This Week In Photography Books: Frederic Brenner

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was sitting in a hot tub in Dixon, New Mexico, the other day. My attempts at relaxation were futile, as two soon-to-be seven-year-old boys insisted on jumping in like enormous balls of hail. SPLASH! SPLASH! (No, it wasn’t very relaxing, but the hot water felt good on my sore shoulder.)

Soon enough, I gave up on achieving bliss, and began to chat with my new friend Stephan, who’s visiting from Brooklyn. How strange, that two 40-something Jewish guys might hit it off in the hinterlands of the American West. (Sarcasm intended.) He’s a very bright guy, and told me on several occasions that he’s been reading high level stuff on his holiday.

Naturally, I asked him what he was catching up on. Calculus, physics, philosophy. That sort of thing. (All while I’ve been addictively refreshing my browser to get the latest Arsenal Transfer News. Embarrassing.)

Just as I was exiting the hot tub, he mentioned a concept in computer science theory called an NP problem. (It stands for nondeterministic polynomial time.) Apparently, they’re not solvable via the technology of the day. So they’re alluring to many a great mind.

The unsolvable problem is a somewhat nihilistic concept, when we bring it down to the human level. Can poverty ever be eradicated? I doubt it. And didn’t Bill Gates try to annihilate smallpox or some such disease, only to see it make a genuine comeback in the chaos of Syria. (Facts can be checked on Google, but I’m just spitballing here.)

If you were to poll a bunch of random people about what conflagration is never likely to burn itself out, I’d bet they’d say “The Middle East.” Push them further, and you know they’ll say Israel. The homeland of my ancestors.

Northern New Mexico actually looks a bit like Israel, in the right light. I know, because I was there for a summer vacation/ teen tour in 1991. Smack dab in the middle of the first Gulf War. (Speaking of not relaxing…) All I remember is trying to sneak off for a nap during Kibbutz work duty, and downing horrible Russian vodka to summon enough courage to hit on a pretty girl. (Yes to getting super-drunk, no to any success with the lady.)

People were all geared up for war back then, as they have been since the country’s inception. Which was rather recent, given that my people were living there forever, before we got ejected by the Romans. As of 1948, though, things have looked grim, with respect to any kind of lasting peace.

Of course, I write this now, in the middle of yet-one-more episode of War. People killing people, to try to make a point. Which is?

I certainly won’t be able to tell you, from my cozy chair on the other side of the world. But then, no one will, as peace in the Middle East is most definitely an NP problem. The best I could offer here would be to share another’s more personal, more educated view on the matter.

So I will.

Frederic Brenner’s new book, “an Archaeology of Fear and Desire,” was recently published by MACK. Apparently, it’s one of a series of projects shot in Israel that were commissioned by Mr. Brenner. Other artists like Stephen Shore have had their say, and this book is Mr. Brenner’s take on life in Israel.

It’s a very clean, formal, precise view, with the requisite irony on full display. For example, we get a two page run in the book in which a religious Israeli family dines in splendor in a big house, and on the following page, a Palestinian family crunches together in a much smaller space.

But it’s not just the status quo. We see a couple of dirt bike riders in the desert near Sodom. (Are we to question their sexuality, because of the title.?) And another portrait of a woman who looks very much like she is gay, but am I allowed to speculate on such things? And if I did, what might gay rights look like in a religious country?

We see a blind former soldier with two prosthetic arms. And an anonymous Palestinian man who sure looks like he was tortured, or at least beaten to a pulp, with a wicked scar running across his eye.

There are migrant workers of color, jimmy-rigged border patrol wearing head scarves, and some Orthodox Jews in an airport, with their eyes shaded, looking ancient, except for their always-dorky rolling suitcases. Classy.

This book was perfect to write about this week, for obvious reasons. The images within are well made, but will not change your life.

But they do offer you a window into a world without hope. Or, at least, without hope of ever fixing its own, ancient set of problems. Which is a fair metaphor for what we all do every day. Keep going, enjoy the pleasures at our disposal, and fight when we must.

Bottom Line: Clear, color vision of life in contemporary Israel

To Purchase “an Archaeology of Fear and Desire” Visit Photo-Eye

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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 3 Comments On This Article.

  1. Looks very good indeed. Wish we could just appreciate it just for the images alone- without reality creeping into mind…

  2. Stephan Shaw

    Interesting. I had been thinking of the NP problem as “No Palestine”. As in, the problem exists because Israel wants no Palestinians and no Palestine. Anyway, as you brilliantly point out, this is a much less abstract, and aesthetic example of an NP problem.
    Let me also point out what typical leftcoast elitist snob Stephan is, referring to his high level studies!