This Week In Photography Books: Oscar Palacio

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was watching “The Lone Ranger” on TV yesterday. It’s possible I’m the only person in America who saw the whole damn thing. Major bomb, it was. (Who knew Jerry Bruckheimer could fail at anything?)

The movie wasn’t half as bad as I expected. (And boy, is that Armie Hammer a handsome man.) It was clear they spent more money filming than Roman Abramovich drops on soccer talent. Wow, did Disney waste some cash on that ridiculous runaway train sequence.

I wasn’t surprised at the movie’s lack of mass appeal, though. They focused on the dark underbelly of American history: the theft of Native American land in the name of progress. (Sorry, I meant greed.) In particular, they made sure to demonstrate that treaties were made, and then broken, under dubious circumstances.

Does anyone really think that’s a good idea to hammer home, in the name of mass-market-summertainment? Who green-lit that premise, Noam Chomsky?

They even had poor Barry Pepper dressed up like George Custer, playing a military sap who unwittingly massacred a heap Comanche for the RailRoad Conglomerate, and then went full-scale denial when he learned the truth. Wonder who that little metaphor might be referencing? Oh. That’s right.

Us.

On Twitter, I was recently accused of being a closeted Englishman. But of course that’s not true. I love my FREEDOM/DEMOCRACY/FOOTBALL/BLACK PRESIDENT as much as anyone.

Go USA.

I just had the good fortune to learn the truth about our past from some stellar teachers in High School and College. And it is far easier to pretend our wealth was not built up on stolen land, resource annihilation, and free slave labor.

I think that’s the main reason Americans are so ahistorical. It’s not that we’re stupider than the rest of the world. Just that we function better as a forward-looking society. (Land ho.)

That’s why so many artists love to mine history. To spend days in dusty archives, combing through crusty books to find out who said what to whom. We love us some primary sources. (Wait. You mean George Washington wasn’t really named George Washington Blaustein, as my young son suggested this week? Quelle Surprise.)

The other method is to get out on the road and see what things look like now. Is there really a Plymouth rock? And why did they name it after Plymouth, from whence those grouchy Puritans came?

I can answer in the affirmative, that such a piece of stone exists, having just seen it in Colombian artist Oscar Palacio’s new book, “American Places.” (Published by the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.)

The book is fascinating, in that it mashes up the historically important with the constructedly banal. What could be more American than that?

Gettysburg battlefields, Underground railroad sites, the Lower 9th Ward, Manzanar, the Wounded Knee Memorial, and chopped trees protruding through fences. Concrete covered with grass. White banisters, defenestrated, rotting in the dirt.

The book is quiet the way a library is quiet. It helps to focus the mind. BTW, you know I’m going to respect anyone who goes to Mt. Rushmore and comes back with a photo that blocks the money shot. That takes guts.

Perhaps it’s easier for an outsider to admit that our society is built upon shaky foundations, like the Sunset district in San Francisco. (Sand dunes sit beneath the sleepy beach community.)

I love this country. We’ve given the world airplanes, cars, and the Internet. But also nuclear bombs, NSA spy software, and a legacy of misery that is felt in Native American and African-American communities to this day.

This book manages to blend the poignantly beautiful and the boringly sublime. Which are both stand-ins for the the glory and gore we’ve managed to produce since the Pilgrims landed more than 400 years ago.

Long may we prosper.

Bottom Line: Surprising, quiet, classy book that reminds us of a history we’d rather forget

To Purchase “American Places” 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 6 Comments On This Article.

  1. Interesting looking book, and subject matter- can’t always throw history in the mix and expect to come out with something relevant aesthetically. Mr. Palacio seems to have done just that…

  2. Oscar –

    So glad to see your work in print. Will order one eight away in hopes we’ll cross paths again – at St. Botolph Club or at some other art venue. Cheers.
    SB