New York Portfolio Review – Part 2

I’ve got a joke for you. You might have heard it before.

A black guy and a white guy walk into a bar in Alabama in 1955. The bartender looks at the black guy and says, “If you don’t walk right out of here this second I’ll blow your f-cking head off with this here shotgun.”

So the black guy leaves, with no recourse but to step out the door ass first, to ensure he doesn’t end up with a back full of pellets.

What’s that you say? That joke’s not funny? It’s tragic? Oh. OK. You got me.

It was actually just another one of my ridiculous intros, in which I try to make a point by not talking about what I’m talking about. Which in this case is race, a difficult topic in the best of circumstances.

To be fair, today I’m talking about “diversity.” Which includes such sub-topics as age, gender, gender orientation, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and class. All get cooked together in this melting pot we like to call America. (Or do I mean the Internet?)

I grew up in a fancy, former farming-community-nyc-suburb in New Jersey. I’m a white male, from a good family, so I’ve been afforded opportunities many others have not. But I’m also Jewish, and my people have been enslaved and exterminated, so I’ve got that going for me.

My town in Jersey had a large population of Asian-Americans, as a since-closed-legendary-Bell-Labs facility had many engineers on staff. We had Jewish/Italian/Irish Americans too, but that was about it. Non-ethnic-Caucasian-Americans from lower income brackets lived in other towns, like Union Beach. (There were no African-Americans or Latinos to be found.)

Here in Taos, we’re lucky to be a mountain community that has any diversity at all. So many ski towns are as white as the snow on their famed jagged hills. Here, we have Native Americans, Hispanic folks, and us gringos. That’s a lot, for the American West. Highly limited, though, compared to you urban dwellers.

But New York? Fuhgedaboudit.

Everyone on Earth rubs shoulders. It is one of my favorite feelings. Walking around amongst humans from all countries, skin colors, sexual orientations. You name it. (Well, perhaps not walking around. Sitting or standing on a train. Underground. Pressed up against a lot of strangers.)

Being around other types of people is good for the soul. It imprints deeply that we are so much alike. Personified, the other begins to seem like a neighbor. And it’s cool to like your neighbors.

In-person-contact subverts racism.

Too often, in our photography world, we hear that it’s too white. Or too male. Right? How many times have you read a blog post about a contest jury that was all white. Or an art exhibition that was 90% male. Right? I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Why is it like that, when all smart people know diversity is a good thing?

Inertia. That’s my answer. A lot of people assume things will come to them. That communities grow naturally, and it will slowly get better over time.

That’s one way to go about it.

It’s another to actually call/email/text/FB/tweet/snapchat your contacts about an event, and ask them to do the same with theirs: to reach out and tap up large networks that are different than yours, with the belief that the spiders crawling around various webs will make beautifully diverse babies.

You saw from the title that this article was meant to be about the NYT Portfolio Review, and so it shall be. The above paragraph describes the strategy invoked by David Gonzalez and James Estrin, the NYT Lens blog co-editors who facilitated the review.

Like a lot of people, they believe getting various voices to the table is inherently good. So when they announced the 2nd New York Portfolio review, rather than wait around for whatever submissions came in, they did extensive outreach. “The goal was to make sure we had applicants of all kinds,” Mr. Estrin said. “So we did a special reach-out to make sure that we had the photographers. I know the photographers are out there, both in the documentary world and the art world, so we made special effort to have them apply.”

He shouted out En Foco, among other organizations, for helping to encourage photographers of color to send in their work. Mr. Estrin also stressed that they are interested in including people across class divides as well. “The core of this was the free aspect,” he added. “We wouldn’t do it otherwise. Plain and simple. We just wouldn’t do it.”

I report here that these guys succeeded in creating one hell of an integrated crowd.

As I thought about how to approach a second article, after dropping the fire alarm story last week, the thing that stuck with me was how amazing it was to be surrounded by talented, passionate people from so many backgrounds. I personally reviewed male and female photographers from Japan, China, Norway, Germany, Ecuador, and Brooklyn. (And then had beers at the Half King with a Japanese-Korean guy from Germany, a German guy living in Estonia, and a long-haired Mexican dude who shoots for Sports Illustrated in New York.)

The Lens team needs to be commended, and I’d suggest others follow this model. (They walked the walk, as it were.) Mr. Estrin stressed that his colleague, Mr. Gonzalez, as a person of color, was particularly adept at handling these issues.

“I once asked the editor-in-chief of a publishing house why one of their survey books had so few Latino or African-American photographers,” Mr. Gonzalez chimed in, via email. “He was refreshingly honest in his response: curators and editors often stick to whom they know. Well, I know lot of different people.”

“In fact, I would argue that I might know more people than some of the more noted editors out there. This is not a boast, but a reflection of my cultural/social roots and experiences: as a Puerto Rican, New Yorker, Yalie, Times-man, I’m aware of photographers, journalists and issues that might go unnoticed by others who do not have that sensitivity.”

Beyond diversity, though, there has to be great photography. The second part of the strategy, I was told, was to have enough diversity in the applicants to ensure they could make individual yes/no decisions based strictly upon the quality of the work.

Last year, some of what I saw was not very good. This year, every photographer had work worth showing. So let’s get to it then.

Motohiro Takeda showed me his pictures on Saturday. I’d heard about the project in the grapevine at Review Santa Fe last summer. The prints are very dark, and he hands you a flashlight to view them. They’re insanely gorgeous, but don’t deliver the same experience on the web at present. I wanted you to see them anyway.

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Holger Keifel was there on Saturday as well, and showed me a series on Boxing that was subsequently published on Lens. I loved six images of donated organs, in transit to be transplanted. He claimed to have 7 seconds each time to get the shot, and wanted us to know “the idea of this series is not about death. It’s about saving lives.”

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I also met Linda Bournane Engelberth the first day, when Mary Virginia Swanson grabbed me and said, “You have to look at this,” before handing me a laptop. The Norwegian photographer explores disaffected youth in Latvia, where the opportunities are few, and an Empire-hungry Putin is looking over their shoulders.

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Evan Ortiz grew up in Brooklyn, and is a journalism student at RIT. He showed me the project with headphones in video form, which I thought was strange, as it meant we couldn’t talk. But I liked the video piece very much, so he was right to do it that way. The powerful series focuses on a fellow student who overcame addiction and depression when she came out as a lesbian.

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Gina Pollack showed me images of women in their underwear. They’re accompanied by audio about the project “Bikini Season,” which examines how women view having their private areas waxed. It’s a smart subject, as the audio manages to be hilarious and poignant at the same time, which is a difficult mix to conjure.

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I first met Kayle Schnell on top of a mountain. Honestly. While hiking to Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley this winter, I stopped to talk to someone because she carried a heavy, pro camera up a very steep mountain. Not an amateur move. It was Kayle, who’s a journalism graduate student at CUNY. Her long term project focuses on a recovering drug addict on methadone. (And nicotine, apparently.)

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Santiago Arcos Veintimilla is a from Ecuador, and was recently awarded a Fellowship to work with the Magnum Foundation. His project, “La Cienega,” depicts the only town in Ecuador that has no children. That snake photo is going to haunt my nightmares for years.

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James Lawler Duggan is a young photojournalist who’s worked all over the “Arab Spring” territory in the Middle East, and in Syria as well. He described asking the Syrian man to take off his shirt so he could make the photograph, and how hard it was to do that, not knowing what was underneath.

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Grant Hindsley is currently based in Provo, Utah. I liked some of his single images, and a project on same-sex youth couples as well. The Mizzou Pride picture was one of my favorites of the weekend, and it felt proper to end today with Al Sharpton, straight outta NYC.

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Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. Portfolio reviews are a money making scam just like photo contests.

  2. I have to comment after reading your mention of the snake and your future nightmares.

    I stepped onto a snake in Ecuador. I thought it was a thin branch lying across a track.

    It reared up so that just the last foot or so of it was on the ground and the rest was waving up near my chest. I stepped back in big, slow movements – a pantomime movement like an actor might do to step back from something. It was funny.

    I didn’t get bitten and I don’t know whether it was a venomous snake. But I remember the electric hum burning through my body as I did everything in slow motion.

    The photo of the goat in the shadows is my favourite.

  3. lechatnoir

    Jonathan ,

    Native German speaker here , and I hope that I will not come across as angry .By looking at the set of pictures you used to illustrate this article with.You’ll be no different than the panel of judges you are pointing fingers at in your article . You posted about 30 images of which 22 are another diversity of white . About 3 or 4 are internal organs and there are more images of animals than there are minorities. What’s even more interesting is you picked the usual post war images of Arab women in pain and angry Arab men and of course Al Sharpton . Because we have not seen millions of these already. Okay it is crystal clear to me that you enjoy the status Quo , but please next time , you need to be forthright about this.

    And you said you “heard , the photography world is too white” . This sounds like gossip To me , unless you can actually point sources.You refuse to scratch the surface of this problem and maybe you actually thought you were telling minority photographers what they did not already knew . And you make them look like they are making demands because as you pointed out they do not “submit” their work. So you decided they need to be “encouraged”.

    I don’t know how you managed the make a part of this article about the Jewish holocaust , unless you want to undermine theirs.

    I don’t understand the point of that pre-civil rights joke you used to approach the subject . I don’t even think you would have used a gendered joke if this serious issue was about women in photography.