but that’s as far as I’ll get.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped me from writing politically here, for years, nor has it blunted my desire to speak truth to power when I can.
Part 4. I thought you were getting to the point
I want to write more about Amsterdam for you, to joke about the fun I had, and tell you how I almost died.
But it doesn’t feel right.
Rather, I went back through my photographs, to jog my memory a bit, and thank the art gods, I have just the right thing for today.
The opening quote, which I did my best to illuminate from my own perspective, comes from Eric Gyamfi, a young Ghanian photographer who won the Foam 2019 Paul Huf award.
Because the next set of galleries represented one of the best photo exhibitions I’ve seen in years, and while it was perfect for the moment, (pre-pandemic,) it’s even more appropriate now. (During the protests and riots.)
As you’ll see in the photos, and video, the walls were covered with thousands of portraits of an African male.
(If Gyamfi were from here in the US, I’d say African-American, but he is not.)
They’re cyanotypes, which made the rooms a sea of calming blue, but some of the pictures reminded me of post-lynching portraits.
These were not happy pictures.
Nor were they even images of a real person.
In a conceptual hook that is not as interesting to me as the results, the artist made composites of himself, and an experimental music composer, Julius Eastman, so they should all be at least a little different.
There were mirrors in several places, so course a selfie-obsessed populace was taking pictures the entire time.
I’d make sure to take some time to look at the walls, to “see” the art, and then I’d pull out the camera again, and set myself up in just the right spot.
Of all the other people I saw in the gallery, everyone was so busy shooting pictures of the work, (and themselves,) almost no one was looking at the walls without a camera.
At one point, someone even tried to explain to me where to stand, to get the best angles.
I have to imagine the artist expected this reaction.
But then again, the subject of the pictures was not even a real human.
Instead, a computer-generated hybrid.
More a stand in for all African, African-British, African-French, African-American men who are not seen as themselves.
They’re seen for the hoodie, or the stereotype.
George Floyd, for example, was a massive guy. His friends called him a gentle giant, but Derek Chauvin didn’t see a man.
He saw a creature.
And he murdered the man, the human, because he didn’t see him as human.
Nobody would do what he did, on camera no less, kneel on a man’s neck until he’s dead, unless he thought he could get away with it.
(And I say this having been in choke holds before, and having applied them, in martial arts.)
That act, (along with the previous thousands, and the recently publicized murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,) so perfectly represented what it means to be a person of color in the United States.
It means you don’t get justice.
It means the cops can kill you, and people can harass you wherever you go, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The rage builds and builds.
Gets worse and worse.
And finally, when the match is lit, the fire erupts.
We may hate to see images of looting, it may fill us with dread, or maybe it doesn’t?
Either way, we can’t understand it without at least attempting to imagine how it would feel to be powerless against a system of oppression and state-sanctioned violence.
Of limited opportunities, and shitty health care.
Of insane proportions of Covid-19 deaths, compared to other races.
In the last 6 months alone, here in the column, I asked if China’s imprisonment of the Uighurs was any worse than the millions of African-Americans locked up here in the US.
And I wondered whether our culture, which always values the individual over the society, was in a more precarious position than we realized.
Jesus, a young Jewish preacher, a rebel and an upstart, challenging the status quo in Israel, which was then a vassal of the Roman Empire.
He kicked up shit for the Jews the Romans put in charge, and also for the Romans themselves, and was killed for it in an awful way.
I did a bunch of reading on the subject this morning, readying for the piece, and was not surprised to learn the sad ending of the story, (for the man Jesus, anyway,) was all about money and power.
The Rabbis were charging people to get “clean” enough to pray, making bank, and Jesus called them out for it. (All this I learned from an archived BBC website.)
Later, a massive religion grew up in his name, with billions of people believing he rose from the dead, after being crucified to death, and that he was actually a combination of man, God, and the Son of God.
Judaism, the religion Jesus was born, lived and died believing, claims that no Messiah, no divine being, has yet come back to Earth, but billions of Christians disagree.
Honestly, as Jews, we must see some missed opportunities, with Islam and Christianity sprouting from our religion, becoming the two biggest faith systems on Earth, while we’re a few measly million people in this world.
Why am I on about this today?
Where can this possibly be going?
I know you must be asking yourself that.
Part 2. Leaving comfort zones
The truth is that 2020 has felt different than #2019, and I’m shaking things up accordingly. (For example, no early-morning email check, to keep the cortisol down for a few hours.)
So last Friday, my wife and I decided to do something we never, ever do.
On Friday late-afternoon, after our son has his Hebrew practice, the four of us piled into the car to leave Taos, driving the hour and forty-five minutes to Santa Fe, just beating the dark, so we could attend a public opening at the New Mexico Museum of Art.
I’d been overdue to see an exhibit there, curated by Christian Waguespack, which focuses on the Penitente culture in Northern New Mexico.
It was a 17th through 20th Century local, Spanish Colonial Catholic tradition in which men would pray together, whipping and flagellating themselves, in a small building in each community called a Morada.
They also staged fake crucifixions, and other seemingly extreme Catholic traditions imported from Spain.
By the time we rolled into Santa Fe, the sky was rapidly blackening, and our collective hunger was rising.
The parent in me thought: we’ve got to avoid a collective food crash.
The art critic in me thought, let’s get to the museum first, since it’s on the way, and we’ll get more time there.
(Quick snack at Trader Joe’s it was.)
We arrived at the New Mexico Museum of Art shortly thereafter, after a short walk across the plaza, which featured large trees extravagantly lit in non-harmonious colors.
There were nice snacks in the lobby, and free admission, so my kids each ate a cheese chunk or two, though I was waiting for good restaurant food.
(The Santa Fe food scene is much better than ours in Taos, IMO.)
We headed through a lovely tent, covering the open courtyard of the early 20th Century building, and then into the special exhibition section in the Museum.
Here’s where I tell the truth, because the same curator was responsible for both exhibitions.
The paintings, drawings and photos in the smaller Penitente show, while local and younger, had a creepy, scary, powerful, religious juju that blew me away.
I kept saying, “I need to come back. I need to come back.”
(Rather than, “I’d like to come back.”)
Because each object was so tight, and in the smaller rooms, with the lower ceilings, in which the Northern New Mexican architecture so clearly matched the subject matter in the work, everything felt just perfect.
For all the talk of Meow Wolf, (which in fairness I have yet to visit,) and the Instagramification of the world, with backdrops mattering more than reality, I thought this show was a breath of fresh air.
(Of creepy air, I mean.)
I didn’t have enough time to process each piece, with my stomach rumbling, but the self-flagellations were there and the crucifixes.
There was one standout, black and white documentary photo by Miguel Gandert, of some 20th Century Northern New Mexican Penitentes, in street clothes, outside the Morada.
You know, week ago, I hadn’t given Jesus much thought.
(Though with American politicians like Mike Pompeo actively awaiting the Rapture, maybe we should all think about Jesus more often?)
But then I saw those two art shows, and the imagery bore down into my consciousness like a dental drill.
Part 3. Kick it up a notch
After a weekend spent moving washing machines, learning stick fighting, and hanging pictures, we kicked it up a notch on Tuesday, when my wife had the day off from work.
She suggested we cross the border to San Luis, Colorado to visit the Stations of the Cross Shrine that looms above town. (Among other reasons.)
Jessie had always wanted to do it, and again, in 2020 we’re gunning for new things, so I said yes.
I swear, I made no connection to the intense, Catholic work I saw in Santa Fe, nor did I plan to write this column.
We parked the car next to the humble town hall, and were instantly met by a huge old dog, who leaned into me for pets.
He was sweet, and a chunky collar said his name was Bam Bam, the Mayor.
It had snowed the night before, and Bam Bam accompanied us across the street, and a little foot-bridge, where we soon blazed our own trail in the 5 inch snow, as no one had yet gone all the way up the hill.
Bam Bam seemed an apparition, or a spirit guide, there was no way around it, and when he chose to turn back, we waved, and kept on alone.
We broke trail in fresh snow against a perfectly blue sky.
There were no people around.
It was all ours.
Up we went, stopping occasionally to check out the sculptures honoring Jesus’ last ascent, with his cross, to be crucified.
I believe there were 14 bronze sculptures in all, by local artist Huberto Maestas.
(You knew I’d come back around to it, right?)
Jessie and I remembered the Carmel Mission, and how it was similar in its intense combination of beauty and spirituality.
But the setting here, on a mesa-top called the Hill of Piety and Mercy, surrounded by snow-covered, jagged Rocky Mountain peaks in the Wild West, was unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
I stopped at the Pieta sculpture, Jesus draped across Mary’s lap, (which I now know is a subset of the Lamentations, thanks to the excellent NM Museum of Art Gallery Guide,) and made this video for you.
I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a more stunning location for a piece of art, nor at a more perfect moment to view it.
I’ve seen better art, in more famous places, but nothing more perfect than this spot.
Finally, we circled around to try to enter the shrine, which is in a Spanish Colonial style, (in honor of the local ancestors,) but it was obviously locked on a snowy morning.
So down we went, occasionally pausing to take in the Sangre de Cristos to the East, and the Conejos Mountains to the West, with the sun burning happiness into our cheeks.
If you’re coming to Taos, or Santa Fe, or Southern Colorado, I can not suggest this place more highly.
(And I didn’t even get into the Shrine.)
The strangest part, if you ask me, the one that ties this tale together, across the Millennia, is that I would have bet anything the chapel, La Capilla de Todos Los Santos, was built in the 19th Century.
Taos families pushed North into the San Luis Valley in the 1840’s, and the town was officially founded by those Spanish Colonial Catholics in 1851.
But it was a town made of dirt back then, at the edge of nowhere.
With no resources.
(I guess I didn’t think it through.)
So my research turned up that it was built, as an offering of peace and love from the San Luis parish, in 1986!
I’m writing on Thanksgiving, you’re reading on Black Friday, and these are highly-loaded days in America.
In their honor, today, we’re doing a proper examination of these perilous, political times in the United States and China, Earth’s dueling super-powers.
For my American analysis, you already know I’ve got the goods, as I’ve been spewing on about American politics since Rob gave me this platform. (Or, more accurately, since Thanksgiving 2011.)
With respect to China, I’ve got a BA in History from Duke, I studied Chinese art history at the undergrad and graduate levels, taught elements of its art history at the college level, watched more Hong Kong action films than I could ever count, learned bits about Buddhism, and studied Chinese martial arts as well.
(Tai Chi, Kung Fu, and I’m familiar with Qi Gong.)
Finally, on the subject of my Chinese street cred, I wrote an article here in 2011, after artist Ai Weiwei was unjustly kidnapped and imprisoned by the Chinese government, that was highly critical of China’s rulers.
(I called them assholes.)
After we published, I battled Chinese government trolls in the comment section for a few hours, which Rob and I still talk about. (And we wondered, will they return today?)
This time, though, I’m going to sit down in the nuance.
This will NOT be a story in which I only call the Chinese government to task, condescending in my moral superiority, confident I know better.
Rather, we’re going to look at the bigger picture.
Because China in #2019 is as impossible to ignore, (and as good at generating headlines,) as Donald J. Trump.
But even more impressive, (I think,) is that we’re also going to offer you some actual, unpublished, hot-off-the-presses documentary photography, straight from the front lines in Hong Kong, which has been roiled by massive protests this year.
My Antidote student, Hillary Johnson, has strong ties to the martial arts community in Hong Kong, and has spent a significant amount of time there over many years.
She recently put together a small Go Fund me campaign to raise money to get to Hong Kong to document the protest movement, and just got back.
These photographs are current, is what I’m saying.
And she both knows the city, and has deep ties there.
The Hong Kong protests are only part of what I want to discuss, but it’s exciting to be able to share Hillary’s work while it’s all happening.
Part 2. Understanding China
When I wrote the Ai Weiwei article, I rememberer mentioning the movie “Hero,” and how it had chilled me to hear the phrase “Our Land,” and then see Jet Li’s character (spoiler alert) give up his life to allow an Emperor to rule a united China.
I thought it meant they were coming for us, (which they kind of are, but more on that later,) but in the ensuing years, I’ve come to see the film differently.
What I now know of Chinese history is that, as long as it is, the periods of Chinese unity led to prosperity and relative peace.
But when smaller powers were jostling within, in a country as big as China, with a historically huge population, wars broke out, and tens of millions of people died.
(This happened a lot.)
In the late 19th Century, most recently, the Taiping Rebellion killed an estimated 60-70 million people.
And that was an uprising against the Qing Dynasty, a weak power that conquered “China” from Manchuria, in the Far North.
There was also the time when the Mongols defeated China and ruled in the Southern Song Dynasty, in the 13th Century.
The pride of the dominant Han was damaged then too.
Fast forward again, and China in the Qing Dynasty was so underpowered that England carved it up, during the Opium wars, imposing the drug on the country, and taking territory, like Hong Kong.
When the Qing Dynasty finally collapsed, just before World War I, the Japanese came in as conquerors, and from then though World War II, (featuring things like the Rape of Nanjing,) China was humiliated by a neighbor, and again millions of people died.
Next, there was the violence during the Communist Revolution, when Mao Zedong took over, which led to the partition of China and Taiwan. (Which China does not recognize.)
(Even in a united China, under Mao, lots of people died, back in the day.)
So here we are in #2019, and China is now united, but with the resources of a mega-power, due to its embrace of Western Capitalism.
The leadership under the unapologetic dictatorship, (more on that later,) consistently stresses the value of a united, powerful China, and its citizens, many of whom have left poverty for the middle class, (or outright wealth,) appreciate the stability.
Xi Jinping, China’s power-hungry ruler, stepped in at this time of unprecedented prosperity, and decided China was ready to embrace its role as a Superpower, rather than cloak it, as had been the case since Deng Xiaoping.
So now Xi has an axe to grind with the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Americans.
(Russia, with whom it shares a border, is a natural rival as well, but certainly they have things in common too.)
Xi also lived through watching his father get taken down, and reeducated, so he has a chip on his shoulder there as well.
Given all I’ve written so far, are we really surprised that a guy who had the rules re-written so he can be dictator-for-life would claim some rocks in the South China Sea, engage in a huge trade war with a super-power, lock up and torture 1 million Muslim minorities in concentration camps, or try to take Hong Kong’s (partial) democracy in plain view of the world?
Part 3: The War on Terror
After 9/11, the United States of America started two ground wars, one in Afghanistan, and the other in Iraq.
(One is still ongoing, and the other wrapped up under President Obama, but we sent troops back in country this Fall.)
After the attacks that killed 2000+ Americans, and cost untold billions, travel in airports changed forever. Privacy laws changed, (remember the Patriot Act?,) and though George W. Bush admirably argued against it, Anti-Muslim sentiment in this country increased.
Overall, the US spent TRILLIONS of dollars on those Middle-Eastern wars, killed tens of thousands of people, and locked some up indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay too.
Today, in #2019, we are currently running our own detention (or concentration) camps for illegal immigrants, depending on your preferred term.
Children get sexually abused there, or taken from their parents forever.
They sleep on cold concrete floors, and are denied hygiene and occasionally health care.
We also incarcerate millions of Americans for a drug war that is destroying our neighbor, Mexico, and a massive percentage of our overcrowded prison population is comprised of people of color.
Plus, our police, (at least in Dallas,) now shoot African-American people in their homes, while they’re playing video games, or eating ice cream.
You really can’t make this shit up, but doesn’t make it any less tragic.
Honestly, the only thing I like about Vladimir Putin is that he’s always calling us out for our hypocrisy.
We’ve taken territory.
We’ve removed governments.
We’ve meddled in elections.
On this, he’s not wrong.
Can we really look at what China is doing with the (mostly) Uighur population in Xinjiang and say we’re that much better than they are at the moment?
The Uighurs were killing Han Chinese, in terrorist attacks in 2009 and 2014, and then Xi Jinping said make it stop.
He said, use the power of the Dictatorship to make it stop.
And so they did.
They built camps from scratch, increased facial recognition surveillance, locked up 1 million people, torturing them, threatening their free relatives to stay quiet, and went about brainwashing the Islam and Uighur out of them.
All since 2017!!!
And again, I ask, in this age of Trump, with our camps, and our history of locking up the Japanese in World War II, slavery, and the genocide of Native America, are we so sure we’re superior? .
We did lots of torture in those CIA black sites during the War on Terror, in addition to waterboarding, sound and light torture, sleep deprivation, and many other goodies.
No wonder we’re all getting headaches from the complexity of #2019.
Part 4: Defending Democracy
I take my freedom of speech very seriously. (As you know.)
I’m thankful to Rob Haggart, my amazing editor, for supporting those rights for the last 9.5 years, and for paying me to share my opinion with you.
He has never censored or edited me, in all these years.
And when I suggested this column, he said go for it!
Because I’ve been thinking a lot about China’s threat to our free speech lately.
As Xi flexes his muscles, (and all these countries become interdependent,) like with anything else, might makes right. It’s why Pakistan and other Muslim countries stay silent as China jails and tortures other Muslims in Xinjiang.
They’re addicted to Chinese money, and the customer, (and boss) is always right.
So I was immediately concerned the second I read that China had come down so hard on Houston Rockets GM Darryl Morey’s Pro-Hong-Kong-protestor tweet back in October.
Mr. Morey had only retweeted a generic message of support from his personal account, and it literally turned into an international incident overnight.
I cannot overstate how big a deal it became, both to China, the NBA, and US-Chinese relations.
Joe Tsai, an Alibaba founder, and new owner of my beloved Brooklyn Nets, wrote a long, open letter on Facebook echoing some of the history I mentioned in Part 1, and calling the protestors separatists. (Ironically, he’s Taiwanese, and was educated in the US.)
Chinese power has come into America, and apparently pressed for Mr. Morey to be fired.
Several times in the aftermath, China made clear in writing that it believes free speech does NOT include criticizing its government, and that it also now feels that practice should not be limited within its national borders.
People outside China, workers within the American Capitalist system, should have their freedom of expression limited, says the People’s Republic of China.
If you’re not a little concerned by that, I think you should be.
And I told all of that to Hillary Johnson, my intrepid student, before she left to support the Hong Kong democracy movement this month.
I told her Xi Jinping was willing to do anything to win.
That these protestors did not stand a chance.
That it would be dangerous.
She said she knew all these things, and was determined to go anyway. She wanted to be there with David, against Goliath.
I told her I admired the hell out of her bravery, and that I’d support her as I could.
The photographs Hillary made, over the course of a week+ in Hong Kong in November 2019, are her vision of a community she, (and I) desperately appreciate. (Or a part of her vision. She had hardrive drama, so this is only a small sample of what she shot.)
China came along earlier this year, and wanted to expand its power to extradite anyone from Hong Kong to the mainland judicial system.
Hong Kong’s citizens, especially the young, realized this was not a power-grab, but a complete takeover.
If it had succeeded, if Carrie Lam, (the puppet) had gotten her way, then any freedom would have evaporated.
You say the wrong thing, and you can all-of-a-sudden end up locked up forever in a Chinese political prison.
It would be the same implicit threat hanging over folks in Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen. (Because the mainland Chinese made a devil’s bargain, of wealth and security for human rights and freedom.)
Here in the United States, we have, for most of our history, preferenced the latter at all costs.
Do we still?
Trump wants to be President for life.
He jokes about it all the time.
The dictators Putin, Xi, and Erdogan are his friends.
And now he’s about to face an impeachment trial, with an election coming up next year.
Where does it all end?
I have no idea.
But the Hong Kong protestors forced China to back down on the extradition law, and just supported the pro-democracy movement in local elections.
A week ago exactly, I stood on my front porch as our Antidote event broke up, and I watched a newly formed community, people who hadn’t even known each other a few days before, split with sorrow, as if parting with family.
One student stayed a little longer, so I could set her up with a cool road trip around Southern Colorado.
Now, I’m the first to admit that our program, set in the hippie Mecca of Taos, NM, is rather progressive in the ways we teach creativity and open-mindedness.
Hell, I write about this every week for you guys, so I have no doubt you can imagine the ideas that get kicked around the breakfast table.
But a week ago, I stood there with Christina, discussing future possibilities for her art, when a red-tailed hawk began screeching loudly from the sky.
At first, I smiled and kept talking, but the hawk kept it up, so finally, I paused.
“Hey Christina, let’s go see what the hawk wants,” I said.
So we did.
Immediately, I saw two in the sky, and began theorizing as to what they might mean for the two of us, symbolically.
Then, Christina saw a third bird, forming an upward-triangle-vortex in the deeply blue sky.
Her photographic art, both past and (potentially) future, revolves around her triplet daughters, who after some health scares are now successful young women, out in the world.
Three girls, three hawks.
The symbolism for both of us was unmissable.
I looked at Christina and said, “Out here, on this farm, we choose to believe that the things like this can mean something. They are symbols, with power, as opposed to random events in the natural world. I know that can sound new-age, so feel free to think that’s crazy.”
But Christina lives in California, and was embedded in a very positive, life-affirming, artsy group for the weekend, so it was clear she saw those hawks in the sky, and her girls in her mind’s eye.
In a normal year, that would have been one of the craziest moments I’ve had, fraught with metaphysical essence.
But it’s 2019, and many of you have been reading along, so you know it’s been one wild fucking ride.
Part 2. The sermon about San Francisco
I mentioned California just a few paragraphs up, and of course that’s where we’re headed today. But it won’t be a long, rambling visit, as we’ve had many of those.
I’ve tried to take you on the deep dive into contemporary New York this year, and New Jersey. Portland and London too.
That’s the East Coast, West Coast and Europe.
As to San Francisco, I don’t think I have it in me to drill into the core of the myriad problems.
It’s just too sad.
It’s easy to pile on San Francisco these days, but sometimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
I used to live in the city, from 1999-2002, back when booms were met with busts, and artists could still afford an apartment.
And I’ve reported on the growth and change here on APE since at least 2013. Year by year, we’ve discussed the rise in homelessness.
That’s what I called it at first.
Then, I reported on the rise of tent cities, and the sense of hopelessness that the problem could ever be solved, as income inequality grew to absurdist proportions.
Finally, we’ve settled on the term street class, which I wrote in last week’s book review, as the trend solidified into something normal. Something regular.
Something permanent to be tolerated.
Much as Trump’s America has given us kid jails, and ever-more-rampant spree killers, it’s also seen the final blow dropped on what was once a truly cool, vibrant, special American city.
Now it feels like one big tourist trap overlaid on a tech-bro landscape.
Part 3. Visiting a gallery in the old neighborhood
San Francisco is getting killed in the media, regularly, so it gives me no pleasure to write this. But as soon as we got to the rental car place, in Oakland, the nice Haitian woman who helped us swore that SF was so dangerous she didn’t go there anymore.
She even warned us off of the visit, if you can believe it.
But after leaving the airport only to land in Bay Area morning rush hour, with an 1.25 hour drive to go a few miles, (little did we know,) the only thing I was worried about was how long it would take to get my pupusas.
I’d promised the family some great Salvadoran food, in our old neighborhood, the Mission, and desperately hoped we could make it there before food crashes, or traffic, undermined us.
After a few close calls, in all the chaotic traffic, we made it, and stuffed our faces on masa-stuffed goodies, served with spicy salsa and a vinegary claw.
La Santaneca de la Mission, right near Mission and 24th, is so fucking good. Try it, but make sure to bring cash, as they don’t take plastic. (Note that, Europeans.)
Thinking back, the meal was perhaps the highlight of the visit, as it resonated of the Central American immigrants who used to dominate the neighborhood, back in the day.
And then then we went on a short walk, and saw several local institutions in the midst of being replaced by gentrification. (Like the old school Locatelli Ravioli, which seems to have shut the day before we got there.)
I did a loop of the old haunts, and even Mission Street, which still looked the same, felt like a zombie. Somehow, I recognized the places, but the soul was gone.
That’s the best way I can describe it.
I split off from the family, and headed to Euqinom Gallery, where I was meant to hook up with Philip, an artist I’d met in Portland. We both wanted to see “Present Objects,” curated by Emily Lambert-Clements and Monique Deschaines, which featured 5 female artists who worked in very different ways.
But just before I got there, not 100 feet from the gallery, was a tent, sitting there, in the middle of the sidewalk.
I stopped dead, but decided I would NOT take a picture for you, so I didn’t.
My heart sank.
The gallery is about 1/4 of a mile from where I used to live. My old home. The stomping grounds.
And now people are living in tents in the middle of the sidewalk.
I mentioned it to Monique, who said it happens constantly these days, as once residents call the police, the squatters still have 3-4 days before the cops come roust them.
Sometimes, Monique says, a few tents will join once one pops up, and they’re harder to move. She mentioned a story she’d heard about someone pouring water on a tent from above.
Again, this is normal now.
As to the exhibition, the work was strong overall, featuring a variety of processes, and fairly or not, my favorite were the paper-based wall sculptures by Julia Goodman. Totally textural and sumptuous, I was told the artist makes them with composites of old t-shirts, among other things.
There was also an installation of fake detective novels by Rachel Phillips that was clever, but not something over which I’d swoon. The other three projects were more photographic in nature, and featured a fairly disparate set of styles. (All of which I liked, for sure, but did not love.)
As we were wrapping up, I asked Monique if there was a theme to the entirely-female group, as it didn’t seem to be “about” feminism.
She told me the gallery will always have 2 female artist for every man, and then she turned the tables on me.
“You would never have said that, if it were five men in the show.”
“Yes, I would have,” I replied.
“No, you wouldn’t have,” she countered.
“You don’t know me very well,” I said. “It’s 2019. I absolutely would have noticed if it were five men, because that would have seemed out of step with the times. Not only that, I think a lot of people in the photo world would notice, after the last few years.”
Don’t you agree?
Part 4. Pier 24
We spent the night in a fancy hotel on the Embarcadero, a few blocks from Chinatown and the waterfront. In retrospect, (and having just watched “Warrior,” which is set in 19th C SF,) I guess that part of San Francisco, the Barbary Coast, has been dodgy for a long time.
But while I had seen a lot of hard-core poverty in the Tenderloin, over the years, what I witnessed by the Bay, in late July, was several degrees worse.
I knew better than to take my kids out after dark, but Jessie and I took the briefest of walks to the Ferry Building, and almost got mugged once or twice.
The collection of desperate, down-on-their-heels people would have been darkly mesmerizing, if the natural human instinct wasn’t to get back to safe harbor as quickly as possible.
In order to avoid an alley, Jessie asked that we take Market Street, and in only one block, there was a woman wailing for anyone to help her move her wheelchair, several people sprawled out on the ground, and I swear it felt like we’d descended into Hell.
I know that stories like this fit Trump’s narrative that America’s cities are in bad shape, but as I’ve reported constantly over the last year, I don’t believe that’s the case.
Desirable cities are booming, but the income inequality wave is drowning more and more people each year.
It’s a horrible set-up, I know, but part of why we stayed near the Ferry Building was that we wanted to visit Pier 24, the very excellent, free photo museum/gallery that we’ve profiled here several times before.
I’m going to avoid editorializing right now, and state only that the museum, as I’ve previously reported, houses the collection of the Pilara Foundation, which runs the space.
They allow a very limited number of people inside, and the space is enormous, so they’ve created an excellent, boutique experience for viewing some truly exceptional contemporary and vintage photography.
It’s owned by a very wealthy patron, and in the past has featured an exhibition ABOUT the collector class.
But the wealth is put to the benefit of the public. (If you know about it, and can reserve a space online.)
The people who work there, though, are regular folks like us. They’re neither rich, nor Upper Class.
So when I took my family, (again, for free,) we walked along the waterfront, as people slept on the sidewalk, or leaning up against the sides of buildings.
The tourists were everywhere, creating side-walk passing lanes I hadn’t seen outside of New York.
Inside, Pier 24 was celebrating its 10th Anniversary, and the first space, which was filled with the Sugimoto wax royals, set the scene nicely.
As I said, the place is sprawling, with so many prints by so many famous names. Amidst all the great work, one mini-gallery felt so subversive, I did a double-take.
There, together, were a set of original Dorothea Lange images, and as she was a Bay Area photographer, they packed an extra punch.
The past few years, as I tried to explain to people what this new street class looked like, I would say, “It’s like those photographs from the Great Depression. It’s happening again.”
And there they were.
In my mind, I imagined some of them were hung on walls shared with the exterior. (It’s possible.)
Maybe, some nights, while the photos hung on the inside of the walls, sad, lonely humans slept on the other side.
(Whether it happens literally or not, it happens metaphorically every day.)
Major Kudos to curators Christopher McCall and Allie Haeusslein for sharing that gallery in the middle of a city in crisis.
There was plenty of other great work on display, including Adou, a Chinese artist I’d never heard of before, but only one thing knocked me on my heels.
And it takes us back to today’s beginning.
Because one little gallery was filled with vintage Robert Adams images, which were clearly from Colorado. (His old stomping ground.)
The looked so familiar, but I was sure I hadn’t seen them before.
My brain was whirring, one more mystery in a crazy year, when I saw it. Things clicked.
He was IT, as far as New Jersey locals were concerned.
At some point, Bruce more or less became synonymous with the state.
Like, if the SNL guys had done a Springsteen skit, instead of one about Ditka, and if they’d gotten Stevie Van Zandt to do a parody of himself, instead of George Wendt, we’d be talking about an entirely different timeline. (Though perhaps still a good one. Is Jon Bon Jovi President in this alternate timeline, I wonder?)
I mention Bruce today, because I grew up loving his music, but lately, have begun to wonder if he is actually good at singing.
Which, you, know, with him being a singer and all, is kind of a bad question to ask, at this point.
I guess now that I’ve lived away from New Jersey longer than I lived there, the Bruce Springsteen-magic-fairy-dust is wearing off, and I’m awakening from a chloroform-like haze.
Sometimes, when the person and the place become the same thing, it can be hard to know of they’re still making the pizza with the same recipe, or of Junior is scrimping and buying cheaper mozzarella.
You know what I’m saying?
The legend can cast a large shadow, and as photographers, we all know how valuable the light is, if you feel me.
And speaking of famous institutions…
I’d like to discuss Martin Parr’s “Only Human” exhibition that I saw in May at the National Portrait Gallery in London, just before it closed.
I’d interviewed Martin Parr for an NYT Lens blog piece, back in April, and he invited me to attend a walk-through of the exhibition, if I was going to be in town.
I’ve previously covered the reasons why I was in London, so I accepted his offer, and oddly bumped into him at Photo London the afternoon before, where I confirmed I’d be attending. (He was doing a book signing at the fair.)
When I gave my name at the front desk, early in the morning, I wasn’t on the list, but when I assured the guard I was legit, I guess I seemed trustworthy, because they let me in.
I joined the talk a couple of minutes after it started, and found it all to be a bit perfunctory, really. (Like a docent tour at the zoo.)
When we spoke via Skype, Martin Parr was very funny, but we always kept the conversation with in range of our purposes. There were no off-the-wall digressions, nor any surprise details dropped.
At the talk, it was all business, but that spark of wit and charm was not on full display, unfortunately.
Below he describes people dancing.
Here’s the selfie wall.
And there’s the tennis room.
By the way, have you seen the cafe?
Martin said the art-installation-cafe had been his idea, and so they built an extra one that served real food, though it wasn’t open yet, being morning and all.
The Autoportraits, in which he allowed himself to be photographed by local portrait photographers, in their typical style, never smiling, were pretty great.
Funny and original, I laud the idea and the effort.
And I loved the Grayson Perry family portrait.
But the rest of it left me feeling a bit cold, if I’m being honest.
Martin Parr’s often lauded for being satirical, and surely there were images critical of the English across the racial and class divides.
He pointed cameras at the Brexiteers, and the diverse English residents driving the racists bonkers. The show gives us Aristocrats and fishmongers and everyone in between.
The photographer is known for being ambiguous; influenced by the dry, new topographics style of the 1970s.
And it wouldn’t be English if it weren’t at least a little absurd.
But maybe that was my problem?
In a shocking, Post-Trumpian world, these seemed a little average.
They felt current, but not RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES.
I know the Parr style of big flash, saturated colors, and flattened picture plane was radical, at one point, but collected in the museum, work from the 21st Century, it was a bit tame for me now.
Does that make sense?
Like, when I heard “Born in the USA,” in the 80’s, I fucking loved that song, but now, when I hear it, I think, we’ll, that’s a bit dated, isn’t it?
I like to be moved, or feel inspired, and that didn’t happen in the “Only Human” exhibition.
If I were English, or hadn’t spent time looking at all the images in the catalog, preparing for my article, I might have felt there was more freshness.
When you see the photos and video I’ve included, you may think I’m off the mark.
(There were positives, of course. I’m not saying the show was bad, only that it was unremarkable.)
I was impressed that a wall placard gave credit to those behind the scenes, which was very decent, and it was clear the audience treated Martin Parr like a rock star.
And they lined up to meet him in the gift shop.
Ah, the gift shop.
I can’t not write about it.
I just can’t.
In my lede for Lens, I referred to Mr Parr as a cottage industry, and the variety of products on sale were staggering.
Chocolate bars, flip flops, t shirts, you name it.
Along with the Instagram wall, the entire gift shop felt like it was designed to be on the Gram as well. I suspect the merch on offer, and the hashtags generated, were a part of the show’s allure for the crowds too.
I know that for an opinionated critic, not taking a stand here is very unlike me.
Why bother spilling ink, if it was just OK?
Well, to begin with, I promised the review three times, so it would be lame to back out.
I normally love funny, and absurd, and English, but I willed myself to love “Only Human,” but only found it “Meh.”
Hell, before 2008, if you’d told me I’d become a professional blogger, much less do the job for nearly 9 years, I’d have taken you for a crazy person.
But everything realigned 10 years ago, in the eye-teeth of The Great Recession, and frankly, I don’t think the world has been the same since.
It’s funny, reading the papers, following the discussions about whether the 10 year bull market has finally turned bear.
Will the stock market’s tumble, or the government shut down, or Trump’s stunning incompetence, finally derail the strong American economy, and lead to a recession?
I find those articles patently absurd, and my guess is, you do too.
I’m glad the stock market has gone its run, sure, but in every other way, it feels like America is still not back to where it was before the mix of horrible home loans, and the toxic derivative instruments built upon them, created a financial bubble that finally burst in September 2008.
By January 2009, of course, the economy was in pure free-fall, and America inaugurated its first African-American President, tasked with putting the pieces back together. (Tough luck, Barack. You needed the crisis to get elected, I’d imagine, but it meant you spent your best years putting out another man’s fires.)
I admit, knowing it was exactly 10 years ago has been on my mind lately. I first approached Rob Haggart, my long-time editor, because he put out a call looking for Great Recession images in early 2010.
(He complimented the ones I emailed him, pictures from Southern Colorado I’ve mostly scrubbed from the internet, which I’m now re-visiting nearly a decade later.)
Since we were corresponding anyway, I pitched Rob on writing a couple of articles for him, gratis, as I was a fan of the blog, and had been writing on a small-time blog with friends for nearly a year by then.
At that point, when I wrote him, it was spring 2010, and my small commercial photography/printing studio in Taos had seen its business evaporate. I mean, I went from having clients to having none, all within a few months.
The tell-tale sign, I discovered, was I was getting hired a lot, near the end, to do Canadian passport photos, because all the Canadians wanted to make sure they could get the hell out of the country.
Going into the Great Recession, I was an unknown artist doing all sorts of photo and printing services to make a living, while also running the studio as a gallery. (I sold next to nothing.)
Afterwards, I was a somewhat-known artist, a professional blogger, and a college professor.
But all these years later, I’m just about making what I made before the career-changes happened.
Truth be told, I love the career exchange, and would make it every time, if I could. I get a lot of satisfaction and pleasure out of the work I do, despite the grind of permanent freelance living.
My wife makes more money now, as she went into private practice as a therapist, (after years of working in a local school,) so that helps for sure.
As I’m said, I’m personally very happy, but in no way do I think that things are “better” in the world than they were before the Crash, and in many ways they seem worse.
Seeing all the income growth go to such a small percentage of Americans wears away social trust, as once people believe a game is rigged, they have much less interest in maintaining said system.
And of course while Obama was left to clean up W. Bush’s mess, the real legacy of The Great Recession was Donald J. Trump.
I’ve been a vocal critic of the now-President here for years, and even I’m stunned to read that the FBI actively investigated whether Trump might be a Russian asset.
(And that he bought a room full of McDonalds and Wendy’s for the Clemson football team.)
This truly unstable world, I believe, was first born in the ashes of the Global Economic Collapse.
All of a sudden, America stumbled.
Even worse than in Vietnam.
The extreme elements in our Capitalistic system wiped out extraordinary amounts of wealth, for ordinary people, and in many cases literally kicked them to the curb.
In the end, essentially no bankers went to jail.
Foreclosed Americans were left to pick up their own pieces, and American taxpayers paid the bill for bailouts.
Are we really surprised that so many people, doing so poorly in depressed areas, would fall for Trump’s con, feeling their pain and promising to bring their jobs back?
Or that other major nations, like China and Russia, would see our inherent weakness, and push that much harder to take our mantle of power, geo-politically?
I haven’t written a political column in a while, because I try to balance the style and tenor of these articles. It’s one way that I’ve managed to keep it interesting, given that the format is essentially unchanged all these years.
But as it’s early in 2019, and 10 years since that evil 2009, I felt it was a good time to go in this direction.
This story will ultimately be about the second batch of photographers I saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego last October.
And last week, I wrote my spiel about the city, and gave you all some advice to get out there and hit up the festivals, or travel more this year.
This column is meant to build upon that, if you can believe it.
Because beneath the super-structure of the political critique, (I can’t believe I’m explaining my own meta-level writing,) what I really meant to say was: reinvention is painful.
Change is hard.
And yet it’s always worth it.
One of the cardinal rules of being an artist is that once you realize how deeply you’re embedded in your comfort zone, it’s time to jump out of bed.
Doing these things is much harder than saying them, and pretty much no one chooses to change.
It’s normally forced upon us by life circumstances.
But knowing that you eventually have to shake things up, and then having the guts to make the tough call, these processes lead to growth, as a human and an artist.
I live by my own advice, I swear.
Just the other week, I gave up my beloved Wing Chun Kung Fu, and switched to Aikido, because I knew I needed a new teacher, and a new beginning.
It hurt, but I did it anyway. Because that’s how I was trained at Pratt.
Many of the artists I meet at events like Medium don’t have the MFA degree. They didn’t go to art school, and some haven’t even taken a formal class.
Many of the photographers had a first career. They didn’t follow their passion, initially, but when given the chance later in life, they took workshops, joined critiquing groups, and threw everything they had at their new career as an artist.
Other times, I let my opinions fly, and I might be sitting across from an MFA photographer. Or even better, sometimes, I’ll be critiquing a professor from a really established school.
This visit, a photographer came up to me to re-introduce herself, as I’d been really strong in my advice, during a previous review at Medium. (I insisted that she change her paper type from matte to a photo surface.)
I published her work here, and never thought about it again. But apparently, the woman told me, I’d gotten under her skin, as she resented the advice at first, but then had finally done what I suggested, and found success with the change.
Another person verified that this professor had told the story many times, as I was the “paper guy,” and it had been a big deal in her life.
Honestly, I can’t keep giving beginning-of-the-year-advice-columns much longer. February is right around the corner, and anyway, after today, it will be enough.
The best I can say to you is to try to embrace some change, in 2019, and push yourself hard.
Try a different medium. Go somewhere new. Sign up for a class at a local community college. Switch to black and white. Make a video.
Times of upheaval have a way of re-writing the rules of the game, and why not make yourself stronger, and pick up some new skills, for the decade to come?
Enough said, now we’ll look at the second batch of the Best Work I Saw at the Medium Festival of Photography in October 2018. (As always, they’re in no particular order.)
Victoria Fava was visiting from Monterrey, Mexico. She studied art as well as photography, and we spent much of our chat discussing what the optimal medium would be to express her ideas.
She’s been interested in the fact that astroturf, a chemical product developed by Monsanto, is highly utilized there, and oddly is often featured in wealthy homes. (From an American perspective, it seems downscale.)
I like the photos, but personally thought creating installations, making mock-outdoor-scenes indoors, might be the way to go. (Easy for me to say. That’s much harder to pull off than making a photograph.)
CJ Pressma is one of the types of people I alluded to above, as he’s been involved with photography at a high level since before I was born. CJ was visiting from Louisville, where he ran a residency program for many years.
He’s was also a master printer, doing portfolios for people like Meatyard, and my colleague Brian Clamp even mentioned to me during the festival that he had vintage prints that CJ had made back in the day.
At Medium, CJ showed me a book he’d made pairing (mostly) night photographs with faux dream diary statements he’d asked his friends to contribute. The one image of the frozen truck was probably the best single image I saw that week.
Bil Zelman is one of the few people in the world who make me jealous, as he lives in Encinitas, my favorite beach town in California. (Though all of North County is pretty cool, IMO.)
He’s primarily a commercial and editorial photography who self-financed a personal project looking at elements of the landscape that reflect our anthropocentric times. (Non-Native species, non-native trees, etc.)
Given the high flash at night, they’re super dynamic. And I had to lay it on hard to convince Bil that he shouldn’t lead with 15 tree pictures before showing the alligators and Burmese python.
Never bury the lede!
But Bil told me he mixed it up for later reviews, and received some really great responses.
Justin Nolan is another example of one of the types I mentioned above. He’s a professor at the University of Central Florida in Daytona, and he got his MFA at UNM in New Mexico not too long ago.
Once I knew his training, I pushed him pretty hard, and asked some difficult questions. I never would have gone down that interrogative rabbit hole, though, with someone who was new to the field, or hadn’t been trained in the critique process.
Needless to say, I didn’t love one of his projects, but found his take on Florida, his new home, to be witty and great. I make fun of Florida a lot on Twitter, (as does anyone paying attention to what happens down there,) but I liked that Justin’s subtle style contrasted with that over-the-top reputation.
Finally, we have Sheri Lynn Behr, whom I met at Photo NOLA back in 2012. (See what I mean about going to festivals. You can stay in touch with so many people.)
Sheri mentioned to me, in the hall before the review, that she’d heard I was tough, and that she wanted a tough critique. I knew her work was doing well, as she’d just had a solo show at the Griffin Museum in Massachusetts.
Sure enough, though, she showed me a bunch of projects that were mixed together, and printed on different paper surfaces. It was one of those crits where she had an answer for most of my issues, and was fairly wedded to her process, so I let it drop.
Her meta-project, which she made into a book, is called “BeSeeingYou,” and is all about surveillance culture. This one vertical piece stood out to me so powerfully that I’m going to show it by itself.
That’s it for today, and we’ll be back to the book reviews next week. I am planning to hit up a few festivals in 2019 though, including Photo Lucida in Portland, which will be my first time.
So I’ll be sure to report from the field again as soon as I’m able.
I was going on about him weekly, for quite some time, so I decided to take a break. It seemed healthy, as this is not, in fact, a politics blog.
Rather, aPE is about photography, so I decided that #247Trump was not appropriate.
But it’s been a while, and this being the dog days of August, when most of you are on vacation anyway, it seems like the right time to exercise my First Amendment rights. (While I still have them.)
Now that I’ve given myself permission, though, the words don’t flow as easily as I expected. I feel like the Monty Python guy, who couldn’t eat another bite, because it really has been absurdity-overload lately.
I was discussing it with my Dad the other day, and we agreed that while the national crisis may have been bigger during the Nixon 70’s, with crazy protests and riots, the Trump political scandal is far worse.
I’ve got a good memory, and even I can’t keep all these daily dramas straight.
But here are a few.
The President’s chosen communications director sought an on-the-record interview with The New Yorker, for crying out loud, and then said, of the President’s chief strategist, that he likes to fellate himself.
Oh, and he also threatened to kill the President’s Chief of Staff. (Who was subsequently fired post haste.)
Ironically, the Mooch was out before his paperwork was filed. (And before godsend Mario Cantone could franchise this impression.)
Oh, right, there was that Trump Jr/Jared Kushner meeting with Russian spies who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton, after their government had stolen a trove of her campaign’s emails.
And Donald Sr started Tweeting about her emails the same day.
This, and so much more, has unfolded in the press while a non-partisan former FBI director looks carefully into the President’s shady-Russian-Mafia connections.
At one point this winter, as my mother likes to remind me, I said it all resembles “House of Cards” + “The Americans,” and that seems to get truer each day.
The stuff Netflix and FOX made up as dramatic fantasy is actually no less salacious, at this point, than the Real.Fucking.Thing.
Welcome to August of 2017.
As I wrote here last year, I had my first premonition things might go awry when I was in Los Angeles in late October, and watched the 3rd Presidential debate at a theater in the Hammer Museum at UCLA.
“Not a puppet, not a puppet, you’re the puppet” drew laughter like we were watching “Chapelle’s Show.” Trump read as entertainment, to us, and he was damn entertaining.
But we were in literally the bluest bubble in America, and I felt uncomfortable with the elephant in the room: that millions of our fellow countrymen took him seriously, and agreed with many of the deranged things he said.
I didn’t talk much Trump in Los Angeles, but I did see a lot of photography. I don’t have the exact number, but I saw at least 25 projects at the LACP Exposure portfolio review, and am glad to show you the best work I saw.
I liked Lisa McCord immediately, as she seemed honest in a way I connect with. She showed me some work from the early 80’s, done on her family’s tenant farm in Arkansas.
Basically, Lisa said she’d felt more comfortable with the African-Americans who worked on the farm than she did with her people, who owned the place. So she hung out a lot, including with the Nanny who raised her, and people let her make pictures, because they knew and trusted her.
Images like this are seen as fraught these days, with so much tension around racism and white privilege. It’s hard not to see them as controversial, yet I sometimes think that says more about us than the pictures themselves.
Because if we take Lisa at her word, that these were her friends, more like family, than there’s nothing radical about the pictures save the color of everyone’s skin.
Dawn Watson had landscape photos in which she’d inverted the tonal curves in Photoshop, so the colors were reversed. I’ve seen similar projects, and told her about Adriene Hughes work we published here last year.
But I think showing digital’s unmistakeable hand can be a sound visual strategy, and I liked several of these pictures a lot. I told Dawn to be careful about whether she wanted to make pretty pictures, or edgy ones, as her aesthetic sensibility seemed to waver.
Douglas Stockdale, a fellow reviewer, has long run the excellent blog The PhotoBook Journal. He also makes his own books, and shared “Bluewater Shore” with me, his latest.
I’ve never seen a book that came in a plastic ziplock bag before, and that was a novelty. But I also like the re-purposed archival family images, which resonate with old school California beach culture.
I saw Eleonora Ronconi’s work at the portfolio walk, and it turned out she was engaged to my friend Paccarik, which I didn’t know. (He’s made a few appearances in the column over the years.)
She had pictures made in her native Argentina, and I thought they were lovely. Her color palette, in particular, with those rose-peach hues, grabbed my attention the most.
J. Matt is a surfer dude from Hawaii who recently moved to LA after many years in San Francisco. He’s an architect, by trade, but seems like a generally-creative-type person.
He showed me some pictures of LA that looked a bit like Dan Lopez’s from last week, and a little sample of work shot at the beach. As that’s a huge part of who he is, I checked it out on his website afterwards, and we’re sharing some of them here.
Linda Alterwitz, based in Las Vegas, had photographs made with a thermal imaging camera. I asked her if she knew of Richard Mosse’s work, the stuff with the expired pink film, and she said she did.
Little did I know, but he’s done work with thermal imaging cameras as well. So what, though, as I highly doubt Linda knew about it when she was lent a camera by a manufacturer.
The figurative images are wild, as are the horse pictures. And there’s a monkey in there too? WTF?
Finally, Mara Zaslove had photographs of an elderly friend, and they’ll include the only nudity we show today. (Hope that’s OK, as we’re normally SFW.)
Aging is a subject most people want to avoid. Hell, I was watching some old Westerns on TV the other day, and couldn’t believe how many old people there were.
Modern entertainment casts must be 25 years younger, on average. So I like that Mara’s work makes me think about that, while retaining some grace too.
Well, that’s it for the LA roundup. We’ll be back to book reviews next week, and I hope you’re enjoying the summer.
Aaron Hardin, whom I met at the New York Times portfolio review in late April, had given me a copy of his self-published photo-book, “The 13th Spring.”
Aaron’s a Southern photographer who got an MFA from the Hartford low-residency program, and lives in Tennessee, where he teaches college. His pictures are of that genre of Southern photography that is lyrical, poetic, vibrant, evocative, (insert appropriate adjective here.)
We’ve discussed the genre many times in this column over the years, and Aaron’s work reminds me a bit of my friend Susan Worsham. But that’s the point: from Eggleston through Sally Mann and right on down, photographing the South is a grand tradition, and I never hate on anyone for being an adherent.
I think Aaron’s pictures are strong, and he’s able to communicate a warmth and emotional sensitivity that separate his work from many a Southern photographer.
The book chronicles the time around his daughter’s birth, which a poem, (at the end,) says happened during a birth year for cicadas. Hence the little bug dude on the front cover, which was imprinted on a stately piece of canvas.
The second photograph, of a snake trying to sneak into a house, (despite the two door obstacle,) is pretty fantastic. He swears the snake was trying to get in, that it wasn’t set up in the least, and I believe him.
But it’s a photograph I’m sure he’ll get asked about for years.
The peacock as a repeating motif is pretty cool too. We’ve got the bearded, Jesus-looking guy, the tree growing up through a house, a white cat, a boarded-up shotgun shack, and some nasty bug-sex. (Hence the title.)
It’s a very cool book, I must say. Really well done. Alec Soth and Doug Dubois teach at Hartford, and one can see the influence of their styles, which make for an interesting mashup with Aaron’s Southern roots.
It’s like how the Three Six Mafia represents Memphis, but still sampled from artists on the coasts too. (Big shout out to “Hustle and Flow.” That movie never gets old.)
But like I was saying in the beginning, Aaron was going to get a book review all to himself.
No sooner did I plan a column on his book alone, than two journalists I met at the review, Evgheny Maloletka and Emelienne Malfatto, emailed me after getting back to internet service in the danger zones in which they were shooting.
Given what we discussed last week, you almost couldn’t make this up. Evgheny was working in the war zone in Eastern Ukraine, near where he grew up, and Emelienne is down in the chaos of Venezuela.
As such, I’m able to show you some of their work as well. So Aaron’s will have to share the spotlight a bit, but as he’s a nice guy, I’m pretty sure he can handle it.
Emelienne Malfatto is a French-Italian documentary photographer who is rather itinerant. When we met in New York, she’d come off of a stint in Iraq, a country at war at the moment, but then jetted off to Caracas, which is not a safe place. And then she pushed off to the hinterlands of Venezuela.
She showed me pictures of a community in Iraq that had risen against Saddam Hussain, and to retaliate, he drained the swamps of their native lands. I thought some of the pictures were great, but she wasn’t able to access those for me, being out in the field with little internet.
Emelienne is resourceful, though, and managed to transfer me a group of photos she made in the Kurdish area of Northern Iraq. They’re dynamite.
Evgheny Maloletka and I met at the review in New York, and then again on the F train to Brooklyn. Zenhya came up and introduced himself before the review, and was the only person to do so. Given that we use this blog to help educate young professionals, (among other things,) I have to say, things like that make an impression.
He said he had me on his list, and Good Morning, nice to meet you, I hope you have a good day.
You remember things like that.
Even better, his pictures were great. He showed me photographs of the war in the East that were so raw, but were made with visual sophistication, which is a difficult combination. Like Aaron’s pictures are clearly of the South by someone from the South, I’d argue a foreigner would be hard-pressed to make such emotional news photographs.
We also looked at a series about young cheese-makers in the Carpathian Mountains that had echoes of a medieval lifestyle, here in the 21C. And then we saw a project about a community of Romanians who were trapped in Ukraine, when the borders were redrawn.
We’ll look at the war photographs today, but I could easily show you any of the three projects. The dude is very talented, and I expect all three of the young people we’re featuring today will go on to have great careers.
Overall, I was thrilled with the quality of the work I saw in New York, and am glad to be able to share so much of it with you guys. Enjoy the beginning of summer, and we’ll be back with a book review next Friday.
This very morning, in fact, the Republican candidate for Congressman in Montana physically assaulted a reporter from The Guardian, because he asked the man a question.
And just when things seem like they could not possibly get more surreal, the Fox News team, who were about to interview the politician, supported their British colleague as fully as possible.
Their first-hand accounts led to the jerk’s arrest. (And he’ll still probably win the election.)
The point is, while most artists have a cushy, if poorly paying job, many journalists, in order to tell their stories, are forced to put their lives on the line.
When I went to the New York Times portfolio review last month, I was very aware that the young journalists I met were on something of a quixotic trip, as far as careers go.
It’s been said that data, and information in general, are the world’s most valuable currency. Reporters and photojournalists traffic in highly dangerous information, and it makes them targets for murder. More so now than ever before.
I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but it truly is a slippery slope from reporters being beaten to reporters being killed. If we’re not careful, we’ll find our voices here in America, creative or journalistic, have been intimidated into silence.
Most, but not all of the photographers I reviewed came from the journalistic arena. Beyond admiring their gumption, several times I offered technical criticism suggesting the photographers consider embracing a more geometric, formal, “artsy” structure into their compositions.
Clean crops and solid shapes help pictures pop, in my opinion, whereas most news compostions care more about dynamism than structure.
I wasn’t able to procure images from all the photographers I met, but a quick memory-trip tells me they hailed from Colombia, France, China, Egypt, Ukraine, Nigeria, Argentina, South Africa and the United States. (Plus, the Argentine was based in Mexico.)
Today, we’re going to show you the best work I came across at the review. As usual, the photographers are in no particular order.
Miranda Barnes caught me completely off-guard, because she looked like she was 12 years old. Her big smile was disarming, and then her story was even more interesting. She’s born and raised in Brooklyn, and was currently studying law. But she’d fallen in love with photography.
I highly encouraged her to keep both things in her life, for now, because it can be so hard to make a living in photography these days. Miranda taught herself how to use a medium format camera, and then scan the negatives, with a truly impressive level of skill.
She showed me two series; one looked at Upper East Side rich folks after Trump’s election, and the other, which we’re showing here, featured African American Twins. When I asked her why she chose the latter subject, she said that when she’d looked up twins in Google Image, there were no kids of color at all.
Annie Tritt, who shoots editorially, had a project “Transcending Self,” about transgender and gender expansive children. It’s a subject that’s getting a lot of media coverage, so I appreciated that the pictures were topical, as well as being well-made.
We discussed whether she might want to do a deep dive on one particular subject, rather than a survey of many, so that the viewer can get a richer, more nuanced take on an issue that can be hard for some people to understand.
Yan Cong is a Chinese photojournalist and blogger, and she showed me a pretty strange project. Apparently, Beijing is preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympic games, which I didn’t know. That, along with the city’s wealth, created the need for ski areas in Northern China, within range of Beijing.
Yan is documenting the changes in one small town, as it’s transformed over the next five years. But that project is ongoing, and not ready to show, so I checked out a multi-media piece she’d made about the trafficking of Cambodian brides in China.
I found the audio track to be remarkable, and extremely sad. It’s worth a watch/listen, as it’s a good lesson in how adding to the photographic experience can increase a viewer’s emotional connection.
Rujie Wang was also from China, and was finishing up her BFA at the School of Visual Arts. I really loved her project, “Made in China,” in which she photographed cheap crap from the dollar store, alongside her friends from China, who were the models.
Eventually, she started composting in the studio, so the kitchy objects and neon palette create a visual aesthetic that is very contemporary. Even better, she’s begun to turn the photographs into .gifs, in which certain image layers dance around the surface of the picture, like characters out of Pokemon Go. Once she’s sorted out the proper way to exhibit the .gifs, I think they’ll be massively successful.
David “Dee” Delgado was my room captain for the review on Sunday, and we chatted a bit during breaks. I always offer to look at people’s work once I get home, if we can’t sit down, so Dee sent me a set of files the other day.
Apparently, for “Bike Life,” he’s shooting street riders in his home borough of the Bronx. I’m always telling you guys I want to see things I’ve never seen before, and these pictures definitely qualify. The high-contrast, hyper-real, black and white look makes them feel of the moment as well.
Lujan Agusti had maybe my favorite work, at least of the things that were totally resolved. Though she’s Argentine, she’s based in Veracruz, Mexico, the Western Hemisphere’s most dangerous place to be a journalist.
Lujan has photographed indigenous Mexicans from the area, in the clothing they wear for local festivals and ceremonies. I love that she updated a trope by bringing the subjects into the studio, and using their costume fabrics as backdrops.
Along with the creepy-clown vibe, the colors and patterns give these pictures some major visual tension. They’re great, and I love the way they manipulate color to channel the festive, reverential spirit of the ceremonies they’re meant to represent.
Last, but not least, we have Andres Millan. My editor Jim Estrin grabbed me, at one point, and said I had to talk to this young guy, so I said sure.
Andres had two projects I thought were very cool, the first of which featured panoramic images of Colombians battling illness. They were excellent, and the odd aspect ratio definitely helped them to stand out.
The other project, “The New Gold,” which we’re featuring here, contains pictures made in the Amazon basin. I liked that he intervened in the landscape, painting things gold to match the title, as it made the pictures more memorable. (Always a good thing at an event where you’re seeing so much work in a compressed amount of time.)
When I got to college in 1992, Pearl Jam was a big deal, and Kurt Cobain was still alive. The first Gulf War had recently ended, and Bill Clinton had not yet assumed office.
As a freshman, I took a Poli Sci class with a fiery professor, and learned a lot about the Cold War, and Spheres of Influence. We were taught about an important book, which had just been released by Francis Fukuyama, which theorized “The End of History.” (Insert ironic joke here.)
It’s now 2017, and for the last three semesters, I’ve been teaching Art History at the local community college. The class is called “Introduction to Art,” and I enjoy sharing my passion with a bunch of Post-Millennials who were reared on screens, calm in the knowledge that Barack Obama had their backs.
As I built my curriculum, I realized that for thousands of years, art was used in service of wealth and power, with few exceptions. This idea of personal expression, speaking truth to power, and radical innovation, that drives the best in contemporary art, would have been unimaginable to our artistic forebears.
Rather, artists and craftspeople were recruited, (if not compelled,) to make objects, buildings and images that communicated directly to an illiterate populace. The message was consistent across cultures: We are in charge. We are the ones bestowed with divine right. Cross us at your peril.
There have always been people who craved power, and were willing to do whatever it took to exercise control over others. Whether out of a desire for riches, because of actual belief in a religious theology, or because they simply craved violence and destruction.
Today, we look back on these artifacts as our collective, cherished history. One can spend hours traversing a great museum, like the Met or the Louvre, and wander amidst objects that reach back 5000 years, and there are often more commonalities than differences. (A basalt Ganesha from India and a basalt giant Olmec head from Mexico are not that different, when you get down to it.)
Hitting up your local museum, if you live in a major city, is far easier than catching a flight to Rome to walk through the Forum, before taking a train to Bari, grabbing the boat to Corfu, taking another boat to Athens, and then perusing the Acropolis for a little compare and contrast.
But sometimes, if you live in the sticks like I do, even getting to a major city can be too much. (Cash, time, you name it.) Thankfully, the best minds, or at least the people in the best museums, have begun to respond to that reality. (And to the fact that the aforementioned youth of today treat their screens as de-facto glass windows into reality.)
I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t ramble, but I always get to the point eventually. This month, in our new feature highlighting fascinating digital portfolios, we’re headed back to the 19th Century, when the French sea captain Louis Vignes first visited the ancient Syrian desert Oasis city of Palmyra.
Earlier this year, the Getty Research Institute in LA published, “The Legacy of Palmyra,” which they believe is the world’s first entirely online art exhibition. It features Mr. Vignes’ amazing photographs, alongside other visions of the city, which reached its peak in the 3rd Century AD, before it was conquered by the Romans.
As if we needed further refutation of the absurd idea that history can ever end, (beyond our fearless leader D. Trump,) his best buddy Vlad Putin has used his propaganda outlet, the RT network, to release visions of Palmyra today, as they’ve recently taken the city back from its former captors, ISIS. (Also known in this column as The. Worst. People. In. The. World.)
If you’re unaware, ISIS used Palmyra for target practice, in 2015 and again this year, much as they destroyed priceless historical artifacts in the Iraqi ruins of Nimrud, near Mosul. They released videos of the art-slaughter, which featured gleeful dickheads doing damage to things that belong to all of us. (IMHO.)
The GRI’s exhibition, which is as cool as ISIS is terrible, is an extensive effort to highlight the manner in which history remains relevant. It took a year to produce, featuring copious hours by a well-constructed team, which was led by curators Peter Bonfitto and Frances Terpak.
Ms. Terpak was kind enough to agree to an interview, so I could learn more about the Louis Vignes pictures, and the exhibition in general.
It all began back in 1864, when a French aristocrat, Honoré Théodore Paul Joseph d’Albert, the duc de Luynes, was organizing an expedition to the Middle East, as he was desperate to visit the Dead Sea, among other locations. (Including Petra and Palmyra.)
Many photographers working today are aware of the subset of photo history, in which independently wealthy people have risen to the top rank of the medium. (I’m not naming names, but then again, I don’t have to.) The tradition of the upper crust adventuring and creating is nothing new, and explains the origin of the Vignes photos.
“The duc, given his status, could self-fund this trip to the Dead Sea,” Ms. Terpak said. “He built a small team of scientists, with a geologist, a naturalist, and the duc himself, who studied archaeology and had an interest in biblical studies.”
“He wanted to take someone on the trip who would also record it photographically. With Vignes, what he got was a sailor who also knew the ports in the Eastern Mediterranean, and he was a photographer.”
Much of what transpired has been lost to history, she told me, including whether Louis Vignes made significant work after his excursion, but it is believed the duc hired the famed French photographer Charles Negre to teach Vignes how to make prints in the field.
The Getty Research Institute purchased the Palmyra prints in 2015, and received such an outpouring of interest in a blog story about the acquisition, (and a concomitant promotional Facebook post,) that the curators realized there was an untapped desire for further information. Surprisingly, the acquisition was made before ISIS destroyed much of the Palmyra ruins, but the subsequent ISIS attack made it all the more relevant.
Research institutions like the Getty have a mission to preserve and educate, and working within cyberspace allows them to reach all the people who can’t spend a day exploring the two lovely campuses on the West Side of LA.
Ms. Terpak confirmed as much, when she said, “As I think is evident, we wanted the audience to be everyone. From the specialist who knows Roman History and the Eastern Mediterranean, to the high school student who is approaching current events, and is curious about why Palmyra is important.”
“I think 80% of the site is downloadable. Everything the Getty owns is downloadable, and can be printed.”
She added that the site is also being translated into Arabic at the moment, so it can be better accessed by people who are actually being disrupted by War in the Middle East.
We also discussed why Putin is so intent on associating himself with Palmyra, as it has little strategic import in a larger war. Its power, rather, is symbolic, as it associates him with the history of human civilization, and the many rulers who’ve been etched into stone.
“I think ancient monuments throughout the ages, from the ancient to the present, have always been symbols for rulers to promote themselves, and to show their right to be in power, because they are connected with these great civilizations of the past,” she said.
“I don’t find it surprising that Putin is doing this.”
Lest you doubt me, just today, not minutes before I started writing, I discovered this article claiming that the Syrian Army had “annihilated” one of the perpetrators of the Palmyra destruction, and this fresh video from RT that shows Russian soldiers clearing land mines from the recaptured ruins.
We also discussed why ISIS would go out of its way to do such things. Victors have always raped and pillaged, to our eternal human shame, but this seemed so deliberate. So evil. (A word I typically avoid.)
I asked her why she thought they did it, and she replied, “Syrians don’t want to leave Syria. What people like ISIS are doing is they’re causing not just destruction of the monuments, but they’re forcing the people to leave because they’ve lost their heritage.
“They’ve lost their income. Palmyra was a site for tourism, and by destroying it, it’s destroying its economy.”
Ultimately, though, this is a photography blog, and the Louis Vignes pictures are pretty astonishing. They capture a place that no longer exists, and the thought that we need to reach back to the 19th Century for documentation is rather sad.
That said, Louis Vignes did not see the Palmyra that ISIS encountered, as some of what they destroyed was actually reconstructed by archaeologists in the 20th Century. The Vignes pictures far better reflect the Palmyra that sat, hidden in the desert for centuries, before being “rediscovered” by English explorers in the 18th C.
It was a multi-cultural place, even in antiquity, as it was a cross-roads between the massive Roman Empire to the West, and the Parthian Empire of Persia to the East. Ms. Terpak added that much of the 20th Century scholarship was conducted by Polish and Japanese teams, so the fact that it’s currently being mined by Americans digitally, and Russians IRL, is nothing new.
The Vignes images, quiet as they may be, speak for themselves. While I’m rarely at a loss for words, (including here, as we just cracked 1600,) I don’t think there’s much I need to say, description wise. They’re fantastic, and I’m very grateful that the GRI has allowed us to publish them here. (Again, you can download and print them directly, should you so choose.)
Rather, I think I’ll let Ms. Terpak have the last word on the pictures, as she’s earned the right.
“I think they’re haunting,” she said. “They just evoke the mystique of the place. I’m very upset that I never visited before 2010, because it clearly was a very special place.”
Opening night party at Zane Bennett Contemporary Art where they’re showing an exhibition of the winners from the CENTER competitions, and a group show of gallery artists (Jonathan is included in that).
Review Santa Fe just wrapped up and I talked to one person who said there was some amazing photography on display. Hiroyo Kaneko of San Francisco, won the Santa Fe prize (here). I think only Emily Shur was blogging about it (here) and it looks like she will have a recap shortly and she has a great recap. Honestly, if I were them I would take any bloggers from the qualified pool, waive their fees and pay for travel and hotel; if they agreed to write a short post each day and then recap the whole event. It’s the same as taking out advertising on websites and in magazines.
Again this year they have all the entrants work up on a site (here) which is so great for the reviewers. I can tell you that many times, several years after I’d done reviews, I was scratching my head trying to track down a photographer I thought would be worth considering for a project.