This Week In Photography Books: Jaime Permuth

by Jonathan Blaustein

Welcome to my third annual Thanksgiving column. Once again, we celebrate our forefathers: the ones who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to take over a continent blessed with untold natural resources. Yes, we Americans eat turkey to honor a genocide.

As you know by now, I love this country. (Despite being aware of our blood-drenched creation mythology.) People throughout history have done bad things to one another. Once word got out that there was land for the taking, and trees for the felling, it was only a matter of time before shit got real.

Sure, we can be cynical, and dismiss the entire American experiment as one of rapacious greed. But what’s the fun in that? Isn’t it better to mock the Puritans for their lack of humor, obsession with witches, and fastidious yet spartan fashion sense?

Even today, their name is evoked as a pejorative term. Puritanical. We only thank them for founding our country once a year, because that’s about as much time as we can stand to think about their no-dancing-no-fun-having lifestyle.

Our Manifest-Destiny-ness is counterbalanced, of course, by the narrative of a nation of immigrants. We are a new society, and have proved a haven to those seeking a better life, though we rarely greet them with open arms. They come anyway, and many generations have been able to ensconce themselves, forging a safer future for their offspring. (Big ups to my now-dead-great-grandparents for making the move. Staying in Europe would have been very, very, bad for my bloodline.)

Ever since our Siberian ancestors, 15,000 years ago, Americans have been walking, swimming, sailing, floating, driving, and even riding bicycles to the land where the streets are paved with gold. This country is the perfect embodiment of the imperfection of the human condition. We do some things really well, and fail at least as often as we succeed. (Could Obama really not find anyone in the whole country who knew how to build a freaking website?)

No matter what changes in America, people continue to move here seeking a fresh start. Just like the auto mechanics and scrap metal traders at the heart of Jaime Permuth’s new book, “Yonkeros,” published by La Fabrica in Spain. (The country for whom the Italian, Cristoforo Colombo, forever altered the course of history by discovering Hispañola.)

The title refers to a nickname for those types of businesses, which are found on a small peninsula called Willets Point, in Queens, NYC. The place is charmless in a way that’s charming, and gritty in way that allows for the subtle observation of beauty. In other words, it’s the ideal place for a long-term photography project.

Mr. Permuth is himself an immigrant from Guatemala, and it’s not hard to see why he was drawn to the place. The inhabitants come mainly from Mexico and Central America, so we don’t have to wonder if their conversations were carried out in English. (Que tal? Me llamo Jaime. Soy fotografo. Podria tomar su foto, por favor? No, no soy immigracion. Es seguro.)

It’s a perfect symbol for America, and the contradictions we can never escape. We killed a bunch of people and took their land so that we could set up a country where are men are free. (But not the slaves, of course. Or the women.)

We have a big statue in the New York harbor that offers to accept the tired, poor, and huddled masses. Unless we build a huge fence at the border to keep them out. We don’t want to pass immigration laws, because if we don’t, it’s like the 11 million illegal immigrants don’t exist. Our laziness converts them into phantasms; ghosts that are really good at fixing cars, cleaning houses, and picking fruit.

The book, the nominal subject of this diatribe, contains many pictures, so it’s likely you’ll have your favorites. I love the ones that are razor sharp and slightly surreal, like the deflated soccer ball, perched atop a car, reflecting clouds in the shiny painted metal. The few color images are a bit out of place, until you see the glowing pink sky above a snow-covered world. (Gorgeous.)

I also found a highly-pornographic image embedded on a small TV, which caught me by surprise. There is enough image diversity in the book that it entices you back, confident you won’t have seen it all just yet. Which is a good metaphor for the human condition, I’d say.

Yes, we’ve seen many things before. Almost everything, in fact. But that’s the keyword, isn’t it? Almost.

Bottom Line: A cool book about immigrant culture, perfect for Thanksgiving

To Purchase “Yonkeros” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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