Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

New York Portfolio Review – Part 2

I’ve got a joke for you. You might have heard it before.

A black guy and a white guy walk into a bar in Alabama in 1955. The bartender looks at the black guy and says, “If you don’t walk right out of here this second I’ll blow your f-cking head off with this here shotgun.”

So the black guy leaves, with no recourse but to step out the door ass first, to ensure he doesn’t end up with a back full of pellets.

What’s that you say? That joke’s not funny? It’s tragic? Oh. OK. You got me.

It was actually just another one of my ridiculous intros, in which I try to make a point by not talking about what I’m talking about. Which in this case is race, a difficult topic in the best of circumstances.

To be fair, today I’m talking about “diversity.” Which includes such sub-topics as age, gender, gender orientation, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and class. All get cooked together in this melting pot we like to call America. (Or do I mean the Internet?)

I grew up in a fancy, former farming-community-nyc-suburb in New Jersey. I’m a white male, from a good family, so I’ve been afforded opportunities many others have not. But I’m also Jewish, and my people have been enslaved and exterminated, so I’ve got that going for me.

My town in Jersey had a large population of Asian-Americans, as a since-closed-legendary-Bell-Labs facility had many engineers on staff. We had Jewish/Italian/Irish Americans too, but that was about it. Non-ethnic-Caucasian-Americans from lower income brackets lived in other towns, like Union Beach. (There were no African-Americans or Latinos to be found.)

Here in Taos, we’re lucky to be a mountain community that has any diversity at all. So many ski towns are as white as the snow on their famed jagged hills. Here, we have Native Americans, Hispanic folks, and us gringos. That’s a lot, for the American West. Highly limited, though, compared to you urban dwellers.

But New York? Fuhgedaboudit.

Everyone on Earth rubs shoulders. It is one of my favorite feelings. Walking around amongst humans from all countries, skin colors, sexual orientations. You name it. (Well, perhaps not walking around. Sitting or standing on a train. Underground. Pressed up against a lot of strangers.)

Being around other types of people is good for the soul. It imprints deeply that we are so much alike. Personified, the other begins to seem like a neighbor. And it’s cool to like your neighbors.

In-person-contact subverts racism.

Too often, in our photography world, we hear that it’s too white. Or too male. Right? How many times have you read a blog post about a contest jury that was all white. Or an art exhibition that was 90% male. Right? I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. Why is it like that, when all smart people know diversity is a good thing?

Inertia. That’s my answer. A lot of people assume things will come to them. That communities grow naturally, and it will slowly get better over time.

That’s one way to go about it.

It’s another to actually call/email/text/FB/tweet/snapchat your contacts about an event, and ask them to do the same with theirs: to reach out and tap up large networks that are different than yours, with the belief that the spiders crawling around various webs will make beautifully diverse babies.

You saw from the title that this article was meant to be about the NYT Portfolio Review, and so it shall be. The above paragraph describes the strategy invoked by David Gonzalez and James Estrin, the NYT Lens blog co-editors who facilitated the review.

Like a lot of people, they believe getting various voices to the table is inherently good. So when they announced the 2nd New York Portfolio review, rather than wait around for whatever submissions came in, they did extensive outreach. “The goal was to make sure we had applicants of all kinds,” Mr. Estrin said. “So we did a special reach-out to make sure that we had the photographers. I know the photographers are out there, both in the documentary world and the art world, so we made special effort to have them apply.”

He shouted out En Foco, among other organizations, for helping to encourage photographers of color to send in their work. Mr. Estrin also stressed that they are interested in including people across class divides as well. “The core of this was the free aspect,” he added. “We wouldn’t do it otherwise. Plain and simple. We just wouldn’t do it.”

I report here that these guys succeeded in creating one hell of an integrated crowd.

As I thought about how to approach a second article, after dropping the fire alarm story last week, the thing that stuck with me was how amazing it was to be surrounded by talented, passionate people from so many backgrounds. I personally reviewed male and female photographers from Japan, China, Norway, Germany, Ecuador, and Brooklyn. (And then had beers at the Half King with a Japanese-Korean guy from Germany, a German guy living in Estonia, and a long-haired Mexican dude who shoots for Sports Illustrated in New York.)

The Lens team needs to be commended, and I’d suggest others follow this model. (They walked the walk, as it were.) Mr. Estrin stressed that his colleague, Mr. Gonzalez, as a person of color, was particularly adept at handling these issues.

“I once asked the editor-in-chief of a publishing house why one of their survey books had so few Latino or African-American photographers,” Mr. Gonzalez chimed in, via email. “He was refreshingly honest in his response: curators and editors often stick to whom they know. Well, I know lot of different people.”

“In fact, I would argue that I might know more people than some of the more noted editors out there. This is not a boast, but a reflection of my cultural/social roots and experiences: as a Puerto Rican, New Yorker, Yalie, Times-man, I’m aware of photographers, journalists and issues that might go unnoticed by others who do not have that sensitivity.”

Beyond diversity, though, there has to be great photography. The second part of the strategy, I was told, was to have enough diversity in the applicants to ensure they could make individual yes/no decisions based strictly upon the quality of the work.

Last year, some of what I saw was not very good. This year, every photographer had work worth showing. So let’s get to it then.

Motohiro Takeda showed me his pictures on Saturday. I’d heard about the project in the grapevine at Review Santa Fe last summer. The prints are very dark, and he hands you a flashlight to view them. They’re insanely gorgeous, but don’t deliver the same experience on the web at present. I wanted you to see them anyway.

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Holger Keifel was there on Saturday as well, and showed me a series on Boxing that was subsequently published on Lens. I loved six images of donated organs, in transit to be transplanted. He claimed to have 7 seconds each time to get the shot, and wanted us to know “the idea of this series is not about death. It’s about saving lives.”

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I also met Linda Bournane Engelberth the first day, when Mary Virginia Swanson grabbed me and said, “You have to look at this,” before handing me a laptop. The Norwegian photographer explores disaffected youth in Latvia, where the opportunities are few, and an Empire-hungry Putin is looking over their shoulders.

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Evan Ortiz grew up in Brooklyn, and is a journalism student at RIT. He showed me the project with headphones in video form, which I thought was strange, as it meant we couldn’t talk. But I liked the video piece very much, so he was right to do it that way. The powerful series focuses on a fellow student who overcame addiction and depression when she came out as a lesbian.

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Gina Pollack showed me images of women in their underwear. They’re accompanied by audio about the project “Bikini Season,” which examines how women view having their private areas waxed. It’s a smart subject, as the audio manages to be hilarious and poignant at the same time, which is a difficult mix to conjure.

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I first met Kayle Schnell on top of a mountain. Honestly. While hiking to Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley this winter, I stopped to talk to someone because she carried a heavy, pro camera up a very steep mountain. Not an amateur move. It was Kayle, who’s a journalism graduate student at CUNY. Her long term project focuses on a recovering drug addict on methadone. (And nicotine, apparently.)

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Santiago Arcos Veintimilla is a from Ecuador, and was recently awarded a Fellowship to work with the Magnum Foundation. His project, “La Cienega,” depicts the only town in Ecuador that has no children. That snake photo is going to haunt my nightmares for years.

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James Lawler Duggan is a young photojournalist who’s worked all over the “Arab Spring” territory in the Middle East, and in Syria as well. He described asking the Syrian man to take off his shirt so he could make the photograph, and how hard it was to do that, not knowing what was underneath.

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Grant Hindsley is currently based in Provo, Utah. I liked some of his single images, and a project on same-sex youth couples as well. The Mizzou Pride picture was one of my favorites of the weekend, and it felt proper to end today with Al Sharpton, straight outta NYC.

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New York Portfolio Review – Part 1

The fire alarm chirped voraciously, like a cricket in a bad mood. Immediately, every eye in the room was focused on me, the idiot that opened the fire door.

I saw them staring.

Rather than hide, which was my natural instinct, I raised my hand and waved it around. “It was me,” I said. “I did it. I’m the idiot.” That done, people went back about their business. As I’d made fun of myself, it made no sense for them to bother.

I stood in the middle of the lobby in the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, awaiting the beginning of the second day of the New York Times Portfolio Review, and I’d just made a fool of myself. (Albeit briefly.)

The day before, as everyone filed out after Saturday’s review, I was instructed to use the Fire Exit by the gruff-yet-friendly security guard behind the desk. So I approached her, after my faux pas, and said, “You told me it was OK to use the Fire Exit yesterday.”

“That was yesterday,” she said, glaring at me sardonically. “Today is today.” Is that not the perfect incarnation of New York City herself? Take nothing for granted. Make no assumptions. Or you’ll end up looking like a schmuck.

I only mention this to you, as it seems like every time I head out on the road, something embarrassing happens. Last year, at the same event, I mocked a dude in a Mexican wrestling mask only to find out I knew him. Poor form.

But I was there for a reason, which was to review portfolios and then share work with you, our loyal readers. In so doing, we at APE get the chance to give a boost to deserving young photographers, and also show you what is being made by the next generation. (In the 21st Century, we call that a win-win.)

This was the second year of the event, and it is free, which is rare. It’s announced via a Lens blog post, and then the photographers are selected from applicants all over the world. Even the application process is free, so you might consider applying next year.

As is often the case with start up ventures, the second year was definitely smoother than the first. Last year was fun, but this year was more efficient. I reviewed a few portfolios on Saturday, as a rover, but mostly focused my attention on the younger photographers who were invited to Sunday’s event.

Last year, we showed the work of two photographers. This year, everyone I reviewed had something worth sharing with you. As is often the case with younger artists, the work was inconsistent. Great images would be followed by clunkers, like the end of the batting order on a bad baseball team.

But all of them had a voice, and showed me at least one picture I found worth publishing here. The only problem, such as it is, is that I ended up seeing more than 10 artists, which can make for a muddled viewing experience below.

So we’re going to break it up into two articles. This week, I’ll show you half of the artists, and next week…the rest. I was genuinely impressed by the passion and talent in the room both days, so I can only hope you’ll respond to some of what you see over the next two weeks.

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I reviewed Andi Schreiber’s work on Saturday, and we met briefly in Santa Fe last summer. She’s a photographer, and mother, based in Scarsdale. Andi makes pictures with an honest-but-not-quite-pitiless view of family and aging in America.

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Wenxin Zhang is an artist based in San Francisco. She describes her photo series as novels, and hopes to figure out innovative ways to present the work in book form. Her portraits were my favorites.

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Arno De Pooter is a painter, photographer and digital artist from Belgium. Most of his work was pretty good, but one series in particular, called “Bleach,” was really terrific. His symbol choices were perfectly now, and the desert mirage aesthetic heightened the futurism.

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Cassandra Giraldo showed me a portfolio of images made of “Gentle Punks” in St. Petersburg, Russia. As opposed to Skull-crushing-Aryan-racist Punks. She shoots mostly editorial, but is also pursuing photography as art.

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Patrick McNabb, from NYU, was working in a theatrical, stage-it all-and-go-big-on-drama, kind of style. Some felt heavy-handed, but a few were really smart, strange, cinematic and believable.

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Mark Dorf is based in Bushwick, and is working on some fresh digital images that manage to feel relevant without being too Geeky. Some, but not all of his work, is also somewhat photographic in nature.

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This Week In Photography Books: William Christenberry

by Jonathan Blaustein

Colin looked away, unable to meet her eye. Shame has many tells, and this one was screaming louder than an infant at the witching hour. He’d wanted to tell her the truth for months, of course, but couldn’t bring himself to speak the words.

Now, it was too late.

Maddy had opened a letter addressed to him. She’d never done that before, but he understood why she’d done it. They’d been married for nigh on 30 years, and he was sure she’d noticed the change in his behavior.

First, he started drinking more heavily. When they could afford the extra whiskey, it hadn’t been so noticeable. But as fortunes faded, it became more obvious that $5 a week mattered elsewhere.

Colin thought he’d be able to pick up some extra day labor, but, honestly, he knew it was as illusory as magic. The economy in rural Alabama, such as it was, did not allow for extra anything, much less work or money.

Soon enough, his sex drive began to abate. Men need confidence to feel good about themselves, and a no-job-having, no-money-making, lie-around-the-house-and-drink type of man doesn’t feel desire like he used to. When he was younger, and the future held promise instead of a slow decline into ruin.

That’s the part they always gloss over in the history books. For all the talk of progress, and ideas building to the future, like the march from horses to trains to automobiles. That’s what people like to talk about.

It’s easier to forget forgotten places. They die slowly, like a malnourished child. There’s no bloody mess, and no one there to hear you scream. Though most lack the energy at the end, for screaming.

No, Colin wasn’t surprised that Maddy opened the letter from the bank. If anything, he was embarrassed not to have the guts to tell her to her face. But if he couldn’t meet her eye these days, how was he to summon such courage?

They were to be out in 30 days, even though no one in their right mind would want the house. It was falling apart as it was, and wouldn’t be standing for long, without some money and TLC. Outside of him and Maddy, there was no one who’d care about one more slanting shack. No one at all.

Except for William Christenberry, of course. Thankfully, he’s been out and about, cruising the back roads and dirt lanes of Alabama for many, many years. I’ve always loved his work, dramatic and subtle at the same time.

If you’re unaware, Mr. Christenberry has visited and revisited the types of falling down, incredibly nostalgic, romantic little shotgun shacks, and taken their pictures over many years, as they slowly succumb to entropy. Books are great for these sorts of projects. All you need to do is turn the page, and another year, or 5, has passed. No need to wait.

Should you care to see such work in a beautifully made book, you’ve come to the right place. The Fundacion Mapfre in Spain has just released an eponymous monograph, in conjunction with a pair of major exhibitions there. I will show it to you in the snapshots below, because that is what I do.

I was unaware, actually, that Mr. Christenberry also made sculptures. It’s very common in the art world, for artists to work in multiple media, but less so among more traditional photographers. I’ve been encouraging experimentation for years, as my long-time readers know, and this work can provide inspiration.

The photos of these churches and BBQ joints are amazing, but then, rendered in miniature as sculpture, the feeling changes. It must. Expressing similar, important ideas in varying ways is the sign of a genuinely engaged mind. Brilliant stuff.

Bottom line: Big, beautiful monograph by a deserving legend

To Purchase William Christenberry Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

This Week In Photography Books: Paul D’Amato

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last week I claimed I was tired and listless. Poor Blaustein, you must have thought. All worn out from galavanting around the mountains. Crying because it’s gray a few days a year. Boo hoo.

You’re probably hoping I’ll come back strong this week, and write one of those columns that starts out like a story. (“Colin looked away, unable to meet her eye. Shame has many tells, and this one was screaming louder than an infant at the witching hour.”)

Sorry to tease, but it’s not going to happen. I spent most of the last week running around New York City like a miner headed towards the claims office with a hunk of gold. It was intense, but worth it. Especially as I was able to see some genuinely excellent photography at the NY Times Portfolio Review, which I will share with you in the coming weeks. (As always, I am but your almost-humble proxy.)

One of my favorite things about plugging into the NYC nuclear reactor is how much you can get done in short amount of time. It’s the adrenal equivalent of paying it forward. Extra juice, so you can pull insanely productive 18 hour days, but then…

That’s the part you always forget about while you’re living in the glory. The crash. All that extra juice had to come from somewhere. NYC may inspire activity, but it doesn’t actually fill your blood with surplus protein and such. It has to come from somewhere: your future self.

So here I sit, my muscles twitching like a horse in labor. Wondering if I fell from ten feet into a pile of rocks. Cursing the city for its seductive qualities. Among them, the chance to hang with people from all over the world, and to revel in ethnic diversity. It’s a drug of its own sort.

On the flip side, no sooner did I get on the A train in Howard Beach than I realized it was only running in sections, so I’d have take 3 trains instead of 1. (If you’re counting, that’s a bus to a train to a train to a train to a train to get from JFK to Upper Manhattan. 2.5 hours to go what, 10 miles?)

And that was just the ride into the city, after taking a 3.5 hour redeye from ABQ to NYC. Which is to say, given how I’m feeling, it’s time to segue to the book.

Here we go.

As soon as I got home, still vibrating with NYC pollution on my skin, a friend who was raised in Brooklyn Heights said on Facebook that he likes Chicago better than New York these days.

What now? Chicago?

I was only there once, coincidentally with this same guy, nearly 20 years ago. I don’t know anything about the place, as that quick trip was a blur for many reasons. It’s almost like I wasn’t there.

And he up and says Chicago is the better town? Big words.

Wouldn’t you know the first book I picked up off the pile was of African-American culture in Chicago: “We Shall,” photographs by Paul D’Amato. (Another Guggenheim winner. Two in a row. And wouldn’t you know the 2014 Fellowship winners were announced today. Co-incidence, or Taos Hippie Juju? By the way, let’s give a shout out to a really, really great photographers list this year.)

This book of photos is excellent. No two ways about it. Or three ways, I should say, as the artist uses the technique of multiple images more viscerally than his contemporary Paul Graham. The triptych pictures in particular, which show delicately how different a few similar photographs can be, based upon the subtle energy in a set of eyes.

But my word count is getting higher than my IQ, which means it’s time to wrap it up. I implied in the beginning that I wasn’t planning to bring it this week. Maybe I pulled one out in the end, but I don’t have as much to say about the book itself as I ought, what with all the whining and pontificating.

Let’s summarize. I like this book very much. I suspect you would too. Despite the fact that I live in the hinterlands, I’m glad the great cities are out there, attracting people and ideas, thriving and allowing folks to live in any style they’d like. Bastions of creativity. Long may they prosper.

Bottom line: Taut book of African-American stories in the Windy city

To Purchase “We Shall” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

This Week In Photography Books: Anne Noble

by Jonathan Blaustein

Speaking of Australians, I re-watched “LA Confidential” the other day. Really great film. Noir through and through, but with California color and light. What more could you ask for? How about some serious Russell Crowe action.

What’s that you ask? Haven’t I mocked the faux-Aussie on at least one prior occasion? Yes. Yes I have. But in this film, as he broke into the living room of a global audience, the guy had charisma. He was hulking and visceral. A movie star in the making.

He parlayed that into “Gladiator” a few years later. I saw that one too, back when I still watched studio blockbusters. What was his famous line? “Are you not entertained?” Jon Stewart glommed onto that at some point, because it’s so good.

I could ask the same question here, but I won’t. Because that’s not my point today. Whether or not I’m trying to entertain you, this column is built upon a situation that never ends. I look at a book, and if it catches my fancy properly, I tell you about it. Year in, year out, that’s happened. Which means with every passing week, there’s less out there that I haven’t seen yet.

That’s the real question I want to ask. Can a photo book show me something I’ve never seen? If so, you can bet I’ll write about it, because then it might be something you haven’t seen either.

Honestly, I don’t know where I heard that Russell Crowe is actually from New Zealand. It’s true, though. He’s a Kiwi.

As is Anne Noble, the photographer responsible for “The Last Road,” a new book published by Clouds, in New Zealand. The photos were made during a frigid residency in Antarctica. Better her than me, I say.

This is one of those books that has really excellent writing, but you’ll be hard pressed to have the patience to read. The pictures are witty and new; thoughtful in a manner that suggests she didn’t approach her tenure with pre-conceived notions. Rather, I’d guess she actually investigated the place.

What’s so new? Well, the opening salvo of images was made of piss poles. The kind of poles that made Bill Murray exclaim “It’s in the hole” so intensely in “Caddyshack” are hereby employed as targets for streams of urination. (As opposed to streams of consciousness, in which I occasionally engage.)

Piss poles in a frozen forever? Pee targets, so you don’t get lost in the eternal snow? Awesome. As are the pictures of snow billowing in the air, set against snow and more snow. They’re called “White Noise,” in a shout out to Don DeLillo, which I also enjoyed.

There are some documentary-style pictures that are just OK, with the standout being the truck crate full of Halloween decorations. Later, we see a set of pictures called “Bitch in Slippers,” which I’m guessing is the nickname for the industrial machines that follow. All of which have nicknames of their own. It’s the kind of detail you only think of as strange when you come from somewhere else. (Anywhere else that’s habitable for humans.)

The names are mostly of women, but others are silly, like Basket Case, Wild Thang, and Shagnasty’s Nightmare. (Of which I’d rather know nothing. If Shagnasty lives there all the time, he can keep his suffocating nightmares to himself.)

Anyway, I like this book a lot. You might find piss poles in poor taste, or “Spool Stonehenge” as too cheeky for your liking. I thought it was downright refreshing.

Bottom Line: Antarctic book of things I’ve never seen before

To Purchase “The Last Road” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

This Week In Photography Books: Linda Fregni Nagler

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever seen “After Life,” the Japanese film by Hirokazu Koreeda? If not, you probably ought to slap it up on your Netflix queue. Or go to the video store, if such things still exist in your neck of the woods.

I saw it some time ago, and it has stuck with me ever since, as its premise bores down deep into your soul, like a groundhog. The idea is that we all get to choose one memory to re-live, forever, in the afterlife. Good movie, sure, but once you hear that concept, who wouldn’t begin to contemplate?

Now that my daughter is beyond the baby stage, there are far more opportunities to stare in wonder at her beauty, as the initial stress chemicals have mostly receded. My son’s a looker too, so I often find myself trying desperately to cherish the time, as it recedes from my grasp.

I often ask myself, might this be the moment?

We all know what I should be doing, right? I need to document the crap out of the next few years. Photos, videos, audio clips. You name it. That’s the done thing. Try to defeat time by selecting moments, culling them from the herd, and permanently enshrining them in binary code.

But I don’t do that as much as I should, because I secretly hope that if I pay enough attention, as it’s happening, I might have the chance to relive one of these brief periods of intense happiness. That blasted film really stuck.

This urge, or impulse, has existed at least since we’ve had cameras. And likely before.

Close your eyes, and you can almost see a bearded man with spectacles looming above you, entreating you to hold still. He smells like a mixture of sweat and tobacco, with a hint of peppery bacon. Then he disappears under a black curtain, and POOF, there is smoke everywhere. You begin to cry, and reach for your mother, who is conveniently beneath you, enveloped by a different black cloth.

What?

That’s the rub, when you look at “The Hidden Mother,” by Linda Fregni Nagler, a new book published by MACK, in conjunction with the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco. From what I could tell from the end notes, it might have also been the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. (In case you were wondering.)

There is no text to set up the premise, except the title. They saved the essays, by Massimiliano Gioni and Geoffrey Batchen for the end. To contexualize what you just saw. But is it necessary?

I’d say no. Page after page gives us images of anonymous children, perched upon their hidden Moms. Ghosts, phantasms, KKK figures too stupid to know the proper sheet color, all those ideas pop into your head. But you always know what’s going on. The mothers are there to help the children hold still, as the exposures at the time were most certainly not 1/8000 of a second.

Will the book hold your attention? I can’t really say. It is fascinating and chilling at the same time. All those babies, gone forever. All those memories brought together by a futuristic stranger, so it can be called “Art.”

Is it? Undoubtedly. A compelling project too, if only for the manner in which it so clearly subverts the intentions of the long-dead shrouded sitters. All they wanted was a piece of paper to help them remember what their dear children looked like, when they were little.

I’ve got pictures of my own too. Don’t you worry. You do to, I’m sure. But the act itself, the desire to will something into a memory that will last a lifetime, is the part that makes us human. Because Elephants can’t operate a camera. Right?

Bottom Line: Very interesting archive, creepy and smart

To Purchase “The Hidden Mother” Visit Photo-Eye.

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

Roger Fenton Crimean War

In the sixth grade, we did a project on the cultural traditions of a foreign country. We had to write reports in our chicken-scratch-children’s penmanship, and some kids cooked food as well. One Korean student brought in some Bul Go Gi, and it was delicious.

I ended up with Yugoslavia, about which I knew next to nothing. Fortunately, a family friend had started importing Yugos to the US, so at least I could talk about that.

A less-than-educated young person might reasonably ask, “What is Yugoslavia?” Or, rather, “Where is Yugoslavia?” Because it doesn’t exist on the map, I can assure you.

Most of us know, of course, that Yugoslavia was a created 20th Century entity, a post-war land mush that brought together some version of Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and probably a few territories I’m neglecting. They’re still around, of course, as are the people who live there. But the country, the geo-political entity, is dead.

Similarly, I just read a piece in the New Yorker that was nominally about the television industry in Turkey. (Yes, I’ve officially become the kind of guy who references the New Yorker all the time.) I say nominally, because the real subject was the manner in which the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is highlighting historical connections to the vast and powerful Ottoman Empire, rather than the small and relatively weak Turkish republic that was built, again post-war, by Ataturk.

Closer to home, I can tell you that here in New Mexico, there are certain people, whose ancestors have been here for generations, who resent the mass culture of the United States. You can occasionally feel tension in the air. Why? I might point to the fact that the US essentially annexed New Mexico. Or stole it, if you will. And that was only shortly after the land was called Mexico, having recently freed itself from the country called Spain.

What I’m trying to say here, if you haven’t caught the gist, is that history is all about the long view. Names change, but dirt doesn’t. (Unless it’s being violated to reach its mineral goodies, but that’s another rant for a different day.)

The big news, in our age, is that we are all hyper-aware of what is going on everywhere, all the time. That is a radical change to the way we live our lives. So big, in fact, that no one has had the chance to really process the results of the shift.

But we see the effects every day. Take Crimea, for instance. A week ago, that word might have been meaningless to you. (I say might, as I’m aware that this audience is highly educated and up-to-date.) Now everyone knows it as a territory in the country called Ukraine that was just invaded by a country called Russia.

Russia? We’ve all heard of that place. Except when I was young, it was called the Soviet Union, and included the country now (and formerly) known as Ukraine. Names change, but greed and aggressive behavior do not. They are, and I’d venture to say will always be, a part of human nature.

When we look at a globe, or a map, it seems so permanent. Built or plotted, the objects refer to information with a sense of certainty. This is here, that is there. If you go too far in one direction, you might fall off the face of the Earth. (Sorry, forgot that one has been debunked already.)

Of course, we know that the information encoded in maps changes all the time. They’re no more accurate than a restaurant menu from 10 years ago. That’s just the way it is.

We live these dramas in real time, and the pain, misery, and tragedy they engender are not to be made light of. I feel for the people who die in wars, or who die from lack of clean water, or who have to watch their family members killed by horrible forces of darkness that will never face retribution. (Until they do, one, two or three generations down the line.)

The point is, (should I actually have one,) that we’re now judging the news on a minute to minute basis, but the root causes of said “news” go back decades, centuries, or millennia. And that is the kind of information least served by Social Media. You couldn’t possibly know about the Taos revolt that killed Governor Charles Bent in 1847, just like I don’t know who ruled Crimea before the Soviets.

Sure, we have access to so much information via Google, but that’s not the same thing as genuine, lived, history. It’s just not.

So while I could easily mock the monster Putin, and put this all on him, it seems too simplistic. He is the unchallenged leader of a country that has long lived with strongmen, and has a history of territorial aggression. Anyone who was surprised by his behavior wasn’t paying attention.

How many non-Americans might point to the US invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent removal of Saddam Hussein? How many people might suggest the situations parallel? I couldn’t say, but I’m sure they’re out there. (And some of them probably work for the Russian propaganda agency.)

I can’t tell you who ruled Crimea in the 19th Century, and I can’t tell you how this latest crisis will play itself out. If I could, I’d be working for Obama by now.

But I can tell you that sometime in 2013, I had a unique experience in which I got to see, first-hand, what a shitstorm looked like in Crimea in the aforementioned 19th Century. How was that possible? (I bet you’ll guess it’s through the wonder of photography…)

In September, I paid a brief visit to the Prints and Photographs division at the Library of Congress. The Library actually functions like one, which is a bit of a shock. It’s free, and anyone can come in and personally request to “check out” work from the collection.

So I did.

I was handed a stack of plastic-protected prints by the famed, and perhaps brilliant photographer Roger Fenton. I’ve written of him previously, as he stole the show at the “War/Photography” exhibition I saw last year in Houston.

It was a rare pleasure to get to look at the pictures, to hold them in my hands, and connect visually and viscerally to a strange place in a time that had passed away into non-existence. Rare only because I live far from Washington, DC. If you live on the East Coast of the US, you could go often, and look at work not on the wall, but in your immediate physical space.

What did I learn about Crimea, or at least about a slice of the Crimean War?

Look at the collection of rebels, rapscallions, roughnecks, and killers. They obviously come from all over the world, as the costumes will attest. There are a lot of dirty faces, scruffy beards, and hardened tough guys. My goodness.

We can see it’s a desolate place, or was. And we can guess that any conflict with that many warring parties must be messy, confusing, and dangerous. Why would they all be there, fighting? My first guess would be that there’s something of value? Natural resources, maybe? Oil?

Or just as likely, it probably has a geographical significance. Control of a major body of water? Access to a port, or a military high ground? Maybe some or all of these things, as you wouldn’t get a global crusade of treasure-loving-war mongers fighting against each other in a god-forsaken land for nothing.

That’s the lesson we can learn, when we engage with history. Our troubles and triumphs are not as unique as we’d like to believe. Occasionally, I admit I’ll get caught up in the moment. The Arab Spring was such a time.

The optimism blinded me to the reality: Men with guns rule the day. They always have, and they always will. The best we can achieve is a society where the rule of law dictates who gets to use the guns, and when. We have that here in America, and I get to live in peace. (For which I am extremely grateful.)

But we too have been an imperial power, and unspeakable evil has been committed in our name. In the name of Freedom.

So let’s all hope that this latest international crisis ends swiftly, and well. Let’s hope the people of Crimea can go back to a more peaceful existence, and that the Russian tanks roll back to Moscow.

But I won’t be holding my breath. That’s for sure.

Calvary camp, looking towards Kadikoi

Calvary camp, looking towards Kadikoi

Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Burghersh, C.B.

Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Burghersh, C.B.

General Cissé, chief of the staff to General Bosquet, & aide-de-camp

General Cissé, chief of the staff to General Bosquet, & aide-de-camp

Colonel Doherty, officers & men of the 13th Light Dragoons

Colonel Doherty, officers & men of the 13th Light Dragoons

Ismail Pacha on horseback, with Turkish officers

Ismail Pacha on horseback, with Turkish officers

Zoave and officer of the Saphis

Zoave and officer of the Saphis

Cornet Wilkin, 11th Hussars

Cornet Wilkin, 11th Hussars

Balaklava, from Guard's Hill

Balaklava, from Guard’s Hill

Lieutenant Yates, 11th Hussars

Lieutenant Yates, 11th Hussars

The valley of the shadow of death

The valley of the shadow of death

This Week In Photography Books: John Divola

I gave a whopper of a lecture the other week. I tied together the Bering Straight land bridge, the Big Bang, the Lascaux cave paintings, and Mayan creation mythology. Unfortunately, I was too distracted to bring the tape recorder.

C’est la vie.

I like to dive into the idealism of art making, early in the semester, as my high-school-aged students are suckers for the big picture. Teenagers and idealism go together like teenagers and drinking. Or sex.

High School kids love a good rebel. It’s why James Dean and Kurt Cobain will continue to age well; their attic portraits never falling behind the real thing. I’d further venture that America is just one big rebellion factory.

Don’t tread on me. No trespassing. Violators will be shot. Fight the power. (Seriously, though, has anyone made the connection to black leather gloves and major events in African-American history?)

Our program at UNM-Taos, in which I teach college level fine art to younger students, goes over well in general. We talk about how the spirit of rebellion inhabits art practice. What is the conventional way of doing things, and how can we subvert it?

If eye-level dominates reality, why not put the camera on the ground? Or in a mail-box? Or how about photographing your Uncle behind his back, because you’re not supposed to have your phone while herding cattle?

It was fun to talk with them last week about the latest Ai Weiwei controversy. Have you seen the story? Some dude in Miami that no one ever heard of smashed one of Ai Weiwei’s re-purposed Han Dynasty urns, in the middle of an art museum. Right in front of the photos of Ai Weiwei smashing a different Han Dynasty urn.

The meta-worm ate its tail that day. Without a doubt.

How would the great Chinese artist react? What would he say?

Apparently, he differentiated the acts by the fact that he owned what he crashed, while the public smasher destroyed someone else’s property. He found flaw in the logic, but he seemed sanguine about the whole thing, saying “I’m O.K. with it, if a work is destroyed. A work is a work. It’s a physical thing. What can you do? It’s already over.” (Vulture, 02.18.14)

Where were we? I think I’ve even lost myself for the first time. Right. The perfectly-snarled-Elvis-Pressley-lip curl, or the dead-eyed-Eastwood-crows-feet squint that is the ultimate brand of American rebellion. What are YOU looking at?

I just got that sense out of a photo book, and am excited to share tales of its innards with you now: “As Far as I Could Get,” a new book by John Divola, published by Prestel, and organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Boy, did I not have a sense of this guy. In my head, I thought of the lone house series. Single structures surrounded by our under-appreciated Western natural resource: empty desert space. Cool, but nothing I hadn’t seen with my own eyes many times, out here.

This book is of the career-arc sort, to go along with an exhibition, so you get to see a range of interesting divergences. Or maybe a set of randomly chaotic and irreverent dalliances with the California style? It’s funny and surreal and literal all at the same time.

It seems Mr. Divola was a contemporary of Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari and those guys, and studied under Robert Heinecken at UCLA. So there is a similar progressive spirit embodying these pictures. They’re genuinely excellent, so leafing through the pages was like discovering that it was Mike Nesmith who was the creative heart of the Monkees all along. (Or that Bon Scott originally fronted ACDC. If that’s out there, what else might be out there?)

In one series, from which the book gets it title, the artist put the camera on timer and sprinted as fast as he could into the landscape. What? Hilarious and poignant. Rare double double.

My favorite, should I care to choose, was definitely “Zuma.” These odd, discomfiting interiors in a shit-box abandoned house on the California Coast are juxtaposed against the perfection of the Pacific. Wow.

I’ve never done a lick of graffiti in my life, so these pictures made me feel a bit of the joy in destruction. Was there any urination involved? What would you wager?

In a smart interview with the Tate’s Simon Baker, Mr. Divola admits his black orb graffiti paintings descend from Kazmir Malevich. It’s a fantastic and appropriate connection, the California vandal and the Russian Suprematist.

OK. It was a long one this week. I’ll wrap it up tight. Excellent book. Great work. And another lesson that no matter how much art we’ve seen, there will always be something new to discover. You just need to keep your eyes open.

Bottom Line: Excellent exhibition catalogue, very cool work

To Purchase “As Far as I Could Get” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

This Week In Photography Books: Henry Wessel

by Jonathan Blaustein

Despite what you might have heard, I’m not a real Buddhist. (I just admire many of the precepts.) When it comes to meditation, I’m lazier than I’d like, but do find it very helpful for managing stress.

Walking meditation is a practice I’ve never gotten the hang of, as my mind races whenever I’m out and about. But put a camera in my hand, and it all makes sense. Life slows down, and the pleasure of observation can be overwhelming.

I make my work in the studio these days, but can easily remember the joy that street photography brings. It’s almost intoxicating. Strike the almost.

We often hear people say that reality is stranger and fiction, and I’m not sure I agree. Most good fiction is based upon reality. They’re jealous twins, rather than the type that finish each other’s sentences.

Look around, and you’ll notice some strange shit, no matter where you are. Endless cornfields in the Mid-West might seem boring to a native, but take an urbanite out there, and the miles of rows look like the Roman army.

Drop a devout teetotaler into a seedy dive bar on the Lower East Side, and I’m sure they’d make reference to the nether regions of Hades. (Do they still have dive bars down there, or has everything been gentrified into a fake-speakeasy?)

Where am I going with this? If one looks hard enough, and shoots the proper ratio of frames, the genius of poetic moments will emerge from the patternless chaos. It’s a fact, and probably not one that will ruffle your feathers. (As you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t already have a passion for the lens-based arts.)

That said, I don’t often espouse the tired cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words.” The proof is that this is something like my hundred and thirtieth column, and it’s only just come up. Why, you ask?

Because I’ve just put down the sublime and perfectly titled “Incidents,” by the under-appreciated New Topographics badass Henry Wessel. The slim, periwinkle hard-cover book was recently published by Steidl, and of course, they are known for good taste.

This book has no words. No titles. No essay. No explication whatsoever. Just the artist’s name.

While in lesser hands, that might seem arrogant, here, it proves the tired maxim I stated three paragraphs ago. (And the earlier one about reality and fiction too.)

Within, we see a set of black and white photographs that were clearly taken in California in the 70’s and perhaps early 80’s. That’s a conclusion any educated American viewer would reach. They are uniformly excellent pictures, and only two lack the human narrative.

Many were taken from a moving car, and one from the inside of a public bus. Those photos use the interior structure as an excellent framing device, as Lee Friedlander would come to do in his 21st Century “America by Car.” (If not earlier. If he did, I’m sure someone will correct me.)

This book is all about the quiet drama of insignificant moments, plucked from the space time continuum and frozen forever in celluloid. In that respect, it’s about as idealistic a book as you’re likely to come across, and one I’d heartily recommend.

As there are not so many images within, I’ve politely decided not to photograph them all. But we do see things that force us to stop and look carefully. A woman enters Harry’s Bar, maybe the most overused bar name of all, and she wears a jacket with the establishment’s name on the back. (Lean in, and you see it’s in Pismo Beach.)

A nudie bar has an official looking sign on its door: an application for a theater license. Through the car window, we see one boy astride another, seconds away from pummeling him. (Been there.)

What else? Some muscleheads shop for sunglasses on what is surely Venice Beach. Two young people lean against a wall, dressed for the sun, but above them we see a Christmas decoration.

The geometry of the constructed environment is ubiquitous, in fences, buildings, tennis courts, you name it. And then it all closes with a very poignant moment, as a young woman raises her skirt to show off a bruise. How did it get there? (You’re bound to wonder.)

OK. That’s enough of my wordy blabber. (Ironically about a wordless book.) Somehow, this is the first time I’ve written about Mr. Wessel’s work. Let’s hope it’s not the last.

Bottom Line: Beautiful, spare book that reminds us why we love photography

To Purchase “Incidents” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

This Week In Photography Books: Jacques Henri Lartigue

by Jonathan Blaustein

The Winter Olympics are in full swing at the moment. Do you care? Are you watching? Probably not.

I make that assumption because most artsy, creative types don’t bother with sports. It’s too normal. Too suburban.

As to the Olympics, it doesn’t mean much to me. Except the TV does seem to find its way to NBC each night, if only for a few minutes. They’re so good at hooking you, with the carefully edited backstories, replete with string accompaniment.

You think it’s just a schmaltzy production, and then a couple of ridiculously tough female skiers share a gold medal and jump around like frogs in a hot pan. Did you see that downhill course? It was nastier than Vlad Putin’s temper.

Similarly, we published an interview with Jeff Lipsky this week, in which we spent a great deal of time talking about skiing and snowboarding. (Probably too much time for some of you.) It might have seemed random, but there was a method to my madness.

Jeff described what he does, as a photographer, to put his celebrity subjects at ease. He shared how he chats with them, in a relaxed manner, about a point of connection. And that’s exactly what I was doing with him. I tried to make him comfortable by talking about something we had in common.

Eventually, we got to the subject of photography. Surprisingly, Jeff admitted to daydreaming about snowboarding, as a way of taking a mental breather when things get too stressful on set. So my gambit made sense in the end. You might say I got lucky. (Or perhaps you just skipped straight to the shop talk, as is your prerogative.)

Let’s face it. Sports and art normally don’t mix. The athletes are the cool kids, popular and fit. The artsy types wear glasses, smoke cigarettes, and generally keep to themselves. Right? That’s the perfect John Hughes stereotypical version, anyway.

Luckily, I figured out a way to inject a bit of jockdom into our weekly mix. But you’re guaranteed to like it. I swear. It won’t seem threatening in the least.

How can I be so sure? Because I’ve spent some time with a new book called “A Sporting Life,” by French legend Jacques Henri Lartigue, published by Actes Sud and Hermes. Who doesn’t love old-school black and white photographs by a master? No one. That’s who.

So I’ve got you on a technicality. The skis depicted look like antennas on a big alien’s head. If one of these dead Frenchmen came back to life and glimpsed a carbon-fiber-shaped-ski circa 2014, he’d probably assume it was a sculpture made by Marcel Duchamp.

There are equestrian images, biplanes, tennis, golf, gymnastics, hang-gliders, car racing, shot-putting, diving, boating, swimming, cycling, and, of course, a woman named Coco. The full-bleed image of a tight-curve-dirt-road in the 1928 Tour de France blew my mind, as it made the blood-doping-Lance Armstrong years seem so futuristic.

The technology is old school, true, but the vision is fresh. It might not make you pine for a five-hour-Olympics marathon, during which you scarf chicken wings and pizza while quaffing six steins of beer. Or it might.

But I’m sure you’ll enjoy the photos below. You must. If not, I hereby declare you less than human.

Bottom Line: A very cool book of nearly-ancient sports photos

To Purchase “A Sporting Life” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

Jeff Lipsky Interview

- - Photographers
Jon Hamm

Jon Hamm

Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron

Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Zac Efron

Kelly Slater

Kelly Slater

Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington

Zoe Saldana

Zoe Saldana

Ellen Page

Ellen Page

Jonathan Blaustein: I was ready to begin this interview the way I typically do, by asking some questions about how you came to photography. But in my last bit of research, I noticed that you had actually done an interview like that for APE in the summer of 2012.

Jeff Lipsky: Yes, I taught at Chris Orwig’s class at Brooks, and he did a little piece on me which was really nice.

JB: But I didn’t know that until six minutes ago.

JL: Oh.

JB: That means I’m up shit’s creek, because I can’t ask those questions, since you already answered them.

JL: (Massive pause.) Well…

JB: I don’t know what to do. I can’t ask you how you got into photography if we already published that.

JL: (Another massive pause.) That is interesting.

JB: We’re screwed, man. (laughing.) Listen, this is my thing. I’m just joking around. I’m not serious at all.

JL: (laughing.)

JB: Right. Now you’re with me. I was just messing around. The point was simply that we appreciate that you’re doing another interview, but we’ll have to take this one in a different direction. Otherwise, I become the laziest journalist in the history of mankind.

JL: Right. And my saying is, anyone can take a great picture or write something great under perfect circumstances. But when you’re thrown a curve ball at the last minute, like every photo shoot you do, it’s what you make out of it that counts.

JB: You, and the entirety of our audience will now be judging me harshly to see how I do. Can I hit the curveball? Because we now know the Denver Broncos’ center can’t hit the curve.

JL: Obviously.

JB: Obviously.

JL: I was on an airplane during the Superbowl, so I missed the entire game. I guess that was just as good.

JB: You know what you’re supposed to do next time then, right?

JL: Yes.

JB: Fly Jet Blue.

JL: Fly Jet Blue. That’s right.

JB: It would have solved your problem. Taking a look at your previous APE interview, as well as your website, it says that you were a, I don’t want to say ski bum, let’s say you were lifestyle skier in Telluride, Colorado for ten years. Is that right?

JL: You’re the first person to say that. A lifestyle skier. I love that. I’m going to use it.

JB: Feel free. I just made it up. It seemed more politically correct.

JL: It is very good.

JB: So you were there for a decade?

JL: A decade.

JB: With all the mountain towns in the US, what did you love so much about Telluride?

JL: I believe it is one of the best ski resorts in the world, as far as terrain goes. It produces great skiers, and I wanted to become a great skier/snowboarder at the time. Also, it’s one of the few ski areas in the world where the ski lifts go right into town. The town is not separated from the resort.

It’s a real town. It’s not like you’re living in a resort. People living there do normal things, and there happens to be a ski resort there.

It’s the most beautiful place in the world, too, as far as I’m concerned. Without a doubt.

JB: Without a doubt?

JL: Without a doubt.

JB: I’m not sure if you’re aware, but I’m conducting this interview from the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Taos, New Mexico.

JL: (laughing.) Taos is pretty close. It’s very similar.

JB: Right. But if you’re going to say “the most beautiful” and “the best” to someone like me, it’s going to get my back up a bit and force me to challenge you on some of those assumptions.

JL: {Taos Ski Valley Founder} Ernie Blake made it so I couldn’t snowboard at your mountain.

JB: He did. It’s true.

JL: So Telluride is number 1 for me.

JB: I don’t know if you heard, but Taos Ski Valley recently sold to a conservationist, hedge fund billionaire. Around here, I think the general consensus is that Ernie Blake built the ski valley, but also doomed it by locking out the snowboarders for 20 years. It was inevitable we would decline, after that decision.

JL: I think that they should have remained snowboard free. I just love that certain ski resorts hold their integrity. Even though I’m a snowboarder, I do think snowboarding sometimes brings down the integrity of skiing, because skiing is such a nostalgic sport for me.

JB: Well, we did give up our integrity, and I’m suggesting that it happened too late. We’re now hoping that this guy Louis Bacon’s billions will fluff up the place, because the terrain is amazing, but our resort stopped taking care of itself in the early 90’s, and that was quite a while ago.

JL: This is a big deal. It’s going to be a big resurgence for Taos.

JB: Indeed. I’m telling my friends with money, which is a very short list, that Taos real estate a really good buy right now. We’re pretty much guaranteed to ascend.

All those people out there who don’t ski or snowboard are probably asking when the hell these guys are going to talk about photography. Right?

JL: Right.

JB: But I didn’t really have a choice. Once I couldn’t ask questions about how you got started at Smashbox studios in LA, I was in a bit of a pickle.

Let’s just jump ahead. You live in Venice, and you shoot predominantly in LA.

JL: I live in the Palisades now, and I have three kids. I still have my connection with Venice, though. It got to be too much for me. Venice is a little spoiled.

JB: I heard that.

JL: I moved my production office to Main St in Santa Monica. I just love it.

JB: Do you surf?

JL: I do surf, but not enough to call myself a surfer. I photograph the surf world all the time, and am often with the biggest surfers in the world, shooting their portraits. But I’m not allowed to say I’m a surfer, because my assistants are huge surfers, and they know I don’t really surf.

I can’t walk the walk.

JB: You don’t surf well enough to use that noun to describe yourself.

JL: When I’m with them, I don’t even admit that I surf.

JB: But if you took them to Telluride, with all that vertical, they might struggle.

JL: They would. I know so. I was with Jerry Lopez when he came to Telluride to go snowboarding, and all these great surfers. I had them on the snow, which was really nice.

JB: Is that a part of your street cred with those guys, that you can handle yourself in the mountains? Because you’re an outdoor enthusiast, do they have more respect for you?

JL: I think so. Definitely.

JB: There’s a comfort level that translates into the photography?

JL: Yes. Exactly. Every once in a while, I do get a chance to incorporate my snowboarding or my flyfishing in photography. I’m not really an action sports photographer, though. I’m more labeled a lifestyle celebrity photographer.

Sometimes, I’m able to go on these great adventures. Eddie Bauer was a really good fit for me. Roxie was a good fit too. Shooting surfers on the beach for Outside Magazine. It’s an environment that I’m used to.

I just shot Olympic snowboarders for this Olympic package in Breckenridge, and one of the Dads and I had twenty mutual friends, because they were from Steamboat. It’s always nice to have a connection. You’re looking for that one degree of separation.

JB: Which is maybe not such a hidden secret anymore? How much the personal connection enables the photography to get going in the first place?

JL: Oh yeah. You look for a connection. That’s the number one thing.

JB: You dropped the c-word earlier. Celebrity. That’s the equivalent of you saying Beetlejuice. It opens the door for me. I know our audience is far more educated than your average bear, as far as understanding how photography works.

But anyone who goes to your website will be immediately overwhelmed by the collection of star power that has stood on the other side of your lens. Anybody would have a little Hollywood envy. So we kind of have to talk about it a little bit, if you don’t mind.

JL: When in Rome.

JB: I just didn’t know if you were the equivalent of a lawyer, and part of being able to do this work was there was some kind of photographer/client privilege. I was worried you wouldn’t be able to share some stories.

JL: Oh no. That’s the whole point of my workshop that I’m going to teach at the Santa Fe Workshops. I say how it is. I literally describe the whole process of shooting anyone. Whether it’s a celebrity, or an advertising shoot.

JB: I was curious about the real world charisma of some of these people. The first link on your site is to celebrity men, and you open with pictures of Jon Hamm, Ryan Reynolds, James Mardsen. These super-handsome movie stars. You’ve got some old school guys thrown in there, like Dustin Hoffman.

How much of inherent charisma is dripping off of them when they walk in the door?

JL: It’s interesting. A lot of actors, they obviously have “it,” but a lot of them don’t necessarily have “it” for a stills camera. They’re used to being in front of a moving camera. When they have to stand in front of a stagnant camera and look into the lens, it’s actually awkward for them.

The ones that are pros, and have been doing it for a long time, obviously, are used to it. But they don’t necessarily like it.

Most actors, I believe, don’t like being photographed. When they’re acting, they’re doing their skill. When they’re in front of a stills camera, it’s not necessarily what they want to be doing. In fact, my job is to make it as pleasurable and easy for them as possible.

I’m usually done shooting them before they think they’re going to be done. And I keep them moving around as much as possible. I’ll never have anyone standing around on a set for more than 10 minutes. Then I’ll have another set or scenario where I’ll put them.

It’s always moving and changing. We also play amazing music. Half the time we’re talking, keeping them entertained and amused. So we’re always goofing around.

JB: You’re describing it like they’re going to the dentist office. And you’re in character. Not them.

JL: Sometimes it’s like that. There might be 50 people on set, and all this commotion. But I’ll break it down to be as intimate as possible, and have the fewest people around me when I’m shooting.

Basically, it’s a closed set. That way, there’s one-on-oneness. Or, if I’m not connecting with someone, I might have my first assistant try connecting with them. He’ll be standing right there, and we’ll just chat, and try to include the celebrity in the conversation.

We make it so they’re there hanging out with us. Like, “Hey, what song do you want to hear next?” And I’m firing away at the camera. When I’m done, I want them to say, “That was a pleasure. That was so much fun. I didn’t feel like I was on a photo shoot. That was great.”

That’s what I like.

JB: You’re basically talking about people skills. Which is an open secret among professionals.

JL: To me, you already have to have your skills down as a photographer. It’s already known that you know how to take a picture.

I know my lighting. I’m very technical. I’ve already scouted the location I’m going to be at. I know what time the light is coming, if I’m shooting ambient, which is my preference.

I know exactly what time the sun is going to come through which window. I know what diffuser I’m going to put in front of that window. I know everything about it.

If it’s cloudy, I know which lighting package I’ll use. I know what cameras, what lenses. I already have these things in place, and a fantastic crew.

That’s a given, that you have that skill. And then, when you’re with a celebrity, you have to turn that off. You know you’re prepared, so you just have to be yourself. Be personable. You have to show a certain ease.

You want it to seem easy and effortless. In fact, it’s not, with weeks or months of preparation for that twenty minute shoot. You have to let it go. You know you have everything in place, and you just do it.

That doesn’t make sense, does it?

JB: It does. And it actually helps lead up to where I was headed, especially as you so carefully dodged my attempt to get you to squeal about anyone in particular.

JL: I’ll squeal. Like Dustin Hoffman, whom I’ve shot many times. The first time I shot him, I said, “Thank you so much for sitting with me, and letting me take your photograph.” He said, “What are you talking about? This is what I do.”

This is what I do. It was so nice that he said that. This is my job, he said. “What do you want me to do, Jeff?”

JB: Wow.

JL: Right. Dustin Hoffman. Then you get some actors who are like, “No. I’m not doing that. Absolutely not. No way. No.” They put you on the spot. I’ve had things happen to me where you just want to shrivel up.

Sometimes, I go to my happy place and go snowboarding in my head.

JB: (laughing.)

JL: I’ll be behind the camera, and my crew will look at me, and I’ll look at them, and they’ll see in my eyes that I’m dropping in on my first turn. Then I come back and re-think the situation.

One time, I was on a big set in New York, shooting a TV show advertisement. There was a cast of five or six, and I was supposed to start with the first actor, so I had it lit for one person. He was a tough actor to shoot.

I’m trying to get the shot right, and there were at least 45 people on set. The creatives are all staring at the monitor, but I didn’t even see it. They were seeing it first, which is really hard.

So someone said, “Put the whole cast in.” So they put the whole cast in, and I went, “Oh my god.” How do you compose all of those people in a scenario you’re not prepared for? I shot a few frames, and I see art directors turning their heads, going, “Ew. No.”

I pretended to look at my viewfinder, and for 30 seconds, I say absolutely nothing. I was drifting away on a powder turn, in a happy place.

JB: Awesome.

JL: Then I had to get up, take a deep breath, re-compose, and say, “OK. Everyone needs to be off the set. I’m going to re-set for one person.” Because you always want to start out taking good pictures, not crappy pictures.

I said, “Let me do what I want to do first. One person. Standing over there. And let’s go.” They said, “Oh. Ah. That looks great.” And then I was ready to put the other people in the shot.

Sometimes, you have to check out for a second and re-group.

JB: You’re talking about gaining the confidence to assert authority. You have to get comfortable enough in your own skin to know how to crack the whip among people who maybe aren’t used to being told what to do. Right?

JL: Oh my god yes. Let’s say I’m going to shoot the cover of a magazine that I’ve shot maybe 15 times before. Sometimes, I’ll get caught with my guard down, and someone will say, “No. I don’t like this light.” Or, “I don’t like the height of your camera.”

I’ve had that happen to me. I have to remind myself, I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and I know what I’m doing. You have to speak up. I’ll say, “You see that truck over there? I have a truck full of equipment to light anything I want. And right now, the light I have on the subject is the perfect light. Trust me. This is what I’ve been doing for a long time.”

JB: Let’s go with one more question about the celebrities, because I admit I’m curious. Do you watch “Mad Men?”

JL: A little bit. Yes.

JB: Well, I’m a season behind, and hopefully no one will spoil it for me, but I’ve always been amazed with Jon Hamm’s performance in the show. I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he is.

His physicality as an actor is amazing. The way he manipulates his facial muscles and posture as Don Draper, so terribly tense. It’s totally different than when he switches character to Dick Whitman. Everything about the way he holds his jaw, and his cheek muscles. Everything changes. It’s the epitome of art, to watch the physical manifestations of his talent.

I know this is a long question, but because you’ve shot him, I thought you might have some insight into that skill set he has. Maybe he brings it with him to a photo shoot? Or maybe he doesn’t? I was curious about your observations.

JL: The thing about Jon is he can sometimes appear to be goofy. He’s such a good-looking guy, and he is easy to photograph, but he is kind of goofy. Some of the frames I’ll go through, you’ll see the goofiness he has, when you want him to be looking serious.

He’s so playful that in some sense, you’re not getting the frames that you really want. Like the picture on my website, where he’s laying back, in a jacket, looking over at me? We’re watching a World Cup soccer game, and he’s sitting on a bed in a really cool house.

He was talking about the World Cup, so I said, “It’s on right now. Kick back and watch.” He started watching, and I said, “Jon, look over here.” That’s the photo, because he’s so happy he gets to watch a few minutes of the World Cup.

Not that I would normally ever put a TV in front of someone, but it happened to be there.

JB: It says something about your improvisational skills.

JL: That’s why I like that photograph. It’s a fresh, real moment.

JB: Have you seen him literally turn “it” on and off in front of your camera?

JL: Yeah. A lot of people can do that.

JB: I got interested in the idea a few years ago, when I was watching “The American,” a movie that Clooney did. He turned his charisma off, 100%. It was chilling. I didn’t realize until I saw that film how many of these men and women are capable of adjusting their wattage like it’s on a dimmer.

JL: If you can have a choice to shoot someone in or out of character, I’d choose out of character. Because I’m always interested in who they are as a person. It’s easier to shoot someone in character.

JB: How often do you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into a real person, when their job is to obfuscate their personality for a living?

JL: I’m getting them as who they are all the time. I see it. That’s the goal.

But it’s different when you’re shooting a cover of a beauty or women’s magazine. There has to be a certain pose, and a certain look. You’re not necessarily shooting them. You’re shooting a look. That’s what’s so tricky about a cover.

JB: It sounds like a template.

JL: For the covers, yes.

JB: So much of your knowlege has been accrued over time, through experience. Going through the battles, finding your voice as a photographer, and your swagger as an authority figure. The Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, and you’re going to be teaching a workshop there in March called “The Editorial Portrait.

How are you able to translate your experience in a workshop environment?

JL: It’s such a pleasure, and so much fun to do. I basically just dictate my approach to photography. I strip down exactly what I do. I don’t have any secrets. I don’t have a special “guru” light, and no one can know what it is.

All my stuff is pretty basic and simple, and I’m an advocate of “Keep it simple, stupid.” That’s what we say all the time. When I go to set, I usually bring the same things. You have a tremendous amount of equipment sometimes, because if something goes wrong, you have it.

I show how simple it is. I go through my photographs, and I simplify the process. I show them a photograph of Sharon Stone on the beach. It looks like beautiful light, and it is, but it’s just a piece of board bouncing into her face. That’s all it is. Nothing else.

JB: But you live, as you said, in Pacific Palisades. I’m guessing you use that golden, gorgeous, California beach light all the time.

JL: You have that, sure. But heck, I was just in Ireland shooting a “Game of Thrones” character, and I didn’t have that light. But I had the same light source that I always travel with. So I created it.

It’s true that in certain advertising situations, you have to have an arsenal. You have to know how to do the lighting, and it does get complicated. But generally, editorially, it’s more about getting the shot.

I keep it very organic, and let my subject know that’s how we do it. They appreciate it. If something’s not right, I won’t shoot it, and I let the subject know I don’t to waste their time.

I do that with my class, in Santa Fe. I teach them that it’s all about keeping your eyes and ears open for everything. I might put a celebrity on a couch, and someone says, “Hey Jeff, did you see that chair that was in the kitchen? It was really cool.” So we’ll go look at the chair. You’ve got to keep your ears open for all suggestions. It’s not a single-minded set. It’s everyone’s set, in a way.

I encourage that teamwork, as it’s very important.

JB: In your workshop, you have people work together like that?

JL: In the workshop, yes. I teach teamwork, and keeping it simple. We go through edits of photographs, they can see the mistakes I made.

JB: We’ve been talking a lot about how when the technical skills even out, the interpersonal skills dominate. That seems like a difficult thing to impart to others. I get that you do it, but I’m wondering a bit more about the specifics.

How do you teach your students how to be charming, and confident and relaxed, all at the same time?

JL: First, you need to be confident in your equipment. And you can only control so many things in your environment, so I teach people how to control the things that you can.

If you have certain things in place, what’s the worst thing that can go wrong? You need to put everything in place so that you can be confident about yourself. You do your due diligence, you’ve investigated who you’re shooting, you know where you’re shooting. You have your equipment that you know very well.

You know, if you don’t have any sun, that this light source works really well. You know that you have certain tricks that you can do. If you know those tricks, and you feel confident in them, you can be relaxed.

You can be yourself, knowing that you have everything in place. That’s the key.

JB: You use proper organizational skills, as much as anything, to mitigate your stress?

JL: Oh yeah. Beyond a doubt. I make sure everything is in place, and I have a team of people. If you don’t have a team, you have to do it yourself.

JB: When you teach your workshop, you’re able to go through the technical aspects of your work, you look at your student’s work, you present these philosophies, and they learn from you, even if they don’t have a truck full of expensive lighting?

JL: Yes. If I want anyone to get anything out of the workshop, it’s that photography is simple. It doesn’t have to be complicated.

When I was an assistant, and I worked in the grip room at Smashbox studios, I’ll never forget this one experience. Mario Testino was shooting the Gucci campaign. It was late at night, and I was loading the docks.

I remember that the campaign was already out, and I’d seen it. So I went into the studios, and I remember thinking, “That light is incredible.” He was doing some re-shoots, and I saw that he just had a single strobe on a C-stand with a reflector pointed toward the wall. That’s all he used for that campaign.

He could have had any piece of equipment, but he was only using that. That’s the day I realized, “That’s all you need. One light.”

I’ve come to that philosophy, if I have one light, and a couple of simple sources, it allows me to move faster. It lets me think on my feet, and change it up when necessary, to get the shot.

Keeping it simple is the hardest thing to do.

JB: So what’s coming up for you in 2014?

JL: I just came back from Kona yesterday, where I shot a portrait of a golfer. I’ve got a lot of great editorial coming out, but when you shoot celebrities, you can’t really promote it before it comes out.

It’s hard with social media, these days. I can’t say, “I’m on set with so and so, shooting so and so for this magazine.” I can’t do that. I have to wait for it to come out, and by then, I think it’s so old. That’s the downfall of shooting mainly celebrities.

JB: Well, I think I’ve got the perfect topical ending. You want to go topical, and keep it easy?

JL: Yeah.

JB: How about Bieber? You shot that kid. People can’t stop talking about him. What do you have to say?

JL: I feel sorry for him. I do. I feel sorry for all those kids that have to grow up in the spotlight.

He’s making mistakes. I don’t like to hate these guys.

JB: Understood.

JL: But I did ask him to give me a little smile, and he said, “I don’t smile.”

JB: (laughing.) There’s our ending right there.

JL: He was a punk. If you really want to know, he was a punk.

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This Week In Photography Books: Malerie Marder

by Jonathan Blaustein

Roxanne. You don’t have to put on the red light. Those days are over. You don’t have to sell your body to the night.

I can’t imagine how many times I sang that song, back in the 80’s. It’s simply too big a number for me to bother guessing. I sang it as loud as I could, in that phase before I discovered things like Zenyatta Mondatta. (Voices. Inside my head. Echoes. Of things that you said.)

Can you imagine what my parents must have thought. All those parents, rather. Ten year old kids going on about prostitution. Oblivious.

Personally, I was just glad to be able to enjoy a few songs by the same band, rather than having to remember a new strange name every time I heard a song on the radio. (Men Without Hats. The Human League. Etc.)

I didn’t have a clue what the song meant. Obviously. It just sounded cool. Those Police riffs are still magical today, though repackaged/stolen by Bruno Mars, for the 21st Century audience.

But the subject retains its eternal fascination as well. The oldest profession. Paying for sex. I’ve never done it myself, but there was one night in New Orleans, many years ago, when I might have, had the opportunity presented itself.

I have spent a good deal of time in Amsterdam, though. I’ve written about it on several occasions, and always take the chance to say how brilliant that city is. In fact, I just read in Time that Steve McQueen (the alive one, who lives there,) said it’s “full of hardworking, down-to-earth people who don’t really give a damn.”

They have lots of prostitutes there. Sitting in windows. Staring laconically. I’ve never stared back. The Puritanical nature of my NorthEast American roots creeps up not-so-often, but I tend to give the ladies a wide berth.

Even through my peripheral, (and possibly altered) vision, I could see that they were regular looking, sometimes heavyset ladies. Maybe a little worn out. No Showtime/Cinemax lipstick softcore porn goddesses these ladies. No sir.

But that only means that reality is real, and fantasy is not. Which we all knew. Right? It’s not like my former-neighbor Julia Roberts sold an even bigger bill-of-goods a few years after Synchronicity came out. Right? As if George Costanza could ever make a convincing villain. Please.

But what do the ladies really look like, I wonder. We featured a book showing the employees of chicken ranches in Nevada a while back. True. But this is Amsterdam, we’re talking about. With the red lights and all.

Fortunately, Malerie Marder and Twin Palms have given us “Anatomy,” an over-sized, razor sharp, pitiless but charismatic look at the hookers in question.These are terrific, discomfiting but honest photographs. (Honest how? Were they arranged and staged? Probably of course. But are these women authentically who they appear to be? I’d say so.)

There is a photo of a woman of African descent, holding a picture frame. It doesn’t work out right. Two hands holding it, but then another arm right there. I’m still trying to figure it, and how often does that happen?

The latex-on-the-face older vixen repeats towards the end, but that’s the first time I’m sure I’ve seen the same woman before. Had I, though? Given their everywoman-at-Walmart-in-Oklahoma physicality, might I have just assumed they all look alike?

The cover of the book, where another reviewer might have began, has an incised quote that sets up the premise. And that’s all the text you need (or get) until the end. Just a slew of excellent and powerful photographs, which sometimes shift orientation. The print quality, plus the action of shifting the book back and forth, make you slow down with it. (And also make you feel, perhaps, like you’re getting your money’s worth out of a purchase.)

There are some stories that never get old. I recently read that President Obama described his time as Commander-in-Chief as “his” paragraph in a continuing Epic tale. One that often repeats. As human nature, writ large, does not change easily. If at all.

So people will continue to pay women to have sex with them. And men. And children. There are elements of this larger narrative that involve slavery and all sorts of horrors.

But there are also hard working women and men out there who pay for sex, and hard working men and women who pay to be sexed. It’s true, and I’d imagine there are many “real” relationships around the world that are built on that foundation. I’m sure of it.

A book like this, which gets right up in there, and does it with style, feels like a metaphorical financial transaction. Where we’re the John. Except buying photobooks. Get it?

To Purchase “Anatomy” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

This Week In Photography Books: Michael Wolf

by Jonathan Blaustein

Don’t you just love it when things pan out? It doesn’t happen all that often. There are so many things that can muck up the works, when one strives for synchronicity.

Last week, we showed you early work from an acknowledged master: Martin Parr. Wasn’t it fun to see his youthful vision? How sympathetic and romantic were those pictures?

And then this week, we ran an interview with Aline Smithson, who recently published some projects from the 70’s on Lenscratch. Apparently, what’s old will forever be new again. I’m sure there were Pharaohs going on about “ochre is the new black,” but of course we’ll never know. (Unless time travel gets invented one day. And then, I’d probably just ask a Pharaoh why he tried to keep the Jews as slaves. Didn’t he know we were the Chosen People?)

Given the path I’ve unwittingly followed this week, of course the very first book I picked up off the stack, “Bottrop-Ebel 76,” would be a publication of early work from 1976 by Michael Wolf, another of contemporary photography’s darlings. I’d suggest that it was destined to happen, but then I’d probably lose 10% of our readership. (I can only be so much of a new-age-freak before the New Yorkers stop reading in droves.)

Yes, this book even features an amazing photo of a dude with a ladder, just like last week. (Only this time, they were smart enough to put it on the cover.) So, what’s this one about then?

For a university final project, Mr. Wolf hung around the coal miner’s neighborhood of Ebel, in the town of Bottrop. (Hence the title.) Just as I can recall the joy I felt at pointing a 35mm camera at everything that walked, when I was 24 and in Europe, these pictures also reflect a less specific eye.

They’re really good photographs, for sure. The anticipation of a pig’s slaughter, contrasted against the jimmy-rigged football being kicked around in the background. The intensity of a fu-manchu mustache, or the cold eyes of a 12 year old smoking a cigarette. There’s a dude getting naked in his kitchen, and a little girl swinging in a doorway.

All are cool to look at. For sure.

But the closing essay ties these pictures directly to Mr. Wolf’s current work: faces pressed against the cold glass of a Tokyo subway, or the artist’s camera pressed against the computer screen, documenting Google’s world domination.

I don’t see it that way. Just as I was fascinated when I once saw a show of William Eggleston’s first B&W pictures at Cheim and Read, I love looking at where a really good artist comes from. Aline Smithson also referenced how differently we see the world in our 20’s, relative to the wisdom we accrue thereafter. Pushing 40, I’d have to agree with her.

So you might find these pictures brilliant. You might even buy the book. Cool. Enjoy it. But by now we know that’s not why I highlight a photo book each week. I do it because I’m pretty sure you’ll find it interesting, and seemingly, you’ve all learned to trust me. (Suckers.)

Bottom Line: Another look at young work by a famous photographer

To Purchase “Bottrop-Ebel 76,” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

Aline Smithson Interview

- - Photographers

Aline Smithson is a photographer, writer, teacher, and the publisher of the popular photography blog Lenscratch.

Jonathan Blaustein: Looking over your website, one of the things that popped up a few times is that you were born and raised in LA. A couple of blocks off of Hollywood and Vine. Is that right?

Aline Smithson: Yup.

JB: Well, we certainly don’t need to date you, or ask how old you are, because my mamma taught me better…

AS: God bless you.

JB: I write about LA a lot, and visit when I can. I think it’s got a mythology that people around the world are captivated by.

How do you view the place now, and how do you think it’s changed over time?

AS: I actually lived in New York for a long time. I had a whole other career, so I’ve actually seen Los Angeles in two incarnations. I left LA when I was 18, and didn’t go back for about 15 or 17 years.

Growing up, I lived in a very cool neighborhood called Silver Lake, which is now the Brooklyn-hipster community of LA.
It was that way when I grew up: a community of artists, and very ethnically diverse. Beck and Leonardo DiCaprio went to my high school, so I was in good company. Not at the same time I was there unfortunately…

JB: Did they have craft butchers and pickle shops on every corner back then too? As I might imagine they have now?

AS: No. (laughing.) It’s not that kind of community. We’re car centric in LA, so we don’t have things like that. We just go to Whole Foods.

I grew up in this great, nurturing, artistic community. Then I went off to art school, and moved to New York, where I met my husband and had my first child. Then we moved back to LA, and I was sure it would be a short stint, because I swore I would never return. I was a New Yorker by then.

I had my second child while my husband was in grad school, and we decided it was too hard to move back with two kids and live in Manhattan. So we stayed, and it took me a long time to fall back in love with this place. But I have.

What I found interesting when I returned was the influx of whole new communities. Koreatown did not exist, when I was growing up.

JB: As big as it is now, it didn’t even exist?

AS: No. The Asian communities are so much larger. The Persian community, which has now sort of taken over Beverly Hills, did not exist when I was growing up either.

It’s a much more ethnically rich city, and that makes it exciting. Our food choices are truly spectacular. Downtown has completely transformed as well–Photo LA and Art LA were held there. It’s a thriving place to explore, and a great place to shoot.

JB: Your bio says you worked in the fashion industry in your time in New York. What did you do?

AS: I moved to New York to be a painter, doing large abstract oils, and got a job in an art gallery. But I had also grown up with an interest in sewing and fashion. I spent a lot of time on the couch reading fashion magazines, and imagining that lifestyle.

After about a year of working in the gallery, I got very disenchanted. The gallerist that I worked for was very shady. He ended up murdering someone three weeks after I left.

JB: Get out.

AS: Yes, it was called the “Leather Mask Murder.” He was deeply into drugs, and into the gay bar scene, and he had sex with a young, Norwegian fashion student. He put a leather head mask (with no holes) over his head to feel what it was like to have sex with someone who was dying.

They could not convict him, but they got him on tax evasion charges. That’s who I worked for. I had a really bad taste in my mouth about the gallery world, from that one experience.

JB: Sure.

AS: It was eye-opening, because that gallery drew really famous people. I would show work to Diana Ross and Steve Martin and the movers and shakers from all different worlds. I learned so much about NYC in that year.

After that, I got a job putting together fashion shows, even though I had no background in it. And then I traveled around the US and put on shows in different cities. I did that for about a year, through Vogue Patterns, and then they asked me to be their fabric editor. All of this with no background.

JB: So how did it happen?

AS: I’m just a hard worker. I’d grown up sewing, so I knew a lot about fabric. Then I became the fashion editor for not just Vogue Patterns, but also Vogue Knitting. Ultimately, I was responsible for 19 publications a year, and went on all the shoots, and had to learn on the job.

What was unique was that every single day was creative. I picked out all the fabrics for the clothing, worked with the dressmakers, the art director, the accessory editors, hired the models and hair and make-up artists.

Then we made it all come together on the set, and the art director and I had to edit all the film. I did it for 10 years. I worked a lot with Patrick Demarchelier, Mario Testino and many others, and even once with Horst. Just amazing photographers. I learned a lot about working with people from them.

We went on a lot of exotic trips. I know I’m kind of rambling here.

JB: It’s a good story.

AS: For me, though, the job that has influenced me the most was waitressing. I did it all through college. That ability to see the one table, and what they need, but also to see the eight tables in the section, it teaches you to see the minute and the big picture at the same time. And it teaches you how to work with people.

When I applied that to the fashion editor job, it made a huge difference. For instance, we would travel to far flung places where we would not be able to find any accessories or that last minute item. So, before we left, at night, I would lie in bed and imagine the different outfits we were taking. I’d imagine every possible thing I needed to bring, so we were prepared.

It was a fantastic job, and then my husband and I moved to Los Angeles so he could pursue a masters degree in architecture. It was really hard give up a job where you have so much creative expression.

JB: Not that I would ask you to dish, but did you have any personal contact with Anna Wintour? Was she your buddy?

AS: No. Even though Vogue Patterns was at one time associated with Vogue Magazine, it wasn’t in the same building. Though I did interview at Vogue when I first moved to New York, and it was right out of “Devil Wears Prada.” People were raking me up and down.

I have to tell you this story. I went to college in Santa Barbara, so I was not coming with to New York with a suitcase of Chanel suits. I didn’t even own a coat when I arrived. I made one dress for myself. A beautiful Givenchy green silk dress. I wore it to my interview, and they loved it, and asked me back for a second interview.

But it was the only dress I had.

JB: (laughing.) I can see where this is going.

AS: Right. I had to wear it again.

JB: Oh no.

AS: So of course they said, “You’re wearing the same dress as last time.” They remembered.

JB: Of course they did.

AS: And I didn’t get the job. But that’s what gives you character. Going through these things.

JB: While you were working in fashion, were you also taking pictures for fun? Snapshots?

AS: I never considered being a photographer. I was a painter. After we moved to LA, and my kids got a little older, I decided to go back to school and get my degree in fashion design. I went to Otis Parsons, at night and on the weekends. Then, the day I graduated, I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do.

I realized it was way too much about business, and not creativity. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and went into a funk. I decided to take a photography class to learn how to use my camera better, and at the end of that class, the instructor told me I should start showing my work.

I hadn’t put it together. My father was a photographer; we had a darkroom in our basement. My uncle was a travel photographer. And I stood right next to the camera with some of the most amazing fashion photographers. As an editor, you have to see what they see.

I had been surrounded by photography all my life, and yet never considered it as my path. But as soon as I got that camera in my hands, that was it. I never looked back.

JB: I think we all have some version of that Aha moment. But let’s jump ahead a bit. Our readers are by now familiar with my thoughts about the 21st Century Hustle. And you seem to embody that right now.

You’re publish the popular blog Lenscratch, you teach, you make and show your work, and you’re a Mom. I was going to ask how you came to that, but you already described the progression for us. It sounds like you’ve always had multiple talents and interests, and the gumption to go for it.

So this current version of musical chairs is not so different for you?

AS: Yeah, I feel like I’ve always been a multi-tasker. I’m not someone who can just sit down and watch TV. I’m doing five other things at once. But trust me, I AM watching TV while I’m doing them.

I don’t come from any formal education, photographically. So part this journey, for me, especially with Lenscratch, is educating myself. What makes my blog different, maybe, is that I’m really looking at it as someone who is still so excited about photography and wants to figure out why people make the work that they make.

I’m not bringing the intellectual, MFA point of view about the analysis of photography. I just write about work in simple language.

JB: (laughing.) I hate those intellectual MFA types. They’re the worst. (pause.) Shit. Wait a second. I am one of those guys.

You’re answering my questions before I’m asking them, which is not the way it’s supposed to work. I was just about to ask how you came to found Lenscratch. It’s a very popular blog, where you show a different photographer’s work every day.

How many years has this been going on?

AS: Almost seven years.

JB: Almost seven years. Every day.

AS: Every day.

JB: That sounds like a lot of work.

AS: Hell yes. I’ve developed a muscle. It’s really helped me write. I write quickly now. A lot of students will send me their statements, and I can whip out the edit in ten minutes.

I’m getting to the point where I need to shift. I want spend more time on my photography. I want to put that role first.

I don’t want to get off topic, but I’ve noticed lately how quickly people are churning out new work. As a reviewer for Critical Mass, when I see a new body of work from someone every year, and sometimes two or three a year, I wonder if that project has had time to percolate.

JB: You make a good point. It’s crossed my mind a bit lately. A new body of work becomes a product line. Just like, back in the day, when the car companies would totally change the design of each car every year.

At some point, the hustle does begin to take away from the contemplative, creative practice that art is supposed to be about. We’re all working so hard to pay the bills, and still have time to make art, it’s very easy to lose sight of what you’re talking about.

If you’re always thinking about the next marketing campaign, it stands to reason you might have less time to think about how to make the pictures better, and what your process means to you.

AS: Frankly, I haven’t been pushing my work out for about two years. Maybe I needed that time to reboot. A lot of my work is conceptual and you can’t churn that out quickly.

We all love to make work. That’s the high that we get from this journey. The making of the work is the reward, not anything else.

As you get further along in your career, have your museum show, and meet the traditional goals one seeks as a photographer, it doesn’t feel like what you think it’s going to feel like. It’s just another marker. And when the fanfare dies down, you realize you have to start from square one again.

The true thing that gives you the high is the making of the work in the first place. I think that’s why people push work out so quickly. Creating work is a joyous thing.

JB: It’s really easy to forget why we fell in love with the process. We think acclaim was the goal. Social media makes that part worse too. We’ve become so accustomed to the instant gratification. And signs of popularity.

AS: Some of the major players, they’re not on Facebook and tweeting. They’re busy making work.

JB: Right.

AS: And I think about all the time we waste on social media that we could fold back into our journey. I’m really re-thinking it.

JB: I’m trying to build structure in the way I use the tools. I think they’re brilliant. But I also think they’re addictive, so I’m trying to find some structure to limit that pull. I began to feel like the monkey tapping at the lever all day to get the peanut.

AS: That’s a great description.

JB: Thanks. Tap. Tap. Tap. I don’t want to do that anymore.

With all the things you do that we’ve talked about, I want to focus on the teaching a bit. This interview is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and you’re giving a workshop there this March.

Could we talk a bit about your teaching philosophy? What do you think are some of the key elements of being a great educator?

AS: I’ll give you a little history on my teaching career. Never in a million years did I think I’d be a teacher, though my mother and sister were teachers.

I used to have two great fears in my life: snakes, and public speaking. About 13 years ago, I went to a portfolio review with Julia Dean, who has a photography school in LA. She was there, along with the photo editor of the LA Times.

I was working alone in the darkroom, at that time. I had two or three photo friends, and no real photo community, beyond the darkroom. About a month later, Julia called me up and asked me to teach her toy camera classes, because that’s how I was working back then.

I told her I was too afraid to stand up there in front of people, and she said, “I’ll teach with you. I’ll help you.” So I went to the doctor, and asked if there was a pill for the fear of public speaking, and he said yes.

JB: (laughing.) It’s called Valium.

AS: No. It’s called Inderal. It’s a beta blocker.

JB: I was kidding. You’re serious?

AS: Yes. If you ever have to give a lecture, and you’re a little panicky, it’s called Inderal. It’s a beta blocker that keeps your heart beating at a regular pace. You can get scared, but you can’t panic.

It really helped me. I started out teaching toy camera classes, and then realized that no one was teaching anything about the journey of the photographer, at least in Los Angeles.

I began to teach things like how to navigate the fine art world, and learning from the mistakes that we make. Those classes helped build a fine art community in Los Angeles, and now I am so lucky to have a huge community of photo friends, many who have taken my classes. I work hard at keeping us all connected.

When the Santa Fe Workshops asked me to teach for them three years ago, I realized it was an opportunity to combine several of those classes into something titled “The Big Picture“. I help photographers become more visually sophisticated, give them a tool belt of ideas for making imagery, and then put it all into context of how to shape work and launch it into the fine art market.

Students finish the class having written their statement, bio, and are working on a resume. I try to answer every question a photographer has about the complex world of navigating the fine art market. And it’s in a very safe, nurturing environment for anyone at any point on their journey.

You asked about my philosophy as a teacher?

JB: Yes.

AS: When I was in art school I had some crippling critiques, that I can still remember. I decided I was never going to be the kind of teacher that devastates students. I really teach with enthusiasm and the idea of possibility. I look at every student, no matter how unsophisticated the work, and believe they have the potential to make amazing work.

I’ve seen it happen in my classes, right in front of me. The work they bring in initially is something they been doing in a vacuum. Then they see the bigger picture, figure out other ways of working, mine their own lives for subject matter, and then, all of a sudden, incredible work begins to emerge.

JB: You encourage them, I imagine, to mine their own lives. You say it like it’s an afterthought. But for so many people, when they first start out, they’re doing it for entertainment. For diversion. We all know how exciting it is when you first learn you can “rectangularize” the world.

That initial impulse can only carry one so far, before you need to become willing to inject yourself into it. To learn the self-criticality that is so necessary to improve.

You’ve explained that you’re positive and supportive. But what are your tricks for getting people to have the bravery to look at themselves, and then to share?

AS: I create a safe environment, where I don’t say anything negative. Instead I show them something different. There’s a way to guide someone without annihilating them, and that’s the way I work.

I feel like a photo-therapist. I know that sounds crazy, but…

JB: No. I love it. I’m not going to steal it, but I love it.

AS: Sometimes, I feel like the photo whisperer too. When I do portfolio reviews, I ask photographers to tell me their life story before I look at their work. Because I want to know what brought them to make the work they’re doing. Sometimes, I’ll see a connection to their life that they don’t even see themselves.

It’s the recognition of why they’re making the visual choices that they’re making. I also think I’m just very personal.

JB: Looking at your work, two words that kept popping up for me. Family and history. You’ve photographed your daughter extensively, and a project about your mother was recently featured on Lens.

Do you feel a connection with the past? Or am I over-reaching?

AS: It’s interesting. Because I came to photography later in life, I look backwards as easily as I look forward. When you’re in your twenties, you’re always looking forward. I’m in a position where I’m considering life in a different way. That just comes with age.

I think I would be a much more irreverent, edgy photographer if I was in my twenties right now. You get an attitude in art school that you are the next great thing and like to challenge the norm. But now I have more wisdom and an understanding of humanity.

I’m not so flippant. We’re so quick to judge the things we don’t understand. With Lenscratch, I often find that when I don’t like work, I force myself to spend more time with it, so I can understand it.

JB: (pause.) The quiet moments don’t show up so well in the transcript, but you definitely shut me up there for a moment.

It’s something I probably need to work on. In my role as critic, in parallel to being an artist, I’ve probably become a bit comfortable in the seat of judgement.

AS: That’s something I find really obnoxious in photography today. The quick judgement.

JB: Did you just call me obnoxious? Or can we assume you mean other people?

AS: No, no. There is a lot of photo crap out there. Fine. Judge it. But I try to slow down in that judgement, and try not to make it public. That’s just me. If I don’t like something, I don’t put it out into the world. Being an artist is a tough road, and criticism is subjective.

JB: I do have a hard time sorting out how you juggle all of it, but you have an active exhibition record as well. Do you have any shows coming up?

AS: Yes, I have a show coming up in May at the Davis Orton Gallery in New York. And I’ve got some group shows coming up in LA, Palm Springs and San Francisco. I might have a solo show in Paris this year.

JB: We’ve been talking a lot about slowing down, and being more contemplative. One word that hasn’t come up yet is patience, which I’m still learning. People can’t see the video of you, obviously, but you project an aura of calm. Almost equanimity. Do you feel like patience is a strength for you?

AS: Jonathan, that’s such a brilliant observation. Because I feel like I was always the last one to get asked to dance or picked for the team. I’ve had to be patient in life, but I also don’t have huge expectations. I’m always thrilled when something happens for me, but I’m OK when it doesn’t. I’m not waiting for recognition. I just want to make more photographs.

This week on Lenscratch, I posted all about work that’s 30 years old. I think it’s really interesting that these photographers are getting their moment in the sun now. Three of the photographers I featured are 2013 Critical Mass winners, and for two of them, it’s work that was made in the 70’s and 80’s.

If that’s not patience, I don’t know what is.

 

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This Week In Photography Books: Martin Parr

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was just watching the oddest film. It’s a Western called “Paint Your Wagon, made in 1969. The movie features two of the best faux-cowboys who ever lived: Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin.

What’s strange about that, you ask? Fair question. Two infamous tough guys in a Western. That’s what most people would call normal.

Except this Western was also a musical. And both of those badasses were singing their hearts out. Can I get a WTF? (Though one might rightly mention it’s not much weirder than Russell Crowe belting melodies as Javert in the film version of Les Mis. Maybe he salvaged his performance, but I couldn’t make it past 15 minutes.)

Where was I? Right. Clint and Lee. At one point, early on, Lee Marvin admits to having melancholy. Which seems like an olden-days code word for depression. But I can see how they would have preferred the former moniker, as it has a sense of romance to it.

Lee Marvin was telling Clint that solitary mountain men, on certain cold, wet days, could get lonesome in a way that was more like a disease. It hit home, as I’d seen those same weary eyes just this morning, as I drove my son up the hill to school.

We haven’t had much snow here in Taos lately. It’s been discomfiting, but also pleasurable, to bask in the 48 degree days, flush with sun. Until yesterday. When a sorry-gray-haze descended from the North. It’s cold now in a way that makes you sad. No two ways about it.

I tried to explain that to my son, but, as he’s only 6, he was dubious. He blamed it on the fact that he didn’t like his substitute kindergarten teacher. But I knew better. He merely had a case of melancholy. (As do I, at the moment. Truth be told.)

Which is why “The Non-Conformists,” a new Aperture book by Martin Parr, is perfect to share with you today. It will allow me to disseminate some bleary sorrow around the planet tomorrow, when this article will be published. (Does that make me a wintry-grinch? An emo-scrooge?)

The book, which features a fair bit of well-written text by the artist’s wife, Susie Parr, was made in and around the Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge in the North of England. Now, I don’t know if the East Midlands counts as the North of England…but if it does, I can personally verify that it’s the bleakest, coldest place I’ve ever been. So these photos made a lot of sense to me today.

The project should be super-interesting to you, as it was made in the mid-70’s, very early in Mr. Parr’s career. In fact, you may never have seen these pictures before. And they do capture the idealistic spirit of the youthful eye, I’d say. They’re nostalgic, and almost sentimental. The scathing wit and prodigious use of color, for which Mr. Parr is so-well-known, had not yet emerged in his style.

The pictures are stark, yes, but they’re very respectful. Mr. and Mrs. Parr, who were not-yet-married at the time, spent a year or so documenting the parts of the local culture they were sure would soon disappear. Things like a family-run mine, a cinema with a projector run on carbon, and a beautiful brick chapel in Crimsworth Dean, that has since been converted, we are told, into a private residence.

The pictures are really good, for the most part, and a few are downright brilliant. An early image, just before the title page, shows a man perched one-footed on the top of a step-ladder, mending a door frame. If I were to ever select a photograph as perfect, this might be the one.

Later, we see a traveling hairdresser, and two white mice adorning a man’s hand, as a part of a “mouse show.” (Obviously. Hasn’t everyone been to a mouse show before? Not me. I just kill the bastards whenever I get the chance.)

Back in the day, when I was growing up, schools used to be into making time capsules. You know, burying something in the ground to be dug up at a later date. That’s what this book feels like to me. More than anything, it’s an effort at cultural preservation.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got to tend to my fire, and think up some other ways to put a smile on my face. Since I’ve just passed along the melancholy to you, I’m beginning to feel better already.

Bottom Line: Some fascinating, early B&W work by Martin Parr

To Purchase “The Non-Conformists” Visit Photo-Eye

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

This Week In Photography Books: Pepa Hristova

by Jonathan Blaustein

The French have laws to protect their culture. Films. Cheese. What have you. It’s embedded in the legal code; a bulwark against rampant McDonaldStarbuckWalmartization.

Similarly, the Romans insist a good tomato sauce can include garlic or onions. But not both. Try to mess with a traditional recipe there and you’ll be met with either shock and horror, or anger and gesticulation. It’s not the done thing, messing with their bucatini all’amatriciana.

It’s these little, idiosyncratic elements of human existence that differentiate one society from another. Culturally speaking. We all need food, water, shelter, family, and a way to provide for ourselves. These are non-negotiable elements of human existence.

On the big stuff, almost all human societies have come to an agreement. A roof over you head is better than a cave. Toilets are preferable to outhouses. Cell phones are better than smoke signals. And guns and ammo are more efficient than bows and arrows.

Yet in some places, black is a funerary color, while elsewhere it’s white. Which is the proper bridal color at weddings in some places, while elsewhere it’s red. Rotten shark meat is a delicacy in Iceland, but you couldn’t get me to eat it for $50. I’ll tell you that much.

These details have fascinated photographers for as long as we’ve used cameras. Why? Because we’re observers, and the camera is the ultimate recording device.

With respect to the weird stuff, in the 21st Century, if something eccentric is going on in any part of the world, the global photo community has heard about it. Last summer, for instance, I saw a project about a small community in the Albanian mountains. There, unlike everywhere else, (except Northampton, MA,) there is a group of women who live their lives as men. They take an oath, swear to be asexual, and are left to walk the earth as if they were Adam rather than Eve.

I mentioned the project to one of my editors, who told me he’d seen photos of the sub-culture before. Everyone knows about it already, it was suggested. So I was not exactly shocked when I picked up “Sworn Virgins,” a new book by Pepa Hristova, published by Kehrer Verlag, which presents a thorough portrait-based examination of the women/men. (The narrative is introduced by a set of establishment shots with a serious cinematic bent.)

I’m not sure you’ve seen this world before, though, and the book is very well put together, so I thought I’d share it with you today. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the artist is derivative; rather that it’s just really hard to find something new to observe these days.

What most interested me about the book was its seeming anonymity. The title and artist’s name are incised into the spine, but were not legible. And there is no title page, or authorial information in the front of the book at all. So it wasn’t until I scoured the end credits that I even found the artist’s name.

Lacking that knowledge, I was left with only the story to parse. The book is divided into segments that are separated by a few pages of small, pink paper. Each contains the subject’s name, and a brief bit of info about each of them. (Great use of a paper change to keep the viewer interested.)

You’ll be enchanted by the weathered lines in each woman’s face, and scratch your head in wonder at the veracity of their biological sexuality. A woman? Really? Can it be?

Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll just think they’re sequestered lesbians living in a world that created a convoluted way of explaining human sexuality. Further text suggests that the tradition evolved out of a dearth of men, as so may Albanians died at the hands of violent vendettas. (Albanians being to Italians, gangster wise, what Russians are to Jews.)

OK. You get the point. This book will provide a window into one more way of understanding the absurdity of the human condition. Is it for you? I don’t know. I guess that depends upon what your definition of is is.

Bottom Line: A well-made book that explores Albanian transvestites

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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

Thoughts for 2014

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Hubris. Such a strange word. Like a mashup of a WASP first name, and a Jewish penis-snipping ceremony that sanctifies a covenant with G-d.

Hubris relates to that innate human tendency to presume we know too much. The Greeks covered this one pretty well with the Icarus myth, and it’s a story continues to be retold through time. (Even by the future giant hairless rats, I’m sure.)

I mention it because it’s the first full week of 2014, and I’ve already found myself in a spot of bother. Totally preventable, of course.

Though I’m sitting at home by the fire, just yesterday, I found myself swimming beside my wife in the steel gray Caribbean Sea. It was no form of azure, as storms had been about all week. The waves were so big the surfers were out, and they’re about as common on the Mayan Riviera as Mafiosi rats. (Another type of giant mostly-hairless rodent.)

There we were, Jessie and I, in the empty ocean. The sky was gray like silver is gray. Or fire smoke. Or hair on an old man’s chest.

The air temperature matched the sea, so it was lovely out there. The shore was so-much-less-compelling to view than the undulating ripples, so I turned away from land. The water shimmered geometrically on every surface as the waves rolled, like perfect fractals of ocean-y goodness.

So beautiful, I thought. So beautiful. I was at peace.

I swam towards the open water. Just a bit, it seemed; seduced by sirens bearing peach margaritas. I floated on my back and lost myself for a minute or two, staring up at those 57 shades of gray.

Finally, I looked back to shore. Jessie was about forty yards closer than I, but we were both further out than I’d ever swam.
Dangerously far, in these conditions. I caught a breath, and noticed the current was actively taking us out to sea.

I high-tailed it in, varying strokes, swimming hard, and barely made a dent in the distance. We yelled to each other, time to get out of here, but ocean merely shrugged.

My folks were back at the apartment with my two kids. What would happen, I thought?

I was genuinely afraid.

I tried to keep calm, and swam as hard as I could, timing my strokes with the incoming waves. Fighting against the amoral current. Finally, I was able to grab hold of a floating rope. Jessie took the free safety’s angle, and met me at the same moment. I thought we were safe.

Then I looked up, and a huge wave was about to crash on our heads. “Dive,” I yelled. We went under, and felt the full force of fury. “Grab the rope,” I yelled. “It’s raking my neck,” she screamed, and she swam away.

After a few more minutes of walking through quicksand, finally, battered, we were ashore. Shaken. The adrenal glands, which fired again later that day at the abysmal #AmericanAirlines counter in Cancun Airport, have left a sour aftertaste with today’s morning coffee.

But my wife and I, thankfully, are none the worse for wear.

Just the day before, I was bragging to her how much experience I had in the water, from summer camps and growing up at the beach. I sounded like a younger, far less macho version of a Jewish Hemingway. (Too bad I hadn’t smoked one of the ubiquitous Cuban Cigars in his honor. Big ups to you, Papa.)

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© Yousuf Karsh

At night, driving home from the airport beneath the half-moon-black-night sky, she asked me if I’d ever been that scared in the ocean. “No,” I replied. Or at least not since the time I tried to body surf shore breakers in Sea Bright, and ended up with pebbles embedded in my forehead, on top of a nearly broken neck. (You can ask my cousin Daniel, if you don’t believe me.)

Do I have a point? It’s this. The New Year is upon us. Whether I ever meant to or not, I’ve turned this column into a space where you can expect to be entertained, and hopefully have your thoughts provoked. (Occasionally, I’ve been known to give unsolicited advice.) We all enjoy looking at the photo books, so don’t worry, the reviews will be back next week, in addition to the usual mix of interviews and travel articles.

But today’s thought is this: why not make a New Year’s resolution that challenges the core of who you are? Clearly, I need to work on my humility. So I’ll give it a try. Where are you weak? How can you strengthen those muscles?

Lastly, I’d like to acknowledge the obvious with our comment section. In 2013, after years of suffering insanely rude reactions to our hard work, we decided to moderate. As such, it’s become a much quieter place.

I’d like to suggest that collectively, we might find ways to use it as a public forum again. One with more behavior restrictions, I readily admit, but wasn’t that what most of us always longed for? Civil discourse?

If it’s possible to revive it as a viable resource for others, I’m willing to chip in. Best wishes, and Happy New Year! (Again with the exclamation points.)

To purchase “Karsh Beyond the Camera” visit photo eye

The Best Work I Saw in 2013 that I Haven’t Already Written About Yet: “Portraits.” by Luc Tuymans

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

“There is no better feeling than stumbling upon genius of which you were completely unaware!”

That’s what I jotted in my little notebook. I normally eschew exclamation points, but in this case, it was quicker than going with ALL CAPS. Dropping an exclamation point at the end of that sentence was my way of speaking to my future self. This is so brilliant, JB! You can’t forget how brilliant it is, JB! Never Forget!

About what was I jotting shoddily coded messages, scribbled in fourth-grade quality handwriting? I was in an art exhibition featuring the best work I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet.

Ah yes. My iconoclastic version of a “best of” column. Of course I’m far too “rebellious” to just do a “best of” photobook list, like everyone else. Each year, I do it my own way, and it has managed to kick off an unexpected sh-tstorm two years running.

Not this year. Oh no. I’m going to tweak my own rule a bit. Did you notice the column was titled “work” this year, rather than photos? We’re exploiting a technicality so I can present to you “Portraits.” by Luc Tuymans, recently published by Yale University Press and the Menil Collection.

There I was, standing in the middle of Mr. Tuymans’ exhibition, “Nice,” at the Menil Collection in Houston last month, when I wrote the aforementioned note. Please, remember how good this is, I said to myself. Go out into the world and tell the masses. Visit this free exhibition. It’s a soul colonic in these holiday-season-over-eating-meat-fest times. (The exhibit is on view through January 5th.)

Truth be told, I talked two random strangers into coming inside before I even got to the front door. A young, African-American couple called out to ask me directions to the Rothko Chapel. I told them they needed to follow me inside first, before walking the block-and-a-half up the tree-lined street. So they did.

The reason this column is long this week, in addition to my overly-ambitious espresso consumption on Christmas Eve morning, is that this exhibition was the antipodal node to the Mike Kelley exhibit I saw in Amsterdam in the spring. (Which is currently on view at MoMAPS1.)

If you don’t recall, that was the mid-life-crisis-inducing art exhibit I wrote about in April. It gave me a near-panic attack about just being mortal; not a transcendent genius for all time. Oh the shame! I was upset at first, as Mr. Kelley’s manic, dystopic mastery over so many media meant I was far more pedestrian than my ego had previously led me to believe.

It hurt like a hemorrhoid. Yes, a hemorrhoid popped up on my soul for a few hours. Shrieks rang out in my ears, first of pain, and then of joy. I was liberated; free to just be a regular artist who loves spending time with his family, and watching soccer games on the TV each weekend.

I was free to make my art because I wanted to, not because future art-historians were playing space-jenga while waiting for my works to wind their way through time. I could feel the pulse of Mr. Kelley’s illness as it pervaded the unbelievably excellent objects before me. It was unsettling genius, and I grew to like the feelings it evoked. Eventually.

Fast Forward to November of the same year. I was visiting Houston, as I had photographs in an exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography, which is one block from the Menil Collection. One might say it was destined that I see Mr. Tuymans’ show.

The book is all I have to show you, so show you I will. I mentioned a technicality earlier, and it’s this: the art objects I’m describing are reproduced here as photographs. So…technically…this is a photobook review.

Without exaggeration, I went back into the show, “Nice,” four times over a two hour period. Here’s why.

The exhibition opens with a metaphorical and literal trinity: a Spanish Colonial wooden head of Christ, a primal-looking bronze-age mask from Syria, and a small painting of a cropped Old Man’s head called “Donation,” from 2005, by Luc Tuymans. The triumvirate spoke with an authoritative but quiet voice: “Art has been a part of culture for as long as culture has existed. As has the worship of powers unknowable.”

I spent precious minutes with everything I would soon encounter, staring in wonder. The energy radiating off the objects was so intense, I felt as if red-and-black ants were gnawing on my toes. Religious fervor, the angst of death, the seduction of power, the wonder of creation, all these messages were pulsing through the space.

The mask was a predominant theme throughout, almost always giving me the joyous willies. One piece, from Vancouver Island, found/taken by Captain James Cook, sat beside what I was sure was a ceramic death mask of André Breton. Creepy-tastic.

The book confirms that Mr. Breton was alive at the time, so the piece was not actually a death mask. It just really, really seemed like one. That the two pieces shared a room with an austere portrait of Condy Rice should tell you all you need to know about how a certain dry humor can seep into even a room filled with eerie remnants of the past.

I should probably say something about Mr. Tuymans’ paintings, as they manage to both anchor the space, and hold their own with these ancient companions, which I was told he selected himself. The work manages to be primal and poetic, contemporary but elegiac. It’s all about balance, and he almost always gets it right. (One notable exception was the painting, “Iphone,” but everyone’s allowed a mulligan.)

The palette is stripped down. Super-subtle. Almost pastel. At one point, as I stared, I thought I could detect the legacy of Monet. But the colors are always beautiful and succinct. They go together like candy canes and Christmas.

As I admitted, I didn’t know who he was before I stumbled upon the show. (Though I had heard his name before.) So I began to piece things together, over the four trips, and even found myself discussing things with fellow viewers. (Is he French or German? I don’t know. Could be either. Luc is a French name, but the work seems more Germanic to me? We wondered.)

Turns out, he’s Belgian, and I could see the imprint of both the French and Flemish influences. The deft handling of light made me think of the Dutch tradition, and the sense of eccentric whimsy, just on this side of good taste, made me think of the French.

There were paintings of Jesus, politicians, war criminals, religious figures, and other things as well. (Including masks.) One portrait, titled “Portrait,” from 2000, held me rooted to the wood floor. It was the eyes. They were beatific. Glowing.

They connected perfectly with the Egyptian encaustic paintings, from the Roman era, to be found in another room. Haunting eyes. Eyes that were meant to be preserved by conservators until the Giant Rats take over. (If you doubt me, read the brilliant two-part series by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker this month. Apparently, giant hairless rats of the future might start wearing the skins of the creatures they kill, like futuristic-cave-man-monsters. At least we won’t be around to see it…)

In the book, which provides background material for the objects and paintings, I learned the painting was a cropped rendering of a photo of a gay man showing off his tattoos for a lover. An unfamiliar woman and I chatted about whether it was a self-portrait, so sure were we there was a reason why the painting had extra oomph.

Tuymans, again in balance, manages to present his work in the context of historically important art, while still communicating that he’s doing it for the right reasons. He comes across as merely another artist plugging away, unsure what people will do with his pictures when he’s dead and gone. (Albeit a wildly talented one.)

There was a light-absorbing Ad Reinhardt painting about, and a giant gold leaf piece by Yves Klein shimmered like heat waves rising off of the Mojave pavement at 4pm in summer. You notice an abstraction of yourself in its reflection, almost as if you’re rendered by Tuymans in gold.

Picasso made an appearance, as they were displaying a piece that had been attacked by an insane art student in the recent past, and then restored. I noted to myself that when Picasso becomes an after-thought, you know you’re in a very special place.

The references to death, religion, and history are inescapable. I was haunted by a Gothic stone headpiece from France, and it’s certain to pop up in my dreams in the next few years. (Creepy dead stone French guy, go bother someone else.)

Basically, this exhibition was life affirming, while Mr. Kelley’s was ultimately nihilistic. It reminded me I had no idea what people would think of my work after I died. No one can know that. So it ought not be why we make it. Do it for now, for you, not for those jenga-playing-future-historians.

That’s what was so genius! about this exhibition, and why you should go, if you can. In combining the Old with the New, it reminds us that the urge to create and collect is timeless.

But we are not.

The craftsman who carved that Spanish Colonial Christ head, at the entrance, could not possibly have conceived of the place where his work currently resides. It would appear in his mind as a fantasy, like the first sailing ships seen by Native Americans.

What a refreshing reminder. Make things because you want to. Because it gives you joy. That’s what I took away from Luc Tuymans’ exhibition. We’re here for a short while, and then dead forever. Give it all you’ve got.

I’d like to imagine that Mr. Kelley and Mr. Tuymans crossed paths on the Super-Duper-Art-Star circuit one day. Perhaps in Basel, or Beijing. Maybe Mr. Tuymans put his hand on Mr. Kelley’s shoulder, coldly looked him in the eyes, and nodded. Empathetically.

And maybe Mr. Kelley, eyes despondent, nodded back and smiled. Mr. Tuymans might have gripped and squeezed his counterpart’s shoulder, in an avuncular way, and smiled back. Then they parted, each to schmooze a different billionaire collector.

But maybe, just maybe, Mike Kelley went home that night, looked in the mirror, and decided he could fight back his demons for a few more days.

That’s all I’ve got for you in 2013. Stay strong. Keep going. And if the giant hairless rats knock at your front door, just tell them you’re not home.

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