A couple weeks ago at Review Santa Fe I had the opportunity to see APE contributor Jonathan Blaustein’s new body of work hanging on the wall and decided to conduct a quick interview. I think this is a unique opportunity for all of us, because we know Jonathan and can follow and learn from his career. I know you will find his honesty refreshing and revealing.
APE: On your first project (The Value of a Dollar), when did you know it was done? I ask because I’ve been looking at work here at Review Santa Fe and that seems to be a common question. People aren’t sure when they are done.
Jonathan Blaustein: For “The Value of a Dollar,” I knew I was done when I got bored; when I ran out of that initial series of ideas. I capped it at 20 at the time, which is a very typical number to stop at, because of all the competitions and things like that.
APE: Why is that a typical number? In a competition, do you only submit 20?
Jonathan: Yeah, 20 is typical for things like that. It’s kind of arbitrary, I suppose. But the real answer is that I had a slew of ideas, and then I felt they resolved themselves. I edited out the pictures that didn’t fit, and was left with 20. With “The Value of a Dollar,” I wanted to create a balanced but asymmetrical picture of global commerce. Once I felt like I had that, I was done. But then, I went back and did a new suite of images in 2010, when I had some new ideas about representing local food.
APE: You stopped making pictures once, and then you restarted and made a whole bunch of new pictures?
Jonathan: Right. Why not? People ask me all the time if I’m going to continue to make pictures for that project, and the answer is yes. I’ll be showing a new one in a group show called “Market Value” in Santa Fe this July.
APE: So it’s never done. [laughs] At what point did you start thinking about your next project?
Jonathan: I started shooting the day after my first portfolio review in 2009. I began working on a project in the field in southern Colorado that was very, very different, mostly because I wanted to stay busy. I didn’t want to focus exclusively on the marketing of “The Value of a Dollar.”
APE: So, you just started pouring yourself into a new project.
Jonathan: Yeah, I went and did something totally different to keep myself focused on making the work. I was trying to find a conceptual through-line in the landscape, and I didn’t feel like I succeeded. They felt a little too much like everyone else’s work.
APE: So, you scrapped it?
Jonathan: Yes, I scrapped it. I took it off my website and I stopped showing it. You have to be your own biggest critic. If it’s not good enough, it’s not good enough.
APE: Amazing. Had you showed it to anybody? Had you been showing it at all?
Jonathan: Yeah, I did. I showed it in Fraction Magazine. In 2010, I also showed the work at Review Santa Fe alongside “The Value of a Dollar,” and nobody cared about it. People only wanted to look at the food photos. I listened to that feedback and I said, “OK, here I have something that everyone wants to look at and talk about. I also have something, even though it’s new and I care about it, I’m sensing that it’s not good enough.” You have to have the guts to burn it down sometimes.
APE: It’s got to be really hard for any artist, because there are so many opportunities now to test work. You could put it out there on blogs, and there are online only magazines like “Fraction.” If people aren’t responding to it, then why do they follow their investment into the ground?
Jonathan: There’s an emotional connection between an artist and his or her pictures. There just is. Often people want something to be better than it is, or it’s so important to them that they impute that personal connection onto others. They assume that because they care about it, and it means a lot to them, that other people will feel the same way.
I went to art school. I got an MFA. That was the big difference for me. You spend two years learning how to take criticism; how to accept the fact that oftentimes, it’s not good enough until it’s good enough. You get trained how to listen to negative feedback and grow from it. I don’t want to say that only people who have that education understand that, but I do know that the education is based around getting you to hear those negative voices.
APE: Doesn’t that go against the idea of listening to yourself, and the work comes from you? Doesn’t that go against the idea where you’re actually testing work with an audience? You’re trying to see what’s going to resonate and what’s popular, instead of just making work that matters to you.
Jonathan: That’s a very good question.
APE: How do you resolve those?
Jonathan: I look at a lot of work, as our regular readers will know. Whenever I’m reviewing portfolios or talking to people, my philosophy is that deep inside our consciousness, we always know. There is an inner voice, an inner consciousness about what you’re doing that always knows if it’s good enough or not. Sometimes it takes time. That’s why editing takes time. The new project has 23 pictures in it right now, and I shot, I don’t know, probably almost 1,200. The edit started at 150 and then whittled down to 75, and so on.
APE: You took 1,200 pictures in the studio?
Jonathan: Yeah, for sure. What people are seeing is only what I determine to be the best of the best, but also the pictures that fit best together. There are a lot of really good photographs that didn’t make the cut, because of the size of the exhibition space, because of the color palette. When I talk to publishers, I’ll be able to bring some of those images back. For a book, 35-40 might make more sense than 23.
But you asked a good question, and the answer is that people can be trained to find those voices…The word I like to use is ruthless. For editing, you have to be ruthless. You have to be willing to separate the good from the great, and that takes training.
As far as feedback goes, there’s a balance. We were talking about those landscape photos I did. I cared about them, but I did know, deep down, that I had not innovated or revolutionized anything. When I started observing that people weren’t really digging it, or weren’t loving it, that information correlated with the dark voices in my head, and that made me more likely to listen to those dark voices.
APE: With “MINE,” tell me a little bit about the process as far as, did you have a clear understanding of what the project was, the boundaries of it, the shape of it, from the very beginning? Or did that come later? Did you need to distance yourself from the project to understand what it was?
Jonathan: That’s another really good question. This process was very, very similar to the way I started “The Value of a Dollar.” I got that idea about looking at the way fast-food was depicted in billboard advertising six or seven months before I took my first picture. I had the idea, I thought about it, and then I just tucked it away and didn’t start shooting for half a year. It percolated in my head.
The same thing happened here. I started shooting in the beginning of 2011, but I had the idea in the summer of 2010. I was just walking around my land and looking at all these damn rocks. The soil is really rocky, so there are rocks everywhere.
James Estrin wrote about it on the Lens blog, in a cheeky way. You have to see it to believe it. The idea that popped in my head was, “I could be a rock farmer, but there’s no such thing. What can I do with all these rocks?” I had the idea, “What if I photograph them?” I brought one in the studio and just messed around, and then again, just said, “All right, we’ll see about this,” and tucked it away.
I thought about it for about six months. Then, when I was ready to start, the idea was pretty fully formed. I will look at my property and my resources and try to commodify them in a very obvious and unsentimental way, and then see if I can exploit nature and respect it at the same time. Which is kind of a difficult balance to achieve, but that’s what I wanted to do.
APE: Wasn’t there a point in the project where you had to step back, and you had all these pictures and you had to go re-edit them?
Jonathan: Yeah, that’s totally true. I burned this project down, as well.
APE: [laughs] You threw it away completely.
Jonathan: I threw it away completely, about eight months into the shooting. I waited that long for my first edit because I thought I was onto something. I felt like, now that I had an audience, which I never had before, that I needed to make sure it was perfect. I waited half a year to even do a provisional edit, and then I put it on the iPad to take to that conference in Reno.
After I swiped through, I showed it to my wife, and she swiped through and made this really bad face and didn’t say anything. I was like, “Oh, shit. Oh, no.” I waited 20 minutes, and then went back through and swiped with my index finger again. I said, “Oh, shit. It looks way too much like ‘The Value of a Dollar.’” It was all natural light. All the objects were in the center of the frame. Same vibe. I felt like I ripped myself off, like I had not pushed my own ideas far enough. I went to talk to Jessie and I said, “What’s your problem with this?” She said, “It’s not new enough. You copied yourself.” It hurt to hear it, but it was true.
I stopped the edit, threw the thing away, and gave myself a month to think about it. Then I went back in the studio and started using strobes again, which I had in the very beginning, and pushed myself. When I re-engaged with the edit six months later, I was able to find a different through-line, incorporating some strobe images with natural light, and found an edgier, darker perspective than I had the first time. These theories that I apply to the artists that I critique, I apply them to myself, too.
APE: That leads into the next question, which is, you had moderate or high success with your last project? Actually, how would you characterize it? Extreme? Not extreme?
Jonathan: It’s hard to answer that question without context. For me, I would say success beyond my expectations. With the amount of work that I’ve sold, it’s changed my family’s life. Having a global audience and millions of people around the world, albeit briefly, really interact with the work, that was as good as it gets. I didn’t think that was possible, and I didn’t make the pictures to have that happen.
APE: It was beyond anything you ever imagined when you were in school thinking about a career in photography?
Jonathan: Yes, only because the Internet evolved in such a way that I don’t think anybody could have imagined. When I was in graduate school at Pratt in Brooklyn, I would’ve said the highlight, the ultimate career goals would be to be included in the Whitney Biennial, and get your work in the permanent collections of MoMA and the Met. Which are still goals of mine, and I think they’re goals of a lot of people, which is why they’re cliché.
But at the time, in 2002, when I got to Brooklyn, there was no such thing as viral. There was no such thing as having people in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan look at your pictures at the same time, on the same day as your mom in Jersey.
The idea that information could be ubiquitous and that people could engage with it in their homes instead of having to walk into a physical space was where things just exceeded my expectations. Then the whole series was bought by the Library of Congress, and honestly, that’s just beyond any expectations I had. It was a wild ride.
APE: Can you talk about the pressure with the new project, then? If you have to top your last project the pressure must be incredible.
Jonathan: That’s why I tore down the project that I was working on in between, because I felt like it wasn’t good enough to be the next thing.
APE: You have to top it.
Jonathan: It depends on one’s ambition level. Yes, I don’t deny that I want to be as good as I can be, and I want my work to be on the wall of the best places and seen by as many people as possible. Under those circumstances, I did feel like I needed “what comes next” to be as good or better.
APE: But is there no room for a project that just moves you forward? This is just based on what I’ve heard from novelists, is when you have your great novel, it’s like you can’t move past it, and so you can’t produce work that’s below it and you can’t move to the next project.
Jonathan: With writers, you’re perfectly, 100 percent right. I’ve always been a huge fan of Steinbeck. It’s like, you look at “East of Eden” and “Grapes of Wrath” and you compare that to all the other little books, and there is no comparison. Maybe that’s why it took Jonathan Franzen 10 years to come out with “Freedom.” I mean, “The Corrections” was as good a book as anyone’s written in the last 50 years, so he probably felt the pressure.
For me, I was gaining success at 36. I have a family. I felt like, right now, this project, the next thing, was going to establish me or not. Hopefully, it will. Especially because my work had this kind of concept that on a bad day could be seen as gimmicky, I didn’t want to be the “Dollar” guy. I did not want to be an art equivalent of a one-hit wonder.
I thought, I need to nail it, to come up with something that’s good enough that people are like, “Holy shit, Blaustein’s for real.” Then, (now), I’ll be able to work on three or four things at once. I’ve got a lot of ideas that I haven’t shot. I just stopped teaching, so I’m going to have more time to do the kind of things that we’re talking about, whimsical side projects. I do have a pretty crazy conceptual thing that I’m working on that will be an extension of “MINE”, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet.
But your questions are incredibly intuitive, because that is how I felt. Right now I feel like I’ve succeeded, but the world will decide, really. I’ve satisfied myself, my own standards, creatively. But that’s the art part. Then comes the business part.
APE: How do you have such a good handle on both when to end projects but also when you feel satisfied? Is that part of the training? Does that go back to your schooling?
Jonathan: Well, training, yes. I’ve been doing this for 15 years. It’s like the whole Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hours thing. Everyone latched onto that about “Outliers,” but it’s really a fantastic book that delves into the power of culture. I do think it had a lot to do with the fact that I’ve been living and breathing photography for 15 full years.
In this case, though, it was a deadline. I pitched this concept to the State of New Mexico (NM Arts) for a public gallery with public funding a year ago. They actually support the production of the work. I requested the summer slot, and they said, “Yes.” From relatively early in my project, I had a hard deadline. I had a date I needed to meet, and that deadline was what finished this part of the project for me. It’s only an installment.
APE: I have some easy questions for you now.
Jonathan: I like the hard ones, though. They were good. Very insightful.
APE: I want to know about hanging a show, because I don’t know how it works. You have a space but then how do you pick the frames? How do you decide what sizes? How do you figure out that arrangement? How does that work?
Jonathan: Well, the presentation format that I’m using I sorted out over time. Again, in just all these years of experience, I had problems in the past with glare. I personally hate glare coming off of a picture. When you have problems with glare, it kind of rules out glass and Plexi, because non-glare glass and non-glare Plexiglas are both insanely expensive, and glass can break. I also really like the idea…Our readers probably know I’ve got a pretty serious rebellious streak. Because everyone uses glass or plexi, they encase the photograph. They cut it off.
APE: Does everybody use glass?
Jonathan: Or plexi, 95 percent of people.
APE: That’s to protect it.
Jonathan: Yes, to protect the image.
APE: Because maybe it’s their best print ever and it’s going to hang. You don’t want to destroy it, right, or damage it?
Jonathan: Well, yes. That, and most people just do what everyone else does. It’s the convention. I came up with the presentation format in the past and the frame choice in the past, so that wasn’t so difficult to do again. Especially as I’d never showed more than four framed pictures at a time. This was my first chance to do it right.
APE: The white frame?
Jonathan: Right. And they’re two different sized frames, so the math would add up.
APE: Where does that choice come from?
Jonathan: I think white, it’s just very clean and contemporary. It’s more open-ended. The white frame blends into the white wall. When you put black around something, you kind of cut it off. It’s a very final thing. White is chic. It looks good. If you go into most of the galleries, most contemporary art people use white. Of course, on this I’m bowing to a new convention. Such a hypocrite.
APE: I’m just curious, how do you make that decision? How do you pick white?
Jonathan: I can’t believe I’m about to tell you this. I have a horror story that I wasn’t planning to share that was, believe it or not, about frames and their color. When I got out of grad school, the big, monstrous, ambitious goal was to get hooked up with a gallery in Chelsea. And I did.
About six months after I got out of school, somebody took on my grad-school project. I dropped the work off, double-parked on 25th or 26th Street, took the work up to the gallery, and then a couple days later got berated by this dealer because she despised the color of the frames. They weren’t white or black; they were charcoal gray. She insisted they were purple, and hated the color of my frames enough that she told me to come pick up the work and leave. Three days after I had accomplished a life goal, I was told to get the work out of her sight.
APE: Because of the frames?
Jonathan: Because of the color of the frames.
APE: Holy shit.
Jonathan: I’m not exaggerating. I had an appointment set to make new prints. I had already set up a time to have them mounted and laminated. This particular person was so dismissive that it pushed me to leave New York. I went home that night and talked to my wife and said, “Look, if this is the caliber of person that I’m banking on, if I’m going to turn my career over to people who can do things like that, then we need to get out of this town. We need to go somewhere else. We need to settle down and get confident and strong and live in a place that brings out our best selves so that I can try to re-engage with New York down the line.”
I’m condensing the story. It was very traumatic. In fairness, I probably wasn’t mature enough to handle the relationship back then anyway. Ultimately frame color, since you keep asking about it, did become a very, very touchy subject for me. But I like white. It looks good.
APE: Incredible, thanks for sharing. Ok, maybe this question is easier. How do you decide on the sizes? Is it based on which photos you like better? Get bigger?
Jonathan: I went into the gallery space three weeks before the show opened. I had my edit, but that’s all I had. The space was cluttered from the previous show, but I took my measurements and I just really looked. I just closed my eyes and I tried to visualize things. Then I went home, and that weekend, sat down with some scratch paper, and drew it up on the spot. I sketched it out, and had the design. As to which to print big, I emailed a few colleagues and got their advice.
You pick up things at different times. I had a curator at one of the reviews one time say, “Why are they always one size? Why not have multiple sizes?” That stuck in my head. I saw Jesse Burke’s show at ClampArt in the summer of 2010, and he totally broke away from just the one horizontal line. I thought, that’s dope. That stuck in my head. But in this case, I wanted to do something that I’d never seen before.
That’s what drives me. The more work I see, the harder it is to make things I’ve never seen before. What I came up with is a symmetrical pattern, and it’s just different. There are a bevy of art historical references embedded in the project. It creates this really powerful visual arrangement.
Once I drew it up, I said, “We’re good to go.” I had my measurements. I knew how big the walls were. I knew how big the gaps would have to be between pictures.
APE: How do you know how big the gaps?
Jonathan: Just experience. I’ve hung a lot of shows over the years.
APE: What about the sizes? Did the room size dictate that partially, or do you like a certain size for your largest print?
Jonathan: It had a lot to do with the size of the room. That’s primary, because it determines about how big they have to be to hold the wall. Then you make the subtle choices within that range. With “The Value of a Dollar”, I always envisioned them really big. I made an edition at 30×40, and haven’t sold one. I had two editions, and the smaller prints, which can be hung in grids, have sold well. The State of New Mexico bought a one of a kind portfolio that was an in-between size. These prints are more in that range. The little ones were easier to choose, as they had to add up to fit under the big ones.
APE: And what are the details on the exhibition?
Jonathan: “MINE” will be up at the NM Arts’ Centennial Project Space through July 6th at 54 1/2 East San Francisco St on the plaza in Santa Fe. The gallery is free and open to the public, right next to Twin Palms Publishing. I hope some of our readers will have a chance to check it out.
APE: So what comes next with “MINE”?
Jonathan: Well, I’m going to take most of the Summer to catch my breath, as we’re expecting a daughter at the end of August. Then I’ll try to get the show on the wall in New York and other cities. I also have a second conceptual wave of the project that I’m already working on. It’s absurd.
Seriously though, thanks again for doing this, Rob. You’ve taught me a thing or two about how to run a proper interview.
MINE Artist Statement2012
I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I own the land: it’s MINE. But I share it with the animals, and things that don’t move. Every night, when I go to sleep, they have the run of the place.
Only a creature as arrogant as a human would claim ownership over his dominion, while living for such a short period of time. The rocks on my land are all much older than I am.
Artists are more infatuated with immortality than most people. We make marks, build things, and snap photos, all in the hope that we’ll be remembered when we’re gone. Deep down, we all have a dark desire that the art will be preserved, along with our name, and that people will look at it in a hundred years or more. Because the alternative is bleak. An eternity of nothing. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
I’m no different. I want my life’s work to mean something. I don’t want to disappear forever. But I also don’t think that my land belongs to me, any more than I belong to the land. I’m just part of this world, run by a simple rule: Survival of the fittest.
With that in mind, I decided to objectify my land, to leave my mark. Because I could. In so doing, I was able to investigate my territory, to sift through the dirt, to crunch up the snow, and then share it with others.
Once I harvested the objects, I took them to my studio to fashion temporary sculptures: Art pieces meant to satisfy my unquenchable desire to symbolize the world around me. I photographed the sculptures to memorialize them, just as we take pictures every day to remember what was there.