by Jonathan Blaustein
It’s Thursday afternoon, so this article is due in a few hours. The snow is falling rapidly outside my window, as winter has arrived in full force. To the East, the mountains are hidden behind a wall of moisture-laden clouds, which litter white gold upon our steep slopes.
Could there be a better time to close my eyes and imagine myself sunning by the über-SoCal-pool at the Lafayette hotel? It’s hard to believe it was almost a month ago that I visited the Medium Festival of Photography. Yes, people. Time flies.
But I’ve already discussed my experiences, in snippets, twice before. So I’d rather not rehash things. Let’s keep it fresh, like virgin flakes dropping from the sky. (By the way, I’m beginning to doubt the “fact” that no two snowflakes are alike. That seems statistically impossible. If anyone can verify that for me in the comment section, I’d be much obliged.)
Back to San Diego, though. I’ve promised to tell you why Medium was so successful, so here goes. I’ve been to several festivals over the last few years, and some of them have been genuinely excellent. (Cue the obligatory Review Santa Fe reference. No, I’m not on their payroll.) But Medium stood alone, for a few reasons.
Scott B. Davis, the founder and director, is rare in his skill set. He’s methodical and detail-oriented, but also warm, relaxed and grounded. He’s got the creativity of a successful artist, (which he is,) but also the clinical, keep-the-trains-running-on-time abilities of person who would be Director of Exhibitions at a museum. (Which he is.)
It’s unexpected to find one person who can wear both hats. As a result, Medium felt well-organized and put-together, but also managed to capture a slightly-improvisational, OMG you’re my new best friend vibe as well. I got into several conversations about photography that lasted for hours, which almost never happens.
And because the weather was great, cheap food was plentiful in the surrounding neighborhood, and the palm trees were always waving just outside the windows, most people were in a good mood. Relaxed, friendly people make for good company, and other people really are the foundation of a festival. (Hello, Captain Obvious.)
So aside from the negative interaction I mentioned two weeks ago, (which could, in fairness, be chalked up to a misunderstanding,) for five days, I was riding a cloud of positivity. It pushed me to open up, and constantly listen for new information. In fact, I even altered my lecture, at the end of the festival, to include things I’d learned in previous lectures by my fellow speakers.
Of course, I was primarily there to look at work during the Eye to Eye portfolio reviews. Surprisingly, most of the people who sat at my table were not looking for immediate gratification. (i.e., can you please publish my work in Lens and APE?) No, most of the photographers I met were looking for constructive criticism and feedback about how to improve. It was hard not to be impressed by their drive to better themselves as artists.
That said, I did see some work that I’d like to highlight here. The overall quality ranged dramatically, and some of what I’ll show here might not be your cup of tea. But I though it merited mention.
We’ll begin with an exception, though. The final lecture I attended, before heading to the airport with a car full of tired photo-peeps, was by Michael Lundgren. He’s an artist based in Arizona, shows at ClampArt, and has had a book published by Radius. So, to reiterate, Michael was not there to have his portfolio reviewed.
His lecture was the opposite of mine. It was relaxed and low-key; full of quotes and thought-provoking material that he read aloud. It was far more lyrical than I can expound upon in this brief space. He did lament the lack of critical writing about photography, though, so how could I not accept the challenge?
Michael’s current project, “Matter,” was shot in the desiccated desert, as is much of his work. Though some images from his earlier series, “Transfigurations,” managed to concurrently portray the Arizona desert as a distant planet, while also implying the Earth will get along just fine once all the humans are gone, “Matter” is more oblique.
It mashes up sci-fi references with environmentalism. (Which is a difficult mix, but the algae-marinated fox below hits the mark perfectly.) Before I saw him speak, a colleague described him as “profound.” I admit that a couple of paragraphs here, and a handful of jpegs, make it impossible to communicate that. In person, speaking for an hour, he did strike me that way. Michael embodied the artist as shaman, pushing one’s vision beyond the normal to bring back stories of “ecstatic time” to the rest of us. (There was no mention of peyote. To be clear.)
Now we’ll get on the photographers I reviewed.
First up is William Karl Valentine. His physical presence struck me right away, as he was a very big man, with a prominent cop mustache. His super-intense eyes said he could crush me in a bear hug, like a villain out of a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. (Yes, I watched a lot of bad karate films in the 80′s. Who didn’t?)
Bill studied photography in the famed ASU program back in the 80′s, working with Bill Jenkins and Bill Jay. But his career took another route, and he ended up becoming a police officer in Southern California. (Chino, actually. Hence the cop stache.)
He made black and white photographs on ride-arounds before joining the force, then while in the Police Academy, and he shot some images while “on the job” as well. The dated feel brought me right back to the days when gringo kids like me were bopping our heads to NWA, singing aloud about this mysterious place, “Compton.” (Actually, I heard ‘Dre and Snoop in the car just yesterday, and couldn’t help belting out the chorus.)
Next up, we’ve got Amanda Dahlgren. She’s based in San Diego, and has spent the last few years making photographs that look at the remnants of the housing crisis. She was interviewed about her work by Kai Ryssdal on “Marketplace,” so she’s definitely given these issues some thought. Her current project, “Pre-Abandoned,” looks at homes under construction in the Master Planned communities that were so rapidly de-populated once the world went to hell.
Her premise is that these structures, not-yet-lived-in, will be abandoned in the near future. It’s a bleak outlook, but I found the photos to have a quiet dignity that the housing crisis so clearly lacked.
Pauline Gola showed me a set of photographs made under water, shot in black and white. As I’d met someone at PhotoNola last year with a similar process, I had to mention it during our critique. But the pictures themselves are very different. In her artist statement, she describes the photos as being, “liquid aberrations” which I thought was a very smart phrase.
Steven J Knapp had the work that probably surprised me the most. He’s also an Arizona resident, and told me he felt compelled to make the following images as a response to the Gabby Giffords shooting a couple of years ago. He felt rage and horror, and wanted to channel that into his art.
Granted, the following pictures have no actual visual connection to the tragedy. But the emotion comes through pretty clearly. They reminded me of angry gods from ancient Tibetan tapestries, but are in fact self-portraits made in Photo Booth, and then manipulated like mad in the computer.
Finally, we’ve got two pictures from Cy Kuckenbaker. He’s currently an artist-in-residence at MOPA, and has a background as a film-maker. Cy is interested in transitioning to stills, but also wants to figure out how to tell stories using stills, video, and text all together. (Get in line. That’s the holy grail of storytelling right now, isn’t it?)
While I’m normally loathe to publish someone’s unfinished work, Cy did show me two very cool pictures from a new project. It’s called “So Your Friends Will Really Know It’s You”, which is the prompt Facebook gives you when you create a new account to upload your profile photo. He’s made digital portrait masks of people, and then re-photographed them wearing versions of themselves on their face. One guy is a dead ringer for Vladimir Lenin, which is odd and cool at the same time. (We’ve got to have a Big Lebowski reference right here, don’t we? “Shut the Fuck up, Donny.”)
Cy then posts the pictures on Facebook, and titles the images based upon how many likes the picture receives. Love. It.
I imagine very few of you have actually read all the way to this point. If you have, well done. I’d like to give you a better conclusion, but I have to put another log on the fire. Hopefully, though, the above pictures will have properly warmed your heart. (Cheesiest. Conclusion. Ever.)