Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books: Margaret Morton

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes, you’ve got to mix things up. Even though it’s harder than sticking with what you know. I like easy as much as the next guy, but it CAN make a person complacent.

Just look at McDonalds.

Why did it become a massive capitalist behemoth? With tens of thousands of locations? Because you only have to be smart enough to walk up to the counter, or drive up to the window, and point at a number.

I want combo #2.
You could grunt, and it would still work out.

If you can string together enough syllables, in proper order, to say, “Combo #2,” and you can cobble together enough pocket change to pay the $2.99, then you can have yourself a burger, some fries, and a highly-sugar-and-caffeine-laden beverage.

What could be easier than that? And as to the cows that go into that burger? Why bother to make them run around a grassy pasture? Why not just let them stand in their own shit, all day long, until it’s time to kill them?

What’s easier, letting them stand where they are, or going to the trouble of designing a cow-exercise program?

No contest.

But just the other day, I was reminded why the hard way promotes growth. I was headed in to teach my second straight class in the new semester: “Beginning Digital Photography.” I asked for an extra class, THIS class, in fact, because I can teach it in my sleep. I know my patterns. I know my lectures. Cold.

No drama at all.

Except there were only 5 students in the room, instead of the usual 25. And the University didn’t want to cancel. So, on the fly, I realized I’d have to re-tool everything I know, in order to keep a very small room entertained and enlightened for 2.5 hours straight, for 15 weeks.

My first thoughts were based in fear and frustration. My desire for the lazy way was screeching in my consciousness, like a wolf that just chewed off its own leg to get out of a trap. Then, I caught my breath, and realized I had no option but to make it work.

I began to ask the students questions I normally wouldn’t. I established a completely new vibe, and laid down ground rules. By the end of class, we were all laughing, and I was excited as hell.

Often times, change is forced upon us. We resent it, and then realize it was in our best interest. This time, I went through the stages of grief in warp speed. Which allows me to give you my high-minded advice all the quicker.

What does that have to do with a book review, though? I’m glad you asked. Because, as always, I’m trying to reach a cogent point before I’ve hit 1000 words, and your attention span begins to wane.

Today, I want to highlight “Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan,” a new book by Margaret Morton, recently published by the University of Washington press. That’s a long title, yes, and it likely gives you a clue to its subject. Not a lot of room for surprise.

This book is one that I’ve looked at several times before, and decided not to review. (Yes, I know we’ve had this conversation before.) But this morning, I changed my mind. (And not because I’m out of books, which has been the motivation in years past.)

No, I decided to write about this book because I chose to change my criteria a bit, to keep things from getting stale. This book is not inherently exciting and dramatic, and I don’t think the pictures will change your life. They’re not brilliant, nor are they particularly innovative.

Before you hate me for damning the book with faint praise, let me continue. The pictures are kind of washed-out, bleached, and bereft of people. They’re not razor sharp, nor are they showy. The tonal range is minimal, so they don’t grab you in the guts either.

But they are consistent, in their tone and compositional style. They keep coming at you, like the less-talented fighter who out-works the flashy favorite. (Hello Buster Douglas, what are you doing in 2015?)

They transport you somewhere else. Somewhere quiet, where everyone’s already dead. The aesthetic reinforces the content, and there is a distinct narrative structure. You start far away, pull in very tight, and then drift back out again.

Very smart.

Perhaps I fall victim to shiny visuals, or off-beat and absurd concepts? I show you books that are edgy, or already famous, or that reflect an arty style you’ll like for sure.

This book, however, does something that I’m always asking for, despite it’s grayscale production: it shows me, (and you) something I’ve never seen before. Frankly, even in this ever-more-connected world, I suspect it depicts something almost no one has seen before: vacant cemeteries, in the form of mini-cities, in the hinterlands of Kyrgyzstan.

That’s about as far off the beaten path as anyone can get these days. I wouldn’t even know how to fly there if I tried? Do you route through Tajikistan? Or am I a fool, and everyone knows that Uzbekistan is the best layover, what with their killer mutton stew?

Kidding aside, these pictures have a sere, world-weariness that didn’t seduce me. It put me off, even though I was inherently curious. But I never forgot the book, so I came back to it again.

It’s not the grand vistas that grab you here, it’s the details. Is that a scalp nailed to a wooden post? What do the rams horns mean? The deer? Are these competing warrior clans, with different spirit animals?

The stars and sickles jut up into the sky, whose color we can’t know, as we’ve been denied the opportunity.

Why the cages? What do they mean? Is that a desiccated eagle? Or a falcon? How hard is it to train a falcon anyway?

This book is not something I’d normally review, and I think that it’s healthy for me to keep expanding that definition. It does have a lot to offer. And it’s my job to sit still long enough to share that appreciation with you.

Bottom Line: Austere publication highlighting graveyards at the end of the line

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Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books: Christopher J Everard

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever heard of Sasha Grey? Maybe?
Maybe not.

As it happens, she’s a young actress from California. I first saw her in Steven Soderbergh’s taut little film, “The Girlfriend Experience.” She is lithe, Sasha Grey, with long, fine dark hair, and oil-black eyes. Those eyes are world-weary like Scarlett Johansson’s, but not in that same I-grew-up-in-New-York-so-I’m-smarter-and-cooler-than-you sort of way.

Do you know what I mean?

She was hard not to watch, Ms. Grey, as she played a very expensive call girl who provided a particular service: she pretends to be her John’s girlfriend, beyond just sexing him up.

Her acting is languid, sure, but again, it’s hard to look away. She was oddly mesmerizing. Then I saw her during her multi-episode cameo on “Entourage,” which I’m loathe to admit I ever watched.

At that point, I’d already learned her somewhat-but-not-really shocking story: Sasha Grey was a porn-star, despite her small boobs and overall lack of looking the part. What did I think, when I first heard the news?

That poor girl. She must have gotten all worn out. Apparently, she’d made a tremendous amount of movies, in which she often had sex with multiple partners at once.

My first thought was not, “Good for her. Making something of herself. Commodifying her compelling sexuality. Way to go. The American dream in the making.”

No. I half-worried that she was tarnished goods.

At no point did I consider tracking down some of her X-rated material online. That seemed a bit like peeking through the curtain at your neighbor undressing, as I’d first seen her in a “mainstream” film, though she did get naked, as I recall.

Can we all agree that my reaction was strange? Or maybe not strange, as it’s normal to be embarrassed by pornography, even though most people use it in some form or other.

No, my reaction was not strange. It was inappropriate. Yes, that’s the right word. I was practically Puritan, which is unpleasant to admit.

Our collective guilt at our carnal urges, and the manner in which we occasionally satisfy them via visual means, was the cause of the awkward thoughts I had vis a vis Ms. Grey, and her choice of professions.

My bad, in retrospect. More power to you, Sasha. (Because I’m sure you’re reading this, right?)

It’s one of the great hypocrisies of our time, the way we all engage in the same kind of behavior that we’re all pretty sure is wrong. I think the subject is worth investigating, which we can easily do via “Denied Reality- Episode 1: Our Industry,” a new book out by Christopher J Everard, published by Interlife Pictures.

The artist sent me a copy, suspecting that I might like it. If I didn’t know better, I’d think some people were paying attention with respect to the types of books I prefer. Because this one hit the mark in almost every way.

Mr. Everard is based in London, and is British by birth, near as I can tell, though he did spend many years living in the US. So his predilection for our culture is understandable, as is his curiosity about our prurient interest in sex, which he deems a “Denied Reality.”

Open up the book, and there are a succession of well-made-but-not brilliant images that come without an explanation. So I thought, “Gee, I wonder what I’m looking at?”

As if he perfectly anticipated the question, the very next page had small black and white thumbnail images, with well-written captions. I had a desire, and the book satisfied. (No pun intended.)

It appears that this book is a research-based, first-person narrative exploration inside the porn industry which is based, primarily, in Los Angeles. As the book is being released while Larry Sultan has his retrospective at LACMA, he is referenced appropriately within.

This is a book that speaks to photo-book-geeks, because it varies up its delivery like a crafty pitcher who can no longer throw the heat, so he has to keep the batters on their toes.

Immediately after a few more photos and caption pages, there’s an honest, hilarious essay by Daniel Blight. It’s also in a first person style, and breezy, without being pretentious. No art-speak, but lots of references to masturbation, smoking hash, and improper behavior.

Basically, it was the exact style I like to read. Mostly because I also like to write that way, as you well know.

This book, unlike almost everything I review, was one I had to put down and come back to. Because there is good, engaging writing interspersed throughout. It’s too dense to breeze through it like a normal photo-book, or read it in one shot, unless you’ve allotted the proper time.

In that regard, it’s different from what I normally see, which is something I’m always begging for in this space. Do it differently. Make the book into an experience I/ we’ll remember.

Mr. Everard seems to have interviewed a lot of subjects in the industry, walked red carpets, attended award banquets, traveled to Arizona to meet some professionals living outside the LA bubble, and road-tripped to Utah, after he learned that its residents are the highest per capita consumers of porn in the US. He actually mentions statistics in several places that suggest that most of the Red States/Republican States/States with the highest rate of church-goers actually top that list year in, year out.

Hypocrisy, anyone?

The conclusion reached, and perhaps dispensed a few too many times, is that the people in the pornography industry are hard working Americans. They bust their humps (no pun intended) to put food on their table, support their families, and have time on the weekends to play with their kids. They’re great dads, moms, and children.

The industry supplies jobs, and pays taxes. It is an American success story that we all pretend doesn’t exist. Because we are ashamed of ourselves; not the people who supply our fix. They deserve better, the artist suggests.

All in all, it’s a great book. The pictures within, which contain surprisingly few “nasty” images, and even fewer boobs, are not the type to blow you away. They’re not AMAZING. Just really good, particularly in illustration of the overall narrative.

But they don’t need to be more than that. It’s the book we judge, and the way in which the text and images support each another, and the pacing, degree of information, accessibility of the concept, it all makes for a genuinely excellent experience.

Mr. Blight has another great piece at the end, mocking Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and I’m still not sure if it’s a reported story, or if he just made it up. There’s even a “Designer’s Cut” edit of pictures that wouldn’t have otherwise made book. That’s extra content that you get if you’re special, and buy this particular edition of the book. Extra stuff, like those porn sites are always offering, so I’m told, if you’re only willing to drop your credit card number.

Bottom Line: Honest, smart, very-well executed look at the things we like to see, but never discuss.

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Work from Photo NOLA, Part 3

- - From The Field

A couple of months ago, in this very space, I joked about being terrified to mock ISIS. I, who likes to make fun of almost anything, was afraid to offend those homicidal maniacs. And I said as much in a book review.

Around the same time, I also wrote a column proudly proclaiming my Jewish heritage. (Though with a last name like Blaustein, there’s only so much you can do to deny it.) I said, at the time, that my people have targets on our backs, often from those aforementioned lunatics, (and their ilk,) and that it felt a tad uncomfortable to out out myself as a Jew so publicly.

It’s 6am now, far earlier than I normally write, but I woke up before the sun, and started thinking about the Charlie Hebdo massacre last week, and the subsequent attack on a Kosher grocery store in Paris. Psychopaths lashed out at journalists who communicated through humor, and at Jews.

I’m far from the action, thankfully. Thousands of miles away. But it stuck in my mind this morning, and it won’t let go.

The sheer depth of the tragedy is mind-boggling. The anger, the hate, the efficiency with which those lives were taken. Since Cain killed Abel, and someone else wrote it down, most of the world has agreed that taking someone’s life is the worst thing you can do.

We human animals have a limited lifespan. We know this. For the most part, we choose not to think about it. When a person kills another, they rob them of their future. They steal their soul. Out of spite.

When it is done simply to shut someone up, or because they choose to call their God by another name, it seems even more heinous.

Now, I haven’t Tweeted “Je Suis Charlie,” nor have I changed my Facebook profile photo in solidarity. Not to disparage anyone who has, but to me, it somehow felt hollow. What difference will it make, I thought? Who wouldn’t be in support of these victims, who died for freedom of speech, a concept I’ve defended, so many times, in this very space?

Yesterday, I wrote a good opening to this article. It was about a coyote who walked right up to my house, just outside the sliding glass door. His coat was thick, resplendent, even in winter. (It practically glowed.) I relate to those coyotes, so I always pay attention when they present themselves.

He trotted away when he heard my iPhone beep, as a text had come in at that moment. So I wrote a piece about how he was turned off by technology. And how I turned off my technology this Christmas break, and suggested you consider doing the same, when you can.

But this morning, as I couldn’t sleep, I began to compose this new version of the article. In my mind’s eye, I imagined those poor people being killed. (The result of watching all that violence on a marathon of Soderbergh’s excellent “The Knick” this weekend, perhaps?)

I remembered that this column, in which I spout off each week, is a sincere privilege. Rob gives me the freedom to speak my mind, to a very large audience of people who live around this huge planet of ours. It is unique, this 21st Century experience, in which one can talk to so many, who ingest the information, instantaneously, for free, on their screens.

I was ready to slag it off, in a column, this Internet of ours, and remind you how vital it is to unplug, from time to time.

But today, I chose to pivot, even though this introduction has so little to do with the amazing time I had in New Orleans, at Photo NOLA, nor the terrific photography I saw, which I will soon discuss. The photos will be there too, below these words, for your perusal.

I decided, however, to make use of this platform, yet again, to pontificate. The forces that utilize terror and violence to silence people rarely win. Even in the totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, there were some who chose to make art, and write. Underground networks disseminated information.

Though of course fear drove the masses silent. Would I have the courage to speak my mind in such circumstances? It’s doubtful.

I chose not to provoke these monsters, who pull triggers as a way of lashing out, and the brave men and women at Charlie Hebdo shared no such reservations. They knew they had targets on their backs, and continued to do their work, and bring humor into the equation.

They died for their beliefs.

Today, let’s all salute their efforts.

Rather than suggest there is no link whatsoever to those sentiments, and the photographers I will highlight now, I’ll just write what ought to be obvious: when you make art, and share it with the world, you’re really communicating your ideas in image form.

Visual communication is a massively powerful methodology, as it needs no translation, as does French, when it wants to be understood in English. When these artists came to New Orleans, and shared their work with me, they hoped that I’d put their pictures up on a website for countless people to see. In fact, I was able to do that for the vast majority of people I met, because the quality of work was so high.

I take this responsibility seriously, and it gives me great joy to promote their work on this space, where I so often goof around while trying to discuss serious issues. I do hope you enjoy the work, and as I said last week, the book reviews will return next Friday.

On to the photographers.

Bruce Morton had a big smile on his face, the entire time we sat together. And every time I saw him thereafter. It’s easy to understand why. Bruce got an MFA in the legendary Arizona State Program back in the day, studying with legends Bill Jay and Bill Jenkins.

But he gave it up shortly thereafter, to get a more practical job. He built a landscaping business in Phoenix, which was his focus for many years. (Imagine how hard it must be to work outside in that heat, all the time.) But about 8 years ago, he decided to rededicate himself to his photography.

He packed up and moved back to his original family home in a small town, Bowen, in rural Illinois. He’s currently working on several projects at once, all focusing on the local population and cultural landscape. I liked all of his work, as well as his attitude, which screams passion and joy.

These pictures are from his mini-series “Bowen,” though I could easily have shown you some photos from his other projects a well.

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Sandra Klein is a member of the Aline-Smithson-LA-photo-mafia, which I chronicled at length in my two-part series on the Medium Festival last year. Those folks are doing some impressive work, and have built themselves a supportive community that speaks to the power of Aline’s teaching ability and force of will.

Sandra showed me two projects, the first of which I’m sharing here. She has a background as a print-maker, and these images reference that medium heavily. She photographs plants and cacti, and then weaves them into a constructed aesthetic that also includes actual sewn thread. The addition of the 3-D manipulation, alongside her genuinely excellent color palette, left me impressed.

There was also a group of pictures made in Japan, which I found much-less-resolved. But there was one picture, of a park setting in falling snow, that was so beautiful and Zen that I questioned whether she needed anything else. Sometimes, one perfect picture is enough.

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Klein_Sandra_04LeonardoSilvernitrate

Klein_Sandra_07CelestialMyrtle

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Klein_Sandra_10HombreSolo

Klein_Sandra_11MujerSola

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Gloria Baker Feinstein is a photographer based in the Mid-West as well, yet showed me a project made in Uganda. She visited a village there 8 years ago, on a tour with an NGO, and fell in love with the place. As a result, she formed her own non-profit to support the community, and goes back for 3-4 weeks each year.

I thought the pictures were extremely well-made, and communicate a warmth that stems from her knowledge of the people and the place. They are the antithesis of photographs made on a one-off visit to a Third World locale, where people step off the bus, snap a few frames, and then head on to the next destination.

Gloria also showed me some newer, black and white work made in a community in Eastern Kentucky in which she’d spent very little time. As such, I thought they compared poorly to the work that was richly developed over many years. We agreed to disagree…

Beauty Salon

Blue Wall

Boy Climbing Wall

Bra Salesman

Children's Shoes

Church

Evalyn

Girl in Red Dress

Girls Bathing

Girls in Sunday Dresses

Green Mirror

Lake Victoria

Mother and Children

Newspapered Walls

Raindrops on Window

Sunlight on Face

Three Grandmothers

Finally, yes finally, I come to the two artists whose work I looked at after my official 24 reviews had come to an end. First, I peeked in at Monika Merva’s new project. She and I have a few friends in common, and I had heard of her project “The City of Children,” which was published as a book, and has been exhibited widely.

Monika said that after the all-consuming nature of a specific, successful project, she was showing a group of pictures that she took simply because she wanted to click the shutter. There was no over-arching narrative beyond, “I am a photographer. I made these photographs. Have a look.”

At the end of a long slog, I found the pictures refreshing, along with her willingness to free up her process, simply because she could.

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After that, with my brain cells mushier than a freshly baked burger bun, I met with Margo Cooper. She’d approached me earlier in the day, swearing that she’d wanted to get a review with me, but the lottery had not been kind. Margo told me she’d heard through the photo-grape-vine that I was a “very nice person,” and might I be willing to look at her work after everything was done?

I’m a sucker for a compliment as much as the next guy, and in this case, I do try to be as nice as I can to everyone. So how could I say no?

Unfortunately, as I was so crispy, and Margo is high-energy, our meeting was a bit tense. These things happen. But when I got a look at her gelatin silver prints, of photos made in poor rural communities in New England, I said yes right away. (And that’s what we’re publishing.)

Apparently, Margo is an attorney, a public defender in particular, and makes photographs of these folks, and of blues communities in the Deep South, as her outlet. She’s committed to long-term projects, which you can see as some of her subjects age in the pictures. I didn’t have too much to say to her at the time, but I think the photographs below speak for themselves.

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Work from Photo NOLA, Part 2

My daughter got a staph infection late last year. Right on her butt cheek. It was awful.

At first we thought it was a spider bite, but with two doctors in the family, we were quickly corrected. It rose majestically from her tush, like the Sangre de Cristo mountains jut out of the New Mexico high desert.

Not good.

I knew nothing of the malady, before it settled comfortably into our home. The treatment is gruesome, and entails painfully squeezing out the toxic, contagious puss, day after day. She was a good sport about it, my little girl. Before and after the treatment, twice a day, she acted as if nothing was wrong.

But during? O.M.F.G. She screamed louder than a coked-up bond trader trying to get out of a bad deal. “Help. Help. Please stop, Daddy. Stop. No, Daddy, no. Ayuda me. Ayuda me.” (That last bit was fueled by lots of Dora the Explorer, to keep her semi-occupied.)

It took weeks to make the whole thing better. Unfortunately, during the infection’s run, my wife Jessie and I were meant to get away for a couple of days in Albuquerque. It was the best we could manage, to celebrate our 10th Anniversary, which had come and gone at the end of May. (It was to be our first parenting break since before Jessie got pregnant.)

Little girl was just old enough to leave with my folks for a couple of days. We’d been looking forward to the trip, meager as it was, for month and months. And then, with the staph infection in full swing, we had to cancel.

No fair.

We dropped the kids off at my folks for just a few hours instead, and must have looked as down-hearted and miserable as Barack Obama on Election Day 2014. We were crestfallen. Disappointed. Borderline suicidal.

So my Mom suggested that we book Jessie a ticket to go along with me to New Orleans. At first it seemed impossible. Surely, the tickets would be too expensive. And they wouldn’t really let us get away for 5 days, when even 2 had seemed so impossible?

It couldn’t work, could it?

I’ll cut to the chase, and bring some brevity into an otherwise rambling narrative. It did work. The tickets were reasonable, and the plan came together tighter than a spendthrift’s wallet.

I swear, I never, ever would have imagined we could pull it off. But we did. Out of the depths of our sadness, deep in the pit of despair, came a genuinely amazing few days together in a magical city.

Leave it to preachy-yours-truly to make a lesson out of an article about the portfolios I viewed at the Photo NOLA festival last year. Isn’t that just like me?

But it’s a valuable lesson, from where I’m sitting. We really don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and sometimes, the nastiest problems lead to the best solutions. Even when things look bleak, they can turn around quickly.

It happened while I was at Photo NOLA too. A micro-version of the same type of scenario.

Jessie and I were waiting outside the International House hotel, along with a throng of other festival goers. There was a school bus due to take us to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where Emmet Gowin was about to lecture at the big NOLA Gala. The crowd grew and grew, as the bus was clearly late.

I was in the midst of a good conversation with Dewi Lewis, the English photo book publisher, so I didn’t mind the delay. Eventually, I was roused by the shuffling of feet, the groans of unhappiness, and the piercing yell of Jennifer Shaw, Photo NOLA’s Executive Director. (Whom we interviewed here in early 2013.)

Apparently, the bus was stuck in unprecedented traffic on I-10. It was so late that it was not coming back to get us. People were left to fend for themselves, as the traffic had snarled up the entire city center, in addition to the Interstate.

The lecture started imminently. There was no clear plan of attack. Take a cab? Why? The roads were impassible, we were told.

Miss the lecture? Unwise, as Mr. Gowin is famous for his inspirational talks, as I said in the last article. But Jessie and I were dressed up, and there were so many nice restaurants within a few blocks. I contemplated blowing the whole thing off, but it left a sour taste in my mouth, like a turned tangerine.

Eventually, we decided to make no grand decision, but simply walk with the herd. Follow the crowd, which was headed towards Canal Street, with Jennifer in the lead.

I’m not much of a follower, but in this case, it seemed the wisest course of action. We tromped and tromped. All the while, watching the cars not move at all.

The bus and the streetcar were both shot down as options by people who knew more than I did. So we just kept walking, each moment taking us closer to missing the main event. Jennifer was keeping a cool face, but I knew she was seething inside. How could she miss her own Gala?

After 15 minutes, we came to a break in the traffic, and the street crowd thinned. “This is as good a place as any,” Jennifer said. So I launched into hero mode, and stepped confidently into the street with my right arm raised.

Sure enough, three minutes later, I spied a mini-van cab, and hailed away. He was free, and headed our way. By then, our group numbered 12 people.

The cabbie said he could take 5, and no more. Miraculously, another min-van pulled up in front of the first, and 5 people piled in. Immediately.

That left us with 7. The cabbie agreed to stretch it to 6, but no more. So we filled up, and left Jennifer Shaw standing on the street, looking so sad it almost broke my heart. How she kept from crying, I really don’t know.

“We can’t leave her here,” my wife said. “It’s not possible. Of all the people, she needs to be there the most.”

“It’s true,” I said. “We can’t leave her. Can you please fit one more,” I asked the driver? “Otherwise, we’ll get out.”

“Sure,” he said. “But only this once.”

I offered to sit on the floor, sans seat belt, and the day was saved. We stayed off the highway, and were there in 10 minutes. (With just enough time to chug two glasses of cava, so we’d have a nice little buzz for Emmet’s lecture.)

I’ll spare you too much gushing about how that man fired up the crowd. He spoke to the deepest motivations of why we make art. And he insisted, time and again, that if you’re not willing to trust your instincts, and accept that there are always forces at work, far greater than you… you’re in the wrong line of work.

I listened intently, absorbing the wisdom, and finally had to type some quotes into my phone, as they were just too good not to share with you.

“Hold constant to the stars that seem to be organizing your life.”

“Do you have room inside yourself for what religious people call the Holy Spirit?”

“Speak out of your feelings.”

“Don’t put anything off.”

“The sun doesn’t care what we’ve done to the Earth.”

“You have to make all the mistakes yourself.”

I’ll end there, as Emmet did. I’ve already gone on long enough that some of you will have skipped down to the photographs. C’est la vie. And as they say in NOLA, L’aissez les bon temps rouler.

On to the photographers.

Susan Berger showed me some of my favorite work I saw. It’s a strange project, in that it seems like someone would have thought of it already. She photographed Martin Luther King Boulevard. In 40 cities around the United States.

Look closely, and you notice that in almost every case, the street was dedicated in an African-American neighborhood. But not always. She uses the street sign often, but not always. Sometimes, there’s a statue, or a hair salon named after him, or a low-income housing project.

Evocative stuff. I loved that she shot it medium format, black and white, and presented gelatin silver prints. All that work, it makes a difference.

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Francis Crisafio had another project that I loved. He teaches photography in an after school program in Pittsburgh, and has been doing it for years. His efforts are genuinely creative and collaborative.

He showed me several interlocking projects he does with the children. In one case, he shoots portraits of them, and makes prints. From there, the students make self-portrait drawings. Then, they hold them up to their face, and he shoots new portraits, with the drawings standing in for their faces.

I really loved those photographs, many shot in front of the classroom blackboard. There were other incarnations too, including some self-portrait collages the students make. All in all, a very impressive showing.

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Jen Ervin also showed me a collaborative project, though it was evident only in her words. The pictures didn’t really indicate the process. She shoots her children, at a family cabin in the woods, but she claims the entire family is responsible for the work.

Jen uses an old school Polaroid Land camera, and the small, unique black and white prints had some of that famed Southern Lyricism. They were very lovely. (And reminiscent of Sally Mann, who’s casts a long shadow down South.)

We discussed the fact that she’d been encouraged to make larger edition prints, by scanning and re-printing the originals. The copies were just that, far less effective than the one-of-a-kinds. Not sure you’ll agree, but I encouraged her to slap a big price tag on the Polaroids, and show and sell them exclusively. I saw no reason to water down the project by showing an inferior version. Do you agree?

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Ben Marcin is a photographer from Baltimore, and he first showed me some pictures that were straight out of “The Wire.” He did a typological project in which he shot individual B-more row houses, detached from anything but the context. I’d seen them before, as they were published on so many blogs around the Web.

His follow-up project, which I’m showing here, was also made amidst the poverty of his home city, and would likely make good old David Simon proud. Ben, who’s a confident sort, and loves to hike, trekked around the homeless camps that he said pop up almost anywhere there are some trees and grass.

He photographed these humble shacks and dwellings, which resonate with tragedy and resilience. He told me that he went back to each of these locations, and in every single case, the structure had been destroyed, razed, or burned to the ground.

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Rebecca Drolen showed me work in fortuitous circumstances. Apparently, one of the people I was meant to see was a no-show, so Rebecca won a quick lottery for the slot. I knew nothing of how it came to pass, but was thrilled, as I thought her work was some of the strongest I saw.

She studied at Indiana University, with Osamu James Nakagawa, whose excellent book we featured earlier in 2014. So I knew her training was solid.

Rebecca pulled out some black and white self-portraits that she told me were all about the relationship women have with hair. Ever the blunt reviewer, I told her that didn’t seem so significant to me, as her pictures were charmingly surreal. Yes, I thought of Magritte, but that’s a great reference for any artist.

They were just so weird, but also well-done. I loved them, and think you will to. We’ll feature the rest of the photographers next week, and then bring back the book reviews.

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Work from Photo NOLA, Part 1

- - From The Field

It’s Wednesday morning. I’m sitting at my kitchen table, where I like to write. Outside the window, the snow has just begun to fall. White flakes drop from the sky like so many perfect coins, tossed into Trevi Fountain.

In the black wood stove, piñon logs gurgle as their latent energy is converted into heat. The flames crackle too; the only sounds I hear in this otherwise silent, winter world.

It’s the Holiday Season, and we’re all getting ready to shut things down for a little while. To spend time with our families, perhaps take a vacation. Do our best to regenerate for 2015.

Just this morning, I was thinking about that word. Holiday. Clearly, it stems from the two words Holy and Day. Holy? That’s a word that’s been mostly bled of meaning, outside of true believers.

How might we re-interpret it, bring it down to Earth, give it a connotation that seems more relevant in our confusing, futuristic, and yet anachronistic times? (2014 being the year in which territorial land grabs became popular again. Just like the old days.)

As I said last week, I live in a magical place. This is known. The big mountain to the East is revered as sacred by the local Native American Tribe. They see the land as Holy.

Others, hippies mostly, call that same mountain a vortex, one of the few places in the world where energy carries mystical properties. Or maybe you’ve heard of the Taos Hum, which is not an actual topic of discussion here in town.

Regardless, there is enough evidence, personal and historical, for me to call this place special. When you live here, you realize that not all things can be explained. Science is great, but some knowledge comes from elsewhere. Just like the Big Bang is much like any other creation myth.

Once you’re comfortable assigning magical properties to one place, it’s not so hard to do it to another.

But where?

I’m willing to put the great city of New Orleans on that list too.

During my recent visit, I found there were some odd similarities between this little mountain town in the High Desert, and that classy city in the Louisiana swamp. (Odd, but true.)

I’d guess it’s because each locale was not founded by Puritan America. New Mexico was a Spanish Colony before anyone had ever seen Plymouth Rock. The French built New Orleans, and the resulting gorgeous architecture speaks to their legacy.

Here, the Catholic tradition believed in Saints. Mysticism was real. Penitentes whipped themselves in small mud huts. Those aforementioned Native Americans, even today, perform ceremonies that amalgamate animism with Catholicism. Spooky, beautiful stuff.

I know nothing of Voodoo, myself, but New Orleans clearly has a history of religious mashup too. Slaves from Africa mixed with Acadians. Local Native American tribes were thrown into the mix, resulting in parades filled with African-American “Indians.”

Americans came late to this particular party.

That’s a long introduction, I’m well aware. But this is to be my last piece for 2014, so I thought I’d go down swinging. Plus, the luxurious snowflakes have put me in a thoughtful mood.

My trip to New Orleans a couple of weeks ago re-enforced these ideas. There is something special in the air there, and it’s clear I’m not the only one that thinks so. It’s a tourist mecca for good reason. You don’t just go for the food and the drink and the chance to see flashed boobs. (I saw none.)

You go because in such places, we can be reminded that it’s a good thing, that the inexplicable exists. Who wants to live in a world where all the answers are at our fingertips?

Not me.

Google is great for offering up the illusion of omniscience. But it just that, I assure you. Illusory.

I’m betting you’d like some evidence.
How’s this?

When the time came to leave, my wife and I hopped into a taxi cab. Immediately, it was clear that our loquacious driver was that type of local. Witty, charismatic, and dripping with down-home wisdom.

When discussing the propensity of professional football players to find themselves in trouble, he pointed out that we all have the capacity for violence. And murder. Those guys are just people, like the rest of us. We all have our stresses, which lead to bad decisions.

“Pressure bursts pipes,” he said. How true.

As he continued, one story hilariously leading to the next, I happened to look down at his name. Lucien.

Lucien? I rubbed my temples. That was the name of the cab driver I had when I last left town, back in 2012. He even made it into the story I wrote, published on this very blog.

Could it be? What were the odds?

I mentioned my theory about why people loved New Orleans so much. Because the locals, as much as they cherish their culture, are happy to share it with everyone. They clearly relish the fact that people revel in the spirit of the place, and take a smidge of it home with them. (As opposed to places like Taos, where each new visitor wants to shut the door behind them. And the descendants of Conquistadors give tourists a good mad-dog look whenever they can.)

Responding to that theory, Lucien said, “It don’t cost anything extra to be nice.” Which was the exact same thing he said two years ago, on which I quoted him.

That sealed the deal. The heavens had intervened. Chance reared its head, and then went back to sleep, allowing some Holy Spirit to give my wife and me the perfect escort to our plane.

Call me crazy. Call me a hippie. I don’t care. Just don’t call it a coincidence.

As artists, it’s important that we be willing to suspend our disbelief, from time to time. After all, our calling is alchemy, not science. Creation is messy, and can not be written up into an algorithm.

The keynote lecturer at photoNOLA was the great Emmet Gowin. This was more or less the crux of his lecture, which had everyone transfixed. I took notes on my Iphone, but think, this many words into the article, that I’ll save that conversation for the next piece.

I saw so many good projects at the portfolio review that I will be writing three stories, so there’s plenty of time to meander into the bigger ideas that motivate us. (The good stuff, as far as inspiration goes.)

Rest assured, the New Orleans Photo Alliance, the non-profit that runs Photo NOLA, does a bang up job. They run a terrific festival, and showed me a hell of a good time. I’m thrilled to have seen so much to share with you, and will commence with that now.

Before I stop musing, though, I’d like to wish you a magical Holiday season. May you get all the gifts you desire, and let’s hope some of them don’t cost anything at all.

On to the photographers.

As with the articles about the Medium Festival, I’m not putting these fine artists in any order. We’ll look at some this week, and the re-start the process in 2015.

Larry Colby is a photographer from Boynton Beach, Florida. This is his second career, as he was originally a financial planner. But he’s all in on photography, these days, and his work was the first I saw.

Larry photographs in a local soup kitchen, which feeds a collection of Central and South American immigrant communities. He’s been focusing primarily on the children. Their portraits, in particular. I encouraged him to step back a bit, give us the cinematic equivalent of establishment shots. But also to dig deeper into the issues of poverty and immigration on a grander scale.

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Jan Arrigo is a Southern photographer who did stints in the publishing world, including a stretch at Oxford University Press. Jan has spent 20 years photographing animals in zoos, at night, with the intention of publishing a book. It all began with the kangaroo picture, which she took after getting boxed by one of the creatures in Australia.

We discussed whether she ought to try to market the project as a children’s book, which was her original intent, or try to make something for the mass market. Alternatively, she’s also considering doing a small-run photo book for the photo community.

Clearly, she’ll have to decide where the project will fit best, and what’s most important to her. Then it will be easier to accomplish her goal. But all good books need good photos, and I thought these were pretty cool. Even better, her leave-behind was a box of animal crackers covered in small versions of her photos. Very clever.

A black bird perched on a tree outside a window appears as if from a dream in this black and white photo portrait taken in Orlando, Florida.

A Florida raptor stares intensely ahead in this black and white photo portrait by Jan Arrigo.

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Black and white photo portrait of a flying monkey by Jan Arrigo.

A snake stares into the camera's lens in this Jan Arrigo black and white photo.

Two bear cubs show their claws in this fight captured by Jan Arrigo in a black and white photograph.

A Louisiana brown bear stares into the camera in this black and white photo portrait taken at the Audubon zoo in New Orleans.

A male lion pants under a moonlit night in this landscape photo portrait.

As if posing this Western Lowland gorilla gazes into the camera in this black and white photo by Jan Arrigo.

Two black birds react to a photographer in the Florida Everglades in this black and white photo.

This black and white photo portrait of a large white rhino shows him eating an herbivorous diet.

Black and white photo portrait of a boxing kangaroo by Jan Arrigo.

Brad Hamilton was visiting from New York. He’s been working on a project that attempts to add a digital, 21st Century twist to classic street photography. Not unlike Barry Frydlender, he mashes up multiple images, taken over time, into one frame.

I was intrigued by the fact that Brad often chooses neutral backgrounds, out in the real world. He sets himself in front of construction sites, places where a large swath has been painted white. Then he shoots tens of thousands of pictures, so he said.

The photographs enable him to create narrative or symbolic connections. He often titles them by the street corner that he adopts as his temporary home.

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Ashley McDowell is a young photographer from the Boston area. She studied photography at Syracuse, where she worked with Doug DuBois.

Ashley’s work is as personal as it gets. She’s been working on a long-term project that focuses on her sister’s heroin addiction, and the havoc it’s wreaked on her family’s collective life. Some images were fraught, and others were too subtle for the subject matter, I felt. The lists, held up in several photos, represent the items her sister stole from her family.

The best work is so personal that it allows an artist to tap right into the collective unconscious. The more honest we are, the more likely we are to tell a story with which many others can relate. I thought Ashley’s strongest images were well on their way to creating the type of empathy with tragedy, and addiction, that will captivate an audience.

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Bob Bright is a long-time commercial photographer based in Los Angeles. And he’s a life-long resident as well. One of those people who remembers when the megalopolis felt like a small town. When the dreams of the world were focused on Hollywood. Fame. Glamour. A better life.

Bob’s photographs parallel that by looking at the aging architecture and infrastructure of LA. He’s got a great medium format digital camera, and the high-resolution, modernist renderings match well with the faded, modernist glory. As we sifted through the project, finding the strongest through-line, I felt the metaphorical qualities begin to shine through.

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Finally, we’ll end with Leigh Webber. As I wrote last week, I mostly treat these meetings as critiques, these days. I’ll tell people immediately if I can publish their work here, or pitch it to the Lens Blog. No secrets about that, so I don’t leave tension hanging in the air.

It allows me to ask questions about why someone has come to the table. Where they are in their career. What type of feedback I can offer to be as helpful as possible.

For Leigh, it was difficult. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and has been shooting commercially, and doing weddings, for years. That’s her comfort zone.

She came to Photo NOLA, though, to introduce her work to a fine art audience. She knew nothing about it, and was taking a chance. Putting herself out there.

What she showed me was understandably jumbled. There were five different groupings of two or three pictures. Nothing coherent, but all well made. And everything focused on her son, as he grew up.

I told Leigh if she wanted to go through her archive, when she got home, and find a consistent voice, I’d be happy to take another look and see if I could publish it. Many photographers would have seen that as a rejection, not a challenge.

Leigh, true to her desire to grow, and learn new things, took me up on the offer. She sent the edit I’m showing now, which has something of the wild spirit of youth, mixed up with a mother’s love. I dig the photos, and hope you do too.

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As always, the lesson is not to settle with what you know. Not to get lazy with your skills. I hold myself to the same standards, and am working on some new ideas for next year. Things I currently have no idea how to accomplish.

That’s where we find the good stuff. All the best, and see you next year.

A Visit To The Getty

- - From The Field

The phone beeped in the middle of the night. A text. Must have been Dad, I thought, shaking off my dreams. He wakes up at 3:30 in the morning. He must have sent me good wishes on the trip.

Jesus Christ, Dad. It’s the middle of the night. Give me a f-cking break.

I swatted at the phone to shut it up, and went back to bed. I was due up super-early to head to California, so I was none-too-pleased to have my anxiety-ridden sleep interrupted any further.

Parents.

When the phone beeped again, this time as an alarm clock, I rolled out of bed at 5. My eyes refused to open, like a recalcitrant clamshell. I looked at my messages, mentally composing a text to Dad that would have included some impolite language.

Except it wasn’t Dad. It was Southwest airlines. They’d texted me at 3:55 am to say my flight had been cancelled.

Ouch.

I had a serious cortisol drop, and tried to reschedule through the website, but that was useless. So before you know it, I was talking to a grumpy customer service rep, who’d been working straight through the night, trying to figure out how to salvage my trip.

At 5am.
Not fun.

(You try being civil and polite under such circumstances.)

When all was said and done, I made it to LA. But I routed through Vegas, and lost a bunch of time. Time I meant to spend at the J. Paul Getty Museum, looking at art, so I could report back to you.

They’d graciously set up a few meetings on my behalf, to have some of the curators show me work, as their photo exhibitions were changing over. They had to move things around to accommodate, and I had to apologize for the airline shenanigans. No harm, no foul, I suppose.

I only mention the drama because I’d been bragging to my wife the night before about how good I’d gotten at avoiding and managing stress. I’m a road warrior, I said, or something like that.

Which only guaranteed that things would go to Hell as quickly as possible. Cancelled flight? Yes. 25 minute wait for the rental car shuttle? Sure. 1 hour wait for the rental car? Of course. Construction on the 405 that rendered my careful directions useless? Naturally.

By the time I turned up at the museum, improperly dressed for the 85 degree day, I was salty and grouchy and spent. Not much good to the world, unfortunately. Much less as a journalist who was meant to at least APPEAR intelligent.

Luckily, for those of you who don’t know, the Getty Center is set on a hilltop overlooking all of Los Angeles to the East, and the Pacific Ocean to the West. It is as beautiful a setting as you are likely to find, for a museum, anywhere.

So I sat down for a few minutes, when I finally arrived. Caught my breath. Took in some sun. Breathed deeply. And I felt better.
Who wouldn’t?

My first move was to go to see Peter Paul Rubens’ gigantic tapestries in an exhibition that had just opened. Apparently, in the Baroque period, some Spanish royalty commissioned him to design 20 foot wide tapestries that depicted the victory of the Eucharist. The dominance of Catholicism.

Spain controlled the Southern Netherlands, which is now Belgium, and wanted to take over Holland, which was Protestant. The artist first made a series of phenomenal oil paintings, which were also displayed, and then had those pieces transcribed into cloth, on an enormous scale, by other artisans.

As near as I could tell, it was straight-up propaganda. (Nothing new, if you’ve seen European art before.) The Catholic Church was the prevailing power structure, and had plenty of funds, so it was a solid patron, albeit one with a clear agenda.

I looked at the work for a while, in the dark room, and then stepped outside and looked at the Pacific Ocean. I repeated the pattern two more times. In all my years of looking at art, visiting museums, and traveling around, I’ve never done anything like that before.

The fresh air helped me suss out my thoughts. The paintings were taut and packed with energy. Once translated into another medium as tapestries though, they lost the viscerality of the originals. What was forfeited in emotive power was more than likely gained with the impressive scale, as far as delivering the message. Fear us. We are coming to convert your souls. The Eucharist bows before no man. (Or something like that.)

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Soon enough, I found myself in the innards of the museum, still wearing my puffy vest in the 85 degree weather. At least it will be freezing in there, I thought, so I’ll be glad to have it. This place, unlike every other museum I’ve visited, was not chilled to perfection, though.

So I ended up sweating as the meeting got started.

Not. Very. Classy.

I took the vest off, allowed the air-con to do its job, and began to parse what was going on before me. Which I will report to you, finally, now…

The Getty had arranged for me to meet Nancy Perloff, a curator at the Getty Research Institute, who was putting on a large exhibition about World War I, and the propaganda imagery that flooded the Continent. (In honor of the Centennial.) She was interested in the visual language that was used to depict the War, but also the manner in which imagery was manipulated to present one’s enemies in unflattering ways.

The exhibit, “World War I: War of Images, Images of War,” has since opened, so you ought to go see it. I did not have the opportunity, I’m afraid. We were joined in our conversation by Mazie Harris, a curator from the photography department.

Ms. Perloff presented us with a 6-photo panel piece made in London in WWI. She said it was the only photography that was included in the exhibit, so they carted it over to show me. Very decent of them.

The images were made of a German dirigible that hung over London, in 1916, lobbing bombs down below. It seemed like an early version of a drone, where superior technology enabled one side to pummel another from a safe distance.

But those Brits were crafty, so the series showed the floating beast lit up from below by spotlights. And then it was shot down, probably by airplanes, though that was not entirely clear in the pictures.

The first two were straight black and white, then a third was more of a sepia color. The last three pictures, while the wreck descended in flames, were rendered in red. Totally expressionistic.

We discussed the photographer, H. Scott Orr, of whom I’d never heard. Had he made money off the images by releasing post cards? Ms. Harris showed us some provenance work she’d done, when other such images came on the market. We discussed the degree of research that goes into the job.

Curators are often seen as glamorous these days. Practically art stars, in the public’s opinion. But I must say, whenever I spend quality time, I see them as scholars and historians. Right there in LA, talking about history, war, culture, and research, it was clear that I was dealing with people who’d devoted their lives to discovery.

Were the flaming blimp pictures propaganda, I was asked? I thought not, because H. Scott Orr was just making his work; doing his thing. If he’d been commissioned, like Rubens, and supplied with a message beforehand, I would have said yes.

We wondered how the colors were achieved? As the resident photographer in the room, I suggested toning. I’d seen a heap of hand-colored Russian images at FOAM in 2013, and they look very different.

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

After a while, our discussion broke up, and Ms. Perloff and Ms. Harris moved along. Amanda Maddox, who’d been quietly doing her work, right there in the room the whole time, looked up from her notes and introduced herself. She’s also a photography curator, and was working on the new Josef Koudelka exhibition that has since opened.

She’d spent the better part of six years on the project, which was meant to be the first major, complete retrospective of the artist’s career. They’d given over their entire photography exhibition space for the show, which was also a first.

Ms. Maddox showed me “The Wall,” an accordion-fold book that Mr. Koudelka had made for “This Place,” the Israeli photo project we’ve discussed thrice in my book review column. Apparently, Mr. Koudelka’s solution to being invited was to focus on the wall dividing Israel from the presumptive Palestine, and then make only two copies of the book.

As they stretched the book wide, which would ultimately reach nearly 40′, I was reminded of that classic SoCal accordion-fold book, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” by the ultimate LA guy, Ed Ruscha.

At that moment, in walked Virginia Heckert, the chief photo curator at the Getty. I pointed out the comparison, and she mentioned the book review I wrote where I called “bullshit” on Mr. Ruscha for claiming he’d never heard of Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, or Nicholas Nixon. (FYI, Mr. Baltz has since passed away. RIP.)

I asked Ms. Maddox why Koudelka? If she was going to devote 6 year of her life to something like this, marrying her passion, work ethic, research skills, and all the other component parts, why him?

There must be a reason.

She replied that Mr. Koudelka had demonstrated a level of commitment she found fascinating. After he had to leave Prague for publishing anonymous photographs following the Soviet invasion, he based himself in London. But he soon began photographing the Gypsy, or Roma communities, for which he became famous.

For years, she told me, he was essentially homeless. Following the human migration, sleeping outside, where he could. He’d head back to London for the winters only, as it was too extreme to live outdoors. He’d given his life for his art, Ms. Maddox said, and so she was devoting a chunk of her own to honor that.

She also showed me some mini-accordion-fold books that he makes, by hand, and keeps in his back pocket. They’re his maquettes for book ideas, though they look as much like a Hello Kitty version of a photo book: adorable, and the kind of thing you want to touch. (They didn’t let me, though. Touch them.)

After a couple of hours, I let everyone get back to their jobs, and set out to do more of mine, which meant wandering around the museum until it closed, looking at art. Chatting up the people who worked there. Having a good time.

Honestly, the staff I encountered at the Getty were just so nice. And helpful. The folks at the info desk, the security guards, the coat check lady, the curators, media contacts. Everyone. I’m sure it takes a ridiculous sum of money to keep that place running, though with the name Getty attached, I doubt we have to worry about their endowment.

Aside from a fee to park, the museum is free. There is a vast amount of amazing things to see. Gardens to walk through. Views to take in.

If you live in Southern California, or are heading there any time soon, I’m telling you to go there. As soon as you can. I was embarrassed to admit I’d never been to visit before. Now, I can’t wait to go back.

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This Week In Photography Books: Brad Moore

by Jonathan Blaustein

I just flew in from New Orleans, and boy, are my arms tired. (Ba doom boom. Tch.)

Sorry. Couldn’t help myself. It flowed out of my fingers, and then, there it was. As ridiculous as that bad joke is, the underlying truth stands.

I did just get back from New Orleans.

And every bone in my body is aching from the deep exhaustion of ten hours of travel each way, with 26 critiques sandwiched in between. (Plus the amazing parties and such. It’s not a drag, by any means.)

Since this column is as much a running commentary on my life as it is a series of book reviews, I must share that I feel like sleeping for 3 days straight. Instead, I came home to my two young children, and that’s just a daily marathon.

Enough bitching. What can I tell you today? NOLA rocks. I’ll be featuring it at length in the coming weeks, so I’ll spare you too much backstory in the here and now. Suffice it to say, it is a city that has “The Magic.”

I live in Taos, a small mountain town that is renown for it’s spiritual juju, so I know of what I speak. New Orleans has an ineffable something that makes it an addictive locale for many a tourist.

Let’s face it, the world is big. Far bigger than any one person could ever explore. Even Tony Bourdain has seen but a fragment, no matter how tired HIS bones might feel.

Places, cities, such as we know them, are nothing but an aggregate of people, structures, and landscape. That’s it. Yet somehow, they manage to develop distinct identities. The Castro is not the Lower East Side.

North London is not the North side of Chicago. These statements are so obvious as to be practically meaningless, and yet I type them still.

Why?

Because as photographers, or lovers of photography, we know that the best work manages to tap into the Zeitgeist of a place. To allow us to learn something crucial about a spot we might never have seen with our own eyes.

The camera is the proxy for the artist, and the artist is the proxy for the tourist. Here, declares the artist, is something you ought to see. Now, declares the artist, I will show you things that will embed in your memory, and make you think you know more than you do.

Speaking of which, I was in Southern California in late October, as you well know. (If you were paying attention at all.) I love that place too. It’s pretty, sure, but there is a seedy normality to the joint that I find alluring.

I’ve spent next-to-no time in Beverly Hills, or its ilk. Give me a low-rise little beach town any day. (Big Shout Out to Leucadia.)

Brad Moore has managed to capture an essence of SoCal that I’m pretty sure you’ll love. The SoCal of the Inland Empire, and Orange County, and mismatched patches of pavement. We can all see it in “Brad Moore,” a new book recently released by the nascent publisher Acuity Press, also from Southern California.

Why will you likely love it? Because it mashes up the anonymous modernism of the super-structure with the random chaos of real life. Korean churches behind geometric facades. Buddhist temples in half-abandoned-looking row houses.

And a seamless, flat, gray sky that references the smog, for which the place is often known, and the fog, that ever-present menace to coastal sanity. (Hey Fog, if you blow out now, so I can see the sun for a few minutes, I’ll give you $500. What, you can’t spend money, because you are an apparition made of moist sea air? Fuck you, then, fog. Fuck you.)

The book is really well-made, the images razor sharp. The repetitive shapes jump out at you, but just when you think you’re getting the hang of things, you’re given a surprise.

A big blue truck on a lawn, where we’d otherwise expect to see a house. What? And there are two dark smudges with streaks running down. Was the truck struck with paint-ball pellets? A group of miscreant teen-agers marring the otherwise “perfect” suburban existence?

No explanation necessary, really. Who doesn’t love a good mystery?

Later, a pile of green lawn beckons, the color as intense as a magic mushroom ride. What is that on the grass? Oh, it’s a tarp, holding a heap of grass shavings that are no longer a part of the territorial integrity of said lawn.

Brilliant illusion. Maybe the ideal metaphor? The gloss, disembodied from the host.

OK. That’s as much as I can squeeze out of my tired brain. I’m leaving Southern California, in my imagination, so I can look out my window to the shocking number of gopher mounds that dot my backyard.

Fucking Gophers. Why don’t you move somewhere where they’ll actually appreciate you?

Bottom Line: Terrific pictures of Southern California

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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.

Work From The Medium Festival of Photography 2014 – Part 2

- - From The Field

I love portfolio reviews. It’s true. Believe it or not, I used to be a harsh critic of the process. Before I got involved, I raged against the system, in which photographers pay for meetings with industry professionals.

Then, I decided to listen to some advice from a few colleagues, and give it a try. It worked out very well for me, as my reviews at Review Santa Fe in 2009 and 2010 helped my work break out on the Internet, which led a host of sales and exhibitions.

Now, in my capacity as a writer here and at the New York Times Lens blog, I go to the reviews to look at work and write about it. You know this, as we’re in part 2 of my series about the Medium Festival of Photography in San Diego.

I’m pretty sure you guys enjoy looking at the work I see, because I always get great feedback on these articles. And of course, I do like to keep it entertaining, to ensure that you make it to the bottom of the piece to see the pictures. (Oh. Right. You could always skip to the photos? I suppose that’s true.)

Where am I headed? Is there a point? Yes, it’s that I’ve noticed in my last few reviews that these events are not just about people pitching. It’s more than the “what can you do for me” that you think it is. (That is, if you’ve never attended one before.)

In my experience, and perhaps it’s because I’ve been teaching for nearly 10 years, many of the artists come to the table seeking feedback. They want advice on how to get better. They ask all the right questions about where they are weak, and where they are strong.

For the artist, it’s like spending a few hundred dollars to go to grad school for the weekend. If you’re not frantically pitching someone, 20 minutes is a good amount of time for a conversation. You can learn a lot, if you’re willing to listen.

There are the big national reviews, sure, but there is now a system firmly in place with regional reviews, at festivals, all over the country. You can get some great advice, and benefit from participating in a mini-idea-cluster, without having to buy a plane ticket and rent a hotel room.

I’m off this week to photo NOLA, so we’ll have another slate of articles coming up for you in the New Year. But these festivals are everywhere. Just off the top of my head, I can throw out New York, Chicago, San Diego, Portland, New Orleans, Santa Fe, Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Denver and San Francisco.

I’m sure there are many more too. Which means that you might consider looking into what’s available in your neck of the woods. It’s hard to get genuine critical feedback from your friends and family. Certainly, it’s tough once you’re out of school.

Medium is a great example of a festival that was designed to serve its community. It brings people together to celebrate shared passion, and I think that’s something we could all use more of. Certainly, living as I do in the middle of nowhere, I sometimes get jealous of the opportunities available to my urban colleagues.

Back to the photographers, though, and let’s finish this off. As with last week, it’s in no particular order.

John DuBois was one of two artists on whom I was pretty tough. He’s a full-time software engineer, and showed me a project that I thought wasn’t quite up to snuff. Our signals got a bit crossed, as I could tell he didn’t think my criticism was quite appropriate. (I wanted more from him, and wasn’t afraid to say so.)

Then, he showed me a second project that I liked very much. It had all the elements I was craving: a personal connection, a sharp eye, and a more consistent image quality. John spends a lot of time out on the road, in his day job, and sees a series of hotels and motels where he beds down for the night. So he takes pictures to keep himself busy. These are great.

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Lisa Layne Griffiths was the other photographer I tore into a bit. She showed me a series of set-up studio portraits that were a long way from ready. We broke down all the ways she could improve the project, and she knew how much work she had to do. But she was very enthusiastic about improving.

At the portfolio walk, I stopped to chat with her again. She showed me a small series that she’d made of soldiers returning home from the Iraq War. I was impressed. I like that the pictures are not exactly neutral, but neither are they sappy or overly emotional. They’re just right, and a great reminder to those of us not directly connected, that these continual wars have a real cost to far too many people in this country.

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Jonas Yip is an Asian-American photographer based in Los Angeles. He spent some of his youth in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and worked on a series in Mainland China. It was difficult for him, he told me, to look like everyone else, while obviously being an outsider inside his skin.

I like the way his pictures made the smoggy sky into a positive element, by celebrating the drab color palette. And the repeating use of the people, always with their back to him, was smart as well.

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Martina Shenal is a professor at the University of Arizona, and she recently spent a sabbatical in Japan. (China’s rival for power in the Pacific.) Martina and I spent a good deal of time talking about paper choices.

Many of the artists I met were using matte paper, which naturally decreases an image’s contrast, and, by extension, the illusion of three dimensionality. Pictures look flatter, and less vibrant, than they do on a lustrous, pearl, or glossy surface.

Despite the fact that Martina is a working professional, I shared with her the idea that her photographs would simply look better if she made some other choices. On screen, of course, we don’t have those problems. Several of her photos really captured that Japanese-Zen-vibe, and I’m sure you’ll like them below.

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Amanda Hankerson and I met briefly at Review Santa Fe in June, and then again during Medium. We had a drink at the bar with a few friends, and despite the horrific lighting, she pulled out a Magcloud-type-publication to show me. Her project is called “The Hankersons,” and I love the premise.

Apparently, there are only Hankersons in the United States, and nowhere else. There aren’t many of them either, and as an early ancestor was a slave owner, there are African-American Hankersons, and Caucasian Hankersons. Random, no?

Amanda uses Facebook to track down her fellow Hankersons, and then photographs them. Because that’s what photographers do. I think there was a Hankerson who played for the 49ers in the 90’s, so maybe she can look into that.

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Finally, we’ve got Dalton Rooney. He’s a photographer who recently moved back to Southern California, after living most of his life elsewhere. He’s been trekking around the landscape, re-familiarizing himself with the desert vernacular.

He showed me a few images that were printed rather dark, and that made for a moody viewing experience that I really enjoyed. There was almost a sense of foreboding in a landscape I normally associate with sunny-happy-joy-land. Nicely done.

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Work From The Medium Festival of Photography 2014 – Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last year, when I went to visit the Medium Festival of Photography, I practically leaked energy.

I stayed out drinking, chatted with every possible person, dispensed advice incessantly, and worked through my portfolio review breaks. Only then, when it was almost done, did I give a public lecture in which I bared my soul to a crowded room. (Yes, even more nakedly than I do here each week, if you can believe it.)

In the end, I had a bad series of interactions with a fellow artist, and labeled him a “dick” in this forum. Which almost cost me one of my best friends. Honestly, he stopped talking to me over it, though we’ve since patched things up.

I’m nothing if not adaptable, so I vowed to do it differently this year. Driving down the 405 from LA, where I had a day at the Getty that I’ll chronicle in an upcoming piece, I near-chanted to myself that I’d take it easy.

Chill, if you will.

There was plenty of time to think, as the traffic was thick as Thanksgiving gravy, despite the late hour. I didn’t arrive at the Lafayette Hotel until 9:30pm, which I assumed made me the last reviewer there. (I was wrong. The reviewer across the hall showed up at 3:30 am, and woke me with a closing door. Ironically, it turned out to be a friend, so I couldn’t be too mad. Thanks, Maren.)

Anyway, the plan worked out swimmingly, as I even managed some time in the blue pool one sunny afternoon. (When in SoCal, after all.) I hit the gym, took my quiet time, walked through the corridors with my head down, avoiding eye contact. Anything to make sure I had good, positive energy for the reviews, and that I came home able to work. (Rather than losing 2 weeks in a fog, as I’ve done before.)

Fortunately, I did get to see a nice variety of photography to share with you here. And I even get to use the word “dick” again, as it was tossed about with shocking abandon by the keynote lecturer, Duane Michals. I kid you not, that dude said “dick” at least 15 times within the first three minutes of his lecture.

He was playing a character called Dr. Duanus, and opened with a story about needing a penis reduction. I watched the crowd, and people were in various states of disbelief. He was like a cross between Larry David and Robin Williams. Not what you expect in a photography lecture.

I ought to give him a more fitting shout-out than that, though. Mr. Michals lecture was by far the most entertaining and enlightening I’ve yet heard. He was profane in a way that was endearing, rather than discomfiting, and also managed to show a large selection of his work. Pictures and words that gave the crowd energy, and permission to experiment.

Afterwards, at his book signing, people stood in line for at least an hour, or I should say lines. There were two, in opposite directions, that snaked throughout the entire hotel lobby. No lie. People couldn’t wait to take pictures with him, catch a moment, get a book signed. It was electric.

But back to the reviews, which were my main priority. (That, and eating at the many insanely-good-cheap-ethnic-restaurants within 5 blocks of the hotel. Thai? Check. Pizza? Check. Falafel? Check.)

I’m going to break this down into two articles, as I’ve done in the past. So that you can actually look at the photos without it all blending into infinity, like the great Pacific Ocean. I want to keep your attention crunchy, like a perfect fish taco. (OK. No more cheesy SoCal similes. I promise.)

In no particular order, let’s lead off with Samantha Geballe. She’s an artist working in the Los Angeles area, who’s studied with Aline Smithson. (Who just won Center’s Teaching Award. Well deserved, I’d say, as I’ve gotten to see her students’ work 2 years running.)

Samantha is a very large person, and gay. As such, she has to live squarely in the crosshairs of people’s prejudice. Twice. She presents as a very calm presence, but told me that things are chaotic on the inside. Her visceral, black and white self-portraits aim to channel her actual emotions. Powerful stuff.

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Brian Van der Wetering is another of Aline’s charges. He works full-time for Epson, which means I now have a super-hookup for lots of swag. He already sent me a new 44″ photo printer, so you should be very jealous. (Just kidding. I’ve received nothing of the kind.)

Brian’s set-up photos were hilarious, and also a shade poignant. They share the sense of play and misbehavior of a ten year old who loves lighting his sister’s dolls’ heads aflame. They are well-made, but also well-thought-out. I thought they were pretty excellent.

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Jane Szabo is also an LA-based artist. Her training is in other media, and she came to photography rather recently. She showed me three portfolios, and I could actually see her working it out, sequentially. The third project caught my eye, as she’d created non-functioning dresses for the camera, and I thought I’d share it here.

Notice the way it mashes up fashion, sculpture, installation and photography. She’s able to bring her various interests together into one artistic package. I particularly liked the way the pictures could almost be installation photos from an actual art exhibition, but are not. She utilizes the white space well.

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Mike Sakasegawa has a full-time day job as well, as an engineer, I believe. He photographs his family, as we all do, but attempts to take the pictures beyond the average snapshot. He wants to communicate the sadness he feels at his children growing up, and the joy he relishes with each day.

The pictures resonated with me, despite the well-worn subject matter. We can all relate, which also helps an audience appreciate a project.

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Adriene Hughes teaches at UCSD, so she didn’t even have to travel down the coast. Surprisingly, though, she showed me some pictures that were taken in my town of Taos. I did a double-take at first, exclaiming, “What the hell?” or some such.

Adriene made a performative project in which she always dressed up in her favorite deer head. Many of the pictures felt like documents of performance, rather than photographs made as original art objects. But there were more than a handful I really enjoyed, and the picture with the little dog sitting on the naked dude’s lap was simply priceless.

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Finally, we come to Tetsuya Kusu. He was hanging around the lobby when I came in that first night, and planned to volunteer for the festival. I craned my neck in all directions, looking to spy anyone I knew. Tetsuya approached, and seemed to know who I was. He gave me regards from Miki Hasegawa, a photographer I profiled here after meeting her at Review Santa Fe.

It seems as if the Japanese photo crew is rather tight, and I guess my own “image” is out there on the Interweb enough that I will occasionally get noticed. (Down, ego, down.) Anyway, Tetsuya and I spoke a few times over the weekend, and he showed me his pictures on his iPhone.

He’s currently traveling around the West Coast, sleeping on a surfboard in his car. He posts images each day on a password protected Tumblr, so the project is updated in realtime. There’s an edgy vibe to his portraits, so the whole thing made me think of a Japanese-surfer-on-the-road-Mike-Brodie-type-of-deal. Very cool.

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Sayonara until next week.
Jonathan-san out.

Richard Renaldi Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: I wanted to start out talking to you about Chicago, because you’re from there, and I know very little about the place.

But the more looked at your website, I wonder if you belong anywhere? Do you live out of a suitcase?

Richard Renaldi: No. You were looking at the Hotel Room pictures, I imagine. And maybe some of the “Crossing” project. I do travel a lot, but that project, (The Hotel Room portraits,) is 16 years worth of travel.

Some of it has been for work, and my partner and I are definitely travelers, not tourists, so we like to do some adventuring. But this year I do feel like I have been living out of a suitcase, because of being on the “Touching Strangers” train. I’ve been all over, promoting the book, exhibitions, and talks.

Home is New York, and North Eastern Pennsylvania. I did grow up in Chicago, but I left at 18 to go to school here in New York at NYU. I haven’t lived in Chicago since. I only go back to visit the family.

JB: You mentioned your partner, Seth, and the “Hotel Room Portraits” series, which most people probably don’t know about, features the two of you on at least 4 continents, by my count, perhaps more. There is so much to talk about here, and we’ll try to cover all of it. But you’ve referred to Seth as your partner, and given all the hubbub in the last couple of years, are you guys married, or are you going to get married?

RR: We’re not married, and we’ll probably eventually get married. But probably we’ll just do a City Hall thing, and then maybe have a party. I don’t see myself exchanging vows in a public declaration of our love.

But our commitment to each other is there, sixteen years together and the proof is in the pudding. I could say boyfriend. I like that word. But he’s not such a boy anymore, and boyfriend doesn’t necessarily describe the graying aspect. (laughs.)

Part of the intention of that project is also quantity. We started out a little half-assed about the discipline, surrounding when we would travel and take a picture. So the first few years, there are actually some that are missing.

When I got a better SLR camera and lens, around 2007, and started shooting digitally, I started thinking about the project more, we’ve been fastidious that every single time we go somewhere, we have to do one. Even if I don’t really want to do it, we always make sure we make a portrait.

As you can see, they run the gamut from pretty dumpy hotels to fancy. It’s important that there’s a class component to the work.
There is a range, from trashy motels to corporate midrange ones, and then the really fancy ones. Most of those were on a job I did for Microsoft, where I went to 18 countries, in 2007.

But also, there’s an architectural element. And there are cultural markers too. It becomes not just a portrait of us, and our intimacy, our aging, the transformation of our bodies, and my ink. By the design, and the interior spaces of these different rooms, you can tell something about the place.

There’s a lot there to keep it going. Layers to the work, which I find exciting.

JB: All I kept asking myself, which you already kind of answered, was how the hell can these guys afford to travel to this many countries on such a consistent basis? But I’m guessing from your answer, when you said you did a job for Microsoft, that you also do commercial work. Which I didn’t know.

RR: Not so much recently. But I have had some privileges, and used those as an opportunity to photograph and travel. I was fortunate to not be grounded to one place and having to always worry about my financial security. I’ve been able to up and go, and spend weeks at a time traveling through South East Asia.

Some of those trips were after the Microsoft job. We were in Taiwan, and went onwards afterwards. Last year, I went to print my book in Hong Kong, and we were going to take a trip to Thailand, but there was a coup. So I met Seth in Morocco.

JB: I saw that. And you were in Southern Spain too this year. And Canada.

RR: Yeah, we just drove up to Canada. I always wanted to see the Maritimes. I was teaching in Portland for a week, so Seth came up and met me. We met some friends and also went to an island in Maine called Vinyl Haven.

A lot of it is combined with work, or visiting family. We just like to travel.

JB: Sure.

RR: We try to do one big trip a year. We used to put our place on Airbnb, so when we went to Bolivia, Chile and Easter Island, that basically paid for the whole trip, renting our New York City apartment.

JB: I have a 7 year old. It was his birthday yesterday. When I told him I was going to interview you, he said I should ask you why the people had to be touching?

RR: What’s your son’s name?

JB: Theo.

RR: Theo? I like that name. Well, they had to touch because the concept was about connecting two strangers in a photograph. I’d been doing single portraits for many years, and I was shooting “See America By Bus,” about the people traveling across the country on Greyhound buses.

That was the first experience where I was making large format work. Consensual portraits of two people that didn’t know each other, in the same space. It added this new layer of complexity and challenge to making a portrait.

I had to get the permission and approval of two different sets of people to be in a picture together. And I really liked that, and thought there was something really rich there.

I was interested in the space between people, like in they city. You see a group of people, clustered together, and in that moment and space in time, they’re connected. Standing at a light, waiting to cross the street. Everyone looks like they’re together, because they’re in a group.

But they’re not. They don’t know each other. I wanted to link them.

Also, there was this desire to catalog, in the way August Sander catalogued people. I had this impulse to do that, but to mix and match. To take different types of people and put them together.

As the project progressed, I became as interested in people who looked like they belonged together. Similar types.

But I think the reason why they had to touch, to answer Theo’s question, is that I was really curious what the body language would look like. As I write in the essay, what would the physical vocabulary look like, when someone asks two strangers to do that.

JB: I think part of what people respond to is the disconnect between the concept and the reality. Everything looks so natural. Until you know what’s going on, you would never guess.

I didn’t think of it at the time, but its so transgressive, to touch strangers. Theo and I were in Denver a few weeks ago. In a coffee shop.

There was a guy, sitting at a table by himself, drawing. He had all these fancy colored pencils. Theo will talk to anybody, he’s got a very open personality, so he walks up to the guy and starts asking about his pictures. Then, he put his hand on the guy’s forearm. Immediately, I jumped, and said, “Theo, you can’t do that. You can’t touch strangers. You can talk to them, but you can’t just go up and touch people.”

I promise, it had nothing to do with your book. We hadn’t even scheduled the interview yet. But the idea was so powerful in my instinct, that you don’t do that.

I’m sure people want to hear the backstory about how you do it. How you convince people to put their hands on someone like that? How you get them to break that taboo that they probably don’t even realize is there?

RR: The further the distance gets from the project, the more I realize that other things were at work. There was definitely a bit of a dare, and a challenge to people.

“I dare you to transgress,” like you said, “your own boundaries.” To do things that we are told are not necessarily appropriate.

There is a challenge that is being placed onto my subjects. More recently, I’ve started thinking that there is a transference that’s happening, of what I might want to do to the person.

As I became more of a director, as these scenes of joining these people together played out, I realized that I needed to make more compelling pictures. People have a very conventional sense of touch, in general. If left to their own devices, they’re just going to hold hands. Or put their arm around each other.

They’re not going to get that intimate. I realized I needed to be more of a director, and construct the points of contact. What I now have come to see is sometimes, I’m transferring what I would want to do one of the subjects. By having the other subject do it.

There’s this one image of a woman who’s going through chemotherapy, and she looks sick. You can tell. She has these ortho shoes on.

JB: In Hawaii?

RR: Yeah, it’s in Oahu. I paired her with this other woman, who was on her honeymoon, and I had her caress her on the cheek. I think it was the second exposure I made. I know that’s how I felt.

I felt bad, and I would have wanted to do that. There is this emotional transference that I see in these pictures, from where I stand now.

There’s another with a sexy black guy and black girl, in Venice Beach. I really wanted to touch the guy. He was like a body-builder working out at the pit in Venice Beach. You know?

JB: Sure.

RR: I wanted to be really intimate. So what she did was what I wanted to do. I find that conversation interesting, because it’s newer for me. It’s come up lately, discussing the work at talks. I’ve started to see my own projections. What I would wish for, were I to have that freedom to touch someone.

JB: That’s the sequel, right?

RR: (laughing.) (pause.) I can’t be the “Touching Strangers” guy forever.

JB: (laughing.) Indeed. I feel you. It was tongue in cheek. I don’t think we do sequels in photography. It’s not Hollywood, right?

RR: It’s true. Maybe you can do B-sides?

JB: It’s great to see the way people have responded to it. I saw it on the wall, and then I saw the book.

RR: Did you see the show at Aperture?

JB: I did. I was in New York in April. That’s part of why I ended up reviewing the book. I don’t get excited by photography as often as I’d like, unfortunately. But that show grabbed me, so when I finally got my hands on the book, it was a perfect way to write about it.

But until I did a little research for this interview, I didn’t know that Aperture had done a Kickstarter to raise money for the book. You didn’t do a Kickstarter campaign, they did?

RR: That’s right.

JB: How does that work? Here at APE, it’s a conversation we have often. Where does the money come from? Who’s doing the raising? How much do you have to bring to the table?

So please don’t feel like I’m putting you on the spot, but Aperture raised $80,000 to publish your book.

RR: Right.

JB: That’s crazy. Did they use it all? Isn’t it their job to raise money? How does this work?

RR: I just wanted them to publish it outright. They told me they had been approached by Kickstarter to partner with them. Kickstarter was interested in raising their own profile.

JB: They got to benefit from partnering with the Aperture brand, in a sense?

RR: That was the intent. And Aperture, as a non-profit, is always looking for funding. So they viewed this as a new source of funding, because they’re always begging for money. They do auctions and fundraisers. They saw this as another source for them.

For me, personally, I was not sure about going down that road. One reason is that if people know me, and know my background, they probably knew that I had the resources to have had my own publishing company, which was Charles Lane Press. Which you know about.

JB: Right.

RR: Although it was very challenging, and in the end, I wasn’t able to continue and make it work.

JB: You’re using the past tense here. I had no idea that it was defunct.

RR: It’s not defunct, but it’s on extended, if not permanent, hiatus. We’re still selling our stock of inventory. So it’s not gone, and there could be the opportunity some day to re-engage with that.

JB: You started it to produce your own book, which was “Fall River Boys.” Is that right?

RR: That’s right. But we also produced 3 other books by 3 other photographers.

JB: Thereafter.

RR: Yes. Which I’m very proud of. It was a great accomplishment, and I think they were really fantastic books that were under-appreciated, actually.

JB: As a publisher, how did you go about selecting work to get behind?

RR: I was naive, so I got behind the work that I wanted to get behind. Not work that, from a financial standpoint, crunching the numbers, I knew I could sell this many books. And make this much back.

I really wasn’t interested in publishing someone that had already been published, and had many opportunities before them. And I wanted to work with people that I thought were doing really interesting things. To give the same opportunity to them that Aperture gave to me with my first book in 2006.

I wanted to be a curator, in a way. For my partner and me, this were our choices. What we were presenting. And I didn’t want to present someone that everyone knew. You know?

Which was what someone told me I should do, if I wanted to really make the company work.

JB: I’m just spitballing here, but that’s why people like Martin Parr, or Paul Graham…

RR: (laughing) I was just thinking of Martin Parr too.

JB: Right. That’s why they have seven books a year, because the companies know that if they work with an established brand…

RR: It’s what people want. Because they buy it. Or it’s what people know. It’s a combination of the two. It was really challenging.

But getting back to Kickstarter, that was one concern. And another concern was, “What if we don’t make it?” When we were having this conversation, I don’t think Indiegogo had its feet to the ground yet. So if you didn’t make your goal on Kickstarter, you didn’t get anything.

To alleviate that concern, Aperture set a really low bar.

JB: 10 Grand.

RR: Yeah. The book would have cost more to produce, for sure, but at that point, they were talking something very small. More like the size of that Tim Hetherington book, do you know it, “Infidel?”

JB: Not off the top of my head. I should have lied and said yes.

RR: Closer to 5.5″x7″ than 8.5″x11″, you know? A smaller trim size, and a smaller press run. The campaign launched after Aperture sent a videographer, and we made the video piece of me actually making a “Touching Strangers.”

They launched it in June, and they have a hefty marketing department behind them, where they can get the word out to a huge mailing list. People knew about the project, because I had been putting it out since 2007. I showed the series on Conscientious, and on David Bram’s site…

JB: Fraction.

RR: Yeah. I think I had, over the years, built an audience. But we met the funding goal in three hours. It became this thing that had a life of its own, and we got a lot of attention. The New York Times did a piece while the campaign was still up.

Towards the end, CBS news contacted me and wanted to do a piece. I was anxious and nervous about that too. I thought they were going to paint it with a very sentimental brush. It was all about “Touching Strangers,” and they tailed me on a shoot. I pushed back really hard against where I thought he wanted to go.

It still goes there, but it’s OK that it goes there. There is, included, some of the tension and complexity. I was really pleased with how the final piece came out. The segment is called “On the Road,” it used to be with Charles Kuralt.

JB: Sure.

RR: Very Americana, heartfelt stories. The piece does arouse sentiment, but I don’t think that’s bad. Because the work does, you know?

I was actually in New Mexico, and it aired the day that CBS went offline in three of the biggest markets, because of a contract dispute.

JB: Oh my goodness.

RR: So people in New York and LA tried to tune in, and CBS was black on Time Warner cable systems, because Time Warner and CBS had a dispute which lasted a week. But in the fall, the piece got picked up by some of the news aggregating sites, like Reddit, and it went viral.

The Youtube video of that CBS piece ended up with 2 million views. It’s too bad that didn’t happen when the Kickstarter campaign was up. That just propelled it even further.

JB: But they wouldn’t have needed $800,000 to produce your book, right? 80 Grand, I would imagine, covered everything?

RR: It enabled them to make a bigger book, a higher press run, and covered the traveling exhibition.

JB: Do people now contact you? Do they want to be shot by Richard Renaldi? Is this developing a commission aspect to your career, or has that not happened yet?

RR: Last year, when the project went “viral,” an organization called Art Works, in Cincinnati, approached me. They have a partnership with Cincinnati Metro. They are generally a mural program, where they create murals all over Cincinnati.

With the Metro partnership, they place art works in the bus stops, in the big light box displays. They thought it would be great to bring “Touching Strangers” into that, and do a partnership with Cincinnati Metro. They commissioned me to make original “Touching Strangers” for the light boxes, to coincide with the Photo Focus photo festival, which opens this weekend.

I jumped at the chance, because for engaging the public, on a mass scale like that, the bus stop is perfect. And it comes full circle, because the idea came out of the “See America by Bus” series.

JB: Right.

RR: As the time approached, to go make the pictures, I was actually dreading it, because I hadn’t shot “Touching Strangers” in a while. I was done with it, and it was hard to wrap my head around going back to do more. So I didn’t want to go.

But it was a commitment, and I ended up making some of the best pictures in the series. Really, it turned out to be a strong collection, the pictures from Cincinnati. Maybe we can include some of those.

JB: It would be cool to publish them. We’d love to show things that people haven’t seen.

RR: Honestly, beyond that, I was hoping that I would get another ad campaign some day. I had a great experience with that Microsoft job. It was kind of the job of a lifetime, I don’t know if that will ever happen again but I am certainly open to it.

JB: Well, those folks read this blog every day. So, who knows?

RR: I know, I know. I would love those folks to throw me into the mix again. On that Microsoft job, which spanned 18 countries, I really ended up enjoying the discipline, and it ended up making me a better photographer.

I had to think about other considerations, and photograph with someone else in mind. But I was really fortunate, because I had the artistic freedom to make the kind of images I wanted. In that project, it really looks like my work.

I’d really like that opportunity again.

JB: Well, we’re putting it out there, so we’ll see what happens.

RR: Yeah.

JB: (laughing) I’m helping as much as I can.

RR: I was approached by Hanes, recently, to do people touching each other’s new Hanes soft-cotton blend T-shirt.

JB: Right.

RR: So they wanted to basically co-opt “Touching Strangers.”

JB: Strangers Touching Michael Jordan.

RR: Basically. They wanted to sell underwear with my idea. And that didn’t appeal to me. I thought it wouldn’t respect the work I did on this project. But they thought it was the greatest idea in the world.

JB: Of course they did.

RR: They wanted to attach my name to it. I thought, “Maybe if I was anonymous, and it was a lot of money, I’d consider it.” But I pushed back pretty hard, and I never heard back.

JB: Earlier in the interview, you talked about a project in which you were photographing in bus stations, which are inherently transient, and you were taking Greyhounds and such. And with “Touching Strangers,” it’s right there in the title, that you don’t know these people.

How do you operate? Do you give people prints, when you take their picture? Do you ever stay in touch? Is this only a fleeting connection, or have any of these pictures led to relationships that have evolved over time?

RR: I don’t know if I like the word fleeting, but it was definitely a short-term relationship.

JB: Ephemeral? How’s that?

RR: Sure. There could have been a strong connection, but I haven’t done a project where I’ve followed someone for a long period of time. Where you get close to them.

My portraiture has been more about a place, or an idea, rather than the long story of someone’s life. Because of that, I haven’t gotten to be close friends with many of my subjects, per se.

Though “Touching Strangers” is the one exception, where I have had subsequent contact and conversations with some of the people in the pictures. That is largely due to a lot of the press that followed; they wanted to be connected with some of my subjects to interview them about the experience.

I became an intermediary, or a go-between, and I really enjoyed having the contact with them. I always send my a print or a jpeg, so I always get their contact information.

JB: It’s the perfect title, “Touching Strangers.” You have this incredible way of opening yourself up for your audience. In the book, you talk about the fact that you used to sneak out of your house in Chicago, when you were a teenager, and literally touch strangers.

That’s almost an encoded part of the title, though I suppose you have to read the statement to know that. There are different levels of ideas going on in this one project, wouldn’t you say?

RR: I would. It’s pretty layered, I think. Which is cool. There’s a personal part, and then the universal. It’s resonated with the viewers, and it’s an accessible idea.

Probably the most that I will ever have in my career. I don’t imagine subsequent series will reach as many people. I’ve really reached more people with this one series than most photographers ever do.

And that’s kind of cool. It’s an accessible idea, and so much of art is often intimidating to people. There is often this notion that you need to know something about art to understand it.

I think that’s a potential pitfall of art and photography, is that it can be so academic. I think it’s because photography is this reproducible thing, so there’s this drive to make it seem rare, because of the market.

There’s a preciousness attached to it, where photography is trying to make itself rare. Music and film aren’t like that. They’re for everyone. I think art would be better if it had a more accessible, mass appeal approach.

That doesn’t mean I created “Touching Strangers” to have mass appeal. It just happened to resonate.

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This Week In Photography Books: John Gossage

by Jonathan Blaustein

When I was young, a school year felt like a decade. Time moved like blue children’s goop, as it slithers out of its container. (Slurp, slurp, slide a millimeter, slurp, slurp.)

I’m well aware that this idea is far from new. That time moves more quickly as we age. I know it. You know it.

So why do I mention it now?

Because it will be Thanksgiving next week. We’ve already had snow here, and it’s dipped below 0 at night. Honestly, I’m not sure how this happened. Summer feels like it was just here; the moisture residue on the window pane, after you’ve breathed upon it.

In the last few years, I’ve finally figured out that a year is a natural cycle. Perhaps it’s connected to our planet’s journey around the sun. Perhaps not.

Who am I to conjecture?

But it most certainly does affect the way we feel. Nearing the end, rounding third base, if you will, we’re all exhausted. Worn out. Tired deep in our bones.

I’m sure you feel that way too. We all do. Thanksgiving offers the illusion of respite. Sure, we won’t have to work for a few days, but all that eating, socializing, and digesting takes energy few of us have to spare.

Then it’s a glamour-less push to Christmas break, where many of us will finally get a chance to unplug and recharge. To stop. To sit. To allow ourselves to regenerate for the new year.

What will we do in 2015? Will we try new things? Attempt to learn new skills? Push ourselves to defecate on what we already know, in the hopes that it might fertilize a new way of seeing?

Right. It wouldn’t be one of my book reviews if I didn’t leave you with at least one uncouth image. So consider the job done. But a book review it is, so let’s get to it.

Today, I want to highlight “Who Do You Love,” by John Gossage, recently published by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. It is a strange production, to be sure, and its oddity is confirmed in an interview at the end, between Mr. Gossage and Darius Himes, the former director of the gallery.

I was genuinely unsure of what I was seeing, when I first perused. Why the cheap cardboard cover? Were these actual prints glued to the pages? I gently moved my fingernail along the edge, and found it was a smooth sheet of paper. Why the big tan borders, and the odd pieces of color?

Take a moment, read the captions, and you realize these are re-creations of actual assemblage pieces. They’re simulacra. Virtualizations of slightly 3-dimensional art that exists in the world. Not one more iteration of a digital file that can be done with what you please, including embossing it on a coffee cup.

As many of you know, I interviewed the artist here a couple of years ago. He was the funniest, most engaging, and perhaps even the most charismatic person I’ve interviewed yet. Brimming with energy and wit.

These pictures are quiet. Thoughtful. Subtle. Emotive like an almost finished cigarette. So very different from the man himself.

The aforementioned interview with Mr. Himes confirms that Mr. Gossage almost never ventures outside of the purely photographic. (Though the boxes he told us about, called, “Hey Fuckface,” if I recall, are likely another attempt.) These pieces were a deliberate challenge to what he knew of photography.

And experiment. A car crash, as he said.

I wasn’t sure if I liked them the first time through. On the second pass, I decided that I did. Especially as the little pieces of virtual colored paper begin to take form, to have personality, to make you think of art in general.

And play.

The photos too have a power to them, on repeated viewing. The hand, held up, like Stop. The X of the steel beams. The outright beauty of the shadow of a border fence over a Pacific beach.

Mr. Gossage admitted in our interview that he’s made a lot of books. Probably more than he could count, unless he had a CV handy. Many of us have still not made even one. (Myself included.)

I can’t imagine it’s that easy to use this type of forum for experimentation. Making a cardboard book that attempts to re-create the subversive spirit of a cardboard photo project. It takes guts, and the foreknowledge that some people will find it underdone.

Even the title, “Who Do You Love,” takes on an unexpected meaning as the opening page depicts lyrics from that 70’s song that you won’t get out of your head, once you realize what I’m talking about. (“I walked 47 miles of barbed wire…”)

Anyway. Enough for today. You get the point.

Me being me, you can be sure there will be more on “what we can expect for next year,” in the weeks to come. But let this be the start, before you’ve even had your first, sweet taste of tryptophan. I wish you much luck in exciting new ventures, should you have the stones to try reinvention in 2015.

Bottom Line: Cool, slightly crazy attempt to recreate assemblage art

To Purchase “Who Do You Love” 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: Thomas Mailaender presents Noël Howard Symington

by Jonathan Blaustein

The rules are, there are no rules. I had to look that up on Google to see what film it came from. I would have bet “Hot Dog,” the movie. That classic ski comedy (with boobs, of course,) that came out in 1984.

If you have the same sort of 80’s nostalgia I do, or at least enjoy a giggle down memory lane, here’s a good link for you. The Chinese Downhill scene. Yup, that would have been my guess.

Google says it comes from “Grease,” though. Another piece of cinematic history. Apparently, it’s said in the buildup to the big car race, for which “Greased Lightning” was the foreshadowing. (Think of me what you will, but that was my favorite song when I was seven.)

Does it really matter who first said something as purely rational as that? The rules are…there are no rules. It’s like a Zen koan had sex with some of Sun Tzu’s war theory. (Hey now.)

What’s the point, though? It might as well apply to Capitalism, because, really, what else could explain our remorseless gutting of Planet Earth’s resources.

Sorry. Sorry.

I’ll keep it light this week. It’s the only decent thing to do.

In the art world, which doesn’t always make sense in the photo world, you can make art any damn way you please. Want to serve food and call it art? Be my guest.

Or how about gardening as art? Go for it. Trim your hedges to your heart’s content.

Appropriation, you say? A fancy word for stealing other people’s shit? Fire away.

That last one has been, and will likely always be controversial. I interviewed Sam Abell a year or so ago, and he bluntly said that HE made Richard Prince’s most famous image. Because he did.

The art is in re-contextualizing, we’re told. I’ve done it myself, though my motivations were at least altruistic. Stealing from corporations and such. But this isn’t about me. (I swear.)

“The Night Climbers of Cambridge” is the book we’re going to look at today, and it fits the bill for witty and light. (God Bless the English.) The black velvet cover, with barely visible text, announced itself as a book I would enjoy. (Yes, I judged the book by its cover.)

You’ll love the photos, because, who wouldn’t? A bunch of college kids, way back in 1937, took to climbing buildings at various colleges in Cambridge. Apparently, it was an established tradition. I’m only surprised they didn’t dress up in women’s clothing first. (Cheeky devils.)

The photographer was named Noël Howard Symington, though he took the nom-de-guerre Whipplesnaith. (As my wife would say, “Of course he did.”) He and his buddies did stupid-young-man stuff, but they lit it and took pictures too. How positively 21stCenturyJackassian of them.

So what’s the trouble then? Why did I bother to introduce ideas of appropriation and give you that juicy link to “Hot Dog?” Because the book is credited to the artist Thomas Mailaender, who collaborated with the famed Archive of Modern Conflict.

That’s right, it’s his book, not Mr. Symnington’s. The latter artist retains copyright, but the former owns the archive. So it’s his book, and his “art,” in re-introducing it.

What say you on the matter?

Honestly, I think appropriation can be among the most powerful tools an artist has. I take this, I claim it, I change it, and I subvert its intent. I am rebel, hear me whinge.

But here, it’s just someone buying someone else’s stuff and then putting his name on it. I mean, sure, there could be other motivations. Perhaps I’ll get a politely worded email from The Archive of Modern Conflict telling me that I’ve got it all wrong.

So be it.

Otherwise, I have a hard time understanding why some artists need to put their name on other people’s stuff. Found objects? OK. Anonymous pictures discovered in a scary attic in Iowa? Maybe. Maybe.

But when you know who made something, calling it yours isn’t art. It’s lazy. Why not just show us what you like, make the book, but don’t put your name on it? They call those people curators, no?

Or better yet, do what Quentin Tarantino does. He let’s his buddies say “Quentin Tarantino Presents,” like he did with RZA’s mostly crappy kung fu film, “The Man with the Iron Fists.”

Thomas Mailaender presents Noël Howard Symington. Clunky, sure, but at least it’s honest.

That’s my take anyway. As to the climbers? They’re awesome. Parkour before the trends. School prank with the whiff of possible death.

What’s not to like?

Bottom Line: Awesome photos of English college boys climbing pretty buildings

To Purchase “The Night Climbers of Cambridge” 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: Louie Palu

by Jonathan Blaustein

OK.

I know last week’s column was a little tough. Missing teenagers, presumed dead. Nothing funny about that.

So maybe you turn up this morning hoping for something lighter. A joke maybe?

How’s this one: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from all the assholes who keep telling jokes about why chickens cross roads. (You know, like me.)

Yes, even the jokes today are meta-and-annoying.

No, today is Wednesday, the day after the Republicans swept the elections, more or less, and now control both Houses of Congress in the United States. I’m well-aware that many of you live elsewhere, but still, this is a global story.

President Barack Obama now faces a legislative branch united in it’s hatred of him, and all the things he stands for. Hell, it wasn’t enough that the dude’s hair’s gone gray. Now he needs a bunch of rich white dudes blowing raspberries in his direction, and making fake fart noises every time he walks by.

(Hey Mitch, watch this. FFFFFFFTTT. Do ya get it? It sounds like a fart. Get it?)

I’m sure some of you are probably happy about the results, even though most all creative types are liberal. The odds are simply against every single one of you being disappointed today, so congrats on your success.

Me, I’m a bit blasé about the whole thing, simply because history shows this is what happens in a President’s 6th year. I even saw a tweet today that says the Senate has gone to the opposition party in every such election since FDR. (And if I read it on Twitter, it must be true.)

Overall, I’m pretty happy with what Obama has done, especially under the circumstances. If last week’s article has taught us anything, it’s that even Heads of State often lack the necessary power to do what they would like. Money is king these days, and probably always has been.

And kings are Kings, don’t forget.

One issue that probably rankles Obama’s base more than his Republican adversaries is Guantanamo Bay. Gitmo. That mystical prison at the edge of Cuba. The one he promised to close, and then didn’t.

Mostly because no one in America would allow those bearded savages to come into their prisons, their communities. (Yes, I’m being a tad ironic by calling them savages. They’re probably horrible pricks, but I can’t say that just because they’re suspected jihadis. We’ve never met in person.)

Those guys are hidden away. From all of us.

Sure, there have been some photo projects to emerge of late. Some that might have moved you. But essentially, that place is the mother-of-all-lockdowns. And we’re not meant to know what’s actually going on.

So I was thrilled when this concept newspaper, “Guantanamo: Operation Security Review” turned up in my mailbox the other day. It was made by Louie Palu, who gained access during official press tours between 2007-10. The deal required photogs to submit their digital cameras at the end of each day for government inspection. And file deletion.

The pictures here are taut, and fraught, if not horrifying. The fences. The chains. The beards. The dichotomy of white Christian people in camo soldier outfits, and tan Muslims on their knees, praying.

I was impressed, surprisingly, by the photos of the paper sheets that verify the “existence” of digital files that once “existed,” and have since been “destroyed.” The actual, tangible evidence of censorship. In the interest of safety? National Security?

Sure, maybe. But in light of the NSA spying scandal, it is hard to trust these days. Even in Barack Obama, and I love the guy. Wouldn’t want to be him right now, though.

NFW.

As for the prisoners, the whole issue has regained prominence in the wake of the ISIS territorial expansion. If released, would these guys be on battlefields within days? Or would they just want to hold their children?

Do they have children? Or wives? Or do they just want to blow themselves up so they can get busy with a gaggle of chaste virgins in heaven?

Should due process exist in a purported Democratic Republic? Can we hold these men in perpetuity? I have no idea. It seems a little extreme, but then so does the beheading of innocent journalists.

Honestly, this is one cluster-fuck of a situation with no potential for an easy solution. Even a difficult one is hard to imagine. Which is why it’s so important to see pictures like this from time to time. To remind us how much we don’t know.

Bottom Line: Fascinating concept newspaper, inside Gitmo

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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.

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