Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books: Alejandro Cartagena

by Jonathan Blaustein

I quoted Joseph Goebbels in my college-entrance-essay. It’s true. Of all the strange things I’ve told you about myself, I bet that one tops the list. Hard to believe I was accepted anywhere at all, dropping Nazis into my text.

If I remember correctly, I mentioned his theory that with respect to propaganda, if you’re going to lie, lie big. The larger the falsehood, the more likely people are to swallow it. Or so he said.

Little fibs will be sussed out by a suspicious public, but outright fantasies, they might swallow. I’m sure my good buddy Vlad Putin was paying attention, the way he blames his attempted takeover of Ukraine on the Ukrainians.

Stay classy, VP.

That’s one way to perpetrate your population: to make shit up. Another way, quite the opposite, is to stop talking entirely. To use the shade of secrecy as a way of enveloping the truth. It’s equally insidious, when utilized properly.

I bring this up, as I caught up with Alejandro Cartagena last weekend in Los Angeles. (Culver City, to be exact.) He was at the Kopeikin Gallery for a new solo show, and as I was in town, I dropped in to give him un abrazo and see how he was doing.

For those of you who don’t read my stuff with perfect regularity, Alejandro is a Mexican photographer based in Monterrey. I interviewed him two years ago, and he shared with all of us the harrowing reality of living in the middle of an active war zone. The kidnappings, the fear, the murders in public places.

How Awful.

Now, I’ve been to Mexico twice in those intervening years. My folks spend time in Playa del Carmen in the winters, and I’ve basically been tasked with delivering my children to their door. Gotta see the grandkids, que no? Tourist Mexico, on the Yucatan Peninsula, is literally a thousand miles from the drama that Alejandro was enduring.

Lately, at least since President Nieto was elected, I’d heard very little about the Mexican Drug War. Almost nothing. Their economy was booming, went the conventional wisdom, and Nieto has taken on some of established monopolies. Things are looking up, it has been implied.

And then, a few weeks, ago, that horrible story broke. The 43 young college students who protested. How they were kidnapped by the local police. Hoarded into buses. Delivered to the Cartels. Never to be seen again. (Goebbels would be proud.)

That is among the worst things I’ve ever heard. And their bodies are hidden so well that the truth will probably never come out. Locked away in a cave somewhere, shrinking from the clarity of light.

I mentioned this to Alejandro. How I’d been suckered into thinking Mexico was on the way up. How foolish I felt, hearing how bad things really were. How naive.

It was no accident, he told me. That was the plan. Nieto’s big idea was to stop talking about the Drug War. Entirely. Denial by omission. A coordinated PR campaign in lieu of a genuine solution to the misery.

That’s what he told me, at least. And he pointed out that despite the publicity generated by the missing students, it was not properly reported on, how many mass graves were discovered while searching for the boys. Multiple mass graves. Lots of them. Each filled with decomposing bodies.

Casualties of War.

Now, sometimes, you come to this column to read funny things. I get it. I keep it light when I can. I’m not trying to ruin your morning coffee, or your lunch break, or your quiet-time looking at your iPhone on the light-rail home.

Forgive me.

But sometimes, in my duties as a quasi-reporter, I learn things. Things I ought to share. Here.

Alejandro is on my mind not just because I saw him a few days ago, but also because when I came home, I found “Carpoolers” in the mail. Wrapped up tight like an X-mas present. (Yes, the Christmas season is practically upon us. And it was just summer. WTF?)

The book was published by Conaculta/Fonca, and is a special production indeed. I included a photo of the wrapping, which was sealed with a sticker that says “please carpool.” A few extras are included with the book, seemingly encouraging you to tag them, Shepard Fairey style, to make the point that carpool lanes get you to work faster. Or save the planet by limiting carbon emissions. (Or something like that.)

The book is well-built, with a photo cut into the hard-cover, and a royal blue spine that matches the denim-on-denim dude in that image. He sits beside construction supplies, a ladder, and a bunch of junk. (Foreshadowing.)

We showed a few of these pictures in the aforementioned interview, but the whole endeavor has grown up like corn stalks out of a secret grave. The book makes sense as an object, and is experiential, like most of the books I’ve been reviewing of late.

The premise is simple. Alejandro hung out on an expressway overpass, and photographed poor Mexican workers on their way to work. It’s meticulous, getting the compositions just right, and I’d bet anything there are thousands upon thousands of misfires. (Occupational hazard.)

The reason the book sings is that he’s been able to develop patterns. Several times, we see the same truck, which seems impossible. Which guy didn’t make it to work that day, and which is there each time?

Are they reading the paper one day, and zoning out the next? Does the garbage get cleaned out, or is someone sleeping on the very same dirty piece of torn foam? Honestly, how did he do it? Find the same trucks more than once?

I have no idea.

There is a piece of newspaper included, halfway through, and I was curious why. (Except for the boob shot inside, because, as we all know, Boobs Sell Books.℠) Sure enough, the next few pictures depict the guys reading the local tabloid rag. A way to pass the time.

They’re all guys, now that I think about it. A few times, they look up and smile. Which breaks the implicit barrier between subject and shooter. Once or twice, they spy him and scowl. More what I’d expect, given the discomfort of the situation.

One time, apparently, Alejandro rode in the back of a truck himself. To get the vibe. He made photographs with the camera pointed up, documenting the view, which often featured helicopters. Ferrying Monterrey’s wealthy elite? Or perhaps a cartel jefe?

Who knows?

But this is one book that will give you a peek into a world you couldn’t possibly know. And I was happy to see it, even if it distracted me from thinking about those 43 stolen boys. RIP.

Bottom Line: Thoughtful, well-constructed view down into pick-up trucks in Mexico

To Purchase “Carpoolers” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Kris Vervaeke

by Jonathan Blaustein

I took my daughter into pre-school on Friday morning. For once, I wasn’t late. What a relief.

One step down the industrial-carpeted hallway, and I was hit in the face with the smell of puke. Vomit. Throw-up. Call it what you will.

The odor was intense, like a kung fu stuntman awaiting a high-wire scene. My goodness, was it unpleasant. And, of course, a horrible omen.

Not. Good.

By nightfall, she was projectile vomiting, my daughter. Fever too, though mild. I was wiping sick off the concrete floors for almost an hour, all together.

Normally, this would not be such a big deal. Kids take ill all the time, and pre-schools are notorious germ factories. All parents know that.

But now is not a normal time. Ebola panic is everywhere, and I’m getting on a plane on Wednesday. The moment she began to evacuate her stomach, the old-fashioned way, I had visions of myself retching into a barf bag, on a Southwest flight, while the pilot re-routed us to the nearest airport.

No joke.

Once a virus comes in the house, you’re really just waiting for it to get on with things. The waiting. It’s miserable. Compound that with fear of sparking a riot in the airport, as your fellow citizens rush away from you as quickly as their chubby, sweat-pants-wearing legs can carry them…

Like I said, not good.

Thankfully, if you can say such a thing at such a time, I got hit with the bug yesterday. Sunday. It was efficient, like Harvey Keitel’s cleaner in “Pulp Fiction.” No wasted effort. I started to feel bad in the late morning, was stuck in bed within the hour, had two quick puke sessions, and was asleep at my normal bedtime.

I woke up today, weakened, but otherwise OK. No appetite, true, but no fever. To be clear, I am not suggesting I have Ebola. Just the opposite. But it’s insane that we’re living in a world where a simple stomach bug can set off that kind of fear.

Fear of death. Fear of misery. Fear of leaving this world, to be forgotten. Forever.

(Sorry. Didn’t mean to freak you out. We’re all going to be OK.)

But it did get me thinking about all those nameless people dying in West Africa. They don’t stand a chance, those guys. You eat a piece of bushmeat, and the next thing you know, your eyes are bleeding and you go to the local shaman for help? Are we really living in 2014?

Sometimes, I wonder.

We all die, and then they have to put us somewhere. A cemetery, most likely. But who even knows who goes where, once your immediate family submits to the ravages of time. I once photographed a gravestone from 1776 that was smack dab in the middle of a suburban front yard in Jersey. (You never know how things will end up, centuries hence.)

But I wasn’t thinking those things as I perused “Ad Infinitum,” a new book put out by Kris Vervaeke. In fact, the only thing I was thinking was, “What the fuck is going on here?” (And “Thank god my son’s asthma attack, ten minutes ago, because he inhaled a bunch of garage dust swept up by the plumber, at his grandma’s house, wasn’t serious.)

On first viewing, this book was perfectly obscure. Page upon page of pictures of Chinese-looking people, faded away. Creepy business. Were the portraits bleached? Photoshop? Who are they? Why are there so many of them? (Insert random billion chinese-people joke here.)

No. Seriously. There was no text. No titles. Nothing.

For once, I’ll admit I skipped and flipped. Because there were so many of them. The monotony. All those portraits. (Ad infinitum.)

I couldn’t find anything at all. I turned it upside down. I flipped from the back. What?

Finally, I noticed that the page numbers were interrupted. They ran up, and then started over again. A clue?

I sourced out the point of interruption, and found a one page statement that explained what was going on. Honestly, I was a shade disappointed. Sure, it was good to hear the backstory. Clarifying.

These are portraits from headstones in a cemetery in Hong Kong. They have been separated from their owners’ names, out of respect, but also to create the sense of disorientation that hit me so squarely. They are faded, and destroyed, because they have been subject to the elements. Worn down by the undefeated prize fighter extraordinaire: Time.

I was only-a-little-sad to learn the truth, simply because I thought I was looking at the first book I’ve seen yet that had the guts to tell nothing at all. No hints. Which would have eventually pissed me off, and maybe I wouldn’t have reviewed the book? Tough call.

But this one has a haunting quality to it that seemed perfect in the run-up to Halloween. And ideal for me to dive into on a sick day, home, watching pointless movies on cable. Waiting to get better, so that I can just be some anonymous dude at the airport on Wednesday. Arousing no suspicion at all.

Bottom Line: Creepy and obscure portraits from a Hong Kong cemetery

To Purchase “Ad Infinitum” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Berhnard Fuchs

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was riding in the car with my son, just the other day. He recently turned 7. As we approached my old studio, which I left in 2013, he let out a big sigh. It was demonstrative, that sigh.

Weighted.

“I miss your old studio,” he said. “I miss the good old days. Those were some good times, back then. We used to look at animal videos on Youtube, and play with stuff, and Juma the barber was still alive. He used to give me pretzels. We’d visit the Montoyas. Your landlords. They’re nice people, and they’re going to die soon too.”

“Those were some good times,” he finished.

Again, I stress this child is 7.

“You mean,” I said, “that you miss the days when you were 4? Back when life was simpler, and you didn’t have to do homework in 1st grade?”

“Exactly,” he answered.

“There’s a word for that,” I said. “It’s called nostalgia. It means you long for the easy days of your youth. It’s a kind of sadness that makes you feel good at the same time. It’s a complicated emotion. A first for you, I think.”

“Nostalgia,” he said. And then promptly forgot the word. But we did stop the car to visit the Montoyas, who are nearing 90, unwell, and not long for this world. His deep sigh, which kicked off the entire conversation, led us to visit our elders, which is always a mitzvah.

It’s funny how that thought-pattern seems so deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Did our ancestors used to say things like,

“Grog, I really miss that cave we used to live in, back in those mountains over that way. You know, the one by the broken tree near that river? The smell of bat shit was so pungent, its true, and we never saw the sun. But those were some good times, in that cave, making fires and painting horses on the wall with berry juice.”

I wonder.

I wonder, especially now, having just put down “Woodlands,” a new book by Berhnard Fuchs, published by Koenig. Back in 2011, when I first started this book review column, I reviewed a book by Mr. Fuchs. Those were some good days. I don’t remember his book, exactly, but if I hadn’t liked it, I wouldn’t have written about it.

This one, entirely made of color landscape pictures, was photographed in the land of his youth. I’m guessing it’s Germany, but I suppose it could be Austria.

Either way…

In a short, but relevant opening passage, Mr. Fuchs says these tree-filled hills bring him back to his youth, and give him a feeling of “everydayness.” (Which is a kind way of saying it all looks alike.)

You can feel the longing buried amongst the snow and gray skies. There are green, summery pictures too, for sure, but they all deny me the deep horizon that I crave, living in New Mexico, where I can see for 100 miles. They’re claustrophobic, these pictures, and there are a lot of them.

By the end, I was rushing through to get to the end, so I could breathe again. There are a few photographs that are stellar, on their own, but mostly, this is another experiential book.

You feel the place.

You get nostalgic, even if it’s for a city somewhere, or an island, or a waterfall that’s only for you.

There are no cultural markers here. No road signs. No irony, really. It is what is says it is. Woodlands.

Home.

Bottom Line: A seductive sameness in the woodlands of Germany

To Purchase “Woodlands” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Nicolo Degiorgis

by Jonathan Blaustein

I once made fun of the Chinese government. It’s true. You can look it up in the APE archives. I was defending Ai Weiwei, when he was unfairly incarcerated, and I said some rather indelicate things.

These days, the evil enemy de rigeur is ISIS, or ISIL, depending on which acronym you prefer. Those guys are genuinely awful, but I think I’ll stop short of name calling this time.

Why?

Because those fuckers are so crazy, and Internet-Savvy, they might just send a sleeper over the Mexican border to come chop off my head. So, to be clear, I’m not making fun of you, ISIS. I’m merely pointing out your preference for horrifying, anarchic violence, in the name of worshipping your deity. (Different strokes, different folks, I always say.)

One of the sad facts of the ISIS ascendance is that they cast a pall over the many millions, if not billions, of peaceful, law-abiding, God-loving Muslims around the planet. Those folks wouldn’t behead a fly, unless it was buzzing around their head incessantly. Then, maybe they’d just swat at it, trying desperately to make it go away, before they had to resort to insect murder.

Please, Mr. Fly, go somewhere else. Leave me alone. I bear you no ill will. I will not kill you unless you leave me no choice.

Muslims are people, like Jews and Christians and Buddhists and Hindus and Zoroastrians. Here in the United States, we talk a good game about respecting religious freedom. Hell, I can even remember that classic asshole George W. Bush declaring that Muslims were not the enemy, right after 9/11, and right after he put Iran and Iraq on the Axis of Evil list. (Mixed messages much, George?)

We may allow religious freedom here, but that doesn’t mean it flies elsewhere, even in the developed world. Apparently, though Islam is the second largest religion in Italy, after Catholicism, there are only 8 official mosques in the entire country. How can I rattle off this specific statistic so easily?

Good question.

I read it in a Martin Parr-scribed introduction to “Hidden Islam,” a new book by Nicolo Degiorgis, recently published by Rorhof, in Italy. The book is subtitled “Islamic Makeshift Places of Worship in North East Italy, 2009-2013,” so let’s not count this one among the many books that try to fool you, or dare you to figure out what the heck is going on.

Frankly, I really liked the clarity. It helped me adjust to the bleak, generic, black and white buildings that are broken down into categories on the cover as well. (Warehouses, shops, supermarkets, etc.)

I didn’t read the introduction right away, because I sometimes skip the text. (Dirty secret time.) Also, I didn’t see it, at first. It wasn’t obviously there.

I was turning the pages gingerly, for a while, believing this was one more book that used double-page, sewn spreads, just to make it seem more significant. Then, halfway through, one of the pages started to come undone. So I pulled it the rest of the way, hoping I wasn’t ruining it. (Again, I don’t get to keep these books. You break it, you bought it.)

To my great surprise, I had stumbled upon a color image of the inside of the makeshift mosque, with many people kneeling on the ground in prayer. Say what now?

I tried the trick again, and found it was, in fact, the way the book was built. Hidden Islam indeed.

The juxtaposition of the banal black and white and the revelatory color images is terrific. Really smartly done. Not something I’ve seen before, at least, not that I can easily recall.

This book is earnest, and means to show us things we cannot otherwise see. And it takes aim at some conservative fat cats in Northern Italy, who don’t allow the migrant worker Muslims to pray in any sort of official capacity. So that’s admirable, as one can imagine some of those power brokers are connected to the Mafia. The Cosa Nostra. Ndgragheta. (Call them what you will.)

I can’t claim that the photos within the book are legendarily good. But they don’t have to be. As I’ve said many times before, a book is an experience, when done properly. And this experience was memorable.

May we all, someday, live in a world where we can worship as we please. A world, I would hope, where murderous psychopaths in pickup trucks have been put in their proper place. (I don’t mean you, ISIS. You guys are swell. If you’re into that sort of thing. It’s all relative, right?)

Bottom Line: Terrific, sly book that shows us private moments of worship

To Purchase “Hidden Islam” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Keliy Anderson-Staley

by Jonathan Blaustein

I have a young student named Montanna. She grew up in the hinterlands of Virginia, but recently moved to the boonies of New Mexico. (Confused yet?)

Montanna often walks 5 miles to and from the bus stop, each way, if she wants to make it to school. She said her folks don’t always have enough gasoline to drive her up the dirt road. Other times, she stays with a neighbor who lives close to the highway.

Yes, we’re living 2014 out here.
I swear.

New Mexico was just ranked 50th out of 50 states in poverty rate, which is nothing to brag about. The allure of the Wild West comes with a price, I’m afraid. And it’s often hardest on the youth.

Montanna is a committed and bright photographer, so I’d be surprised if she didn’t claw her way success. That type of hardship builds character. It etches itself into one’s countenance, like wrinkles on an orangutan’s face.

Co-incidentally, I saw Montanna staring back at me from a sheet of metal, just the other day.

We had an outdoor art festival here in Taos, last Friday evening. The Native American photographer Will Wilson set up a make-shift studio along the main street. A friend dragged me out at night to see it, which was the equivalent of Dracula venturing out in the daytime.

I bumped into several of my students waiting in line, and watched Mr. Wilson make Montanna’s portrait, using the wet plate collodion process. Then they disappeared into his tent/darkroom, along with the Project Runway contestant Patricia Michaels, who was having her picture made at the same time. (Unfortunately, Heidi Klum couldn’t make it.)

The trio emerged, a few minutes later, and Montanna beamed as she held her tin type for all to see. (Yes, it was dark out, but the bright flood lights more than made up for the black sky.) The portrait managed to capture her toughness, her freckles, and her determination.

I have to say, it was remarkable. These are young artists shooting with cell phones, so the old-school technique demonstrated the magic we all remember, back in the chemical days. It was a revelation for them.

The ubiquity of computerized photographs alters how we view historical processes. They become that much more precious, and the labor involved assumes added import. When everything is so easy, why make it harder on yourself?

It’s a fair question, and one that today’s book can help us answer. “On a Wet Bough” is a large, red hardcover by Keliy Anderson-Staley, released by the nascent publisher Waltz Books, in Indiana.

The artist, whom the end notes tell us was raised “off the grid,” has been making tin types for years. According to the text, we also learn she’s extremely prolific, which suggests she’s patient, hard-working, and perhaps a tad obsessed. (She’d probably be a perfect mentor for young Montanna, come to think of it.)

The book is filled with portraits, made in the style of the 19th Century. But these are not pictures we might confuse with olden days. They’re clearly contemporary.

The sitters stare seriously at the camera, with many a mad-dog look in their eyes. Others seem sad, some are contemplative. Did she tell them not to smile? How much time did she spend with each person? Was she trying to capture their individual souls, or is it more about her desire acquire a volume of personalities?

I was startled to see a few photo-world folks looking at me, like Brian Clamp, Doug DuBois, and Christian Patterson. It broke the illusion that these were all strangers, lacking histories I could easily access. I suppose that’s only an insider read, but surely she considered its impact on a certain type of viewer. (Especially as photographers are typical buyers of photobooks.)

Initially, I wasn’t as captivated as I expected to be. Perhaps it’s because the unique quality of the metal object is essentially lost, once it’s digitized and embedded in paper? That would make sense. Making a book destroys the inherent nature of the pictures.

But then I got to a couple of portraits of shirtless men rocking chest hair. What? The texture and the oddity brought me back into the moment. They were great pictures, but also added a touch of funk and originality that was theretofore lacking.

Next, we get to a section of dual portraits and group pictures that definitely had more zing. Why is that? Does Ms. Anderson-Staley have an easier time chatting when there are more people around? Is it just a coincidence?

Frankly, these types of pictures will always be compared with Julia Margaret Cameron. Fair or not, it’s going to happen. It gives me extra appreciation for Ms. Cameron’s relationship with her sitters, that allowed her to make pictures that really do haunt, two lifetimes later.

These pictures don’t rise to that level, but why should they? They’re from another time, and were cranked out by the hundreds. So I think that’s an inappropriate standard. Especially as this is an accomplished project in its own right.

In a book, seen in the LED glow of 2014, the pictures have a weight and a power I think you’ll appreciate. And they stand as a great reminder that hard work is often its own reward, as cheesy at that might sound in our “selfie-ish” era.

Bottom Line: Very-well-made book of old-school tin type portraits.

To Purchase “On a Wet Bough” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Stephen Shore

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant the other day. My Dad was across the table; we were both a little sketched out. The joint seemed like a front for the mob: dirty, empty, and unintentional.

Dad was buying with a coupon, so I guess I already appear ungrateful. Which might end up as the theme of the column, when all is said and done. (Yes, that is foreshadowing.)

We were waiting for our tacos when the door flew open. Dramatically. In stepped a very large, crew-cut, blue-eyed man dressed like rancher, in jeans and a Western shirt. He was sporting a baseball cap that made reference to Texas. (I couldn’t say beyond that, exactly, as he was moving rather quick.)

Behind him marched a procession of five children and a wife, all wearing homemade long dresses and bright-white bonnets. They looked Amish, or like refugees from a compound in Utah that they featured on “Big Love.” It was a little bit Kubrick, to say the least.

Stranger still, once they got settled, the big man began speaking, very loudly, to two Mexican men, the only other patrons in the place. Fluently. In Mexican-accented Spanish.

I did a triple-take.

Odder-yet-still, within five minutes, he began singing. In Spanish. At the top of his lungs. In the middle of lunch.

What?

I had no frame of reference.

Sometimes, life catches you by surprise, like a leopard pouncing on a lady who’s just out to wash the laundry. There’s no way to prepare.

That’s how I felt when I opened up the new Stephen Shore book, “From Galilee to the Negev,” recently published by Phaidon. Wouldn’t you know, it was the next book on my stack, after last week’s genius Israel offering by Rosalind Fox Solomon.

Stephen Shore, doing Israel, for the “This Place” folks? How lucky was I? How lucky are you?

Awkward silence.
Fingers pausing on the keyboard.
How to proceed?

All right, I’ll just be honest. I found this book less-than-enthralling. Slightly under-dramatic. It’s hard to believe he’s covering the same country as Ms. Solomon. No sooner than I’d written about the tension in the air, the vibe pulsing through everything in its path, than I open up this book.

I know, many of you will consider it blasphemous that I’d even hint at criticizing a master of the medium. A member of the metaphorical Mt Rushmore of 20th Century photography. How dare he, you might think.

I get it. That’s why I chose to review the book, if you call this a review. I’ll let you see some photos and make up your own mind.

Mr. Shore, at his best, managed to squeeze deep pathos into the most meaningless of situations. That’s his hallmark, a level of perception that supersedes mere mortals. Not to mention his subtlety with color, and super-sharp large format negatives.

In this book, there is not a lot of life. (No chutzpah, if you will.)

What happened?

I couldn’t tell you. Which makes it interesting. How does a great artist go to a fascinating place and not make fascinating pictures? How did Baz Lurhmann’s “The Great Gatsby” end up so bad I couldn’t make it 10 minutes into the film?

Not to suggest that this book is bad. It’s not. It just depicts a place entirely more placid than in the books I reviewed by Mr. Brenner and Ms. Solomon.

Am I an ingrate? To expect greatness from a great artist? Are average fish tacos worth it, if you don’t have to pay for them? Did that big Texan break his family out from some Branch-Dividian-esque compound near Waco?

I have no idea.

If I were a betting man, I’d say they were his kids, he does ranch work near the Mexican border, and makes his family dress differently than he does. I’d also bet that Mr. Shore enjoyed making these pictures as much as he did in his stuff from the 70’s.

It’s hard not to see this project as something like the Rolling Stones might make at this stage of their career. They keep touring, and people keep buying tickets to hear “Satisfaction” in person. Their fans are thrilled to get the experience, and consider it money well spent.

Am I being unfair to Mr. Shore, when I compare his book directly with two others that were made in the same place? Or by expecting his work to reach the same heights it did years ago? Are these questions worth asking?

Let’s finish by wishing you a Happy New Year. If you celebrate that sort of thing.

Bottom Line: Confusing book about Israel from a master

To Purchase “From Galilee to the Negev” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Rosalind Fox Solomon

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I know a photographer who won’t tell people he/she is Jewish. It’s a secret. He/she worries for his/her safety, if the information ever got out.

I still remember the fantasy of Barack Obama’s inaugural days as President, when people spoke of a post-racial society. It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. How ridiculous that idea seems, in retrospect.

There is, and has always been, the other. People who don’t look like you, talk like you, or copulate like you. People who worship a deity with a different name.

Them.

They’re not like us.

Me, I admit I’m Jewish in this column all the time. Why? It feels a touch defiant, as my people are disliked by many. Growing up, in the 70’s and 80’s, I still felt like I ought to keep my identity on the downlow. And this was in the orbit of New York City, no less.

I suppose I revel in the rebellion of claiming membership in a controversial tribe. “The Tribe,” as we often call ourselves. If it ever comes back to bite me, this freedom of identification, I suppose you can say “I told you so.”

As I mentioned some time back, I visited Israel when I was young, but have yet to return. I’m hoping the opportunity presents itself, but I guess we’ll have to see. It’s a country that is claimed by many, and owned by few. A more tortured history, you’re unlikely to find. (Insert random suffering reference here.)

The Jews were expelled for daring to stand up to the Romans. A diaspora of millions, created with the stroke of a pen. (Or a quill? What would those Romans have written with, I wonder?)

Regardless, the Palestinians were kind-of-ejected as well, and they’d like to get it back. The Christians, too, feel a deep connection, as it was the birthplace of the Jewish man Jesus, a messiah to some.

Regardless of which side you root for, it’s not a stretch to say the tension is carried through the air, there, like heat waves rising off of pale cobblestones. The wounds might never heal. Or perhaps they will? Who am I to speculate?

But that tension, that crippling feeling in your stomach, pulsates through “Them,” a new book by Rosalind Fox Solomon, recently published by MACK.

This book is one of the series commissioned by the project “This Place,” which invited major artists to Israel to poke around. A month or so ago, I reviewed an excellent book by Frederic Brenner, from the same series, and I might do more still, if the quality is this good going forward.

Open it up, and the first page shows a tourist holding a map of Israel, talking to two African women. It sets the scene, in a subtle way. Then, three words on otherwise blank pages: the holy longing. Afterwards, a photograph of a sere, desolate desert. It’s safe to guess we’re in the Holy Land. (At least, I did.)

I wasn’t aware, when I first perused, that this book was a part of “This Place.” I was curious what motivated the production. I hate to repeat words, but it’s just so cripplingly tense. It made me physically uncomfortable, turning the pages.

So much passion. Anger. Dismay. Banality. Drama.

There are text breaks on blank pages throughout, and they might crack through your veneer of world-weariness:

“you don’t understand”
“i want my kids to live in peace”
“god is here for everyone”
“security will be suspicious”
“i love you i love you i love you”
“take care of your mother/ i’ll call you tomorrow.”

Needless to say, those lines could have been uttered by anyone wrapped up in the conflict. They’re universal, which is part of the book’s message, I suppose. When so many have been done wrong, over so long, who can claim a superiority of suffering?

I almost skipped to the end of this book, several times, just to break the spell. I wanted it to be over, the unpleasant perceptiveness. I wanted to feel safe again, in my own house, with asshole neighbors, yes, but not ones who wanted to kill me.

I resisted. The urge, that is. It’s my job to look at these books and report to you, so I stayed strong and went one page at a time. Like a good boy.

It’s rare that I pick up a book and have it affect me this palpably. It’s experiential, this one, so much so that I haven’t really mentioned the successful use of black and white, or the square frame. So many of these pictures appear as if they could have been made 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago. They feel timeless and fresh at the same time.

Despite the fact that the end credits name-drop some heavy hitters in the art world, and that the invited artists were all meant to be “prominent,” I’d never heard of Ms. Solomon before.

Too bad for me.

She is clearly an insightful, creative, and powerful artist, near the top of her craft. For as many books as I see, for one to crack me over the skull like this is worth mentioning again. You might consider buying this one.

It’s special.

Bottom Line: Masterful depiction of every-day life in a perpetual conflict zone

To Purchase “Them” 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.

21st Century Book Deal Hustle

- - Book Publishing

Every era gets the catch phrase it deserves. Just think about “Where’s the beef?” Remember that cranky old lady on the Wendy’s commercials? Of course you do. That it happened during the 80’s, when actors like Stallone and Schwarzenegger were beef-caking up the movie theaters?

Not a coincidence.

By now, you know my own catchphrase like you know the pixel count on your new iPhone. I always talk about the 21st Century Hustle. Hustle this, hustle that. I might as well be Huggy Bear strutting down the street in Starsky and Hutch, for all I talk about hustling.

What does it look like in real life though? I could tell you about how many different jobs I do in a given day, or a given week. But that would sound like complaining. Which I don’t want to do.

It just so happens that I bumped into the perfect embodiment of the 21st Century Hustle a couple of weeks ago, in Santa Fe. I was standing there, minding my own business, when WHAM, a hustler’s moment cracked me in the head like a steroidal cop’s blackjack.

I was at an after-party for a friend’s art opening. I’d already done 5 errands in 2 hours, including a futile search for a hoodie at Target. So I was pretty burnt, by evenings end.

There I was, loading up my plate full of vegetarian goodies, getting ready to drink up a half a margarita. (I had a 2 hour drive home afterwards, so no Tequila buzz for me.) I looked up, and who did I see but Jamey Stillings, the unofficial mayor of the Santa Fe photo scene, and Brad Wilson, whose excellent photo book I’d just reviewed the week before.

Not such huge coincidence, as it’s a small town, but still. I was there, they were there, so we started talking. I’d met Brad briefly at Review Santa Fe in 2009, but not seen him since. I’ve bumped into Jamey 50 times since then, but we rarely chat at length.

Here was our moment.

Brad began telling us what it was like to go viral, and have his work everywhere, as it is now. Jamey and I had each had similar experiences, so we offered up our own coping strategies.

We kept talking. That’s what you do at parties.

But then, ten minutes or so into the chat, the guys both started talking about how they got their most recent book deals. And neither of them had to put up any money for the production. They were giving me serious details. Inside information.

BAM.

My brain switched into journalist mode quicker than Obama would punch Vlad Putin flush in the face, if given the opportunity. It happened so quickly, I wasn’t even aware of it at first. But it wasn’t on the record…we were just chatting. The 21st Century Hustle says you don’t care. You go for the story. Period. (Everyone’s got to get paid.)

So I asked a bunch of more specific questions, and at the end, right before I had to head to my car, I asked the guys if we could consider the chat on the record. Could I write it up, so that you, the audience, could get the benefit of their accrued wisdom?

Classy guys, they both said yes.

Here we go.

Jamey had his first book published by Nazraeli Press a few years ago. They did a great job, and Jamey didn’t have to put in any of his own funds. How did it come about?

Turns out, Jamey first met Chris Pichler, the publisher, at Photo LA a while back. He was encouraged to go hand him a MagCloud booklet of his popular project, “The Bridge at Hoover Dam,” in which he had documented the creation of a major American infrastructure project.

Jamey didn’t want to hand it off like that, as it seemed too forward, but he was strongly encouraged to do it. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Pichler told Jamey he had never, ever published a book from someone who approached him randomly like that. Jamey, who is typically very diplomatic, made a rare faux pas and said something rude in return.

Bridge burned, he assumed. (Pun intended.)

Fast forward a couple of years, and he had a portfolio review with Mr. Pichler in Palm Springs early in the morning of the last review day. Luckily, the first meeting, brief as it was, had been forgotten. Jamey put Mr. Pichler at ease by saying that he knew he chose his books based upon a personalized set of criteria, so he was not looking to be published. Just wanted some feedback.

If you don’t know, letting people know you don’t want something from them is a great way to chill them out. It worked here, and Mr. Pichler offered to publish the project in short order. They also worked out an agreement where the funding Jamey sought and received from the Bridge’s chief engineering firm was used to create a special edition of the book for the company. They got to give out the “special edition” books as gifts. (The win-win is such a feature of the 21st C, I’ve found.)

When it came time for his second book, a series about the massive Ivanpah solar field in California, Jamey first approached Nazraeli Press about its interest. Though now good friends, Chris Pichler took a pass on the new project. Jamey also pitched another publisher he respected, but they also passed. (Which was fortunate, as they’re known for requiring photographers to spend a very large sum to get a book published.)

He did receive interest from another relatively new publisher, but the deal would also have necessitated significant funding. This seemed counter-intuitive to Jamey, based on his initial book publishing experience, and his belief in the new body of work.

Jamey felt he could do better.

He decided to give it a shot with Steidl, the gold standard of the photo book publishing world. As it transpired at the party, Brad knew the ending of this story, but I didn’t. So I got to express my surprise in real time.

Jamey hired a very reputable book designer to help him make a BLAD, an industry term for a mockup. Once done, they made a digital version as well. Jamey then set up a series of digital download incarnations, including Dropbox and WeTransfer. He was meticulous, he told me, and made sure it was absolutely perfect.

Then, having invested time and money into the potential book, he emailed it directly to Gerhard Steidl. How did he get the email address, I asked? It’s right on the website, apparently.

Jamey got an automated response the next day saying that they don’t accept digital submissions, so could he please submit a traditional paper version. But the next day, he got notification that the digital submission had been downloaded by Mr. Steidl. (Thank god for notifications, I suppose, which are normally annoying as hell.)

An hour later, he got an email saying that they wanted to publish the book. WTF? I bet he hollered louder than a drunk Texan skiing fresh powder, when he read that note.

Now, before I paint a picture that the book is free, so he’s the big winner of 2014, hold tight. Jamey told me he books helicopter time in massive amounts to get the aerial photos he seeks. He is a successful commercial photographer, but still, that shit costs money. So he invested in the work itself, and then in the preparations for a book, in order to get the end result he wanted.

“It takes money to make money” is a tenet of business for a reason.

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Brad’s story is similar. He spent a bunch of his own resources hiring animal trainers, and traveling the country, as I speculated in the book review a few weeks ago. It was money he earned in his day job as a commercial photographer, but he chose to reinvest it in his art. This was a project he had to make, and it took three years.

At some point, a gallery in London had heard of his work, and bookmarked his website. They were negotiating with another fine-art animal photographer for gallery representation, but the deal fell through. They happened to go back to Brad’s website, saw that he had the new “Affinity” project up, and they offered him a contract and subsequent exhibition forthwith.

Brad decided to go all in, and made the prints 40×60, framed in museum glass, for the London exhibition. The cost was steep. But the show was a big hit, and the gallery hired a PR firm to get the word out. Brad specifically asked them to target book publishers, as he was hoping to make a book out of the project. And he knew he was putting his best foot forward.

Sure enough, a representative from Prestel came to the show, was smitten, and offered Brad a book deal. Like Steidl, they don’t ask the artist for any contributions. And they even gave Brad an advance. Very unlike the stories we’ve been warning you about, where less reputable publishers will take your $30,000-$50,000, as long as you have it.

Image from the Affinity series

Image from the Affinity series

Image from the Affinity series

Image from the Affinity series

Image from the Affinity series

Each artist stressed to me that they felt like this happened to them because they’d been working towards it for a long time. Separately, they each spoke of talent alone as an over-rated concept. You have to buckle down and be patient, if you’re going to get anything achieved.

They both put themselves in a position for good things to happen, they said, rather than feeling like they got lucky.

Each project was done out of passion and necessity. They invested their resources in themselves, because they believed if they were interested in the stories they were telling, others might be too. They had faith in themselves, but also told me they weren’t worried about outcomes while they were making the work.

Both guys were making photographic projects based upon major changes being wrought during the early stages of the 21st C. (Disappearing wildlife, emerging alternative technology.) They both found that things worked out in the end. (What? I’m American. I like happy endings.)

The moral here, though, is that nobody gets off for free. I accept that. When we make art, we invest time, money, psychic energy, and sometimes more than that. There are no guarantees.

Brad and Jamey both echoed each other, with respect to their attention to detail, serious preparation for when the moment was right, and a willingness to bet on themselves. I think we can all learn from that.

Don’t you?

This Week In Photography Books: Lucas Foglia

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I went for a little walkabout this morning, with three of my students. (Making pictures, of course.) The ladies are all in High School, and were born and raised here in Taos. None has left town very often, from what I can gather.

One went to visit some family in California this Summer. But it was only San Bernardino, which is kind of depressing. (Unless you love smog so thick that it makes mountains invisible. In which case, you might love it there.)

I tried to explain to the young photographers that when you’ve never left a place, or had the context of other cultures flashed before your eyes, you have to work a little harder to understand what makes a place unique. No sooner than I’d said that, we passed an old house that was cracked in two, with a rickety outhouse behind it.

I remind you, this is 2014.

I asked, “Do you think someone would find a functioning outhouse interesting in New York City? Or LA?” They agreed it was likely, but didn’t find an outhouse so unusual in their own lives. And then there was the broken-down-blue-school-bus on someone’s front lawn, which sported a giant rusted saw blade on the back, as an ornament.

We soon found ourselves at an old chapel, Nuestra Senora de Dolores, from 1873. That, they agreed, would be interesting to folks in the outside world too. I investigated the backyard, and found a well-preserved headstone. The woman buried beneath my feet had been born in 1845, when the land was still called Mexico.

“Can you believe it,” I wondered? They could, in fact, believe it. So much so that only one could be bothered to come take a look. Things like that aren’t so special here, though I’m sure they reek of American West authenticity, to you.

People have always been, and I venture will always be fascinated with the Frontier culture out here. It’s drawn dropouts from elsewhere, like me, and camera-toting tourists on day trips for as long as there have been cameras. It never gets old, but it does change. (Like Taos going from Native American territory, to New Spain, to Mexico, to America in short order.)

Given my confidence in your expected interest, how could I not review Lucas Foglia’s new book, “Frontcountry,” recently published by Nazraeli. The answer is, I could, and I will.
So let’s get to it.

Truth be told, I saw a show of some of this work in a gallery I’d never heard of, when I visited NYC last April. Speaking of change, Chelsea stays the same, but the names of the spaces are in constant rotation. This one, Fredericks & Freiser, was new, so I hope it’s still around.

I didn’t love the prints on the wall. They didn’t have a lot of pop. And I didn’t have a lot of time. But as I’ve learned, and have tried to share with you, a book is a completely different experience than a gallery exhibition. It’s in your hands, in your home, and there are often many more pictures to peruse, at your leisure.

Mr. Foglia does come across as a wandering, wondering, researching photographer. His first book, which I also reviewed, looked at a subculture of people who have returned to living in the wild. This one focuses on a much larger population of people who live off the land, but have always done so. Cowboys. Ranchers. Western types.

I give him props for his technical ability, and for his dogged desire to paint a holistic picture of life out in the West. The book leans heavily on Nevada and Wyoming in particular, so the world looks a little different from the one I inhabit. (A lot whiter, that is.) There are more natural resources around those parts, so mining and extraction make their way inside the pages as well.

Co-incidentally, there is a picture made here in Taos, yet it feels like a bit of a throw-in. But the rest of the book is seamless. Guns, cow entrails, exploded homes, mounds of garbage bags full of beer cans, soccer players juxtaposed against staggering mountains, a dude balancing on a fence post waiting to shoot coyotes. Basically, life for many in the mountainous fly-over states.

I don’t mean to impugn Mr. Foglia for not being “one of us.” That’s a freedom the West allows. You come out here, try to fit in, and before you know it, you speak with a twang, under certain circumstances. He’s a good enough artist that the thoroughness will win you over. (Though I do wonder if a tad more emotional resonance might have pushed the project over the top.)

These are some very well executed large format pictures. There’s a shot of a bulldozer roaming over coal mounds that’s so sharp, it looks like a model. Not real at all. I wondered, did he hit it with a big flash, or has he switched over to using a digital camera? Doesn’t matter. Great shot.

There are maps at the end, to orient you, which further amps up the anthropological bent. It’s not the West of Wenders, or Shore, who bottled up nostalgia and emotion, despite themselves.

It’s more the West as Gursky might do it. Clean. Clinical. And very much a project that represents what it sees, as best it can.

Like I said before, people will always eat this shit up. And photographers will always come out this way to take their shot. Like the suckers who keep trying to beat Jon Jones. They can’t help themselves.

This book, at the very least, will clue you in to a reality that you normally have to see for yourself. It’s excellent, and I heartily recommend it. Adios, partner.

Much obliged.

Bottom Line: Excellent, clinical view of the contemporary Wild West

To Purchase “Frontcountry” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Vincent Delbrouck

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was talking today with Marcie, my new Native American friend. She’s from the Taos Pueblo, and we really enjoy chatting about art, culture, religion. Stuff like that.

No matter how much you might feel a spiritual connection with Native American views on the sacred nature of Earth, it feels trite when you’re not raised in that culture. (If you’re white, I mean.) Which lends a certain frisson to the conversation.

To be frank, Marcie doesn’t give off the vibe that I’m a poseur. Just the opposite. She’s open, honest, and nonjudgmental. Rather, the voices in my head are self-generated. Too many hours digesting post-modern theory in graduate school, I suppose.

Of course, the Native Americans are not the ones who believe that Nature is sacred. There are strains of Buddhist tradition that teach of Inter-connectedness, or Inter-being. We are all one. I am the rocks. You are the trees. We are all made up of the particles of the Universe.

It’s profound.

In the course of our conversation, Marcie asked if I was actually Jewish? I replied that of course I was, because in my religion, you are born that way. (If your mother is Jewish, you’re a Jew.) She pushed forward, asking if I actually practiced? Did I believe?

“That’s a tougher question,” I replied. I’m like a religious version of the aforementioned Post-Modernism: a pastiche. A little of this, a little of that. So many of us are, these days.

But I do like to meditate, when I have the time, and believe that the silent absence of something can be just as powerful as presence. I’d rather have a clear, empty mind than an over-driven, neurotic, Woody-Allen-inner-monologue any day of the week.

Given that, and my oft-professed love of seeing something I’ve never seen before in a photo book, how could I not review “Some Windy Trees,” a new self-published soft-cover book by Vincent Delbrouck in Belgium?

Open it up, and after the requisite blank page, you find yourself looking at a solitary, windblown tree. The book contains several such images. Trees you want to stare at for a while. They’re so lonely. And beautiful. Mountains in the background too.

Turn the page, and you see nothing. Just more blank white paper. (As I once titled a photograph of my own, paper comes from trees.)

As I flipped through, I did a triple take. He keeps interspersing emptiness. At one point, you actually flip twice before you come to the next photo. I have definitely never seen that before. Empty pages on purpose. Who does that?

This guy, apparently.

There is a random insert of a scribbled drawing in bright red. Not blood red. Candy-cane red. Santa Claus red. Christmas-time red.

The back page tells us the pictures were made in high, windy valley in Nepal. (I suppose the cover image hints at the Himalayas.) A portion of the proceeds from each book will go to a foundation that supports the preservation of this particular region, called Mustang.

That same red repeats on the back cover, which is where we find the title. (That, I have seen before, as you regular readers will well know.)

I’m more than sure that some of you will think me crazy for celebrating someone for leaving photos out of a photo book. But what does it do? It focuses the mind. It draws attention to what is there. And it also gives off the whiff of enlightenment, that ephemeral state which the Himalayan Buddhists eternally seek.

Bottom Line: Strange, zen pictures of Himalayan trees from a Belgian

To Purchase “Some Windy Trees” 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.

The Best Work I Saw at Review Santa Fe ’14

- - Portfolio Review

My father reads my column every week. Without fail. Recently, he took exception to the fact that I labeled my writing “nonsense.” Thank goodness for encouraging parents.

I try to keep these articles entertaining, and have found that a little self-deprecation goes a long way. Occasionally, I revel in it, because I used to have very thin skin, as a youth. I’d fall to pieces if anyone made fun of me. (As Dad can attest.)

That’s why I love to start these travel pieces and festival reviews with a funny story, making me look foolish. Like the time I set off the fire alarm at the NY Times review. Or the time a heavy door at Gagosian hit me in the stomach, right in front of a gorgeous gallerina.

Eventually, though, I was bound to run out of embarrassing incidents. It was inevitable.

And here we are.

Nothing funny happened to me at Review Santa Fe this past June. I was invited as a roving reviewer, and as the guy who announces their raffle at the Saturday night party. (Yes, I broke into Spanglish, but it was more ha-ha funny than Ricky Gervais cringe-worthy. So not relevant here.)

I had a very nice time, as it was my sixth consecutive trip to the review. Good food, good weather, lots of nice people from around the world. I think I’ll even skip the part where I defend the review process from those who get upset about having to pay for meetings.

Overall, I saw the best work of any review I’ve yet attended. Polished, relevant, accomplished projects, professionally presented.

So if nothing bad happened, nor anything eventful to recount here…let’s get on to showing the best work I saw at the RSF ’14.

Qian Ma is a photographer based in Brooklyn, who recently finished a degree at ICP. In a perfectly strange coincidence, he just finished studying with my former professor, the great Allen Frame. I wasn’t surprised to hear that, as Allen is adept at pushing young artists to dig into a practice that allows their personal aesthetic to shine.

Qian’s black and white prints were totally gorgeous, and admittedly, the jpegs don’t do them justice. People literally lined up to see this work. I loved the otherworldly, odd, metaphysical qualities. How a simple cell phone can make you think of a parallel universe. So of course I asked him if he read Haruki Murakami, and of course he said, “Yes. Everything he’s written.” The project is called “Luminance,” and if you happen to see a sheep man lurking in a corner, at least you were warned.

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I met Julia Cybularz within seconds of walking into the open portfolio viewing at the Santa Fe Farmer’s market. Normally, you wander around such events, looking for the juicy bits. Not that night. Hers was the first work I saw, and I loved it.

She’s photographed her niece, who has horrible scoliosis. Debilitating stuff. The photos were elegant, razor sharp, and visceral. Apparently, Ms. Cybularz suffered from the same affliction, which adds to the resonance. She also had a concurrent project which featured her cousin, who has schizophrenia and is mentally challenged. And he has scoliosis as well. It made for a fascinating mix of family, malady, and personal connection.

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Meike Nixdorf is an artist who was visiting from Germany. Again with the Japanese references, she was showing a project that was inspired by Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji.” She was looking for a mountain that she could photograph from many different angles, that would allow the structure of the pictures to change radically.

She found one, El Teide, in the Canary Islands. I asked her why there, as it seemed so random, and she told me she visited the mountain many times, flying over it in a virtual flight simulator. If that’s not updating Hokusai’s vision to the 21st Century, I’m not sitting at my kitchen table on a rainy day in the mountains. (In fact, I am.)

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I also met Miki Hasegawa that night. (Two women with different spellings of the same name?) Miki had a series of images that she photographed from the vantage point of her young daughter.

As we all know, life is lived at eye level. We grownups make the world in our image, but our offspring are always looking up at a reality they must grow into. Terrific color palette as well, and the prints managed to capture the wonder and curiosity of childhood. I loved them immediately.

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I had a long, rambling, roving review with the Denver-based photographer Benjamin Rasmussen, who’s originally from the Faroe Islands. (They’re in-between Norway and Iceland, so you don’t have to Google it.) He’s interested in issues of identity and displacement, and his project “By the Olive Trees” focuses on both.

He photographed Syrian refugees in Jordan. And he was apparently in Ferguson, MO, last week, so you can check his website to see what’s going on in America’s homegrown war-zone. (Hands up, Don’t shoot.)

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According to Twitter, Russia invaded Ukraine today. Is that news? Haven’t they invaded several times already, including when they swiped Crimea? Hard to imagine a more topical project than one which examines the cross-cultural divide between the two countries. (Soon to be re-united?)

Sasha Rudensky was born in Russia, and studied in the famed Yale program. With her project, “Brightness, she has given us some seriously strange pictures that do just that. She photographed in both places, and the image of the thugs holding a giant snake was my favorite single picture at RSF. (Unfortunately, she isn’t ready to publish it yet.)

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4.Rudensky_Hannibal Lector

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Finally, I got to see the work of Jeanine Michna-Bales, who was one of Center’s Prize winners. I’d seen a couple of her prints on the wall of the Center for Contemporary Arts, and was transfixed. You won’t believe the premise.

Ms. Bales was interested in understanding the reality of the underground railroad, that patchwork network that led escaped slaves to freedom. A beacon of light in America’s bleak past.

So, she recreated it herself.

She stopped every 20 miles or so, between Louisiana and Canada, which was the supposed average distance an escaped slave could have covered. Then, she made pictures at night. It was so sketchy that she had to hire bodyguards to protect her, out in the middle of nowhere, under black skies.

Obviously, the premise is terrific. But the pictures are every bit as good.

Decision to Leave

Cypress Swamp

Hidden Passageway

Hunter's Bottom

Moonrise over Northern Ripley County

Look for the Grey Barn Out Back

'Welcome to the Fugitive Captive'

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.

This Week In Photography Books: Mark Mattock

by Jonathan Blaustein

I saw my first yellow leaves this morning. It’s August 13th, as I write this. Seems a little early to be thinking about Autumn.

In fact, you’re probably sitting on a beach just now, nursing a cold one, cursing my reminder of Summer’s impending end. I hate you, Blaustein, you mutter under your breath.

Every year, I think I’m going to do so much more, with my free time in Summer, than I actually do. My wife and I make a metaphorical list of adventures, and then succumb to hanging out around the house, cooking good meals with farmers market produce.

No mountain climbing. No swimming in Abiquiu Lake, in the shadow of Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch. No road trips around the Southern Rockies. I guess we’re just lazy.

Hell, I didn’t even go fishing this year, and I have a trout stream in my backyard. (It might have less to do with my torpor, and more to do with the nasty, fishy taste of trout. Not enough honey and lemon in the world, to cover it up.)

I did take my son fishing a couple of years ago, with my wife’s family. We went to Hopewell Lake, less than an hour away. Most people would call it a pond, but f-ck those guys.

It ended up as one of the more traumatic experiences of my decade. Why? Because the entire place was covered with caterpillars. Am I exaggerating? For once… no.

They were so thick they blanketed every surface you could see, in 3 inch intervals. It was an alien infestation gone wrong. (As opposed to an alien infestation gone right?) They came in to eviscerate the local Aspen trees, and simply sucked all the fun out of our day. (Damn Global Warming. Such a buzz kill.)

Needless to say, I don’t know much about fishing, beyond the fact that I’m no good at it. But it is a Summer activity par excellence. So what do we do when we want to go fishing, that perfect euphemism for “not working,” but can’t do it IRL?

You know the answer. We look at a photo book. Or in your case, you look at pictures of a photo book, and read the nonsense I type above. (Yes, this nonsense.)

“The Angler who fell to Earth,” is a new hard cover book that ended up in my stack from photo-eye. It’s a gray, slim hardcover, and looks like something that MACK would put out. (Like the book from 2 weeks ago.)

Surprisingly, though, it’s an independent publication, designed and published by the artist, Mark Mattock. I learned that from the post script, as nothing in the volume itself suggested it was DIY.

In fact, nothing in the book suggests much of anything. It’s dedicated to Matisse, opens with a cool quote by Thoreau, and then is all pictures.

Like last week’s book, this one is abstract and obscure in it’s thinking. It gives you nothing but pictures, and leaves the rest up to you.

Who is our angler? Where is our angler? What does he do but fish? Why is he riding a train? Is he riding a train? What is going on here? How many questions can I ask in a paragraph before the Internet police arrest me for being overly inquisitive? I don’t know.

I like a book that crawls down into my brainstem, and this is one of them. Lots of cool pictures. Still lives mixed in with more narrative shots, which is another of MACK’s hallmarks. Does Mark Mattock like MACK books? Does he sell sea shells by the seashore? I don’t know, but I’m betting yes.

I love the upside-down newspaper headline about a worm crawling into someone’s brain. (Written in the first-person to boot.) And the fishhook tattoo. And especially the photo of a note telling our angler not to fish in a particular spot. (The detail “We know who you are” is so good I might have to steal it. Is it real? Once again, I don’t know.)

Last week, I ruminated on the beauty of the potential dialogue between artist and audience. Here, the artist is clearly going for it. Here are my pictures. I will not tell you what they are about. If you like my book, you’ll probably try to figure it out. If you don’t, you’ll likely get angry and confused, and hurl it against a wall, sad it won’t shatter.

Bottom Line: Cool, strange pictures about an Alien Fisherman

To Purchase “The Angler who fell to Earth” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Brian David Stevens

by Jonathan Blaustein

By now, you know me pretty well. I’ve discussed just about every personal quirk and lifestyle detail possible. You name it, I’ve been willing to put it out there every Friday, for nearly 3 years.

All in the name of what, exactly? I write about photo books, so that you can look at the pictures.

I try to pick interesting, smart, challenging, or beautiful offerings every time. But occasionally, the stack runs short, and I have to pretend to be more excited than I really am. Those weeks, I might amp up the absurdity a hair. Turn the Blaustein-dial on the speakers up to 11. (Even if it’s meant to top out at 10.)

But rarely do we take a moment to ask why there are so many damn photo books to be begin with. It’s been accepted wisdom, these last 5 years, that every photographer wants a book. Today, I thought it might be worthwhile to stop and ask why.

I began thinking about it earlier this summer, when a colleague admitted to considering expansion into the publishing business. This, from the same person who swore to never go that route, as there is an occasional whiff of exploitation about the process. Seems the ridiculous dollars people are willing to spend were too alluring to ignore.

The industry seems to have moved over to a pay-to-play model to a shocking degree. That’s why we see another Kickstarter entreaty every day now. Artists, not the wealthiest of types, are seeking to raise anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 to have someone design and arrange for the printing of a paper-based-object. (Printed by a 3rd party, in most cases.)

I can’t help but wonder if that’s the most effective use of people’s time and money. Is this not a vanity business, for the most part? How many books do we need?

Every photographer is clearly entitled to spend his, her or (other peoples’) money however they like. It’s still a free country. But what is the end game?

Is it that a permanent object will outlive them? That it shall adorn countless shelves, when their bodies are decomposing in the ground? Or perhaps it is still a marketing object, as I was told by many in 2011-2? A marker of career success that makes people take you more seriously?

The problem with that line of reasoning is that when everyone has a book, having a book is no longer an exclusive proposition. And if everyone can and does have one, then having one does not make you automatically more successful than the hordes. Right?

Couldn’t 25G buy you a new car? Or pay off your student loans? Or cover year of graduate school? Or a trip around the world?

Might not a trip around the world add more than a bound-sheaf-of paper to a photographer’s burgeoning gravitas?

How many artists actually view making a book as an opportunity for communication? How many consider a book an expression of dialogue between themselves and an anonymous collection of strangers?

I ask you, having recently leafed through “Notting Hill Sound Systems,” for the third or fourth time. It was recently sent my way by English photographer Brian David Stevens, having been published by Café Royal Books. The artist and I have traded witticisms on Twitter occasionally, so he sent the book to see what I thought.

Book might not be the right word here. It’s more of a catalogue, or you might even call it a leaflet. It’s on decent-quality paper, and stapled in the middle. No separate cover at all.
So it couldn’t possibly have cost that much to make.

The entire book is filled with images of stacks of speakers sitting on the streets of London. Or so we assume. As there is no supporting text in this publication at all. No hints. No screeds. No explanation of what is going on.

Is it the documentation of an art school project? Are they readymades? Were they put there to be photographed, or were they a part of an existing system? There is almost no way to tell.

I wrote Brian to see what the deal was, and he provided me a link to some backstory. Apparently, right around now, there’s a big Reggae festival in the streets of Notting Hill, a posh West London neighborhood. The whole place becomes an epicenter of reefer madness for a day, and then it all goes back to normal.

He crept around the streets, early in the morning, well before the festivities, just to get this set of photographs. (In all their trippy ambiguity.)

Sitting here in Taos, there was no way for me to possibly know that. But the artist didn’t care. He wanted the viewer to see these things for what they were. Beautiful objects? Fascinating combinations of metal, wood and screen? Quiet totems that represent insanely loud bits of fun? (A nod to John Cage’s silent music?)

Again, we don’t know. After he told me what was up, I perused more carefully, and noticed that several images had “parking suspended” signs embedded within. The kind of things that municipal workers post right before a festival, or a film crew comes to shoot for the day.

So that’s at least a clue. But no more than that. To Londoners, this book will have a completely different meaning than to the rest of us. He’s communicating with them in code.

We get another read entirely. One that absolutely arouses curiosity. What is going on here, and why?

It makes me think the artist has given this whole publishing endeavor a lot of thought. He worked with a publisher, rather than self-publishing, but obviously found someone who understood his vision. And given that CRB is based in England, they were clearly down with the double meaning of the pictures.

They didn’t spend a Range Rover’s worth of cash to get the thing printed. (Or half a Bentley?) And then the first edition sold out quickly, so they got a second edition humming right away. (Which would have kept the costs down further, until a clear market was established.)

Yes, I’m rambling longer then normal today, which is odd, as I normally like to coast in the Dog Days of August. But I’ve been out of the classroom since mid-May, so you’ll have to allow me a teachable moment.

Please, don’t make a book unless you really know why you’re doing it. And if someone tells you to give them $40,000 so you can have your dreams met, just think carefully before writing the big fat check. Or maybe start summoning cheaper dreams.

Bottom Line: Cool catalogue to disseminate cool photos, not a paperweight

Go Here To Purchase “Notting Hill Sound Systems”

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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.

This Week In Photography Books: Christopher Capozziello

by Jonathan Blaustein

“There but for the grace of God go I.” Two weeks in a row, we’re opening with an old school aphorism. Why is that? Have I detected
a growth in our Millennial readership? Am I trying to adhere my contentical requirements to shorter attention spans?

No, that’s not it.

Frankly, I think many of us work less in summer. We try to read a book here and there, and allow a few random moments of calm to intrude on an otherwise busy lifestyle. There’s the Fall Season, and the New-Year-through-spring mad dashes of productivity. And then we have Xmas time and summer breaks, to re-gather one’s thoughts.

As such, my thoughts have turned to wisdom’s efficiency. Aphorisms are like tweets, in that they aim to provide maximum information in minimal form. So much so that we’ve even managed to abbreviate them further: i.e., better safe, a bird in the hand. Neither of those are complete thoughts, but we know them well enough to intuit the second half, and the meaning.

“Better safe than sorry” is like “when in doubt.” It encourages caution, above all else. I suspect the cautious proto-humans were the ones that gave us many of our genes, as the braver sorts were likely eaten by saber-toothed tigers while exploring.

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” sounds like it was made up by a farmer. I’ve got my crops. They are here. They feed my family. If I try this new seed that Jenkinson was telling me about, it might bring in much more. Or it might not. Better safe.

And what about the first one I mentioned? There but for the grace of God, is what people say. They abbreviate this one too. It means, please remember that there are many billions of the people on planet Earth who are less fortunate than I am. I could easily have been born into a war zone, or somewhere with no indoor plumbing. But I was not.

We tend to push such thoughts outside of our day-to-day thinking. It’s easier to get by that way. But what if you lacked the luxury? What if you could never forget or escape the consequences of fate, or God, or whatever word you choose to use for such concepts?

Christopher Capozziello has such a dilemma. He’s a photographer, and writer apparently, and last year he put out a book called “The Distance Between Us,” by Edition Lammerhuber, and I just got my hands on a copy. His twin brother, Nick, was born with Cerebral Palsy, and has had an insanely difficult life as a result.

Two brothers. One womb. One twin healthy, the other sick. It’s like something out of a Dickens novel.

I’ll have to step out of character even further here by telling you I met Chris at LOOKbetween in 2010. We talked a lot, and then stayed in touch. I gave him some tips on how to access the fine art photo community. He came and hung out while I was writing about Photo Plus Expo for APE.

I therefore saw this work very early on. Before the accolades. Before the book. He also asked me to peruse an early-version-pdf at a time when he was submitting a concept for a publication competition that he didn’t win.

All for the best.

Because he’s used the ensuing years to fine-tune his vision, and this large book is the beneficiary. There’s text throughout, including under many of the photographs. He writes naturally, and the narrative fills in many gaps that would not have been dealt with sufficiently, with only titles to inform us. Furthermore, by telling his story so directly, he’s able to amp up the emotional reaction in his viewer.

Nick has seizure cramps that are debilitating. He likes to play pool. He had major brain surgery, and an implant was put in his chest. You can see the implant. You can see Nick go through the ravages of pain.

All the while, Chris can’t help but wonder, why not me?

Eventually, the brothers take a big road trip at the end. And even better, we close with a selection of Nick’s pictures from the trip. (We’ve seen Chris photographing Nick taking pictures, so there’s even foreshadowing.)

Don’t you love it when the column connects from week to week? It’s the happy ending. The über-American cinematic narrative. (With the road trip thrown in as a bonus.)

The book has a message, a point, and a vision behind it. I might have found the text a bit overwhelming at times, but that’s nitpicking. If you invest your time in this one, you’re likely to get a lot back.

You can tell that years of planning and care went into the creation of this book, and years of pain went into the living. Yet when you hold the book, the finished article, you’re holding the outcome of someone’s dream.

Bottom Line: Great book, powerful personal family tale

To Purchase “The Distance Between Us” 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.

This Week In Photography Books: Anders Petersen

by Jonathan Blaustein

The grass is always greener. So they say. I’m keeping that in mind as I try to relax into my staycation this summer. No use envying other people’s holiday photos on Instagram.

Sometimes these aphorisms carry deep wisdom. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That’s the cycle of history in one short sentence. Impressive. (Certainly terser than a blustery treatise on why Vlad Putin’s aggression in Ukraine is hardly avant garde.)

There’s another that’s been on my mind lately. “Wherever you go, there you are.” It’s practically koan-ic.

As our longtime readers know, I did a lot of travel writing for APE from 2010-13. It was something of a dream, to wander about as a part of my job. And I got to visit amazing museums and galleries to boot. Not bad.

Eventually, I realized I was no happier in London or New York or New Orleans than I was at home, and the post-trip crashes were brutal. I might have been a tad more charming on the road, or higher on adrenaline, but I was still me. Still perpetually stressed about keeping all the balls juggled, and the children fed.

Late last year, my desire to travel began to wane. I realized that if I could be happier at home, more content in my own skin, I might not need to be somewhere else to be a better version of myself.

Some people don’t need a happy ending, though. Euro films have been cranking out depressing, dour, dimly-lit dandies for decades. (And to think, my college writing professor told me alliteration was too obvious.)

Furthermore, what must it be like in Scandinavia in the dead of winter? Saturated Color doesn’t exist. SunLight is a rumor. Who’d be happy then, or even believe such a concept as happiness was anything other than naive voodoo? (If I lived there, I’d be addicted to cigarettes, vodka and Internet porn in weeks…just kidding.)

Anders Petersen channels that energy as well as anyone. Not in a sense of depression, per se, but a celebration of joyous nihilistic depravity. He deifies the drunk at the end of the bar; an understandable response to the absurdity of existence. (I saw, but never reviewed, the lurid “Soho” from MACK.)

Wherever Anders Petersen goes, there he is. A year after a 2012 earthquake in Northern Italy, he was invited to the Emilia area by Studio Blanco, to take Anders Petersen photos. Or so we are told at the end of “To Belong,” his new book published by SlamJam.

We get the explanatory essay at the end, and the title on the back cover. I suppose you have to do things differently these days, if you want to stand out. Shake it up, as it were. (In fact, the closing statement does dedicate the book to those whose lives have been shaken.)

It opens with the obligatory boob shot, (Boobs Sell Books℠) but then cascades through stuffed animals, a mountain-lion in a cage, odd dolls, a crotch-shot with a girl stretching her leg over her head, some seriously strange-looking old people, some surprisingly hopefully portraits, and rubble and dancing and Dora the Explorer. (The rubble makes more sense upon second viewing.)

We get to see one of my favorite creepy-awesome-weird photos of all time, on par with Asger Carlsen, with some dude’s chest-hair growing up through a tattoo of the Virgin Mary. I felt like spiders were crawling on my spine, while I stared at it.

There’s a recurring symbol of flexible-connecting tubery, which I didn’t quite figure out. (The need to contort oneself to survive among human kind, especially in the face of a natural disaster? Good guess?)

The book is also made a little differently. The pages are two pieces of paper sandwiched together. They turn easily, though. It makes for a rather beautiful object, in addition to a sumptuous collection of images.

And how’s this for a message takeaway: the Earth crumbles beneath our feet, occasionally. Life falls apart along with it. And yet we endure. So you might as well let a little of the crazy in while you’re here.

Bottom Line: Very cool book built upon an earthquake-shaken foundation

To Purchase “To Belong” 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.

Mishka Henner Interview – Part 2

- - Art

Mishka Henner is an artist based in Manchester, England. He’s been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet and Deutsche Borse Prizes, and was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for Art in 2013. His work is currently being exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and a solo show recently closed at Carroll/Fletcher in London.

Jonathan Blaustein: There’s a project on your site called “Less Americains,” in which you erased most of the information from Robert Frank’s seminal work. There does seem to be a strong American inspiration in your practice.

I get it. I’m a bit in love with what you guys do in England. I try to work with absurdity. I see it as positive, and a healthy reaction to the state of the world. It’s the flip side to outrage; they go hand in hand. When you don’t want to swallow your outrage, you can look at it sideways and have a giggle. That seems very British to me.

Mishka Henner: I love Bill Hicks and I’d like to think there’s some Bill Hicks in some of this work. With “No Man’s Land,” and the feed lots. Absolutely.

JB: Well, there was a line of inquiry I was headed towards, which is, you piss people off.

MH: (laughing)

JB: I just saw a photo blog that described your “Less Americains” project as a “waste of time.” Is that necessarily a bad thing? Do you see yourself as a provocateur? Do you think great art ought to ruffle a few feathers, and not just tell people what they want to hear?

MH: I think I stopped being earnest about six years ago. I was making what I think of as very earnest, documentary work. More straight documentary.

Then I came across mostly American artists working with photography who were funny. People like Chris Burden. They were daring, amoral. There was real ambiguity in there. And they weren’t subscribing to this idea that documentary photography has to be earnest. What’s Chris Burden saying when he fires a gun at a Boeing 747 taking off from LAX? Who cares? It’s a brilliant gesture.

So documentary could be dangerous, confrontational. And it could also tell jokes. All things that I never thought photography could be, right?

JB: Right.

MH: That’s why I did “No Man’s Land.” When I first started doing it, I was thinking, “Fuck. I can’t do this. You cannot do this. You can’t go around photographing prostitutes with a Google Street View camera. That’s just fucking outrageous. It’s just a complete moral and ethical No No.”

And then, the more time I spent on it, the more I was thinking, “Hang on a second. What is this? Who are these women? Fuck, maybe I’m like one of them.”

You know what I mean, as an artist? Standing by the roadside, displaying your wares, waiting in the middle of nowhere for someone to come along and fuck you over. Metaphorically speaking of course. My point is that I could recognize myself in the subject. And the fact it was all done remotely was even more powerful to me.

JB: I do have that on my question list. I was going to ask you if you have ever tried to pick up an African hooker in Calabria?

MH: (laughing) No. No, I haven’t. Virtually, maybe. But not physically.

You know, the longer I spent working on “No Man’s Land”, the more I was thinking, “If you’re going to photograph street prostitutes in the middle of nowhere in Europe, this is the way you do it. You don’t go there, pretending to be doing an earnest project. You do it sitting at home, alone, in front of your own computer terminal looking out at these shards of reality.”

There’s a thing called the Prison Photography blog…

JB: Yeah, Pete Brook. We know Pete.

MH: He’s cool. I like him. But he and some others went on this crusade talking about how what I had done was somehow inferior to the photographers who went there and photographed the women. That in those works, there was much more beauty, subtlety, and empathy in their work. That those images were literally imbued with an ethical and moral sympathy that was absent in mine.

And I just thought, “What a load of bullshit that is.” To be honest with you Jonathan, I’ve found that quite a few of my projects have revealed a lot of the assumptions and judgements that a section of the photo community continues to take for granted about documentary. It really doesn’t have to be like that. There’s so much more scope for pushing the boundaries of what documentary can be.

It has a lot to do with this earnestness that I’m talking about. It’s the pitiful image. Documentary’s no good unless you’re made to feel sorry for the people in your photographs. Which is outrageous really. And quite demeaning and condescending to the people who are the subjects of those pictures.

At least the sex workers in my pictures have their faces blurred. They’re at a distance, a long way away from the lens. It means the work isn’t just about them, it’s also about us looking at them. Which I don’t think enough documentary does.

I made “Less Americains” for a number of reasons but a major one was because I was getting sick and tired of this monumentalizing of Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” It was as if the book had become a biblical text that couldn’t be questioned. It was beyond reproach. I was thinking, “Hang on a minute. The discussion around that work is turning it into some sort of mythology. They’re just creating myths. And I really don’t like that. I react very strongly to that.

It’s like dogma. Do you know what I mean?

JB: I do. I’ve railed against many of these same things, so I do feel you. But it’s interesting, as artists, to watch how perceptions change, as things age. I’m sure that’s where your sociology background can inform your thinking.

Frank’s work, in 1958, was transgressive. It was shocking.

MH: Of course, I know that! My problem isn’t with the work, it’s with the spectacle that surrounds it.

JB: How could something maintain that read, 60 years later? It can’t. I was able to see the show a few years ago, when they brought it back together, and sit with the objects, within the context of his Guggenheim application, and his earlier work. It was a joy to see the pictures on the wall, but in a way, we as younger artists have to fight through that.

You know, the Baby Boomers aren’t leaving the stage in any industry. It’s not just ours.

MH: Sure.

JB: So there’s a natural desire to rebel against the canon when the canon doesn’t have the same juice it did 60 years ago. Right?

MH: Absolutely. I can totally imagine the impact it must have had. It must have been revolutionary, certainly.

JB: In culture in general. It’s a little dorky that I’m an Anglophile, and you love the Americans, but in the late 50’s, mainstream culture here was very white, monotonous, buttoned down, hierarchical culture. Everything was hidden under the rug.

It was all veneer. So this guy comes over, rips off the skin, and shows disaffected people.

MH: Yeah.

JB: And in a way, he does what we’re talking about. We’ve all had conversations about what it must have been like, in the 50’s, to look at LIFE magazine, see a picture of a starving poor person in a Third World country, and have that picture punch you in the stomach.

As opposed to now, where your eyes glaze, and you can’t possibly relate, viscerally, to suffering in the same way.

MH: I don’t know. You see, I do look around and think we are in a very conservative time, in which there are horrific things going on which are being pushed under the rug. I do think that.

I only have to look aroud me or turn the TV on to see things that I’m sure someone like Robert Frank would have seen in 1950s America. I do think that.

JB: Sure, but we’re talking about the fact that the visual language, the way art is made and the way in which it is received, has changed, and needs to change to keep up with the times.

You’re using technology that wasn’t even imaginable then.

MH: That’s right.

JB: Your process is 21st Century, and the problems are 21st Century.

MH: And the visual language isn’t entrenched yet. These images can’t be pigeon-holed so easily and I think that as a result, they can stimulate parts of the brain that other images we’re so used to seeing can’t. If you went out today and tried to photograph the culture like Robert Frank did – which a lot of people do – it would be pointless and almost disingenious. I know because I was doing it before. And I realized that what I was doing was trying to emulate the idols.

A big change for me was to think, “Fuck that. Fuck the idols.” They lived then, I’m living now. I have to try to see and represent things as they are now.

JB: Yeah, fuck those guys.

MH: It’s not just because I want to be center stage, it’s more that I’m trying to get a grip about what the hell is going on. One of the reasons I wanted to work with satellite images is because the people who are running the show, that’s the stuff they’re working with.

When they’re working out logistics, where combat troops have to go, where pipelines have to go, they’re not working with ground-based imagery. They’re working with this network of cameras that surround the globe.

I wanted to get into their heads and try to see the world from their perspective, which is why I did “51 US Military Outposts.” It was the first project I did working like that and was a deliberate attempt to try to see things from that perspective.

After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and then our intervention in Libya, I had to find out for myself why we were going to these places. That’s why I started working with satellite images, to try and see things from that perspective. Which is a completely non-emotive perspective. It’s pure logistics. Pure strategy.

And of course, when you start to look at the world in that way, you see things entirely differently. Things become clearer.

JB: I saw Trevor Paglen speak last month, and he was talking about how he’s interested in this huge mass of imagery that’s being made by machines, for machines. The pictures are designed to be read by algorithms. They’re not even meant for human consumption, at this point.

MH: I’ve heard that.

JB: We’re living in a crazy time. We can think about what’s going on with those Nigerian girls, who were just kidnapped. It’s a global sense of powerlessness. The idea that we can be aware of things, minute to minute, and feel their impact, but also be completely devoid of any kind of control, or ability to impact these situations.

That’s a unique phenomenon, given how long it used to take information to travel. Now it’s instantaneous, and what do you really get? You get a feeling of dread and fear that Vladimir Putin’s coming to take over your country. Or some Islamic assholes are going to steal your daughter.

MH: Sure, but like Bill Hicks says, you turn your TV off, you look out the window and think, “Where’s all this shit happening?” I think there’s a big difference between the media landscape, and the landscape outside my window. Do you know what I mean?

JB: I see horses, ravens and eagles out my window. I live in a horse pasture at the base of the Rocky Mountains in the hinterlands of the American West. So I do, in fact, know what you’re talking about.

MH: Well, there you go. I see a motorway.

JB: That’s why I think these ideas are powerful. Because we are living bifurcated existences. We have our online existence and our real world existence, and there are more and more enticements, these days, to pull people out of meat-space and into ones and zeroes.

You alluded earlier to wanting to figure out what the hell is going on. That’s what drives contemporary art, at its best, is the desire to figure out what the fuck is going on out there. With a concomitant desire to find a form for that content that makes sense in the now, and is relevant, as opposed to a form that feels antiquated.

MH: I agree. Having said that, I think, in some ways, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. When I compare myself to net artists, they’re like Spacemen, and I’m still trying to get a plane off the ground.

Some of these guys, I don’t even understand what they’re talking about. They’re doing all sorts of crazy shit.

When I question myself, which, obviously, I do a lot, I wonder what I’m doing printing pictures out and putting them on a wall. That’s kind of a nostalgic project.

But at the same time, you’ve got all these museums and institutions that have walls that need to be filled, and people do go and see them, so you think, “Maybe that way of doing things still has legs.” It’s still an effective way to show pictures.

JB: Listen, we’ve definitely got to wrap this up. But just before we began our chat, I saw something on Twitter, and I thought it would be fun to get your reaction to it.

MH: Go ahead.

JB: Somebody submitted a potential app to the Apple app store, that was an anthropomorphic vagina that taught women how to masturbate. Someone made a cartoon, almost anime-style app, to teach women how to understand their own private parts. Apple rejected it, and said, “No thank you.”

MH: (reading) Female masturbation, there’s an app for that. Happy Playtime.

JB: There it is.

MH: Well, I’ve got a two-year-old daughter, not that it’s going to be related to this …

JB: Hey now.

MH: But whenever she sees my partner and I on our iPhones or iPads – which is often – it breaks my heart. It feels like she’s caught me with a needle in my arm. I find myself carrying my phone, and it’s more a part of me now than a phone or an object has ever been. These things are so addictive, they’re designed so that you’ll be absolutely be glued to them. You have to go to rehab just to rid them from your life.

They remind me of Pringles. Do you know Pringles?

JB: I do.

MH: I’m pretty sure they lace Pringles with powdered smack. Once you pop you’re fucked.

JB: I have a friend who worked for one of the chemical flavor companies for a couple of decades, so I have no doubt they jimmy-rig that shit. For sure.

MH: So you’re asking me what I make of this app? I’m surprised it’s only coming out now.

51 US Outposts - Ascension Auxiliary Airfield- Ascension Island, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 Military US Outposts – Ascension Auxiliary Airfield- Ascension Island, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Outposts - Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Military Outposts – Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Outposts - Diego Garcia Indian Ocean, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Military Outposts – Diego Garcia Indian Ocean, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Outposts - Camp Lemonnier- Djibouti, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Military Outposts – Camp Lemonnier- Djibouti, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Outposts - Camp Adder- Nasiriyah- Iraq, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Military Outposts – Camp Adder- Nasiriyah- Iraq, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Outposts - Menwith Hill- UK, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher

51 US Military Outposts – Menwith Hill- UK, Courtesy of Carroll/Fletcher