Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

Roadtrip to Marfa – Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Much later in the day, David and I stopped off at a tiny little rest stop off I-25, just South of Socorro. A brown sign, made for tourists, announced we were on the famed Camino Real, also known as the Jornada del Muerto. The journey of death. Finally, it all made sense.

I knew it would be a dangerous day hours earlier. Descending out of Taos and into the canyon, where the highway hugs the Rio Grande for twenty miles or so, I pulled out to pass a line of cars. It’s something I do all the time. As I finally got a clear look down the hill, a horse-trailer was backing up traffic ten cars ahead. I tried to merge back, but there was nowhere to go. (In the exact spot where a family died a few years ago.)

Desperately, I jammed the gas and barely wedged myself in just beyond the nose of a semi-truck hauling pressurized chemicals. Releasing a pent up breath, seconds later, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see the truck swerving, barely keeping it together. Not 30 minutes into my trip, and I almost ignited a firestorm of misery. Classy.

Twenty minutes later, traffic came to a stand still. Lights were flashing, sirens screaming. Not good. As I inched along, off to my right, another semi-truck had launched off the road into the rocks along the river. Hard to see how the driver could have survived. Never seen that before. Bad omen.

From there, I herky-jerked my way down past Santa Fe. Cops were everywhere, brainless drivers the norm. It was so odd, so disconcerting, that I mentioned it to the Native American woman behind the counter as I paid for my breakfast burrito at the Casino/Gas Station/Rest Stop just north of Albuquerque. (Casino Hollywood on the San Felipe Reservation, BTW.) She nodded, implacably, and said, “Yeah, one of those days. You never can tell.”

So by the time the brown sign reminded me that the Camino Real is not for the faint of heart, I was practically relieved. At least I wasn’t imagining things. One needs to keep one’s wits when heading down to the borderlands, a world populated with smugglers, junkies, truckers and dropouts. (Now that I think about it, I suppose it’s not that different from where I live.)

Why a road trip? Well, that’s an easy answer. David and I were headed South to Las Cruces, where we intended to meet up with our friends Ken and Scott. After a pit stop of a studio visit with photographer David Taylor, (the king of La Frontera) we ditched one car, piled into Ken’s Prius, and continued on towards Marfa, Texas, Art Mecca. So there’s the why. I rallied a few buddies to take a big Texas road trip, to go see some great art and write about it for you, the APE audience. Nobody died, nobody even got hurt, so in the end, it was worth it. But drama-free? Not likely.

My three friends are all photographers, and also accomplished in other aspects of the field. (An editor/publisher, a professor, & and a museum executive.) Each of us drowns daily in a sea of email, commitments, and plans. So for once, we relished the opportunity to wing it. No hotels were booked. No Yelp reviews were solicited. No idea where we were going to spend the night. Romantic? Not exactly.

When you’re 21, you don’t mind sleeping anywhere. Road Trips are just an excuse to drink way too much Mountain Dew (which lacks any other purpose), smoke too much weed, and take pictures of absolutely everything. Think about it. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, every single fence-post seems profound. “Look man, it’s a cactus, just oozing cactus-ness. Just one more shot, OK?”

On this trip, however, I was the youngest at 37. Creaky backs and coffee-snobbery are the norm in this demo, and the idea of just stopping “wherever” for the night doesn’t work as well as it did a decade or two ago. (Though Ken did bring along some coffee-crack in a creamer cup called Stok. Look into it…)

David Taylor, desert expert, mentioned there was a town a ways North of Marfa called Van Horn. He assured us there was nothing else around for miles, so we default set that as a destination for the night. Hopped up on shitty burgers and vitamin water, the four of us drove. And drove. Mountains in the reflected moonlight are a sight to behold, but very difficult to photograph from a moving car. So they’ll exist in my memory only. (Close your eyes, and maybe you can imagine it. Charcoal gray, texture, jagged lines pushing up from the ground, no other light around.)

By the time we got to Van Horn, it was almost 11 at night. (Damn you, time change.) The decent-looking motels were the first into town, and surprise, were all booked. So there we were, sitting in the the car at a gas station, doors opened for fresh air, and that’s when the Iphones came out. Seriously? If you don’t want to TripAdvisor that crap three weeks ahead of time, what’s the point of doing it near midnight, thirty yards from the nearest hotel? We pounded the pavement for a bit, checking in at the certainly haunted Hotel El Capitan, before finally settling on a Days Inn adjacent to the off-ramp. I was confident, which was a mistake.

In these long articles, I try to keep it breezy, keep it funny, and keep moving along. But we’re what, ten paragraphs in and I haven’t even gotten to the Art yet? It’s not like this is the New Yorker, and I’m aware that you don’t have unlimited time to stare at your screen. This time, though, I have to slow down. We’ll get to the art, and the insane mashup of billionares slumming with South Texas poor folk. We’ll get there. But what my friends and I witnessed that night, in Van Horn, is worth conjuring for a couple more minutes.

We walked into the Days Inn lobby, David and I, ready to book a room. Immediately to our right, recumbent on a sofa with a TV behind it, we saw a young woman. At first glance, she looked 25, and attractive. Dark hair, nice figure. As she swooped around us to the front counter, though, we got a better look. Not a day over 20, and more likely less than that.

She would have been beautiful, and probably was until a few years before. But now? With the discoloration under her eyes, she was like a cancer-ridden raccoon, and the expression peering out was dead. Not defiant dead, like the junkies in a Mikhailov photograph, but dead in a soul-sucking, depressive way that makes you touch your wallet and lock the car door. Meth, most likely, though I suppose it could have been crack. Whatever the culprit, this girl was gone.

She handed over the key cards, and ushered us on our way. I wanted to cry. We got to the rooms, and David rushed right to the bed to see just how crappy this place was. He found…blood stains on the bed. For real. That’s the kind of detail that a better writer than I would make up, but there it was. Real blood. Perfect. As my room’s door was broken, we had to re-engage our meth-head princess, which was one more encounter than I ever wanted in my life. Her reaction, if you can believe it, was to throw the new bedding at a co-worker, and scream, “Blood stains? I don’t get paid enough for that shit.” She stormed off, never to be seen again.

Her colleague, a nice enough guy, was from India, and rocked a thick accent. At that point, you reach the “I’ll believe anything phase,” so I only grinned. Scott, who’d been to India a few times in the last couple of years, was fascinated, and chatted with the guy for a few minutes. I was shocked that he was shocked. It is America after all.

We drove around the town a bit, stopping here and there to take photographs. Once we returned to the motel, we stalked around the parking lot like quivering hunters, never straying out of eyesight of each other. Lest you think we were scaredy-cats, I’ll state that between the four of us, we’ve traveled the world, and lived in many a metropolitan city. This place was just that disturbing. Why?

Because we’d entered that part of America not often seen by Coastal Elites, or fancy-boy artists such as ourselves. The kind of place where, behind each Motel door, someone’s shooting up. Someone else is getting smacked around. And door number three has 32 Mexicans huddled together, chained, while their minder watches “Dancing With the Stars.” Tomorrow, they’ll climb back in the van for the trip to Chicago, or Raleigh, if they’re lucky.

We woke, the next morning, very glad to see the daylight. (And the Prius, for that matter. At least we had four walls to protect us, but the Prius was a sitting duck.) I surmised that there was probably not a plate of vegetables in the entire town, and my comrades concurred. So we piled back into our little Japanese rolling box, found the highway, and drove South to Marfa, where fancy coffee and fresh fruit, doubtless, awaited us.

This Week In Photography Books – Robert Adams

by Jonathan Blaustein

For all the controversial, opinionated, and edgy things I’ve written in the last couple of years, I think I’m about to put it all to shame. Here, now, I’m writing my first ever “book not reviewed.” Huh? What does that even mean?

By way of explanation, I should say that I’ve been sitting on a pristine, unopened copy of the new Robert Adams trilogy “The Place We Live,” recently released by Yale University Press. Much as it is akin to career suicide to criticize, let alone mention the Yale Photo Mafia, I’m committed to the path of honesty. Rob encouraged me to speak my truth, and here it goes.

I love Robert Adams’ best work. It’s transcendent. I even drove 700 miles to see the prints on the wall in the reconstructed “New Topographics” exhibition in 2010. Leaving the gorgeous galleries, I announced Adams’ work to be the best, and my three cohorts disagreed. (They voted for Baltz. Who’s now a Facebook friend of mine. What is the world coming to?) Anyway, I think Mr. Adams’ Colorado landscape images from the 1970’s are as important as any group of photographs we have.

The best images manage to walk the line between cerebral and emotional, subjective and objective, wistful and angry, optimistic and pessimistic. One can truly sense the presence of a man, standing on a spot of earth, perusing patiently through glass. And of course, anyone who grew up in a suburb, and then watched the subsequent residents slowly absorb the nature they craved…the work hits home. It was as prescient as it was picturesque.

So why have I been unable to cut the seal on these three books, sitting on my stack for two months now? That’s the question I’m asking myself, now, watching the ravens float through the sky in front of the purple, snow-covered mountains. For some reason, my inability to puncture the plastic seems more interesting here than the books would inevitably be. I feel a bit like Cameron guarding his Dad’s Ferrari. Best not to even touch it.

First of all, there’s the cost, I suppose. $250. For collectors only. Then, there’s the sense of grandiosity. Three books at once? From an artist who’s already had so many books published through the years? Thirdly, there’s the fact that I’ve already been scooped by Alec Soth and Fraction Magazine, both of whom published Mr. Adams’ work in the last month. Finally, I must admit that the sense of rebellion at not opening them is just too great for me to overcome.

That’s why I’m going with the “not review” here. Then, photo-eye can sell them to someone who will cherish them forever. Just like I cherish the memory of that art exhibition in Tucson. I’m certain the books would be great, so let’s not assume that I’m being critical here, I’m just going with the moment.

The reality is, this package in front of me is just too precious. It’s intimidating, like the Torah that I had to carry during my Bar Mitzvah in 1987. There I was, in the midst of becoming a man, rocking the hair gel, and all I could think about was what would happen to me if I dropped that f-cking gilded scroll. I think you have to fast for 40 days if it hits the ground, but I could be wrong. The Hebrew School training is finally starting to wear off.

Maybe I’m just afraid to write anything negative about one of the photography world’s true gods. I saw a small exhibition of his work at the Nevada Art Museum in the Fall, and felt like everything after 1990 was just not up to snuff. So if I don’t open the books, I won’t see the failures, and then I won’t have to write about them.

Or maybe I just like the idea of doing the absolutely unexpected, and not opening the books on general principle? (Like I don’t root for Tom Brady on GP. He’s just a pretty robot.) Regardless, I suppose this is a first for “This Week in Photography Books.” Come back next week, and I promise to talk about the images inside a book, instead of just the box. And if I wake up with a horse head in my bed on Saturday, I suppose that will confirm that the YPM is alive and well. Any contributions, in memoriam of my career, can be sent to the World Food Programme, courtesy of the UN.

Bottom Line: I chickened out of opening the damn thing, but it’s probably awesome

To Purchase The Place We Live visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

This Week In Photography Books – Léonie Hampton

by Jonathan Blaustein

For some time now, I’ve wanted to write about why Art matters. On the heels of the high-minded and perhaps overly serious interview I conducted with Jörg Colberg, it’s been on my mind. It’s one thing to exclaim “The World Needs More Art,” and quite another to explain why.

As I’ve repeated endlessly and perhaps obnoxiously, I went to art school in New York. And throughout the entire process, I came to believe that Art can be anything. Photographs, paintings, food, music, objects, dance, ideas: it’s all on the table. The intention is what matters. If you declare something to be art, then it is. From there, of course, the difficult job is to determine what the “Art” means, and if it’s any good or not. Clearly, this is a subjective process. Ultimately, what’s seen as “great” or “the best” varies pretty widely, depending on the audience.

Some work ends up in the Met or the Louvre, some on the walls of a small café, and much of it never leaves the home of it’s creator. So the next question is, why do people do it? Ed Burtynsky said he felt making things to be a part of his DNA, and I’ve heard that many times before. Most artists, myself included, make things because they must. In my own case, if I don’t have the time and/or energy to work on creative output, my personality changes… for the worse. (I turn into a cranky bitch, if you must know.)

And that’s where we start to get into the real reason why people create. Because, after all, Art-making is really just about the exercise of creativity. All kids do it, and then it’s socialized out of most everyone. We random rebels and infidels are left to color and draw as adults, with our goatees and over-inflated egos. Right?

Not exactly. I don’t advertise it, but I’ve been teaching at-risk high school students for almost seven years. My students come from very difficult families and situations. Some are involved in gang activity and drug dealing. Others have become pregnant during the term. It’s a tough but smart group of kids. I learn every week, and have to be flexible to make it work. But work it does, and here’s why.

The secret is that making Art, creating things, is a transformative process. The act of creation takes certain elements of our psyche, energy, if you will, and morphs it out of our heads and into the real world. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be alchemized. The reason why Art works so well in therapy is that it allows for negative energy and/or trauma to be cleared out of our heads, and turned into something productive, without having to speak about things literally. Pictures can communicate energy without words, and in so doing, can tell stories that would be otherwise stuck in the murky world of the subconscious. The act of creation is akin to shining light on our shadows, (Jung again) and it enables the creator the opportunity to move on. Catharsis.

I’ve struggled with whether to write this, as I’m aware that to many it will seem like New Age nonsense from a Taos hippie. I get it. But at the same time, I’ve gone all in, as it were, discussing Art each and every week, so I thought it was only appropriate to explain why. Before I discovered photography, I was an up-tight, insecure, very lost little Jersey boy. Then, once I found a method to channel my anxiety and angst into something tangible, everything fell into place. (And now I feed food scraps to the coyotes.)

Speaking of shadows, in my stack of books this week, I found “In the Shadow of Things,” a new book by Léonie Hampton, published in Rome by Contrasto Books. (It was funded through The F Award for documentary photography.) It seems the perfect example of what I’m trying so earnestly to explicate. The long, rambling photographic narrative is difficult to pin down, but within a the first few images, we know this is a family. Of hoarders, perhaps? But definitely a family, and something is awry.

Throughout the photo section of the book, I never quite sorted out what the deal was. But I didn’t mind, as the pictures were so good. Enchanting, really. Very well made, and in that terrific style where everything seems important, and it’s all done with the proper mood. A woman in a red dress flies through the air into a pile of clothes. (Yves Klein, in bizzaro world.) Varicose veins above slippers, feathers in a young boy’s hair, crumpled toilet paper, ice on a frozen swimming pool, freshly cut wet hair on a bare shoulder.

Finally, in the end, I turned to the text at the back. I knew enough to enjoy the book, to relish the ambiguity, to push towards the answer, and ultimately to realize it didn’t matter. I could love the photographs, and feel the artist’s emotional tenor, without knowing why. That’s why art matters. Because it represents a world without clear answers. Which is the world in which we live.

The text, dense and long, presents a transcript of interviews between the artist and her family. Primarily her mother, the odd woman featured in so many of the photographs. She’s got OCD, and I suppose we’d call her mentally ill. The entire book, seen in this context, is a document of the artist’s family life. One can imagine why Ms. Hampton felt compelled to push into the misery of insanity. It’s her environment, and perhaps her genetic inheritance. But all that confusion makes sense, when seen photographically, and I’m willing to speculate that the artist understands her life a little better, having undertaken the endeavor.

It’s well established that not everyone agrees with me, nor should they. I’m aware that when I make these grand pronouncements, offer myself as an expert on the ineffable, that it can come across as arrogant. I’m willing to take that risk. But from here on in, let’s not have any confusion about what Art is. It’s anything. It’s most often made, but can sometimes be found. And I’d encourage us all to make as much as we can. Because even if it’s bad, just one more photo of a rusted old truck, there’s still value in the effort.
Botom Line: Illness, wonderfully rendered

To Purchase In the Shadow of Things visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

This Week In Photography Books – Friedlander

- - Photo Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

The sun has yet to rise on the first Monday of the year. It’s ten degrees outside, and I’m sitting on a green pull-out couch in my gray cotton boxers. I’m also wearing a fifteen-year-old brown flannel shirt, unbuttoned. My hair, washed before bed, is standing in six directions, like the drummer in a band that you’ve never heard of. Like Lee Friedlander.

I feel naughty just for writing about how silly I look right now. None of us wakes up like someone in a TV Show. Seriously, have you ever noticed that people always kiss each other with morning breath in the movies? Please. So here I am, just rolled out of bed, and the very, very last thing that I would do is take a picture of myself. No, scratch that. The very last thing I would do is to show a photo of myself, looking as I do now, to anyone. No, wrong again. The very, very, very last thing I would do is to publish said photograph in a book. Yes, that’s the last thing I would do.

So it’s a good thing that Lee Friedlander is a braver man than I. Or crazier? Edgier? What’s the right word? (Other than better, which is too obvious.) I’ve written about the man before. Twice in fact. Last time was for a book of previously unreleased images of some cars in Detroit in the Sixties. Nice book, but mostly interesting because no one had seen the particular photos before.

Today, I’m here to talk about “Lee Friedlander: In the Picture. Self-Portraits 1958-2011,” which was recently published by Yale University Press. I’m pretty uncomfortable with the fact that Yale Press now co-exists in an article with a description of my underwear. It’s quite possible I’ll live to regret it. So why would I do such a thing? Because I’m writing about an artist who was far more fearless than that. Let’s call it a tribute review. Next thing you know, I’ll put on tight jeans and bandana, round up some friends, and start shimmying on stage to “Dancin’ in the Dark.” No. More likely it would be “Blinded by the Light.” Great song.

Ah, the book, you say? It’s black and thick, but not too large. The cover text colors, blue and florescent magenta, are jarring, but less so than the diptych of self portraits by Mr. Friedlander, which seem to bookend the temporal range covered inside. Rarely do I discuss things such as font color, but the inside of the flap is a day-glo lime, so clearly they were trying to make a statement right off the bat. With color. In a book of black and white images. Nice. Slowly flipping the pages, and the second photo in the book shows Mr. Friedlander, shirtless, in Taos, New Mexico, 1958. Thereby giving a little context to my half-clothed ravings. (It’s all good, bro. Clothes are for squares, man.)

OK, enough about me. The narrative is linear, the kids are born towards the beginning, and the woman I can only presume to be Mr. Friedlander’s wife looks like a be-speckled beatnik betty. Right away, the shadow comes in as a stand-in for the artist. Straight out of Jung, yo. Deep. But not quite so deep as the artist’s penetrating gaze and fantastic use of neck-fat. So unflattering, so brilliant. Really, it’s a lesson that jumps off the page here. Take more risks. Be less afraid. Push yourself. Take chances.

Last week, in the fabled comment section, a fierce debate arose over whether readers have the right to complain about my choices of things that I like. Others claimed that negative criticism is undervalued in the world of photography and art. I beg to differ. The entire critique process is based upon the concept of criticism, only it’s taught that one ought to respect others, and choose one’s words wisely. It’s best to balance a negative critique with a dose of positivity, and to use language that does not denigrate. But at the core level, the critique is about awakening deeper levels of self-awareness, so that we know, in our hearts, when a photo is not good enough. Or when we need to try harder. Or when we’re simply too derivative. So be negative all you like. But how about having the guts to turn that critical eye upon yourself? Like Lee Friedlander.

Back to the book. I swear I didn’t choose this week’s selection as a counterpoint to last week’s article, but now that I’m looking at it closely, the connection is clear. Growth. Change. The passage of time. It’s all here. A very well-made group of photographs, along with some insider references that people will love.(Robert Frank, Nick Nixon…) Most of the most recent images definitely lack the spark of the earliest pictures, but then again, no one listens to the Rolling Stone’s last album. I’d say I’m not surprised, but I saw Mr. Friedlander’s show at the Whitney in 2010, so I know he hasn’t lost it.

After the celebrity section, which at least has a few laughs, you arrive at the inevitable conclusion. The doctor’s office. The tubes. The glazed eyes. The chest scar. Heart Surgery? Probably. Does it matter? Time gets us all in the end, and it’s rarely pretty. But this book, and the artist’s career by extension, are two lessons in the value of investigation and examination, of ourselves as well as the outside world.

Bottom Line: Profound

To Purchase Lee Friedlander: In the Picture visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Time is like an apathetic teenager. We see it as linear, because it’s easier for our brains that way. But many of us know it’s relative. That information does us little good, though, when we’re late to work, and Grandma in the car in front of us is savoring every last second. At twenty miles an hour.

The only thing to match the monotony of the march of time is the certainty of change. The second law of thermodynamics and all. We like to think we stay the same, remain true to ourselves, but it’s just an illusion, no more real than a flogborgibbit. Change is the normal state of things, far more natural than a charge of flip-flopping, but the very epithet tells you all you need to know about most people’s view of the inevitable.

I’ve come to accept and even relish change, myself. I enjoy the opportunity to work on my faults, to modify my behavior, whether it be evolution or revolution. I’ve had it both ways, massive epiphanies that alter my soul in a day, or a slow, daily slide into sloth and misery. (Freshman year at Duke, it took only months for a skinny, mostly well-adjusted goody-goody to metamorphose into a fat, drunken ball of insecurities who…well, we’ll save that one for another time.)

Change is a function of time, and time is the bedrock of our chosen medium, photography. Light is the more popular sibling, as time is far more challenging to manipulate. It’s difficult for photography to match video when it comes to processing duration, but difficult, as we’ve often seen, does not mean impossible.

It’s probably not surprising that I’d bloviate on this subject, what with the end of the year upon us. I’m either the most philosophical blogger in the world, or it’s biggest jackass, and I suppose we’ll each have our own opinion on the subject. But I have seen a lot of photographs this year, and written about most of what I’ve seen. New York, twice, LA, Washington DC; not a bad lineup. Ironically, for two years running, I haven’t been able to shoehorn some of my favorite work into an article. Despite the thousands of words, there just wasn’t room in the narrative thread for great photographs, by the same photographer, in both 2010 and 2011: Rineke Dijkstra.

So here at APE, we’ll now christen a new feature, “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Rolls off the tongue nicely. Here we go.

Last year, it was at the Met, in a fantastic curated show that included a copy of Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.” Somehow, I ended up writing only about John Baldessari, and Ms. Dijkstra’s incredible series about a young refugee girl got left on the cutting room floor.

This year, I saw her work at the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), on a sunny summer San Diego sojourn. (I was always a sucker for alliteration in school. Easy way to score points with the teacher.) Back in July, I snuck down from my beach abode in North County to visit an exhibition of the Bank of America permanent collection, curated by MOPA’s Executive Director, Debra Klochko. (And in case you were wondering, B of A did not cover the admission cost, thereby missing out on a relatively inexpensive way to burnish their horrible public image.)

On a very big wall, right behind the admission desk, was a seven image photo series, installed sequentially, by the aforementioned famous Dutch artist. Each featured a handsome young Frenchman named Olivier Silva, who was about to embark on a stint in the French Foreign Legion. (Insert random French joke here.) The framed prints, all largish, were exhibited in a temporal sequence that transpired between 2000-3, during Mr. Silva’s military service.

In the first image, we see a skinny, innocent looking 17 year old, (give or take) with a full head of hair. Unquestionably, his eyes say, “Oh shit. I’m not so sure about this.” In the next, from the same day in 2000, he’s just had his head shaved, and has got the camo outfit on. His look says, “True, I’m not sure about this, but I suppose I’ll give it a shot.”

Number 3 is from a few months later, still in France. Now he’s got the face paint, is rocking the shaved head thing, and he’s trying to be tough. Definitely seems sad. And on to the next. Here, Olivier is in pristine dress, but still looks like he misses his Maman. By now, his face has filled out a bit. Same month, about to ship out.

The fifth photograph, almost a year and a half later, and now we’re in Corsica. (Chasing Mafiosi?) Homeboy is wearing the most ridiculous Foreign Legion cap, like something out of a Peter Sellers movie. Squinting into the sun, his shoulders are fuller, and he has the vibe that he could have killed someone by now, but probably hasn’t. The burgundy epaulettes are just too much. Finally, a bit of humor.

Next to last, and the guy looks like an action hero. You start to wonder, did Ms. Dijkstra know it all along, that the skinny kid had the movie star looks right beneath the surface? It’s the first time you think about her, as the first five were so natural, and the expressions so believable. By the way, he’s in Djibouti. (Between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries that don’t like each other very much.) And that last bit of farm-boy is still there. Barely.

For the last photo, Olivier Silva is looking directly into the camera, his drab marine colored T-shirt offering more about his character than his dead, militarized eyes. Inscrutable. He’s been thoroughly socialized through the system, they’ve made a good soldier out of the boy. Ready to kill, if necessary. It’s July of 2003, three years after the process began.

And then it’s over. And you begin to think, those expressions, the clues I read to deduce Silva’s character, they’re something the photographer has created. They’re a window into a linear, stop-motion jaunt into some random guy’s history, sure. It happened. But the series toys with the notion of the document, and with my immediate faith that what I was seeing was real, beyond the interpersonal connection between the young Frenchman and the artist, Ms. Dijkstra. Tremendous stuff.

I didn’t end up writing about it this Summer, because I skipped San Diego for the bustle of the Megalopolis up the coast. So there you have it. “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Happy New Year.

Remembering at MOMA PS1

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I awoke to the bleating ring of the landline, ruining a perfectly good dream. Lacking coordination, I smacked at the phone, glancing at the clock as I pulled the handset to my ear. It was 6:30 in the morning, Pacific Standard Time. Too early for good news. On the other end of the line, my mother started yelling at me. She was crazed, like a fanatic speaking in tongues. “We’re under attack. We’re under attack. The towers are gone. The towers are gone.”

“Mom,” I replied, “calm the fuck down. I can’t understand what you’re saying. There are no aliens. We’re not under attack. And it’s really not funny.”

“Oh, Jonathan, it’s so horrible. We’re under attack by terrorists. They flew airplanes into the twin towers, and they’re not there anymore. They’re just gone. The Pentagon too,” She finished. “Turn on the television. You’ll see.” So I did.

I would have been there, like so many people reading this, but I almost chopped my thumb off while opening a can of tomatoes. (Lots of blood.) The incident, or accident, occurred just after I was accepted into Pratt, in early 2001. The recovery was such that I deferred a year, planning to move to New York in July of 2002 instead. So if not for the jagged edge of a Muir Glen tomato can, I would have been living in Brooklyn during the tragedy. But I wasn’t. My girlfriend and I were living in San Francisco instead, 3000 miles away, and only heard about the thing after the fact. Kind of the opposite of having been there.

It’s ten years later, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that people like round numbers. (This from the dollar guy.) The memorial services are done. The names of the victims were read. Candles were lit; Tears absorbed into shoulders and hair. And of course, the anniversary exhibitions are up on the wall. It so happened that I was in New York in the end of October, and had the chance to see the September 11 show at MoMAPS1 in Long Island City, Queens, just across the river.

I might have neglected to mention that the particular New Jersey suburb in which I was raised was just a few miles down the road from Atlantic Highlands, the tallest point on the East Coast (At a meager 300 feet or so.) We had hills in my town as well, and were close enough to the bay to see the Twin Towers presiding over the city across the water.

My family rarely went into New York, it being the dicey late 70’s and early 80’s, and I was a bit of a wimp about the whole thing, truth be told. But those towers… I saw them at least three times a week. Two big, phallic, shiny symbols of the wealth and power of Wall Street, New York City, and by extension, the United States. They dominated. And now they’re not there.

The skyline has seemed imbalanced to me ever since, the midtown skyscrapers taunting Wall Street, perhaps enticing a Napoleon complex that begat the Great Recession. And, really, what has changed? We take our shoes off at the airport. We color code our fear like stripes on a lollipop. Fanatical loonies tried to blow up airplanes with bombs in their shoes, underpants, and even a printer cartridge. But so far we’ve been lucky.

We have a bi-racial President now. That’s big news. And geeks run much of the known world. (Seriously. Mark Zuckerberg gets laid on a regular basis. Enough said.) We went to war, twice, and are thoroughly in hock to the Chinese. All because we had to have those two wars, and some tax breaks to boot. Not a lot of value out of those purchases, if you ask me.

Now it’s nearly 2012, and so we might ask, with all the 9/11 hullaballoo, “Why an art show?” Why go to the trouble to collect items from around the world, paint the walls, pack and unpack the shipping boxes, spend a fortune on Fedex, re-write press releases until your carpal tunnel gives you a migraine, just to invite some people in once the lights are on, to look at some photographs, videos, paintings, sculptures, and drawings?

Why indeed? I suppose, as I describe the work I saw that day, the answer will become evident. One would hope.

Lets’ be honest: these articles always seem to run long. I’m aware of that. Perhaps I have a hard time expressing myself in few words. Who knows? In case you don’t feel like reading to the end, let me break it down succinctly. If you live anywhere near New York, you ought to go see this show. How’s that for brevity? Just go. Swipe your Metrocard, drop the $10 at the front entrance, and go inside.

The exhibition begins on the second floor of the former school building, and the wall card announces that almost none of the work was made in response to the September 11 attacks. Much of it was even made before the event. I was curious, and a tad dubious, to tell the truth. If the work was decontextualized, then clearly the curator’s POV would dominate the show. The entire exhibition would be one giant installation by Peter Eleey, the curator in charge. Pretty ambitious.

Normally, in these reviews, this would be the point where I meticulously detail each and every thing I saw. But I don’t want to do that. It seems forced, as I sit here at my kitchen table, 2000 miles and six weeks removed from the actual experience. There was a surreal poetry and magic to my time in the September 11 exhibition, and I’d rather try to recreate a fragment of it. I can conjure the best of that day in my mind, easily, so let’s start there.

One of the first pieces to slam me in the belly was a pair of framed, 4 foot square bulletin boards affixed to the wall, replete with pin holes, staples and paper scraps. (“Nothing prevents anything,” -07-09, by Harold Mendez.) Each sat on the wall on opposite sides of an entry way, like lions guarding the gate. Bulletin boards? If I saw them in a gallery in Chelsea, I’d probably giggle, and shake my head at how far people will go to be the first to call something art. But here, in this context, they felt empty, vacant, purposeless, forgotten, as if they were hanging in an Elementary School during Summer session. I thought about the kids who started that Summer, in 2001, with Dads and Moms, and then, shortly after Labor Day, they were gone.

Normally, we see work like this in quiet. People in galleries and museums are more silent than a tennis audience. Here, though, in this very room, there was music piped in. A grand, emotional, film score, by the great John Williams. (Yeah, the guy who did Star Wars.) A wall card explained that the music was the theme from the forgettable Mel Gibson crap-fest, “The Patriot.” (Which was apparently then appropriated by Barrack Obama during his 2008 victory speech.) So. Ironic. That. My. Head. Almost. Exploded. All the same, the emotional music definitely made the viewing experience more poignant.

What else? In the middle of the room, there was a nearly 20 foot long sculpture on the floor, made of ash. Long and narrow, the material was configured into the undulating form of a lunar-scape, with faux mountains and valleys seen from above. Astonishing. It looked a little like a 3D, gray-scale version of one of Motherwell’s Spanish Elegy Paintings. But it gets better. A look at the wall text explained that the ash sculpture, by Roger Hiorns, “Untitled 2008,” was actually an atomized passenger aircraft engine. Ash, the dominant symbol of that horrible day, here literally made out of a plane engine. That’s about as good as it gets.

Except that it was just a part of a larger whole, the gestalt of the entire gallery. The ash led the viewer, like a psychedelic arrow, straight up to a George Segal sculpture called “Woman on a Park Bench.” A lady sits, eternally, white patina over bronze, on a black bench. Waiting. The sculpture has been placed before a vaulted archway, and is backlit, like a knave in a Gothic Cathedral. It’s not hard to see her as a symbol of a grieving widow, immobilized by sorrow. Forever.

And in case you weren’t paying perfect attention, all of the above is simply one gallery in a much larger exhibition. I can’t think of a more touching tribute, and yet it was the work of the curator, as much as the aggregate artists. If you don’t believe me, just look up George Segal on Wikipedia. He died in 2000.

I enjoyed seeing a painting by Maureen Gallace, a drawing by Mark Lombardi, and a photograph by Thomas Demand. All good, for sure. But the next great thing was a worn, black suitcase on the floor, sitting in the corner of another gallery. It reminded me of the room of shoes at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. Those little, human details that bring Geo-Political horror down to the human level. Seeing the suitcase, we can imagine it belonging to some random guy who never made it back to Penn Station with his claim ticket. Or sitting on a sidewalk somewhere, after having been blown out an open window.

It was a piece of found sculpture by Lara Favaretto. The object was part of an ongoing, obtuse project where she buys one suitcase a year at a flea market, locks it, and then never opens it. Just the sort of boring conceptual project that gets far too much attention, but in this context, it was brilliant.

Diane Arbus, perennially popular, was represented on the wall with “Blowing Newspaper at a Crossroads, NYC, 1956.” The photo was dark, fuzzy, abstracted and a bit menacing. One I’d not seen before. Here, it spoke of the itinerant trash roaming the empty streets in the aftermath, hours after everyone still standing had gone home.

In a similar vein, a room otherwise full of black and white images and objects contained a dash of color, courtesy of William Eggleston: “Untitled (Glass in Airplane, 1965-74). A single plastic cup of Coke sits on a lowered tray table, backlit by gleaming light streaming in through the window. Anywhere else, it reminds of a stained glass window. Pretty. Contextualized, it puts you in the first person position of someone sitting on one of the planes, quaking at the thought of the crazy dudes holding box-cutters in the cockpit. What a horrible fucking way to die.

Elsewhere in that gallery, the walls were covered by a collection of B&W photos by John Pilson, from the series “Interregna” from 1998-2000. Mr. Pilson apparently worked for an investment bank in Lower Manhattan, across the street from the WTC, and made documents of the office experience in the late evening and early morning hours when no one was around. They were literal, and well-made, but in the show, one thought immediately of the empty offices, abandoned while people streamed screaming down the stairwells in the moments after impact.

To finish it off, a white pedestal sits in the middle of the room, with a glass vitrine on top. Inside, “Snapshots from Baghdad,” from 2007, by Roman Ondak: A matte black disposable camera with undeveloped, exposed film. All black, it looked a bit like a gun, just another way to shoot. Undeveloped, it spoke of unfulfilled potential. Baghdad, it reminded of the War rounded up like a posse in the victims’ names. And that was not the only Iraq reference in the house.

From there, I wandered upstairs, towards an abandoned looking section of the Museum. I ran across a man, coming in the opposite direction, who snickered, “It’s nothing but empty rooms. You might like it more than some of the art.” Classy. I pushed on anyway, and found that he was right. Empty rooms only. Early stage installation in progress. The galleries were the same as the ones below, but they lacked the life, the light, and the energy of a finished exhibition. A small moment, I gained even more appreciation for how much work it takes to make the trains run on time.

From there, I descended a few flights of stairs into the basement. As this was once a functioning school, the basement contains the innards of the structure. It’s cold, and feels like the opposite of every gleaming Art Museum you’ve ever visited. It also contains, for now, one of the single most powerful art installations I’ve ever experienced. No. Exaggeration. Necessary.

The boiler room is where it’s at. Down a few short rickety stairs, you enter the physical-plant-nerve-center of the former public school. It’s dirty, cold, and cave-like. Creepy doesn’t quite do it justice. In the far corner, I saw some speakers, a chain hanging from the ceiling, and a place to sit down. So I did.

The speakers were blasting some random, ambient sounds; unfamiliar and disturbing. I sat there, waiting, thinking, and then all of a sudden, I saw the flash of a shadow. My neck swiveled, and my liver almost imploded. No lie. Frightening. But I stayed. A minute or so later, there was a clanking, crashing sound, and another shadow flash. Bang. The hanging chain started to sway, so I knew that I hadn’t imagined it. Slowly, I realized that I was sitting in a simulacrum of a dungeon. Abu Ghraib? Some nameless CIA black-site hole-in-the-ground in Afghanistan? Does it matter?

The experience was real, and confusing. Then, I looked up at the ceiling and saw skylights onto the street level. The room sits below the sidewalk, and whenever a Queens resident or visiting passerby walked over me, I heard the crash. When they walked only near the skylight, shadow no sound. Are. You. Kidding. Me.

After a few minutes of simulated torture, I walked back up the stairs, and looked for the wall text explaining the music. (If you could call it that.) Stephen Vitiello, the artist, once had a studio given to him through a residency program. In the World Trade Center. 91st Floor. He recorded the sound of the building swaying in the wind during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

I’m running out of exclamations here to describe my overtaxed brain, upon reading that information. The swaying, creaking, buildings, no longer in existence, providing the backdrop for a simulated torture chamber, representing a major war that was launched because the buildings were destroyed by terrorists from another country. Well played, Peter Eleey. Well played.

After that, emotionally drained, I spent the better part of a half an hour trying to get permission to take the one photo I’m including here. They’re beyond strict about prohibiting photography, so you really will have to go see this for yourself. Then I walked through the freezing Queens rain, and dropped down underground again to grab the subway. The train’s recording, with each stop, reminded me that it was a World Trade Center-bound E train. As if I could forget.

This Week In Photography Books

Three local high school kids got very lost on Thanksgiving night. It was nihilistically dark out, and they inexplicably drove their car into a ditch in the middle of our pasture. I’d never of known, as I was already sleeping when it happened. I awoke to violent pounding on my bedroom door, and after the initial fear-based adrenaline dump, I realized that my mother-in-law was outside making a ruckus about tress-passers, and imploring us to let her in. She had a very big gun wrapped in her sweatshirt, and we scattered about trying to figure out what to do.

After deliberating, we chose to call the Sheriff, and learned that it would be 15 minutes or so before help arrived. That’s a long time to wait when shit goes South, and nasty things happen out here all the time. Fortunately, my father-in-law arrived, ever the voice of reason, and walked out into the night, unarmed, to find out what was really going on. So I found myself, shortly thereafter, canceling the cavalry, and helping to tow the probably-stoned-out-of-their-mind kids out of my fallow irrigation ditch. Crisis averted. Gun returned to its proper home under my mother-in-law’s pillow.

This time of year, with Thanksgiving a week behind us and Christmas fast approaching, we often focus on the annoying and obnoxious aspects of family. We don’t like their presents, or their body odor, or how much noise they make when they chew. We bitch about the boring stories, the TV remote gamesmanship, and the leaden, lard-based Christmas cookies. (OK, that was an exaggeration. Lard makes the cookies lighter. Mmmm, pig cookies.)

What’s my point here? Since we’ve been walking upright, family has been the core bond that ensured that our species survived, then thrived, and now is back in survival mode. Our family is our backup, our own personal army, our clan, our blood. I’ve never doubted for one second that if anything ever went wrong, my wife’s Mom would be breaking down the door, gun in hand, ready to kick some ass. And now I know I was right all along. But the funny thing was, there wasn’t any actual danger. Bonnie, in her fear, succumbed to irrational thinking, and imagined the worst of the situation. 30 seconds talking to the kids would have alleviated her concern.

Since the Renaissance, enlightened scholars have tended to focus on our ability, as creatures, to reason. We have the intellect to act rationally, and over-ride our emotional response to the world. So they say. Nowadays, it’s more fashionable, at least within the world of Behavioral Economics, to accept the opposite. Our reptilian brains, the core of our mental functioning, are strong, and we often act in manners not commensurate with our own best interest. Yes, we can think. But we’re animals. And we’re still afraid of the dark.

It’s funny, but after ten plus years of fighting in Afghanistan, we’re still no closer to democratizing the joint. It’s too tribal, they say. Too remote to conquer. Loyalties are always to the clan, and not some faceless bureaucratic enterprise in Kabul. You know why? Because the government doesn’t come rushing to your aid when there are demons at your door. Your family does. Your neighbors. The people right there in your face. Your blood.

Which is why I was so blown away when I slowly, carefully unpacked a pristine copy of Taryn Simon’s new book, “A Living Man Declared Dead, and Other Chapters.” Straight off, I’ll say this book isn’t for everyone. It’s expensive, for starters. And it’s so big that it would be perfect for braining an intruder, if you could actually lift the thing to do the dirty deed. So let’s not assume I’m shilling this thing for Ms. Simon, or for MACK, her perfectionist British publisher.

For the project, which was presented as a solo exhibition at the Tate Modern earlier this year, Ms. Simon spent four years traveling around the world, a modern-day-art-sleuth. She’s very good at showing us what we don’t know we wan’t to see, and in this case she focused on the aforementioned issues at the core of our collective human nature: the power of the clan, and the absurdity or our irrationality. Given that the book is so big and well-constructed, I can see future anthropologists giggling over their coffee pills as they look back on our ridiculous manner of navigating through the world.

Ms. Simon divides the book, and the project, in to chapters. 18 to be exact. Each begins the same way, with a grid of portraits of a clan connected by blood, starting with a particular person, and charting their descendants through time. She’s gone around the Earth to bring back the kind of stories that you think nobody could make up, which is why it makes such a fascinating truth. The title refers to a man in India who was declared dead so that several of his relatives could steal his land claim. Another chapter follows the family of a man abducted by the North Koreans, who’ve resorted to finding immigrants by any means necessary. There’s a chapter devoted to Uday Hussein’s body double, a family of Tanzanian albinos, the “perfect” government sanctioned Chinese family, victims of the Srebrenica massacre, the Scottish mother of a set of thalidomide triplets from the 70’s, and many, many more. (Each is separated by a strong piece of beige canvas. Nice touch.)

After the initial grid, Ms. Simon includes evidence-style images connecting the clan to the crime, so to speak. From there, we see larger, individual portraits of every member of the blood-line that she was able to photograph. Though she’s often been criticized for her super-dry style, I found each portrait to be compelling. Which is really hard to do. The book is so large that you think you’d just glance at the portraits, all these strangers an after-thought, but that’s not how it works. Each face is different than the next, and odd in some magical way. When she encountered people she couldn’t shoot, Ms. Simon published blank gaps in the grid, which becomes a powerful visual symbol. The text explains the reason for the omission, be it religious conviction, travel restrictions, or fear of being kidnapped. Of course there’s plenty of text, explaining the stories, making the connections. And plenty of rabbits too. Lots and lots of rabbits. (Her only non-human narrative focuses on the explosion of the rabbit population in Australia, where the creatures are non-native, and the extreme measures taken by the Aussies to kill the little buggers.)

At it’s core, this book feels as much like a science project as an art series. It’s methodical, categorical, and clearly obsessive. (I have a little vision of Ms. Simon ordering lunch in a diner: egg white omelette, cheese on the side, wheat toast, lightly done, butter and jam on the side on separate plates, coffee, not too hot, with milk instead of cream, shaken, not stirred.) We’ve all heard the stories about how August Sander really wanted to photograph every German, broken down into sub-sections, one at a time. It seems as if Ms. Simon has accomplished the root of that dream, by making our craziest realities a proxy for everyone. Her clans, meticulously traced, represent us all. In a time when the worst predictions feed fear of our imminent decline, it feels like an accomplishment meant as much for our descendants as for us.
Bottom Line: Expensive, but worth it

To purchase A Living Man Declared Dead, and Other Chapters visit Photo-Eye.

This Week In Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Just curious, but am I predictable in my unpredictability? If so, some of you must have seen this week’s column coming. Last Friday, we showcased some low-pro, under-the-radar type books you probably haven’t heard of. So of course, today, I’m busting out the big guns. Today, you get a sneak peak at three new photobooks by guys who are all over the place right now. A little fashion, a little journalism, and a bit of art to ease you into the Thanksgiving vortex. Will next week’s books be all about turkey slaughter and obesity? Stay tuned.

Speaking of Mr. Richardson, I suspect that some of you probably know him personally, this being a tight-knit industry and all. I’ve never met the man, but am quite familiar with his work. Last Friday, I showed his blog to my students, and the lead feature was a video of Terry making out with Chloë Sevigny, who was dressed, improbably, as Terry Richardson. (Just curious, but would you make out with Chloë Sevigny if she was dressed as Terry Richardson?) If you’ve ever stopped to ask yourself how anyone would end up like that, then you need to check out “Mom & Dad,” a new double-book production just released by Mörel Books in London. Two, minimalist black soft-covered books come together in a simple black slip cover. Mom, and Dad. Each is a raw, emotion-laden little ride through Terry Richardson’s past, through a documentation of each of his parents. Who, not surprisingly, seem like they’re bat-shit crazy. For all of the gloss of his editorial work, I think these volumes are intimate, and the photographs are well made. I can’t say it’s disturbing, even when his mother flips the bird to the camera, or shows off her octogenarian boobs. Because you kind of expect that from him. It’s tough to continue to shock, when the bar has already been set so high. The project is an edition of 1000, so grab one now, if you’re into this sort of a thing.
Bottom Line: Surprisingly tender, unsurprisingly crazy

To purchase Mom & Dad visit Photo-Eye

 

 

Our next book, “Iraq/ Perspectives,” by Benjamin Lowy, comes to us from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, by way of William Eggleston. Mr. Lowy, who once offered me the chance to touch his shrapnel, (I assumed, incorrectly, that he was joking), received this book as a prize for winning the 2011 CDS/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. Mr. Eggleston was the judge, which gives the volume a high-art imprimatur. The smooth, black, hard cover consists of two separate projects shot in Iraq, where Mr. Lowy spent years documenting the war for various news outlets. The first is a set of pictures shot through the bullet proof window of an armored Humvee, and is intentional in it’s depiction of Iraqi street life at a remove. At first, I was put off by the lack of viscerality, of any real emotional connection to the subject matter. But then I realized that it was a metaphor for the way Americans actually experienced the war, which ate up so much of our hard earned cash, and left a trail of blood and detached limbs across that desert country, so many miles from here. Most of us probably couldn’t tell the difference between Basra and Tikrit with a gun to our heads, so the cool detachment of the photographs seems appropriate, upon proper reflection. The second set of images were shot through Military-grade night vision goggles, so they too present a green, altered perspective. One photo of some bound, gagged presumed prisoners of war will likely stay with me for a while.
Bottom Line: New-style journalism for the 21st C

To purchase Iraq/ Perspectives visit Photo-Eye

 

 

Finally, we come to “Interlacing,” a canvas-wrapped soft cover book released a few months ago by the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland, and Steidl. It was published in conjunction with a major retrospective of Ai Weiwei’s career photographic output. By now, I’m guessing you don’t need me to tell you about Ai Weiwei, as his nasty detention at the hands of the Chinese Government has made him the most famous artist in the world. (And somewhere in London, Damien Hirst sheds a diamond-studded tear.) This particular book was sent to me in response to the article I wrote on Ai Weiwei’s behalf earlier this year, but it’s also available at photo-eye. As such, I thought it was appropriate to review it. Let me cut to the chase, for once, and just suggest that you buy this book. The breath of work to be found is astonishing, from early photos of the artist and his Chinese hipster buddies running around NYC in the 80’s, to the famed middle-finger images that include a Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona, the Duomo in Florence, and a sheep meadow in Xinjiang. It presents documentation of the rise of some now ubiquitous contemporary Chinese architecture, a set of cell phone images shot in 2009, and a series of individual portraits of the Chinese citizens that Ai Weiwei brought to Kassel Germany for the Documenta 12 festival in 2007. (That was his project: transporting 1001 Chinese citizens to visit the show as a cultural exchange.) There are probably 20 other sets of images here, beyond what I’ve already mentioned. It’s dense with prose as well, including reprinted Tweets. I may be biased, but this book makes a compelling case for why Ai Weiwei might be the best artist in the world right now.
Bottom Line: You should buy this book

To purchase Interlacing visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

Susan Worsham Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: I thought you’d have an interesting take on the way photographers essentially have to have two careers: the getting it out there phase, and the making the work phase. In the last interview i did, Jesse Burke called it the “wheel of self-promotion.” He said “the wheel of self-promotion is always spinning.” I related to that. I know a lot of people relate to that. Right now, I feel like I’m trying as hard as I can to de-emphasize it and remind myself of why I do what I do. Of all the people I’ve talked to in the last few years, you seem to have your head on straight as to why you make work. So I thought maybe we could talk a bit about how you see your motivations as an artist.

Susan Worsham: Well, what you were saying about the “wheel of self-promotion?” I guess, I don’t even think about self-promotion. The contacts that I make are more based on me being me, and the people being them. It’s about natural connections, as opposed to trying to force a connection. My “By the Grace of God” series is about me going out into the world and making connections. Right now, the connections are not about making it, or getting ahead. It’s hard for me to explain.

JB: That’s OK. You said it right away. You don’t consider the “wheel of self-promotion.” You don’t care about it. I feel like of all my friends and colleagues, you’re the only one that when you say it, I believe it. That’s kind of why I wanted to talk about this. I feel like so many photographers, certainly fine art photographers, have gotten distracted by the 24/7, all encompassing noise of the Internet, and the blogosphere, and FB and Twitter. People put so much energy into the other that they lose track of the root causes of why we started making art to begin with. I thought that you might be able to share a little bit of your perspective on that.

SW: It all happened for me in a natural, one thing led to another way. At Review Santa Fe, the reason that I even went was that someone nominated me for the Santa Fe Prize, and I had to look up what that was. When someone nominates you for the Santa Fe Prize, you get to go to the portfolio review. And I’d never really heard of a portfolio review before. Someone that interviewed me recently asked me, “Are you really that naive?”

JB: Ouch.

SW: Yeah, but I wasn’t upset by it. I answered, “Yeah, in this case, with this particular subject, I am naive.” I don’t come from a publishing background, and I didn’t go to school for photography, so I’m not going to know everything that everyone knows. Frankly, none of that really matters to me. It’s the art that matters to me. But the reason that she asked if I was really that naive, to prepare for my first portfolio review, I had to google portfolio reviews to see what people brought. I saw that people were bringing what’s called “clamshell boxes,” so that was the first thing I did. I ordered myself a clamshell box. So I kind of feel like I’m just being me. And my art work is how I connect with the world, and how I get my feelings out. And that’s really mine.

JB: That’s what I wanted to talk about. I gave a lecture yesterday at UNM, in Albuquerque. At the end of class, the professor, Jim Stone, asked what advice I would give the students. I said “Don’t do this because you want to make money or get famous. It’s too hard and too degrading.” The business aspects of what we do, even when things are going well, it always feels like a crapshoot. So if that’s why you want to be a photographer, my advice was clear. “Do something else. If you want to be famous, try to get on television. Make work because you have to, because it’s a part of who you are, and if these things don’t come out as art, they come out as insanity or kicking a dog.” That’s where it comes from for me. I wouldn’t have dealt with 15 years of rejection by choice.

SW: I recently had a younger photographer email me, and say she was in my city and could we meet. So I said sure. I always feel a connection to other photographers, because we share a passion. She said, “You’re all over the place right now. How did you get that?” I said, “Gosh, I’ve been taking photographs for at least 20 years.” It’s not something that just comes all of a sudden. You make work that’s important to you, and at some point, someone is going to see it. I just don’t think about money, when I’m thinking about photography. When I leave my house, and I’m in my car, and the lighting is just amazing, and it’s hitting someone’s back yard, I freak out. I just follow that beautiful light. That’s what inspires me. It’s really simple.

JB: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this, because I know it can be tough to talk about.. As photographers, we’re primarily visual communicators. But when you’re out there shooting, do you feel like you’re actively looking for something, or you’re waiting to find something?

SW: One of the things that’s funny is that when I go up to people, and I ask if I can take their photograph, sometimes I explain that I’m doing this series called “By the Grace of God,” and it’s kind of just like this. I’m meeting you right here, this light is beautiful. It’s not like it’s a religious thing. I find myself often having to explain that I’m not a crazy nutbag religious person.

JB: (laughing) Did you say nutbag? Because I want to keep that. You better not make me cut nutbag, because that’s too good.

SW: No, no, no. Nutbag is fine.

JB: Excellent.

SW: Sometimes the title of the series helps. I actually walked into what I thought was an abandoned dilapidated church, right into a small service. I ended up standing up and talking about my project, and even got a few hallelujahs. I’m definitely a talker, but when you put me in front of a group of people I tend to freeze. And it’s funny that the first time I stood up and talked about the work was to a non photography crowd in a church service. I believe in a higher power. I am not someone who goes to church all of the time, or even reads the bible all the time. It’s more of just this feeling inside, when I’m taking photographs. It’s following what’s in my heart. Now that I’m older…… Let me give you an example. I used to be in my car, or even out walking, and see something and say, “ Wow. That’s awesome. I’d love to take a photograph of that.” And I wouldn’t stop. Now it seems like I’m listening to myself more, and I’m stopping and taking the time to follow what just made me really excited. Why extinguish that and keep on driving? Why not go ahead and turn down that road, and then usually when I do, and I take out my camera, and I meet someone, it seems like I was supposed to turn down that road and look at this beautiful thing that happened.

JB: When you say, “Why not stop?” I think it’s a great way to cycle back. I think a lot of people don’t stop because they don’t have the time to stop, or because they’re staring at their Iphone, and they don’t see it to begin with. I’m the last guy to be critical of anyone who tries to navigate the system, because certainly I have. But at the same time, within the last few months, I’ve just been pushing myself again and again to be more patient and to take more time. Through our past conversations, I feel like you’ve inspired me to reconnect to that. So…

SW: I’m going to interrupt and talk about patience for a minute. Gosh, patience? I have a lot of patience.

JB: I know. I feel like most people have a problem with it. I don’t think I’ve gotten my mind around how to be patient until very recently. I’m still learning.

SW: I’m actually still learning too. Sometimes, I have to wait a year. I often photograph one of my oldest neighbors, Margaret Daniel. All my family’s gone, and she’s my oldest neighbor from my childhood street, Bostwick Lane. She still lives at the top of it. I photograph her a lot. I’ll give you a bit of background story on her. I was in her basement, and there were all these boxes. They were labeled by the years. So I went upstairs and said, “Margaret, what are all the boxes in the basement?” And she said, “Well, honey, those are my walnuts.” It turns out that she collects walnuts as they fall from her tree, and labels them by the year they fell. It’s since been a very big part of my work with her. One day she was eating walnuts from her parents’ tree that she had brought with her. I call it a dowry of sorts. One fell, and made a tree. Now, it’s 50 or so years later, and that tree is just huge, taller than any house on Bostwick Lane. But the interesting thing about Margaret, and the funny thing is now I forget what the question was… but patience. That’s what we were getting to.

So I really wanted to photograph Margaret. I call her my Black Walnut Bride. I wanted to get photographs of her walnuts, and I had to wait, I would say two years. I said, “Margaret, tell me when the walnuts are going to come. Tell me when the walnuts are going to come.” And she was like, “Honey, the tree was barren this year. That happens every so often.” And so I didn’t get to photograph them, and I was quite upset about it. Now this year, they are plentiful, and I have had to go and help her collect them every day to where my back hurts after picking them up for hours. And we’ve made a walnut bed in her garden. Another metaphor. The woman is rich with metaphors. And she told me, “Honey, we’re going to make a walnut bed. Collect them and put them over there in the garden.” And so that’s the patience that I’ve had to learn, to wait two years for the walnuts to come. But they’re such a big part of her, and now of me.

You know, waiting is fine. You can go off and take other photographs. I don’t consider a series quite finished yet. A lot of people probably think that my “Some Fox Trail in Virginia” project is finished, but I’m going to go on and photograph Margaret, probably, until she is gone. That would be when that series would end.

JB: I didn’t realize the project was still in progress, but when I went to your website, I saw images from “Some Fox Trails” that I hadn’t seen before. When we talk about patience, I feel like everyone else is going in the other direction. There’s this pressure from the outside world that people feel to come out with the next project. To tie a bow around something. To have the book done. I feel like when we get caught up in that, it takes us away from the things that motivate us to make our best work: the quest for knowledge and the desire to improve. We need to kind move around and sit down into something, and I find that of all the people I know, you seem to understand that on an intuitive level. You’re patient with people. You listen. Certainly, I could be accused of loving to talk. But often I try to remind myself that we learn more, and we find the good stuff when we listen.

SW: Exactly. Getting back to Margaret’s walnut bed, to me, the metaphors that come every time I photograph her, the work is getting stronger, and I’m getting stronger as an artist. Just spending time with her. She’s very old, and I know she’s going to pass. I don’t know how long I have with her. The walnut bed, when I look at it, enables me to deal with death. I use a lot of metaphor in my work, and I’ve begun to see the world in metaphors. So when I go to her yard, and see that mound of earth covered in walnuts, she’s not only my Walnut Bride, but that becomes her Walnut Deathbed. In photographing her, she’s helping me come to terms with death, or deal with death, in kind of a poetic way.

My brother was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. On his first visit home, he took his life. He just wasn’t a person who could live without the use of his legs. Margaret Daniel was the last person to see him alive. She had made him his favorite, which was her homemade bread. When I was photographing her for the very first time, she told me the story of his last day. She brought him his favorite bread, and she took it up the stairs, and she buttered it for him. He kept on saying, “Margaret, can you bring me some more bread?” She said, “Susan, he finished the whole loaf.” Then my mom and Margaret went for a walk. When they came back, he had shot himself, and then died shortly thereafter. So the metaphor of that being his last supper. I don’t know if a lot of people know that’s one of the reasons why I concentrate on Margaret, because she’s the last person to see my brother alive, she’s the last of my family, since my family’s passed. It’s all getting connected for me now.

JB: I know this might sound crazy, but I went through your whole website, and the one photograph that I kept up on my screen to talk about, that I’m looking at right now, is the photograph called “Risen,” the freshly baked loaves of bread on the countertop. Of the 150 pictures on your site, that’s the picture that stuck with me. I had no idea of the backstory, and I had no idea that it was your brother’s last meal.

SW: I’m a little shocked. Not knowing the story behind it. Sometimes I think someone might think that was a boring photograph. But for me it has so much meaning.

JB: But the title…let’s sit here one more second. The title: Risen. We see the loaves of bread. And there’s this glowing light. The title has all those spiritual connotations. So between all that, it felt to me like there was really a lot more there. You have a very sharp lens on your 4×5, but there’s always a sense to me that you have a very insightful eye. To me, there was a story here, and I didn’t know what it was. I’m looking at the photograph right now.

SW: There’s always a lot more there. I’m finding out a lot about myself, through the series, and in turn, when I work on “By the Grace of God,” it allows me to get that close with other people.

JB: Whether you’re shooting in Syracuse, New York, or at home in the South, your stomping grounds, whether people are white or they’re black, time and again, no matter what class people come from, or their background, you manage to find a grace and a dignity and a respect. When I see that, that you’re depicting people with respect, then I make this mental assumption that’s how it works on the street. That you meet people, young or old, and they sense that respect, and it creates a rapport. It’s not like, “Hey, there’s a freak, let’s take their picture, and it will be freaky, and then we’ll sell that picture for $10,000.”

SW: I have a little story. I used to go play pool a lot. I met this older black gentleman. His name was Larry, and he was kind of a pool hustler. Larry would put a quarter down on the side of the table while I was playing, and tell me to aim for the coin. I would get four balls in with one shot. He was a very interesting character, and one day Parliament was playing on the jukebox.

JB: P-Funk? George Clinton?

SW: Yeah, P-Funk. So he asked if I liked that, and I said “Yeah.” He told me that he used to dance for Parliament, and they called him the Rubber Band Man. I believe there is a song about him by another band. Now I always believed Larry. He was someone that actually taught me a lot about patience, and reading people. He worked at Tysons Chicken Farm and everyday after work he would ride his bike up to play pool. And I hung out with him quite a lot. So here is this guy, working at a chicken farm in Virginia who travelled the world with George Clinton. I don’t think he even had a phone, but he told me he still had a closet full of fancy costumes. That’s life. That’s how it works. But none of my friends believed he was the Rubber Band Man. I remember once I was outside, and I was talking to Larry. A drunk guy stumbled up with a bottle in a paper bag. He was like “That’s the Rubber Band Man. Do you know who that is? That’s the Rubber Band Man. How do you get to be talking to the Rubber Band Man?”

And that’s kind of how my life works. I wasn’t taking photos at the time. There are just so many stories, and so many special people out there. Everyone has a story. What I’m coming to terms with now is the patience that you talk about. I can’t take all the pictures that I want to take.

JB: There are a million different people out there making pictures a million different ways, but we can only talk about what we know. Irrespective of the fact that you place all the value on the process and not the business aspect, fortunately the world has come to respect your work. You’ve wona book award from Blurb, you’ve had a slew of exhibitions, including the recent Lishui Photo Festival, you had an artist residency at Light Work in Syracuse, and in 2011 you were chosen as a member of the PDN 30. There seems to be a lot of mystique around that list. I was wondering if you might be able to talk about what impact, if any, it’s had on your career?

SW: I remember me and another person that got the PDN this year talked on the phone, and talked about how we weren’t sure if we were doing everything that we should be doing with that award. I think the year that you’re PDN 30 is the year that you’re supposed to use that. That’s your chance to get appointments with galleries, and do that sort of thing. You know, network more because you have that behind you. We didn’t know if we were actually doing that. Because… I don’t know…I use natural light and an old view camera. So it’s hard for me to start doing commercial work. I guess we were both feeling bad, like, “I haven’t done anything with it, what about you?” This is the time we should be doing it. For a commercial photographer, the Photo District News award is amazing, because you immediately are going to have so many people looking at your work, and maybe giving you jobs because of that. Which is wonderful. I wasn’t at the point to take any of those jobs, because again, I use a view camera and natural light. So it would take quite a while for me to develop and then scan, and give a photo shoot back to someone. I think I got Fraction Magazine because of PDN 30, though I don’t know if that came before.

JB: I wanted to talk a little bit about the South. Out of high school, I went to college at Duke in North Carolina. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how I could have spent three and a half years in Durham, North Carolina and learned, essentially, nothing about the South. I probably didn’t leave campus very often. I had hush puppies at least ten times. The sweet tea was good. But I can’t believe I squandered the opportunity. You were just included in an exhibition at the Danville Museum in Virginia as a Southern Photographer. People tend to relate to a lyricism and romanticism and sense of visual literature, when it comes to the South.There is a sense of place that is so deeply rooted in your work. It’s a place that I think a lot of people are fascinated by. Certainly since the Civil War. You probably just see yourself as Susan, but what’s your take on that?

SW: That’s the weird thing. Now, I’m beginning to see it a little. Really, when you say sense of place, a sense of home. Everything I’m doing in my work lends itself for people to say, “Oh, it’s very Southern.” But really it’s just me. Often, when I photograph a backyard that’s dripping with overgrown weeds, with an old rusted swing set, to me I immediately see that and I see it as a graveyard of my childhood. A family that lived in that house and is now gone, the children have all gone off to school. I just recently went to my childhood home, last week in fact, and noticed that the kudzu was completely overgrown. Every time I go back it was just growing more and more because the house is deserted right now. So all of the things that I am using to represent life and death and memory and past. It all happens to just lend itself. I don’t think too much about being a Southern photographer. When I do went to my artist-in-residence at Light Work, I had a few days to take my camera out where I wasn’t working on my computer. Maybe four. And the photographs that I did get, people told me, “Wow. Somehow you made Syracuse look like the South.” To me, it just means that going around with my camera to places that I wanted to photograph are the places that reminded me of home. You know?

JB: And what was it like to be included in your first major museum exhibition at home in Virginia?

SW: I’m having a very Cinderella moment. Earlier, when you talked about the Danville Museum show, when I was at Light Work, Elijah Gowin happened to be coming through just for like two hours. I had told someone that I wanted to get a wedding ring portrait of some of the first Virginia photographers whose work that I saw, and maybe Elijah Gowin also. It was a big coincidence, but I got to know him a bit.

Not too long after, I got an email from a curator at the Danville Museum in Virginia. He said “Elijah came home at Christmas time, and showed me your work.” Apparently, he really liked it. He asked me if I wanted to be in a show with Emmet Gowin and Elijah, and Jeff Whetstone, all of these photographers whose work that I knew. And it was funny because they were all academics. They all taught at Universities. So when I went to the opening, I was the waitress. So that’s the stuff that is neat in my life. I can be hanging in a museum show, with all of these important photographers, and I’m a waitress.

Susan Worsham is a Richmond, Virginia based artist. She recently exhibited her photographs in the Lishui Photo Festival in China. To see more of her work, visit www.susanworshamphotography.com.

This Week In Photography Books

- - Photo Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes, art can change our lives, or at least how we relate to the world around us. Writing in The New Yorker last week, Peter Schjeldahl mentioned that when he emerged from a recent visit to the new Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he felt like a slightly different person. Other times, though, it’s just nice to look at photographs that depict a different way of life in a foreign culture, far far away. It’s simple human curiosity, really: travel, for the recession age. So this week’s books are unlikely to give you an Earth-shaking epiphany that makes you to quit your job, or give up your life to Jesus. But they ought to satisfy an inherent desire to look outward towards chaos of humanity, and come back with a shade more context about your own little world.

“Zapallal/Yurinaki” is a new hardcover monograph by Andrés Marroquín Winkelmann, published by MA+GO Concept, and distributed by Misha de Kominek Gallery in Berlin. It’s kind of a funky production, as the blue, cloth-bound spine melds into a cardboard cover with a photograph glued to the top. It has the feel of a high-end arts and crafts project, but not in a bad way. (The text is presented in English, Spanish and German, so we know the audience is meant to be Global.) Inside, the first few pages are cut to different sizes, so it opens up bit by bit, You can see right away that the book depicts village life in Peru, with it’s attendant ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep and cats. Mr. Winkelmann apparently photographed in two different communities in Peru, but it’s not particularly evident in the images. Instead, you get a spate of well-seen, flash-driven contemporary documentary photographs of a place that doesn’t look like where you live. Dirty walls, dirt roads, junk in the backyard, meditative still lives of produce, that sort of thing. A particular favorite was a photograph of a young girl, the pink scrunchy on top of her head just peeking out above a kitchen table, while a generic, framed photo of a Caucasian grandfather kissing his grandson haunts the upper left hand corner of the composition. (It’s got to be the picture that came with the frame, right?)
Bottom Line: Peru
To purchase Zapallal/Yurinaki visit Photo-Eye

 

“The Brothers,” recently released by Dewi Lewis Publishing, is a black, hardcover book by photographer Elin Hølyand. Two, shirtless, bug-eyed old dudes stare out from the cover, one with a rifle slung over his shoulder. The brothers, I presume. Harald and Mathais, both now deceased, lived together as bachelors on the family farm in rural Norway for their entire lives. It was an old-school, hardscrabble existence, by all appearances. The project was shot in grainy black and white, yet never feels like it was done a long time ago. The photos read modern, for some reason, which could just be that there are enough temporal signifiers to get the point across. There are several double paged spreads where we see both gentlemen, ever so slightly different, like multiple versions of the same guy residing in parallel universes. All bushy eyebrows and plaintive stares…it’s almost enough to make me sad these men are gone, despite the obvious fact that I never met them. Ms. Høyland’s sensibility is odd and strange, but never veers towards creepy or cliché. It’s a terrific collection of photographs, and well printed too.
Bottom Line: Norway
To purchase The Brothers visit Photo-Eye

 

Finally, we come to “The Submerged,” by Michelle Sank. It’s a smooth, hard cover book recently offered by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam. (Insert random stoner reference here…) Ms. Sank, peripatetic through a slew of artist residencies, apparently spent a few months in Wales, and this book is the result. Wales? It reminds me of that Wayne’s World joke where they mocked Delaware. Wales is not the first place I would salivate to go, but that’s part of the fun of looking at these books. What does it look like? What kind of people actually live there? I could tell you, but then you’d have no reason to browse the photos below. The whole selection of images is just the slightest bit weird, but in a subtle way. Like the Beauty Queen in mud covered boots, the Hasidic Jews frolicking on the beach, or the pudgy, dough-faced metalhead in the Ozzy Osborne T-shirt. Not to give away the best part, like a Hollywood preview, but the image of a forlorn, abandoned hilltop barn with “Twat” spray-painted on the side is a keeper. The more I look at it, the more I see a funnier, less genius, contemporary take on August Sander.
Bottom Line: Wales
To purchase The Submerged visit Photo-Eye

 

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

This Week In Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

A few weeks ago, I outed myself for having created a male-centric photo-book review column. Rather than embracing the gender bias, I sought to rectify the problem, good feminist that I am. (My wife went to Vassar and Smith, so my credentials are solid.) So of course, this week, just to keep you guessing, I’m  offering up a week of guy books. Most men, as we all know, like cars, sports, and blowing stuff up. With that in mind…

“The New Cars 1964″ is a blue, hard cover book by Lee Friedlander, recently released by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. (Not content to merely put on exhibitions, those guys are a serious publishing house as well.) In our aerodynamic present, where a Hyundai can look like a Mercedes, and Nissan commercials mock the Chevy Volt for having a gas tank, it’s hard to imagine anyone bragging on a new gas-guzzler with a bitchin’ set of shark fins. Big, heavy, lumbering behemoths from Detroit are a part of our nation’s history, not the present. Which is what makes this book so much fun. It’s just straight up vintage. Apparently, Mr. Friedlander was commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar to photograph the secret new 1964 models, and he did it in a style to which we’ve since become accustomed. The photographs, not exactly glamorous advertisements, were rejected, and sat in a box until very recently. The images are busy, witty, and headache-inducing, as we might expect. It’s a cool opportunity to see a bit of Americana, timestamped in (mostly) Motown circa 1963.
Bottom Line: Never-before-seen vintage work

To purchase The New Cars 1964 visit Photo-Eye

 

“Weird Sports” is a smooth, hard cover monograph by Sol Neelman, recently published by Keher Verlag in Germany. Does the title give away the content? You bet it does. This is not a book that will make you feel like you are boning up on brain cells in a quest to cure cancer. It will, however, make you chuckle, and develop an appreciation for the absurd and countless ways people choose to amuse themselves. If you were to sit down, get stoned, and write a list of the silliest things that anyone could invent and call a sport, you probably wouldn’t be as creative as the lunatics that Mr. Neelman found in his global quest. Doubt me? Here are some examples: Extreme Pencil Fighting, Lingerie Football, Mutton Busting, Live Monster Wrestling, Head Pulling, and Cardboard Tube Fighting. Obviously, there are some less ridiculous offerings in this book, but it’s a terrific collection of images, and must have required a hefty travel budget. Between Mr. Neelman’s wit, well-constructed compositions, and facility with color, I find it hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t enjoy “Weird Sports.” (Though I’m sure you’ll let me know if I’m wrong.)
Bottom Line: Hilariously human

To purchase Weird Sports visit Photo-Eye

 

Though I joked about mens’ love of blowing shit up, and my tone thus far has been breezy, there’s nothing funny about “Antipersonnel,” a new hard cover monograph by Raphaël Dallaporta. This edition was published by the Musée de L’Élysée in Lausanne and Éditions Xavier Barral, though I believe there was an edition of this project previously released. The book contains a suite of stark images of land mines, shot straight up, in studio, against a black background. Killing machines, decontextualized. Each image is paired with a text page that gives the code, country of origin, size and a description for each bomb. It’s a dry, categorical approach to looking closely at a messy, destructive, borderline evil subject matter. The viewer supplies the emotion through our imagination, as we mentally project the screams and shrieks that each model has no doubt produced. The project was supported by Amnesty International, and it’s easy to understand why.
Bottom Line: Important

To purchase Antipersonnel visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

Beside The Day-Glo Waters Of The Truckee River

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

In graduate school, I learned a valuable lesson. We never make our best work in our comfort zone. It doesn’t happen. So one of the most beneficial things we can do as artists, I believe, is to step out of what we know from time to time. Challenge ourselves to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Learn and grow whenever possible. Nobody likes to feel like an idiot, but sometimes we have to delve into the unknown to discover a new process, or perspective, or piece of core knowledge.

So with that in mind, I set off from Taos to Reno, Nevada a few weeks ago. (Yes, it was a long trip: 13 hours. Yes, there was a travel delay: 6 hours in Denver. Maybe one day I’ll live near an airport so I can stop complaining.) Why Reno, you ask? Fair question. I got a tip from a trusted advisor about the Art + Environment triennial conference that was being held at the Nevada Museum of Art. Somewhat surprisingly, the institution has come on strong in the last decade, building a concrete and glass modernist temple just down the street from all the neon nonsense. (A bit too far down a dark street for my liking, but thankfully I didn’t get jacked.) The NMA has developed a focus on Environmental Art, including a terrific collection of contemporary photography that is currently on display. (The Altered Landscape exhibition, btw, and all you Bay Area readers ought to consider a road trip.) I’m almost a year in to a new, double-secret project with a strong Environmental focus, so I decided to go to the conference to learn more about what was going on in the Eco-Art scene in 2011.

 

View west driving north

I knew nobody, and hadn’t heard of most of the speakers, but their bios were insanely impressive. Whitney Biennials, Tate Modern Solo shows, LACMA, MOMAPS1, the National Gallery of Art, MaCarthur Genius grants, that sort of thing. Basically, it was an insider art world shindig, featuring a bunch of really smart people who were far more accomplished than I. Given that I’ve had some success in the last couple of years, and teach photography at UNM-Taos, it seemed like a good time to go back to being a student. Learn from people who knew more than I do. And to get to schmooze with artists who are so successful seemed like a no-brainer.

But stepping out of your comfort zone is a funny thing. It’s kind of like wearing those awkward platform shoes to try to increase your vertical leap. You look like a doofus, you can’t feel it working, your calves burn like hell, but you tell yourself it will be worth it some day. So of course, that’s what happened. I felt like I’d fallen through a wormhole back to college at fratty Duke, ever the outsider, walking in circles trying to catch someone’s eye. Let’s be honest. The art world is famous for it’s ethos of exclusivity, and this was a perfect example. I’d grown accustomed to being able to chat people up easily, work a room, have a few laughs, sort it out. But in Reno of all places, I was a no-name nobody. I sat by myself each day, hour upon hour, listening to the lectures and checking my email. Thankfully, someone had suggested that photographer Blake Gordon, an APE reader, reach out to me the day of the conference, so we met up and had a beer each night. Good dude. Other than that, I was just some random guy, and it was a seriously unpleasant feeling, after having worked so hard to build an audience for my work. I’d watch people check out my name tag, decide I wasn’t worth talking to, and then move on, all without moving their heads or breaking stride. Ouch.

View from the hotel room

Before you tell me to quit whining, let me state right here, unequivocally, that this was one of the most helpful and beneficial feelings I’ve had in a long time. I even chatted with my wife about it in real time, savoring the potential of all that insecurity slithering through my bloodstream. Feeling a range of emotions allows us to increase our capacity for empathy, as artists, as human beings, and I knew that as crappy as I felt in the moment, that it would lead to new veins of creative energy. So that’s why I’m sharing this story. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me because I was a loser for a few days. Just the opposite, I want to encourage the process in others. We all work so hard to construct our worlds, our networks, our daily schedules, so that we feel like we know what we’re doing. So that we fool ourselves into thinking that we have just the tiniest bit of control in an anarchic world. And sometimes, it’s really important to leave it all behind and remind ourselves how little we really comprehend.

Aside from feeling like a misfit, I did learn a tremendous amount from a ridiculously intelligent group of people. The short version is that I realized that in order to push myself further, I need to raise the ambition level of my projects. Audacious, absurd ideas lead to innovation, and I came home with some crazy new concepts in my back pocket. Collaboration is also huge right now, not surprisingly, as almost everyone who spoke was working in a team-based approach: artists linking up with scientists, environmentalists, and community organizers. Public gardens, soil testing centers, sewage treatment plants, even the Bay Bridge were all discussed as venues for and subjects of contemporary art.

Oh yeah, and I should probably mention that the general consensus was that Global Warming will kill us all. The drastic and irreversible effects of Climate Change were accepted as a given, and most of the projects were therefore discussed within a context of “How Can Art Save the World?” And of course, ever the cynical Gen-X’er, this is what gave me the hardest time. There we sat, a whole basket full of educated white people, well-ensconced in our modernist glass bubble, discussing how to save the world, 1% at a time. We’ve heard quite a bit about the 1% in the last few weeks, but I couldn’t help thinking that given the scope of the problem, why was nobody talking about engaging with the wider world outside the fishbowl? It was just so surreal to be in this air conditioned, insular micro-community in the middle of downtown Reno. New York or Paris might have made it a bit easier to swallow, but Reno? The conference had blocked a suite of rooms at a huge casino on the strip, so my weekend was divided between that museum world, and the overweight, depressing, recycled air universe inhabited by the all-you-can-eat-buffet loving, red-bull-and-vodka drinking citizens of the USA.

View from the altered landscape exhibition

Can you imagine? The seedy, down-scale, brothel-ads-on-the-top-of-taxi-cab type experience outside, elitist, global art-star scene on the inside. And never the two shall meet. Really, haven’t we all had enough of a world where the best art is never meant to be seen by 99% of the world’s population? That was what I felt was lacking through the weekend of high-minded discourse. Thus far, I think it’s fair to say that if artists have had a strategy of engaging the masses, (which I doubt,) then we’d have to declare the project an abject failure. Isn’t it time, I thought, for artists and thinkers to try to embrace new tactics, at the very least, to enlarge the tent? Especially in a room full of people who were dedicated to saving the world?

Chris Jordan, an artist that I greatly admire, was on hand as a part of the photography contingent. (Along with Subhankar Banarjee and the amazing Edward Burtynsky, whom I got to meet as well.) Mr. Jordan spoke repeatedly of his feelings of grief and panic in a world of bloated, incomprehensible over-consumption. He showed photographs, which have since been released, of Elephants with their faces hacked off for ivory, corpses rotting in the middle of a Kenyan game preserve. He also projected photos of the stomachs of dead baby birds on Midway Island, piles of un-digestable, non-biodegradable plastic. He spoke of not knowing how to communicate the depths of his despair in the proper fashion. I’ll be the first to say that as a human being, I was moved by his experience. The world needs courageous men and women to witness atrocity, to witness mindless destruction, to record moments for history, to bring the story back to the rest of us. It’s vital. I get it. But as art, I wonder if images that are so literal, that communicate only misery, can really engage people and motivate action? I’m sure that most of you might disagree with me, and to be clear, I’m not criticizing Mr. Jordan, who I’m sure is a saint of a guy. I’m just wondering why I didn’t hear more about how we, as artists, can use a variety of skill sets and methods to expand the reach of our work, to recruit new viewers, to communicate a message in a manner that will speak to more people, without dumbing down the art in the process. Because if the alternative is that, you know, billions of people die in the resource wars to come, then I think it might be time for us to get off our asses and try something new.

There were a few artists, namely Fritz Haeg, Leo Villareal, and Amy Franceschini who presented projects that don’t reside in galleries or museums. Mr. Haeg is famous for planting public and private gardens as art installations. He also produced an outdoor, nature-based exhibition for the 2008 Whitney Biennial that sat out on Madison Avenue. Ms. Franceschini has done some similar work with garden installations, if you can believe it, and also built a sculpture in Italy that she literally took from town to town, actively engaging the inhabitants of small villages in Abruzzo. Mr. Villareal, a New Mexico native based in NYC, has installed LED light sculptures on the outside of BAM in Brooklyn, MOMAPSI in Queens, at Burning Man, and has a project under consideration for the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. So while there may not have been an particular dialogue on the subject of breaking out of the white cube, several of the presenters, each of whom has succeeded at the highest levels of the art world, planted seeds in my mind about how to push things further.

View from the rooftop party

Finally, it wouldn’t be a travel story to a strange, surreal gambling mini-Mecca if I didn’t share at least one anecdote about the ironic absurdity. One of the reasons I love places like this, if you can avoid getting mugged, is that you get to experience the world as if you’re on mushrooms without having to deal with the horrible taste. So on my last evening, with nothing more than a few beers in my system, I was walking back to the hotel to call it a night. The sky glowed neon pink, the waters of the Truckee river shimmered with day-glo reflections. Then, right in front of me, rolling through an intersection, I saw a tinted-down, chromed-out black Denali, windows down, big dudes hanging out the windows, hip-hop blasting. I clicked the mental shutter. Then, immediately thereafter, I looked up and saw a denim-shirt and jeans wearing, worn-brown-leather boot stomping, big-old cowboy hat having, bushy-mustache sporting, craggly-faced cowboy walk right past me. Click. Then, and I swear I’m not making this up, the very next people to walk by were two 5 foot Asian guys holding a 4 foot pink plastic bong. Click. One, two, three, all in the span of 15 seconds. Thankfully, what happens in Reno stays in Reno, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

View from the strip

I left town on a Sunday morning, with the remnants of a truly awful $15 buffet in my mouth. While I know I’ve said some unpleasant and critical things in this article, I’ll stress here that the A+E Conference was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’ve probably made more photographs and had more crazy ideas in the last couple of weeks than in the 6 months prior to the event. My mind has yet to slow down, and, thankfully, my ego has already recovered.

This Week In Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

It occurred to me the other day, after wrapping up a beginning photo class, that it’s a lot easier to teach style than substance. My students, all young, had turned in an assignment of self-portraits, and the level of stylistic sophistication was pretty advanced. Very fashionable. As to the substance, let’s just say that one would glean little about their personalities, beyond the fact that they were pretty successful in masking any inner turmoil. Now, while this might seem to have little, if anything, to do with a weekly photo book review column, I used it as my inspiration for today’s selection. Each book below carves out some serious new ground, stylistically, while looking at subjects that have been photographed to death. They use blatantly different techniques, and yet all manage to end up at hyper-real aesthetic that is so emblematic of the 21st Century.

Edgar Martins’ “This is Not a House,” is a smooth, mid-sized hardcover recently released by Dewi Lewis Publishing in England. I suspect many of you might be familiar with some of this photographs, as Mr. Martins was embroiled in quite the stink a couple of years ago. I vaguely recall the scenario, in which the NY Times had to pull his work from their website when it was determined that the images had been “manipulated,” as if we’re living in a world where anything is not. But I never got a chance to see the pictures. They’re terrific. Irrespective of the controversy (and the book’s text makes many, many references to it), I think this is probably the best visual encapsulation of the housing bubble meltdown I’ve yet encountered. We see an image of the inside of a new, traditional-style living room, well-lit, set against the window view of a golf-course and snow capped mountains. Perfect. Wood, concrete, glass and steel, all new, but vacant and post-apocalyptic, coalesce into a vision of a society where “More was More,” and now we’re left to grapple with the idea that “Less is More.” It’s definitely reminiscent of Lewis Baltz’s “Park City,” but with his strong use of strobes, and the apparent digital correction in favor of symmetry, Mr Martins’ images feel constructed, sculptural and false. They’re hollow and fictitious, all the while “documenting” a phenomenon that shared the same characteristics.
Bottom Line: Worth the drama

To purchase “This is Not a House” visit Photo-Eye

 

Suzanne Opton’s “Soldier/Many Wars” is a new, hard-cover offering from Decode Books in Seattle. It’s one of those two-books-in-one type deals that I’ve seen a bit recently. (Turn it around, start again.) And like Mr. Martins’ project, apparently the work created some controversy that I missed a couple of years back. Her portraits of soldiers, taken up close, while the subjects’ heads were resting on a table, were blown up into cryptic billboards and installed in cities around the country. I wish I’d seen one, as I’m interested in artists who are taking their work directly to the people. But of course, none of that really has anything to do with whether the book is any good or not. It is. With the “Soldier” project, Ms. Opton manages to pull the viewer as close to a contemporary warrior’s face as we’re likely to get. By photographing the sitters sideways, she automatically changes our perspective from every other portrait we’ve seen. Yes, some of them look like they could be dead, but that only enhances our interest. The photos are contemplative, powerful, and nuanced, and the slightly-off color palette and super hi-res look definitely push them towards hyper-real. Fascinating. The “Many Wars” project, in which she photographs soldiers receiving treatment for PTSD, wrapped in cloaks, was less interesting to me. But one dude is a dead ringer for Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that was worth a giggle right there.
Bottom Line: Cutting-edge

To purchase “Soldier/Many Wars” visit Photo-Eye

 

Finally, we come to Alejandro Chaskielberg’s “La Creciente.” It’s a smooth-surface hard-cover published by Nazraeli Press, with funding support by the Burn Magazine Emerging Photographer Grant. Many a documentary photographer had gone into the bush, or the forest, or the jungle to highlight the story of a group of indigenous workers, cutting into the Earth in some way or another. Been there, done that, true. These photographs, however, don’t look like any of the other images you’ve seen with that particular obsession. (And I believe they are staged as well.) Mr Chaskielberg, an Argentine, photographs only in the light of the Full Moon, (which doesn’t seem to be connected to any concept,) but that light, mixed with a healthy use of strobe lighting, creates a striking effect. With the shallow depth of field, they look a bit like tilt-shift images, but not entirely. Truthfully, I don’t love all the photos, but at least a handful are so good that the book is worth a look. “The Foreigner,” in which a beautiful woman, head turned to the side, emerges from the green grass with the sun behind her, looks so much like a 21st C Madonna image that I had to look twice. Two pages later, in “Escape,” a woman is perched awkwardly on the riverbank, a blue canoe below her in the water. It just doesn’t look real. I accept that on some level, there was a woman, and she did exist on the river bank, but my brain still reads the image as a surreal construction in a studio somewhere, or more likely a vision conjured up and rendered by a computer. Very fitting for our times.
Bottom Line: A fresh look at a familiar subject

To purchase “La Creciente” visit Photo-Eye


 

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

This Week In Photography Books

- - Photo Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Three raccoons turned up dead here on the farm in the last few months. Most likely the dogs got them, though I suppose it could have been the coyotes. Coons are surprisingly big, and unfortunately the first was in the early stage of decomposition near where some friends set up a campsite earlier this summer. It made for a pungent evening, and for that I’ve already apologized. Co-incidentally, I got to take a look at a new book, recently released, called “More Cooning with Cooners,” published by the Archive of Modern Conflict in London, edition 500. They gray hardback, (with a black stripe across it like a raccoon’s face) is a collection of images from the mid-60’s, taken by an anonymous American hunter/photographer. It’s a little race of a narrative through a subculture of corn-cob-pipe-smoking, tough looking dudes who hunt raccoons with dogs, and collect the pelts for pleasure, (and presumably the marketplace.) If I had to guess, I’d say this book was published as the equivalent of an ironic mustache, but I don’t care. It’s funny, fascinating, and manages to capture the spirit of a little world that would be otherwise opaque, and lost to time. Of course, if the dogs keep bringing down the coons out here, I might be tempted to start grabbing some pelts myself.
Bottom line: Ironically awesome

Visit Photo-Eye to purchase “More Cooning with Cooners”.

 

 

Last year, I reviewed a show of Michael Wolf photographs at Bruce Silverstein in New York. The exhibition was broad, and included many a large-scale mega-print, but I was most interested in some small images of Tokyo metro-riders, their faces squished up against the window-glass like an inverted version of pressed ham. The photos are both voyeuristic and intimate, which is no small feat. As a man who left New York partly because my soul was slowly erased by too many hours spent underground, (watching the rats copulate), I relate to something primal in these photographs. But they’re also fantastic as a method of resuscitating portraiture, because you really haven’t seen a group of pictures just like this before. Needless to say, the photos have re-surfaced, in the proper small scale, as a book called “Tokyo Compression Revisited,” published by Asia One and Peperoni Books. The plates are meditative and absurd at the same time, which is a terrific mix. And the back cover features a dude giving the finger to the photographer, which must have happened more than once, right? Think about it. You’re squeezed from all sides by strangers, some salary-man has his armpit smushed up inside your nostrils, and then you look out the window at some gaijin photographer documenting your misery? You’d give him the finger too.
Bottom line: Spot on

Visit Photo-Eye to purchase “Tokyo Compression Revisited”.

 

 

Capitalism is built upon the premise of forward progress and growth. And yet, one of the great clichés we have is “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” That’s quite the conundrum. Fortunately, the artist Simon Norfolk had the brilliant idea of visiting one of planet Earth’s most recalcitrant places, and at the same time, revisiting a previous photographic vision of a mythic backwater: Afghanistan. “Burke + Norfolk” is a large, navy and gold colored hardcover that was recently released in conjunction with an exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, published by Dewi Lewis. First off, I’ve rarely seen an artist work with both color and black and white with equal facility. The contemporary color photos of Afghanistan are striking. But the gem, for me, is the repeated juxtaposition of John Burke’s historical group portraits and cultural landscapes with contemporary images presented in the same faded, weathered style. Rare is the artist that plays with our temporal expectations this well, and in so doing, passes along a strong message: We don’t have things figured out any more than we did a hundred years ago. Societies, and Empires in particular, keep making the same mistakes over and over again. I hope we’ll keep that in mind the next time some asshole like Dick Cheney suggests we invade Iran, or North Korea, or Venezuela, or Mars. Most likely, somewhere with oil.
Bottom line: Innovative

Visit Photo-Eye to purchase “Burke + Norfolk”.

 

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this new feature useful.


Jesse Burke Interview

- - Art, Photographers

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan: For good or for bad, I think it’s helpful to start at the beginning. I haven’t yet gotten into the Tarantino-style, Reservoir Dogs-type narrative. So how did you get started? How did your photography practice begin?

Jesse: I got started as a skateboard photographer in Tucson, Arizona. I grew up in Connecticut, and then I moved out to Tucson to get away from the East Coast in my early 20’s. I took a photo class at a community college because it sounded fun and I needed to fill credits. Then I piggy-backed that onto my skateboard lifestyle, which was something that I’d been doing for ten years or so at least. It was a natural progression to start documenting the lifestyle, the social things that were happening with my friends, and the action shots, us hanging out, all that stuff.

So how did you end up in Tucson, of all the places you could go?

With the skateboard community, it’s so tight, everyone sticks together. So one guy followed the first guy, I followed the next guy, then a couple of guys followed me, and a couple of guys followed them. Before we knew it, there were a lot of Connecticut transplants in Tucson. I took a class, and quickly found it was something that I was interested in. I’d always been into art, but nothing so formal as a college course. That was it. I was hooked immediately, transferred to U of A, where I found a photo community and a whole different world. I got really serious about it. I was a bit older already, when I started to attend University of Arizona. I was probably 26 or 27, so I was older than the average undergrad BFA student.

Did they call you Grandpa Jesse?

No. My youthful demeanor kept that a secret, I guess.

Really? Did everybody make you buy them beer? That’s the obvious question.

No. No.

No laws were broken.

I got a late start on a lot of things. I had the 15 year plan for college. It took a long time for me to get my act together. Once I found photography, I had a really good support system with my teachers at the U of A.

Do you want to give any shout outs right here?

Sure. Joe Labate and Ken Shorr.

These were your professors?

Yeah, they were really encouraging. And they could tell I was really serious about it. I had found something in my life, finally. Everybody’s looking for something that’s going to make them happy, something to pursue, whether it’s biology or medicine or law. Mine just so happened to be photography, and I found it in this sort of flukey way. They could tell that I was very serious, and I decided in my senior year that I was ready to go to graduate school. I had just started getting serious a couple of years earlier, and since I was a transfer student, I knew that it wasn’t the time to take a break and think about grad school, but to really seize it. And I just went for it, and they were totally supportive and helped me out. That led me back East to RISD.

And that’s where you got an MFA?

Yeah.

I bet you spend a lot of time on blogs and the Flak Photo Network, and I know I do. I feel like, on a regular basis, you see photographers asking questions like, “Should I get an MFA? What’s the point? What am I going to get out of it? Is it worth the money?” Things like that. I went to Pratt and you went to RISD. We both did get the degree. We both started late. I mean, listening to your background, it’s pretty similar to mine. Especially the East Coast moving West. You went from Connecticut to Arizona, I went Jersey to New Mexico. Not that different. So if someone asked you point blank, “Should I get an MFA? Is it worth the money? What will I get out of it?” what would your answer be?

People go to graduate school for various reasons, but two of them stand out to me. One is because they want to be an artist. And the other is because they want to be a teacher. In my case, I always wanted to be a visual artist. Teaching wasn’t even something that I’d considered, or was aware of, really, when I was applying to grad schools. For me, it was all about visual communication, and pushing that further. If you have an inclination to take a chunk of your life and a chunk of your money…I think of graduate school as a business decision. It was the first major business decision that I made. It’s so incredibly expensive in terms of finances and emotion and time commitment. If you’re ready to make that decision, then graduate school can be incredibly beneficial. It gives you a time to focus on just your artwork, where you don’t have to worry, (hopefully) about the other things in life, like having a job to pay the bills. It just depends on how you set up your system when you get to graduate school.

I knew that I needed time to work on a project. Similar to what you probably experienced, relocating from the East Coast to the West Coast is quite the culture shock. So I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into, relocating back home, to undertake a new life, with a goal of becoming a photographer. Everything I knew about photography was based in the desert of Tucson, so when I came home it was a little bit risky. Getting back to your question, “What do you get out of it?”, I think one can spend a serious chunk of time dedicated to a project, where there are no distractions. Part of what you’ll get is working in a very tight, serious community of professors and peers. You learn from other photographers, who hopefully have the same level of seriousness that you have. That’s one of the very few places where you can ever do something like that. It doesn’t happen so much in undergrad, because people are distracted, there’s a lot more going on. I think graduate school is serious business.

Do you need a graduate degree to become a good photographer? No. To be successful, or famous? Not necessarily. I certainly think it can help in many ways. It makes you a better photographer, a smarter individual, more worldly, more experienced. So all of those things will help you in your life, and your photo career.

So is it safe to say, you don’t think you’d be the artist you are or have the career you’re having if you hadn’t taken the time to get the degree?

In my case, absolutely not. Going to graduate school was one of the best decisions I ever made.

I would say the same thing. And am I right that you teach at RISD?

I do.

I want to get back to that in a second. When I go back and look, so many of the people that went to school with me are now not practicing artists, that I’m aware of. It seems like it’s an interesting conundrum. It costs so much money to get these degrees, and they can be a pathway. But some times, I wonder what happens to people who invest all that time and energy, and then go on to do something else. What’s your take on that?

Most of my friends, at this point, are either high school friends, skateboarder buddies from the past, or people I met in grad school. The majority of them didn’t continue down this path. There are so many elements involved. Some people can’t hang with how tough it is. It’s incredibly hard to keep that self-promotion wheel spinning non-stop. Not to mention coming up with interesting and meaningful work. Getting into grad school is one part of it. Getting out of grad school is the second part. Maintaining that would be a third part. Not everybody’s cut out for it. A lot of people still work in the photo industry or arts industry in some fashion. I’m not sure exactly what happens, but life takes over. Once you get out of the proverbial nest of graduate school, it’s a lot tougher to make your way through it when you’re in reality. Let’s be honest. When you’re in this cushy situation in graduate school, where you don’t have to think about real life, I didn’t have kids at the time. I had a wife, and she’s very supportive, but we didn’t have a mortgage, I didn’t have two car payments. This industry does not allow an easy segue from grad school into success, whatever success means. Shooting jobs? Having shows? Coming up with ideas? Something as simple as having a critique of your work just immediately disappears. Having that structured support system disappears too.

I want to come back to this idea of real life, and reality, because it’s an interesting through line in your artwork. But while we’re on the subject of RISD, what classes do you teach?

I only teach one class at RISD. My schedule is kind of hectic, so I’ve never really been a serious multi-course adjunct professor. I teach “Introduction to Photography for Non-Majors,” which is a really amazing course, because I’m teaching photography to people who are not going to be photographers. Architects, painters, lots of students from Brown University.

So you’ve got to be focusing on visual communication as much as anything?

Exactly. Why photography matters. What can you say with a photograph. Why is photography important?

Dude, you just opened it up. There it is. There’s my next question. Why is photography important?

We have this final project, it’s called “What’s important to you?” What I try to get across to them, when they leave my class, (beyond black and white analog skills for developing and printing film and a little bit of digital input) is understanding that the world is a dynamic and amazing place. Everybody’s story is important and that people care about each other’s stories. So what I try to stress is that what’s important to you is also important to me. I try to focus on having them figure out a way to share their personal interest, and things that are important to them, in a dynamic way to the world. Hopefully they’ll leave the class being a better architect, or a better language studies student because they can see how visual culture and photography help make the world go around. It helps them get their message across, whatever their message is, in a smarter, better, more visual way.

Cool. As far as I understand it, you shoot commercially, editorially, you shoot as a fine artist, and you teach. That, to me, sounds like the 21st Century Hustle. That’s it. It’s a little bit of everything, shake it up, and hopefully a few things are going to pop at any given time. How do you get it all done? How do you keep the balance?

I have to say, that has always been my end goal. I think that’s not true for a lot of people in the art world. They don’t want to shoot commercially. Obviously, a lot of commercial photographers aren’t interested in the gallery world. I’ve always felt that there’s been such an overlap, in terms of my photographic world, my married family life, what I like to do in my free time, what I’m interested in. All of those things overlap. My interest in academics. RISD in particular. All those things, for me, were always related. So I approached my career, even early on, from the standpoint that this is what I wanted to make happen. I wanted to have a gallery. I wanted to have a commercial agent and shoot cool jobs that related to my artwork. And then I wanted to teach a little bit to stay tapped into that academic world. I agree with you 100% that it seems to be the 21st Century Hustle, as you put it. I like that. Ultimately, it’s a really difficult balancing act. Inevitably, one takes precedence over the others.

Is that how it works for you? Does your commercial work make up the bulk of your income? Is it broken down into thirds? You mentioned two kids, two car payments. Let’s be honest. You’re living on the East Coast. That adds up. So how does it work?

Sure. Well, I will say I have a very awesome, supportive wife who has a regular 9-5 job. Without her, I don’t know if this would be possible, this freelance existence. In terms of breakdown for finances, I would say that commercial jobs make up most of my income. I sell some work through my galleries, and then RISD pays my teaching salary for one course. Which isn’t much across the board across the country. Just to be clear, I teach because I love it, not because of finances. I would do it for free if I had to, because it’s just that enriching to me. And I schedule enough time out for teaching because it adds a lot for me, and I’m giving back to the community. I think the biggest struggle, inevitably, in doing something like this, is balancing the schedule. The schedule gets really tricky. You need to have availability for commercial assignments, which means you could fly out the next morning. And then you have to be accountable to teach your class, every Monday, when you’re supposed to be there at 1pm. It can get a little crazy, but I think where there’s a will there’s a way. So for me, it’s a combination of financial reasons, but also passion that makes me keep this crazy freelance thing going.

Did your experience as a fine artist help enable to you make the jump into the commercial world?

Yes. As you go through your career and your life, as a photographer, I keep going back to this, but it’s a business thing. I think a lot of people don’t approach it from the perspective of “This is serious business.” Even your art career. Sure, you’re out in the middle of the woods, photographing dogs running around, or whatever it is you’re doing, but when you get back to the studio, it’s a business. I think you have to be smart about certain things. And approach them from certain angles where you can benefit the best. I knew that I wanted to be serious about commercial photography, and I felt that my work had enough of an overlap into the commercial market, and modern pop culture, that I thought I could do pretty well in terms of editorial and advertising photography. So I was really aggressive finding an agent. When I finally reached the goal of getting acquired by a New York gallery and having a solo show, I used that as a launching pad to find a commercial agent. This is just something that I thought was common sense. You’re having your first exhibition. This is your first foray into the real art world in New York City. Why not try to use that to catapult yourself in this other part of your career? It worked out, luckily for me. When I called and emailed people, they actually responded. Would that have happened if I hadn’t started the conversation by saying that I was having an exhibition in Chelsea? Maybe not. I think that’s just the reality of it.

That’s in the summer of 2010. You had a solo show for your project “Intertidal” at ClampArt. Coincidentally, I happened to be in New York that night and had the chance to come check it out. The place was thumping. So you were very strategic in the way you tried to leverage the exhibition as an opportunity to market yourself in the commercial world. I think that’s pretty interesting.

Yeah, I knew that this was a moment that I needed to capitalize on. I just knew, for me, that it was the first time that I thought it made sense to approach so and so and to try to make the most of my commercial potential, because of the gallery. And I found that I got a much better response than I actually anticipated. Due in part, absolutely, to having this exhibition. All of a sudden I had options.

Did you, in the end, benefit more through commercial connections through the show, or through selling prints in the show. Let’s talk about that. People want shows. That’s a given. But I think in 2011, people are starting to ask questions about production costs, and framing, and can I make my investment back? So it sounds like this is a great thing to know.

Yeah, sure. Both, maybe a bit more on the commercial end. But it’s a complicated question.

I know that. Look, to me it seemed like a positive way to ask what might have been a negative question. I can ask you “Did you make your money back from your show,” and you’re going to answer honestly or not. But before we even get there, you’re talking about the fact that you had a show and that got you work. So you’re telling us that having the experience of the big solo show in Chelsea automatically had a huge impact on your career. So it becomes less about feeling the pressure to sell the work off the wall. Is that a fair assumption?

The real question is, was it a worthwhile investment? Absolutely. I wouldn’t say that it had an immediate massive impact; it’s a building process. The thing that shocked me most about my career, that continues to shock me, is that you set these milestones for yourself. I’ve got to get a gallery in Chelsea. I have to get a book deal. I have to get an agent. I think those are difficult, serious, but “it makes perfect sense” type of goals. So I think the idea that I’m going to have an exhibition in Chelsea and that’s it, or I’m going to be in the Whitney Biennial and that’s it? Forget it. That’s not how it works. And I think a lot of people, myself included early on, didn’t understand exactly how much of an investment in terms of time and money all this stuff really takes. The end goals are still there.

Also, I have to say that I was really particular in my pursuit of the gallery. That’s a whole separate story, but back in the day, before I was exhibiting with ClampArt, I knew it was the right gallery for me for a lot of reasons. I just had to convince Brian, and introduce myself to him. That’s obviously the difficult part. But in terms of the show and a financial investment, it’s a serious chunk of change to have 30 pieces framed and exhibited anywhere. I think of that stuff as a personal business loan to myself, because that exhibition has an infinite ripple effect into my career many years later. The exhibition at ClampArt open opened up many opportunities for me in the commercial world as well. I’m working with i2i, in part, as a result of my exhibition. Lizzie, my agent, even said that to me. It certainly helped. I think that’s just the nature of the beast. And I accept that, and have no issues with it whatsoever.

It just so happens, other things from that exhibition also came to fruition. Things that are much more important to me than art sales, such as the inclusion in the “Truth is Not in the Mirror” exhibition at the Haggerty Museum (and Fraction Magazine). That’s directly because of my ClampArt exhibition. That’s the kind of thing that I don’t think I can put a financial price tag on, being included in a show that traveled, and had that much clout and respect when it was happening at the time. And showing beside some of my photo heroes, that’s not something that I could put into monetary consideration.

So it sounds like you’re really taking the long view instead of the short view.

You know, I think that’s really the only view, as far as I’m concerned. Because if you have the short-term mentality, you’ll quickly find out that it most likely won’t pan out for you.

So maybe that’s a lesson we could share with, I don’t know, the entirely of Corporate America?

[laughing] Right.

So we just decided that the entire structure of the US Equity Market is wrong.

Right. Basically.

Basically. Can we do something about that? What do you think? Should we just fix it?

I don’t think so, man. Money talks.

You don’t think we could fix it? Just like that? Make a call?

Not two photo guys.

No. Probably not. Well, we’ll set that one aside for now. So listen. All this talk about business, it has a purpose, but we haven’t really talked about art. So why don’t we shift gears a little bit. In the beginning, you brought us back to skateboarder culture, and we can all imagine you cracking your head on some concrete in Tucson. Because Lord knows they have a lot of concrete in Arizona. But now, let’s talk about the project that you showed in New York. Let’s talk about “Intertidal.” How would you talk about what your work is?

“Intertidal,” for me, was something that came out of nowhere, actually. When I agreed to take up my MFA at RISD, I knew that I was moving home, so to speak, to New England. I grew up in Connecticut, RISD is in Rhode Island, which neighbors Connecticut, so in a sense, I was going back home to my family and friends. But I’d been gone for 10 years, and in that time gap, I became a visual artist. It was culture shock for me to get back to the East Coast, in a photographic way. I sort of stumbled into this project by accident. I had always been photographing my skateboarder buddies, and an exploration of who we were as skaters. But I left that behind in Tucson, and became a serious, full-time student. Neither grad school nor my body allowed me much time for skateboarding, so I just started photographing. And the only thing that I knew how to do was photograph what I consider part of who I was, my world. I just applied that formula that I had started in Tucson to my family within New England. I started to really scrutinize, through the guidance I had in grad school, what I was doing. And what exactly was I doing? And what exactly were these pictures of?

Drinking.

Drinking…drinking is part of it.

More specifically, drinking beer.

Coincidentally, I wasn’t. But drinking beer was really interesting to me, because I came from a family of heavy drinkers. Drinking was something that I knew a lot about, in a way, but didn’t as well, because I wasn’t really part of that. It’s part of why “Intertidal” came to be. Initially, I was exploring the differences between what I perceived as my identity as a man, and how I perceived my family, my father, my grandfathers, my friends, and the rest of the typical New England male archetypes. The fisherman. The logger. The blue-collar worker. These were things I didn’t really know much about, because I took off when I was in my early 20’s. And grew up into adulthood away from my family, away from this New England identity. So when I came home, I was initially exploring the differences between them and me. So inevitably, I became more familiar with my history, with their history. And then I started to explore the notions of masculinity. And that’s where “Intertidal” ended up at, it was an exploration of the typical ideas of masculinity versus the reality of being male. So this is where the drinking beer thing kind of gets funny, because beer and a lot of things, such as the forest, hunting, shooting guns, strength, these are all just vehicles for me to talk about what I’m interested in. Not necessarily participate in. You know what I mean?

It makes a lot of sense. It’s actually where I wanted to get to. We talk a lot about reality, which we were mentioning before. When we look at this work, and I like it a lot, you’re in the work. You’re in the work drinking. You’re friends are in the work, drinking. You’ve also got images of your daughter in a separate project. You’re willing to put yourself and your family in front of the camera. So that makes me ask questions like, “Is this even trying to be real?” I some times feel, when I’m looking at these portraits of you, that I’m seeing a character. And that they’re not even meant to be the “real Jesse Burke.” It’s a fictionalized narrative. Is that a read that you’re comfortable with?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s part of the truth behind the photographs. I think it’s important to realize that all of this work is a production. This isn’t candid photography. Not the landscapes, per se, but a lot of the portraits. It’s all staged. It’s all very conceptual in my head. This isn’t me following my dad around, documenting what he does. This is me having an idea about how I perceive my father, and then having him fill that role, whether or not it’s true.

That’s what I thought. One of the things that I’m wondering: we talk about masculinity, and I read a quote of yours that I have right here, where you see a world where “blood and sweat mix with sunsets and snowdrifts.” We’re past the metrosexual phase. People don’t even use that word anymore. So I’m curious. A lot of the portraits you take are of shirtless men. So my question is, when you show a fine art portrait of a semi-naked man to a logger or a fisherman, to some of your friends who don’t come from the art world, what reaction do you get?

It’s an interesting question. I don’t think I get any reaction. Ultimately, my family members don’t give me an involved, dedicated response to the work. Going back to the beginnings of this project, which is “Who am I? Why am I this artsy guy in a family of not-so-artsy guys?” I didn’t expect a big response from them, or the public, or “normal” guys. I just started making these pictures that I thought were fun, and talked about these ideas that I was interested in. Inevitably, what happens is they don’t really question it. They just sort of go, “OK. It makes sense.” I think the fact that the art and photo worlds have been gracious in giving me some attention, and some exhibitions, and a book, I think that gives it validity to people that don’t necessarily follow conceptual photography, or fine art photography. I mean, let’s be honest, who are we making this work for, besides ourselves. Who’s the market? Who’s going to buy it? Who’s going to display it? Who wants to buy my book? It’s certainly not the average Joe Schmo who works in Boston. I understood that I was getting into an elitist culture, and that wasn’t an issue for me, but I knew the art world is like that. And I could have some backlash from these people. Luckily I haven’t. But I have a really hard time answering the question of “How do they respond to the work?” because quite honestly, I don’t know. We’ve talked about it, but I don’t have a thorough understanding of how my uncles read my work.

Actually, I would disagree. I think it’s a good, honest answer. Look. We could spin off and talk all day about the marginalization and elitism of art within mainstream culture. We could. But I don’t know we would ultimately tell anyone anything they don’t already know. So let’s move along. One of the things that’s crucial to me as an artist is seeking great input. When I write these articles about going to look at art, I would be going to look at art anyway. I believe the better the input, the better the things that we see, the better our work becomes. What do you look at? Where do you get your inspirational input? How does that process work for you?

I get a lot of my input from living everyday life. I watch TV. Believe it or not, MTV. Lots of sports. So I get a lot of inspiration from media, magazines, TV, cable shows. Things like that. I’ve become sensitive to what I see as the rift in masculine perception. So I’m always sort of looking for it, wherever it might lie, whether it’s in a football game, or Jersey Shore, or hanging out with the other dads at the park with my kids.

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen. Your guilty pleasures can be fodder for your creative practice. Jesse Burke has just given you permission to watch as much MTV as you want.

Jesse Burke is a Rhode Island based artist. You can see a site-specific installation of Jesse’s photographs at ClampArt’s booth at Pulse Miami (December 1 – 4, 2011). He is represented commercially by i2i Photography in NYC.


This Week In Photography Books

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I live an hour plus North of Santa Fe, so I visit often. As such, I spend quite a bit of time at photo-eye, which has one of the world’s best inventories of photo books and ‘zines. We’re kicking off a new feature where I’ll be doing quick reviews of new releases, to give you a sense of what’s new and interesting on the market.

“Presences” is an over-sized, perfect bound soft cover exhibition catalogue of Richard Learoyd’s work recently released by Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. Mr. Learoyd works with a room-sized camera obscura, and a very sharp lens, to create razor-sharp nude and clothed portraits of women, (primarily,) bathed in Dutch Master-style light. The ladies look like a cross between a Julia Margaret Cameron subject and the geek-chic type lovely twenty-something you might see in a record store circa 1979. (Or a café in the Mission District circa 2011.) They’re lovely, but not in a lascivious way. Just a fantastic collection of very well made photographs. Bottom Line: Seductive.
Visit Photo-Eye to purchase Presences


Peter Granser, an Austrian photographer, recently released a new perfect-bound soft-cover book, published by Super Labo in Japan. In a bit of amusing, literal titling, it’s called “Sun City/Austria/Coney Island/Deutsche Cowboys/Elvis Tribute Artists/Signs. 2000-2007.” If you surmised that the lengthy name gives you a pretty good sense of what the pictures are about, you’d be right. The dry “German” style is evident, true, but the images also have a wickedly ironic sense of humor, poking fun at some of the absurd and optimistic elements of the American character. (A suite of retired ladies dressed up in their old cheerleading costumes. An stooped-over-old, ridiculous Elvis impersonator dancing symmetrically in dueling portraits.) This little narrative captures the real sense of humorous adventure inherent in a good road trip: you never know what’s coming when you turn each page. Bottom Line: Witty.
Visit Photo-Eye to purchase Peter Granser…

OK, I promise I won’t write about this guy again for a while, but for those of you who couldn’t get to MOMA by September 5th, you can get your own copy of Boris Mikhailov’s genius insanity in “The Wedding.” From the looks of it, this time he hooked up with a couple of alcoholic street folks, and managed to photograph their makeshift wedding in a vacant lot. Highlights include the blushing (or at least red faced) bride holding a big dildo over her husband’s head; their smiles as wide as a Nebraska tornado storm. It’s a hardcover in white, edition of 1000 from Mörel Books in London, in case you’re wondering. Highly recommended, if you like that sort of thing. (Brilliant but disturbing. Nudity, but not the fun kind.) Bottom Line: Twisted.

Visit Photo-Eye to purchase The Wedding

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this new feature useful.

LA Gallery Visit Part 1: The East Side

by Jonathan Blaustein

It wouldn’t be a story about LA if I didn’t bitch about the traffic, so let’s get it done right now and move along. I was headed up Highway 5 from a vacation getaway in a cute little beach town down the coast. Off hours, no drama, until I hit the LA County line. As soon as I crossed over from Orange County (nicknamed the Orange Curtain, I now know) it was as if I drove into a pile of mud. Stop and go, snarled, miserable, bumper to bumper traffic, all the way into Los Angeles. And of course I had to pee. Badly. Really, there are so few things I hate more than being stuck on the Freeway when I have to go. And then some old-school, straight-out-of-Long Beach Snoop Dogg came on the radio while I was trapped under an overpass. I started to laugh, because sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in Hollywood cliché, and it’s just not worth fighting it.

Regardless, I clamped down as hard as I could and hopped off the 110 in downtown LA for my little tour of the East Side. (The article on the West side will follow shortly.) Let’s be clear, it’s insane to think that one can cover all of LA as a scene, so I didn’t try. I went to see as much as I could, and accepted that much would be left out. That said, I saw a lot.

I started out in Chinatown, which is home to a dozen or so galleries, mixed in among the restaurants, fish stores, and shops selling cheap crap from the Motherland. It sprang up as a home to the contemporary gallery scene a while back, and seems to have held on through the economic chaos. I was last there in 2008, and it was definitely a bleaker place now. Several galleries have gone out of business, and one spot that I’d visited in the past now had some old people playing Mah Jong inside. The homeless quotient was also way up from three years ago, which wasn’t a surprise.

I started out at Sam Lee gallery, on the edge of the neighborhood, right across the street from a highway off-ramp. Sam was showing the work of two different California photographers, mixed up around the room. The first were large scale, razor sharp images by Rebecca Sittler. Whenever possible, I like to look at work without knowing anything about it so I can read the images for all they’ve got. Ms. Sittler’s photographs were of interior scenes, tackily decorated. The first had an eye-catching textural combination of red curtains, trippy carpeting, a wall and a window drape. Another had two beds with a phone in between. There was an image of a heavy, frayed rope on carpet against an angled metal wall, a photo of a roped-off painting with a chair, and also a shiny wood railing in a fancy room.

 

Taken together, I thought I was looking at the inside of a cruise ship. They were devoid of people, and felt lonely. They spoke of an almost Love Boat, 70’s style- cruise culture, where everybody had suddenly disappeared, like the Rapture. Sure enough, I went to look at the press release, and found that Ms. Sittler’s images were made on the decommissioned RMS Queen Mary that sits in the harbor at Long Beach. (Again with the LBC) It’s impressive that she was able to communicate both the setting and the mood without any text or obvious details. Terrific work. As to why this symbol, and why now? A decommissioned behemoth who’s best days are behind it? A musty style that’s trapped in the past.? A lonely relic of the Cold War heyday? Yeah, I get it.

Adam Thorman’s images, on the other hand, were medium-scale photographs of the California Coast, shot in the detail style, from directly above. Tide pools, moss, rocks, that sort of thing. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Coast in my day, and these looked like spots around Point Lobos, or somewhere south of San Francisco. I often wonder why artists try to capture the essence of Nature, without attempting to communicate scale or sound. Zen has it’s place, but requires a depth of perception that was lacking here. Having seen the real thing, I felt like Mr. Thorman’s photos were far less impressive than the original, and not that interesting.

I walked back to Chung King road, which houses several galleries in a row. They had completely turned over since my last visit, and there were fewer spaces in business as well. I began at Charlie James, which was showing work by Carol Selter, also from California. (Now that I think about it, I’m sure that most of the work I saw that day was local.) Ms. Selter was showing a project, “Animal Stories,” that included photographs, sculpture, and video. Her images contained taxidermy animals that she had returned to nature, then photographed. Birds in particular, and also amphibious creatures trapped in little vitrines.  One image depicted a song bird, held by string up to the mouth of a flower.

Damien Hirst references aside, the photographs were compelling. The videos featured the same squirrels, turtles, and a variety of animals talking to each other, bitching about global warming in funny voices. I enjoyed the absurdity, but it didn’t really improve on the message from the photographs. Definite thumbs up, overall.

Next stop was The Box, for a collaborative exhibition by Sara Conaway and Lisa Williamson. Ms. Conaway’s photos were mixed among painting and sculpture, and had a distinctive, airy LA vibe to them. The images were minimal, color-drained photos of 3d objects like wire, cut paper, styrofoam, and cloth. Very sculptural. One exception was a photo with red cloth against an intense yellow background. It reminded me of a de-contextualized, de-politicized “Piss Christ.” I left thinking that everything would look great on a big wall in a big house owned by a big Hollywood production executive. But I’m not about to criticize them for being beautiful, especially as they didn’t look just like everything else out there.

Pepin Moore, right down the alley (Chung King Road is a pedestrian only affair) had a group show curated by LA art star Soo Kim. The exhibition was titled “US EST,” but that didn’t really inform anything. It was a melange of seemingly disconnected work, with a heavy hand from photoshop, and a definite nod to the natural world. (The Earth and sky in particular.) Hannah Whitaker had two multiple image panels in the show: one contained four phases of the moon (boring), and the other was of a white girl in a blue costume dancing with a red hula hoop. Strange, playful, and awesome. The background was all white, and looked like it was photoshopped, especially as one of the shadows seemed to be coming from the wrong direction.

Mark Wyse, another LA art star, was also included in the show. I’ve seen several of his projects before, (cars, surfers) and have also read some of his writing(dense, Yale-ish). Here, he was showing some photos of rocks, perhaps beach rocks, photographed from directly above (not terribly dissimilar from Adam Thorman’s photos up the street.) The images were dry, and razor sharp, but left me unimpressed. Especially as I supposed they were backed by some theory of other. You get a lot of that in LA… pretty photos that are described as far more than what they really are. Not to backtrack from my linear sensibility, but give you an example, the Conaway/Williamson show of pretty pictures was described in the press release as such:

“Their meanings are implicit (not explicit!), resonant (not dull!), and inspired (not locked down!) …there is an aspiratory and generative sensibility that runs throughout.)”

Oh. Thanks. Now I get it.

From there, I made another classic, LA cliché-type mistake. I decided leave the car in the lot and walk across the 110 to MOCA downtown. It didn’t look that far, and I’ve driven it before in 5 minutes or so, so I figured it would just be a quick little nothing walk. Wrong. Pounding on the pavement in my flipflops, desperate once again to pee, I couldn’t believe how dumb I was to play pedestrian. It took almost a half an hour, all told, and I had to sneak into a conservatory across from Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall just to find a bathroom (The secret? Act casually confident, and pretend you know where you’re going. Make no eye contact, under any circumstances).

Problem solved, I walked the last couple of blocks to MOCA. I had seen on FB the previous week that they had an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s entire Campbell Soup Can series, and I wasn’t about to miss it. Andy has had a huge influence on my work, and was unquestionably one of the two or three most important artists of the 20th Century. His impact has been felt across culture, and here was a chance to see his first major painting project, returned to LA where it had debuted (lent by MOMA, fueling the ever-present East Coast/West Coast rivalry).

The ladies at the ticket counter were kind enough to tell me how to get back to Chinatown by bus, but couldn’t suppress smirks at my silly walking endeavor. Advice freshly received, I headed down into the museum. On my way to see the soup cans, I passed through an exhibition of MOCA’s Pop Art collection, and ran into one of Richard Prince’s Marlboro Men photos, “Untitled (Cowboys),” 1980-84. Prince’s work has been much discussed on this blog in 2011, and I was happy to see it again firsthand. The photo was fascinating in that it had some altered texture that looked very much like the noise or rasterized effect we see all the time in digital images that have been pushed too far. To my eye, it looked current, and the blurring texture definitely looked like an alteration of the original (which we probably all now know is a key ingredient in qualifying for Fair Use).

After rounding a couple of corners, I came face to face with the Campbell Soup paintings, installed in a horizontal line, hung in chronological order of when each type of soup had been released by Campbells. Beginning with Tomato soup in 1897, running through the last released in 1962 (the year the project was exhibited in LA).

I’ll share my thoughts as best I can, but clearly this is something to see in person. One of my first observations, as I walked up and down the line, was that the paintings are not, in fact, identical. For all the notoriety that they are 32 paintings of a soup can, they’re not. Warhol was a commercial illustrator before becoming a fine artist, and he did the majority of each painting by hand. So the slight differences, like where he drew the highlight and shadow demarcations on the can lid, became obvious. And a couple of the paintings had a slightly different hue of red from the others. A function of aging or not, it broke the continuity.

I loved the ironic humor. Cheddar Cheese soup (also a sauce), Pepper Pot, (what?), Scotch Broth (a hearty soup), Beef Consommé AND Beef Bouillon, all condensed, of course. Subtle absurdity that grows as you engage the sequence.  I could just see the 1950’s Ad men sitting around drinking cocktails, trying to come up with the next hot product to entice the burgeoning suburban shopper class. The paintings are also cold and a bit alienating. It’s well known that the show was not an immediate success, and the dealer Irving Blum ended up buying the whole set for a song. I can see why. In their mechanical-ness, they really lacked any sense of emotion or viscerality, which would have been a big change from the high drama of the 1950’s Abstract Expressionist emo-fest. But of course, they meshed perfectly with Andy’s blank, emotion-suppressed personal brand. For all the talk about branding nowadays, he clearly got there first (15 minutes, anyone?).

What else? They’re brilliant. Simply brilliant. Has anyone ever really picked a better symbol to speak for so many larger issues? Campbell’s soup. How American is that? Soup was the original peasant food, just add water to whatever else is lying around. It also represents warmth, comfort, and Mom’s home cooking. “Soup is good food,” for god sakes. Then someone figured out how to mechanize the production, canning, and distribution of the thing, and the growth of the American Empire was soon to follow. Soup for everyone, the same everywhere, cheap, with a reassuring label, replete with fleurs-de-lis. Classy. And then, over the years, so many choices were offered. What better way to anticipate the mind-cleansing consumerism of the 21st Century grocery store, or Ebay for that matter?

Mechanization of culture, commodification of home, repetition of ever so slightly different but really the same objects, the mesmerizing combination of white and red (just ask Target how effective it is), the space-agey-ness of the Kennedy era. It’s all there. The paintings obviously look like advertising images, and from a distance resemble photographs. They’re phallic, and were a precursor to the Becher’s water-towers, as well as any other deadpan, ironic type of work we see from the 70’s to today. All together, they tell a story about how American Popular Culture, beginning with Pop Art, became the global monstrosity we see today.

After ten or fifteen minutes, I finally shoved off to see the rest of the museum’s offerings, weaving through a few rooms of painting and sculpture with little that jumped out. Suddenly, I found myself in a not-large room surrounded by 58 of Robert Frank’s photographs from “The Americans,” hung in two horizontal rows. They were crammed together, and I felt like I do when I try to shoe-horn myself into my jeans the week after Thanksgiving. Uncomfortable to the point of claustrophobia. I saw the Frank retrospective in 2009 at SFMOMA, and wrote about it in Fraction Magazine, so I’ll spare you a rehash of how seminal I think the work is. Here, I could not get a sense of the scope or the message. The installation was non-linear, and confusing. Really, it made me want to not look. And they were all framed the same size and way, cream colored mats with black frames. Hard to imagine that I didn’t want to bother looking at some of my favorite art of all time, but there it is.

Right around the corner, I saw ten terrific photographs by Helen Levitt, framed and hung the same way, literally jammed into a corner. Of course, across the hall, each of Mark Rothko’s paintings were given feet upon feet of breathing space. Odd. I’m the last guy to have a complex about photography’s place in the Art World, because I think those battles were fought and won years ago. At MOCA, however, the message of photography’s inferiority was emblazoned on the wall through it’s second-class installation.

So with my panties in a wedge, I climbed back to street level, hopped a Dash B bus, and headed back to find my car in Chinatown. After a couple of stale, nasty pork buns from a Chinese bakery on Broadway, I got some directions to I-10 in Spanish, and headed out to the West Side, hoping the traffic gods would smile kindly on me… they did.