This Week In Photography Books – Melissa Catanese

by Jonathan Blaustein

I might be having a mid-life crisis. I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never had one before. Since turning thirty-nine last month, and then bending my mind in Amsterdam, I’ve begun to question the value of my contribution to the human race. Difficult stuff, but not that original, I suppose.

I’ve always thought that making art was a valiant way to transform the chaos of the inner workings of one’s mind into positive catharsis. And of course, art is ultimately the way we judge culture, from the future looking back. Basically, it’s a noble and high-class profession, despite the poor pay and surfeit of insecurity.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that I’ve taken the last year off from teaching. (I look forward to picking it up again in the Fall.) Working with kids has always helped remind me of the power of supporting creativity. Art offers teen-agers (and the rest of us,) an outlet for their emotions, one that can improve self-esteem as well.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been wondering (aloud) in this space what we can do to make art matter more to the general public. Again and again, I’ve pondered the issue. But in my introspective, MLC mental space, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s not appropriate to pull a JFK. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Maybe the real question is, what can we do to make the general public matter more to art?

The last few weeks, I wrote about books that really dove into murky, dark problems in 21st Century society. The Mexican Drug War, the incarceration epidemic in the US, and then an uplifting tale of conquering addiction in Canada. (How’s that for a North American Trifecta. Boo-yah.) So I can’t exactly say that no one out there is doing the good work. I just feel like these projects should have a greater impact on society than they do.

Now that the boundaries between art and journalism have come down, maybe it’s time that the motivations mixed up a bit as well. Artists could use a bit more of the photo-journalistic sense of mission and responsibility to the public, and perhaps the PJ’s could use a tad more of artists’ facility with innovation and risk-taking in the creative process.

Personally, I feel a bit caught in between. My burgeoning MLC is forcing me to ask some hard questions about what I ought to focus on, and whether I need to prioritize other people’s needs before my own. Lacking that, art can often end up as just a cool diversion. We’ve all seen countless examples of pictures on the wall of major institutions, or in beautifully printed books, and said, “So what?”

“Dive Dark, Dream Slow,” by Melissa Catanese, published by The Ice Plant in LA, is just such a project. I’m not certain, but I’d bet that Ms. Catanese is trendy at the moment. The book has that vibe. (Of course I could be wrong, but you know I don’t google this stuff. It’s all about reacting to the info provided.)

The black and white images contained within are cool. They appear to be historical, and have the feel of archived material. (Which the end notes corroborate: from the collection of Peter J. Cohen. Along with a quote from Camus, of course.) People are diving into dark waters, ladies are lounging on the beach, or in the tall grass, explosions pop up in the ocean. That sort of thing.

Of course, there are a few pictures of boobs, (Boobs Sell Books℠)
the moon, waves crashing against rocks, waterfalls, a man in a tribal mask. You get the picture. (I hope.)

I don’t mean to be sarcastic about this. It is a cool book, and I spent a few minutes trying to figure it all out, before I gave up. Because it doesn’t mean anything. I doubt it’s even supposed to. Sure, the artist might say she was mining an archive, trying to present a metaphor for the way we mine our subconscious as artists. Or maybe the book is meant to represent the process of psychotherapy, wherein we “dive” into abstract dreams, dissecting, seeking deeper meaning. (Of course, with the Camus reference, it might just be a meditation on existentialism.)

Really, it doesn’t matter. As Roger Ballen mentioned in our recent interview, so much of contemporary art turns people off because it doesn’t ask real questions, tackle actual problems, or attempt to represent anything other than the whims of spoiled rich kids. (I’m paraphrasing. I don’t think he mentioned rich kids, but did speak of preferring Disney movies to most of what he sees.)

In a world of near-infinite photographic images, the rules have obviously changed. Getty pays photographers in decimal points, Instagram images are on the cover of the NY Times, and we’re all out there, struggling, trying to figure out how to create value out of what we do. It’s harder to make a living at our collective passion than ever before, and I’m not sure that’s going to change.

So I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t time for us to reach out the wider world a bit more, as they don’t seem to be coming to us. Everyone is a photographer now, that’s a given. People have fallen in love with our way of expressing ourselves, which paradoxically makes us smaller fish in an a bigger ocean. Something’s got to change, and I’m suggesting it might be us.

Because books like this one will not bring the masses around to a sense of art’s importance. Maybe I’m wrong to want that? Maybe a collection of smart-looking photos, bound together well, should be enough for me. I just not sure anymore.

Bottom line: Cool book, but is it enough to just be cool?

To Purchase “Dive Dark, Dream Slow” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

 

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 25 Comments On This Article.

  1. Great conclusion and well put Jonathan. I think the BFA and MFA world will continue to have their own outlets based on their back patting and self loathing ways. Occasionally we’ll be lucky enough to have a Trevor Paglen or Richard Mosse come along and open our eyes.

  2. Well Said. I have really been thinking about this a ton in the last two years. I started a photography business while I was a photojournalist at a newspaper, then I lost my job and struggled to find ways to make money, I also started producing gallery work, so I started exhibiting. I keep trying to figure out how to define myself, and how to sell work, and how to make a difference, all at the same time. It is so difficult to sell and yet it’s amazing that so many people produce work that means nothing –yet sells. So as we all struggle with this, I think this is a great way to refocus going forward. How do we engage people and at the same time make that work meaningful. I agree, journalism and art should meet and do a dance together, working with each other, taking some, leaving other ideas. Thanks for this, it was very inspiring.

  3. Well, that’s a rather insulting review. And not because you didn’t like it, but because you couldn’t be bothered. It seems like this book just happened to get caught in the crossfire between your gaze and your navel, and I think no matter what your feelings are about its artistic value, it’s insulting to the authors to use it as nothing more than an illustration of your own personal crisis-of-the-moment.

    Melissa Catanese founded Spaces Corners, a photography bookshop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She has been sifting through the vast archive of collector Peter Cohen as an ongoing project. Cohen has some interesting thoughts on the relevance of amateur photography that would have actually dovetailed nicely with your brief commentary about how “everyone is a photographer now,” but no matter…that would have required a minute or two of googling to uncover.

    I understand that reviewing the books aren’t your primary concern with this column, but this seems to me to be a new level of disrespect, and you might want to reevaluate why you take such a point of pride in not doing any research or investigation into whose work you’re reviewing. Dismissing Melissa Catanese as another “trendy” artist without even knowing the first thing about her or the work she’s doing is just rude.

    • I can see why you find Jonathan insulting but your admiration may have skewed your opinion just as much as Jonathan’s narcissistic based midlife crisis skewed his. We’ve seen all of these images before, no editing can make them interesting. The non-linear no narrative thing is all the rage today so its going to take some very interesting such as Bryan Graf’s new work to gain any heft.

      A good question to ask when seeing this work is why should I care? I doubt these images could engage anyone outside of the art world.

      • But I haven’t expressed an admiration for the book. I haven’t seen it myself, so I don’t have an informed opinion of it yet. I do have an interest in “found” photography, and I was obviously intrigued enough to google the names of the author and collector and do a little reading about them, but I didn’t actually give an opinion on the work.

        • Good point(s), mw. It’s one thing to dismiss the book as a not very potent conglomeration, which it certainly doesn’t seem to rise above. But given the venue, a smidgen of background info certainly wouldn’t hurt…

    • “It seems like this book just happened to get caught in the crossfire between your gaze and your navel…”

      Very well put. This endless self-indulgent drivel by Mr. Blaustein is definitely starting to be very respectless. And adding “I’m not being sarcastic” after writing a bunch of backhanded compliments and straight out insults doesn’t make it better.

      I actually bought the book a while back sight unseen because I’ve heard about it and it was fairly cheap. I did not dislike it but I wasn’t blown away by it either. It seemed like a book made for quick viewing. One that works best when skipping through the pages at a somewhat fast pace, somewhat like looking at a series of movie stills. The jumps from one image to another were fairly intuitive. If anything the narrative was a bit too linear for my taste.

  4. I think the photographs are beautiful and I get the impression the whole book is one long photograph, that the intention may be to evoke a stream of thought in a twilight zone. I just want to clarify–Melissa Catanese was the photo editor who brought these selections together from an archive of the photographer Peter Cohen? Do I understand this correctly? If that is the case, I find the personality of the book even more interesting–the selective viewing of another persons eye. The photos are cool. But I see something else beneath the cool, I see panic mitigated by surrender, as if both the photographer and the curator are exploring the Tarot card known as ‘Drowning man’. Can we hear from Melissa herself about this interesting project?

  5. My dude, you totally missed the boat here!

    You say, “maybe the real question is, what can we do to make the general public matter more to art?” You realize that many of these photos are “snapshots,” right? One of the brilliant functions of this book is that it bridges the gap between all forms of photography, from high-art, to scientific, to the amateur. These distinctions are often arbitrary, and the breaking down of this hierarchy is crucial to a “class-less” comprehending of imagery! You complain about “non-linear” format as being “trendy.” Get over it! From the old school family photo album to tumblrs, and facebook photo streams, these are all non-linear. (even family photo albums and facebook streams end up not displaying images chronologically)

    You seem to believe that every artist should have this world changing AGENDA. Get off your high horse, man. Just because you feel like you haven’t contributed to the world enough doesn’t mean you can just transfer that frustration onto other works. Each piece of art functions in a different manner and for a variety of purposes. Additionally, art that takes an extreme stance on a subject often is counterproductive in the sense that people don’t like being bashed in the head with some artist’s ideology, ya know?

    To be honest, it’s a little heartbreaking to read this from you. It seems as though you’ve lost sight of the power of art. The function is not necessarily to have some direct major social impact. If it touches the spirit and soul of anyone, the work has succeeded. Think of the teenagers, man!

    I realize the tone of my comment isn’t going to do much to help you see from another perspective but maybe I’ll please someone who reads this article.

    May I include this POSITIVE & productive quote from Charlotte Cotton’s, “Nine Years, A Million Conceptual Miles,

    “[...]I think that those of us who have a genuine vested interest in the future of photography as contemporary art should open our doors and just let this new life come in.”

    UP THA PUNXX

  6. Jonathan is a pretty good writer. These are his opinions and he expresses them well and clearly, even when I find myself thinking he’s completely wrong. In this case he is not wrong.

  7. I find Jonathan’s writing about photography and life and the meaning of it all, amidst his own conflicts and happinesses, refreshing. Personally, I’m not interested in a careful, academic critique of a piece of fine art. I’m much more interested in knowing how something resonates with an individual, and why. I love that Jonathan shares his feelings and opinions this way. I know many people here read this column just as much for his writing as for the book review itself.

    I have just this past week been struggling with the very same feelings of existentialistic angst with regards to what I’m producing. Maybe it’s a 39 thing! Like I should somehow be making a difference with my photography instead of just making neat-o pictures. I finish a shoot and feel totally stoked, and then the next day I read an article about the sexualization of young girls in our culture and I think, what the hell am I doing taking pictures of actors when there’s so much going on in the world that needs a voice?? What I come back to is that the work cannot fulfill everything I want it to.

    This book fulfills its purpose, and that is all. May we all create our oeuvres and may they all elicit emotional responses. Good or bad.

  8. Western culture has developed a strange academic approach to “art”. Would be artists attend art schools and learn theory instead of the neccesary technical skills. They’re surrounded and immersed in this cloistered world rather than experiencing a real life that they desperately want and need to experience in order to create work. This is why contemporary art fails to excite the general public… its off the mark and distant. Creativity doesn’t spawn from some ether, its informed by something, and oftentimes that soething is experience and a wider education.

    So is it really a suprise that the wider world is more concerned with escapism than it is with a distant artist’s interpretation of “what matters”? Most people live with “what matters” and they don’t need reminding. Obviously I’m not diminishing the importance of art and storytelling in the Western world, but I’m interested and invested in seeing this torch change hands. Everybody is a photographer now because of accessibility. Good! Contemporary art needs a dose of accessibility.

    • I don’t know why contemporary art would need a dose of accessability. There’s plenty of highly accessible contemporary art. Go to the movies, listen to music, buy a fashion magazine, watch tv. All of that is accessible art.

      The inaccessibility of the academic approach to art is no more of a problem than the inaccessability of academic papers in literary studies. Would you suggest that a literary scholar dumb down his papers or that he/she write young adult fiction in order to reach a larger audiense? No, you probably understand that it is work created by someone who’s concerned with very specific, highly theoretical problems and that it is aimed at a small audience which shares the same concerns. I’ve never attended art school but I don’t know why it should be a problem that art school students make art for other art school students. It’s not even that small an audience. Last I checked there were a lot of them around!

      And as for being immersed in a cloistered world instead of experiencing real life, I don’t really know what that means? Some people like to sit at home alone and read books while others like to go out, fuck a lot of people and do lots of cocaine. Neither one of those experiences is realer than the other. Both (and everything in between) are very real and all of it can be a legitimate foundation for creating art.

      • “I don’t know why contemporary art would need a dose of accessibility. There’s plenty of highly accessible contemporary art. Go to the movies, listen to music, buy a fashion magazine, watch TV. All of that is accessible art.”

        First off there’s a substantial difference difference between entertainment and art. There is a place for both in our lives, and there is substantial crossover between the two as well (especially in TV dramas these days). This discussion however, as far as I’m aware, is focused on the art end of the spectrum and how it does/doesn’t reach out enough of an audience and why.

        “The inaccessibility of the academic approach to art is no more of a problem than the inaccessibility of academic papers in literary studies. Would you suggest that a literary scholar dumb down his papers or that he/she write young adult fiction in order to reach a larger audience? No, you probably understand that it is work created by someone who’s concerned with very specific, highly theoretical problems and that it is aimed at a small audience which shares the same concerns.”

        No, I don’t understand. It takes more effort and editing to make a complex subject accessible to everyone than it does to a small set of peers. “Dumbing down” is a misnomer, full stop. The famous adage “if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” springs to mind. I believe the issue is that academia widely underestimates the wider audience and excuses them from the conversation. This is what I was taking issue with.

        “I’ve never attended art school but I don’t know why it should be a problem that art school students make art for other art school students. It’s not even that small an audience. Last I checked there were a lot of them around! And as for being immersed in a cloistered world instead of experiencing real life, I don’t really know what that means? Some people like to sit at home alone and read books while others like to go out, fuck a lot of people and do lots of cocaine. Neither one of those experiences is realer than the other.”

        Cloistered refers to an isolated way of life, an environment composed of similarly minded students/teachers with little exposure to other walks of life and experiences (i.e. monastic life). Living within and producing work for the same art-focused academic community fosters an inbred form of art, which is why it doesn’t speak to or excite wider audiences.

        As you pointed out, the number of people attending art schools is astronomical, completely disproportionate to the population. Simply put, we’d never produce that many bona fide artists per capita, nor do we need to. The harsh reality is that many of the people attending art school are unfit to do so, and are only there because they can afford to follow their misguided dreams. Of course there will be brilliant work coming from these colleges and universities, but only from a handful of truly talented kids whose abilities would refine naturally with a bit of life experience and guidance. Its only since the 1950’s that art schools have really switched their focus from training to theory, and since then its become an academic pursuit rather than one of skillful communication/expression. What does a BA or MA in Fine Art even mean? That you’re a certified artist?

        This is why the growing accessibility of photography (and now video) is great. It removes the veil of exclusivity from creating, and allows people from all walks of life to try their hand at something they may have been unable to touch a decade ago. I wouldn’t have been able to find my career if it wasn’t for the affordability of DSLRs when I left high school a decade ago. I’d still be working in retail.

        • I agree, there’s a difference between art and entertainment but they’re not mutually exclusive. Having the potential to entertain is simply a property that applies to some things and others don’t but it’s not a case of art vs. entertainment. Some art is entertaining, some movies are entertaining, some books are entertaining, some music is, some conversations are, cooking can be entertaining, etc. etc. There is this thing we call the entertainment industry and it’s true that a lot of things that come out of there are ONLY entertainment and not much else but that doesn’t mean it’s not a place where we find art. The cinema is just as valid a place to look at art as the museum or gallery space is.

          Again, I don’t know why it should be a necessity for art to make complex subjects accessible to everyone. Whenever I read an article in a newspaper about a subject I’m highly familiar with I find myself utterly bored, even if it’s well written. The problem is that making complex subjects accessible often requires simplifying some complexities which are only familiar to those who have devoted a lot of time thinking about them (i.e. experts). That’s what ‘dumbing it down’ means.
          Or let’s put it this way. I’m sure Stephen Hawking’s “A brief History of Time” has made a lot of scientific concepts more accessible to the general public but I doubt any trained astro physicist at the time learned anything from it. I’m not saying one is better than the other, I’m just saying if you’re an astro physicist and you want to engage in a discourse with other astro physicists instead of the general public I don’t know why there’s anything wrong with that. It’s perfectly fine to speak to a small audience. Most of academia has gotten used to it.

          I don’t think that academic artist (if we want to use that term) set out to do things that are inaccessible to the wider public. I just think often they are concerned with problems that the wider public just doesn’t care much about because they do not spend time thinking about them. It’s not that the public is stupid, it’s just that there is a very small number of interests in life that most people share (even in the same culture) and if you decide you do not want to engage in those you’re automatically limiting your audience.

  9. “I don’t mean to be sarcastic about this. It is a cool book, and I spent a few minutes trying to figure it all out, before I gave up. Because it doesn’t mean anything. I doubt it’s even supposed to.”

    I’m having a hard time understanding the statement “it doesn’t mean anything” in the context of artistic and photographic intent. Specifically photographic intent that is produced in a physical format that has substance, weight, and presence. As an object in the world, it inherently has some meaning.

    As a photographic educator I struggle with the weight of image over-saturation and meaning as I teach young photographers techniques, history, and hopefully encourage them to wonder about the medium as it pushes forward. This semester I’ve invited Paula McCartney (Bird Watching) and Carrie Elizabeth Thompson (Goma) to speak with my classes about bookmaking and help them formulate ideas around the book as a vessel for images. If I had the budget, I would fly Melissa Catanese out to do the same. The book she has made would not exist if it didn’t mean something.

    Maybe going back to teaching will alter your perspective again.

    On another point, I’m not sure Melissa Catanese’s book is meant to bring the masses around to arts importance. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you’re wrong about wanting that, I just think that’s a lot to put on one book. I think of all the books in history that have failed to do just that, and are so important to art in pushing the discourse of issues that matter, and are beautiful.

  10. APE is a great blog, covering all manner of photographic bases…and covering them well. But really, how does J.Blaustein’s critically vacuous, self-centred nonsense get published? It’s at best throwaway, at worst offensive in it’s naivety and irrelevance.

  11. I’ve read Jonathan Blaustein’s reviews in the past and quite enjoyed them, but this one sits uneasily with me.
    I think the main reason for this is his rationalization for why the work does not move him. There is no reason that each work need connect with him on a visceral or even personal level, of course. But in this review Jonathan justifies his disconnect by taking unsubstantiated shots at Catanese. “I’m not certain, but I’d bet that Ms. Catanese is trendy at the moment.” What on earth does this have to do with the work? Please don’t blame the author/editor for a lack of deep meaning if you have nothing to go on. As it is a criticism that will hold up a mirror to you.
    Since Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, photobooks without a clear narrative thread have been in the public eye. Or put another way, photobooks that emphasize the persistent and profound alienation that is modern life have been part of the discourse on art. Is this book one of them?
    Part of the meaning that derives from found photographs is the very disconnect between the object and its referent. Generally these photos are without context, history, or narrative. Working within that body of disembodied work Catanese has constructed something. Something which deserves, at the least, to be considered on its own terms. As with any book it can be given a superficial reading. But with a bit of work, there are deeper implications here that can be uncovered.
    There is a disquiet in found photos that speaks to all the profound themes that Blaustein is after in art. Perhaps as his mid-life crisis passes his vision will clear and we can go back to enjoying his reviews.

  12. The reviewer seems to have used Ms. Catanese as an example of the small edition books published by the plethora of photography MFAs graduating from second and third tier colleges. Ms Catanese’s Spaces Corners website presents her as bookstore owner, publisher, photographer and gallerist. Looking at her stable of photographers Ed Panar seems to be he main man, his recent book has the same shallow “deep thoughts” as Ms. Catanese.

  13. I think the great thing about art is that it affects and influences peoples emotions differently at different moments in their lives (which is also the reflection of the people creating/curating it). Same is true with music. When I’m having a good day I’m not as in tune with the nuances of the lyrics, just happily humming along. However, on a particularly emotional day those same lyrics can really hit home. Art isn’t about whether or not it’s “good” or “bad”, it’s more about the way that it makes you feel. Come back to that same book a year or ten years from now and you may have a completely different experience, or you may feel the same. Either way, art is all around us. I wouldn’t be that worried about the public, worry about yourself and if it makes you desire change than act on it.

    I struggled for the longest time at art school (having just come from a tech program). My work was too “commercial, technical, properly exposed”…whatever. Now that I’ve been in business for myself I make work that makes me happy which in turn makes my clients happy. Is it pushing the boundaries of art or having some profound impact on the world? Doubtful. But does it make me happy producing it? Yes. Do what you love and the rest will follow (I’m sure that was some inspirational quote someone posted on FB, but hey it’s true).

    Ms. Catanese’s book isn’t about changing the world, it’s about sharing her experience with anyone who’s interested in looking. While I can’t say that I’m blown away by it, I do feel the dreamlike quality in the works that she’s chosen. Would I buy this book? Probably not, it doesn’t move me that much, but then again that could change ten years from now.