Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

Jock Sturges Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: How did you come to photography as a method of expression?

Jock Sturges: It’s an important question, because the answer sets the groundwork for my whole life’s work. At age eight, I was sent away to summer camp. And, from eight on, I was in boarding schools or summer camp right until I joined the Navy in 1966.

That’s pretty young to be away from home. These were all boys boarding schools and all boys camps. I had as well four brothers, all of whom were similarly sent away. No sisters.

So, as circumstance dictated it was in these schools and camps where I was obliged to find what family I could – amongst the other boys. And right from the beginning I had an appetite for beauty. Due to a chain of circumstances that involved several broken arms, I wasn’t allowed to do sports for several years, and ended up swiping a camera from one of my roommates who had in turn swiped it from his dad. I was eventually able to make prints from the work I was doing. My roommate’s mother came up for a visit and saw some of the prints of her son on the wall and took them down and kept them. 

JB: (laughing.) For real?

JS: But she paid me for them!

JB: OK. 

JS: What was then a small fortune.

JB: How old were you?

JS: I was about eleven at that point.

JB: You sold your first work at eleven? I haven’t heard that before.

JS: Right away, I discovered that many of my friends’ parents suffered from guilt for having sent their children away to school so young, so, as it happened, there was a nice market there for me. Some of my friends in turn figured out that they were a kind of cash register, and wanted a cut of course 

JB: I sold lanyards. I had a friend making them, and I was basically the middle man, selling lanyards around the lunchroom in what was probably seventh grade. I think you have me beat, for an early understanding of capitalism. 

JS: The capitalism was a side affect for me. It was certainly very much enjoyed, because we had no spending money. But really I was keeping the images of my friends because at the end of the school year, or the end of summer, many kids would disappear. You’d never see them again. Their parents would be transferred to Europe, or wherever.

It was a way of keeping family. And beauty was also a big part of that for me. Boys can be very beautiful, and I was drawn to it, right from the beginning. Long before that, when I was five, my parents moved into a house in Providence that belonged to my great uncle Howard Sturges – a legendary bon-vivant who was Cole Porter’s partner for much of his life. Anyway, there was a big set of US Camera Annuals, in the bookshelves of that house, which I just loved. There, inexplicably, I fell in love with Grace Kelly because of two images of her swimming in Lake Como. I had a massive crush on her. I was five or six.

I don’t have any particular explanation for why that aesthetic appetite exists in Homo Sapiens, even in young children, but there it is. 

JB: I was going to ask if you were coming from the North East. Was your family part of the cultural tradition of boarding school? 

JS: In fairness to him, my father had been sent away at the same age himself. It was just how it was done. The English pattern. My family came from money, but several generations before them. I like to describe them as camped in the ashes of a great fortune. 

So I grew up with the trappings of privilege, but almost none of the economic leverage. The good schools, etc, were actually paid for by a relation. I came out of that, making photographs all the time, but mostly just of the other boys, because that’s who I was around. It wasn’t until after four years in the military, where I was a Russian interpreter living in Japan for three years, that I found myself finally in a context that included women.

This was Marlboro College in southern Vermont. It was very small, 200 students, and I arrived right at the height of the sexual revolution. The school’s only rule was, whatever you’re doing, just please close your door. 

That was paradise for me. I was finally in the context of women, and finally really happy socially because the truth was, I’d never much liked talking about cars and…

JB: Sports? 

JS: About cars and sports. Exactly. The conversation with women was instantly more interesting to me than any conversations I’d had before. The critic, AD Coleman, has since described me as having a strong feminine aspect, and I really appreciated that clear perception of who I am. It realys fit with my own sense of self.

From that point on, I only really photographed girls and women.

JB: But your first experience, based upon your age, and the age group of the kids with whom you were billeted, was in photographing young boys.

JS: Very much so.  My cofrères.

JB: Is that something you think people are familiar with?

JS: It’s been in an interview here or there, but it’s kind of the bedrock of where it all comes from.

JB: At what point in your evolution as a photographer did you start working with nudes?

JS: Not for a long time. When I was at Marlboro, in Vermont, I did some. But the work then was really fueled more by hormones than intelligence. I was 22 or 23 years old, and new to the game of sex and relationships. Making pictures of naked women struck me as an enjoyable endeavor. But it left me feeling hollow, somehow dishonest, so I stopped pretty quickly

Then in 1973 I took a feminist workshop in Minneapolis/St Paul as part of a larger workshop I was doing on alternative education. It changed my life significantly, because, for the first time, I started to really appreciate the problem with objectification in nude photography — and how much of traditional photography of women was hard on them as a group. Abrasive, even.

I came away from that deciding I didn’t want to make photographs like that, and I actually stopped doing nudes for almost ten years. But then, almost accidentally, I stumbled upon the fact that making portraits of people over a long period of time transitioned the work from being about the body to being about relationship. In the same time frame I found myself in a counter-culture context in California where nudity was commonplace and shame absent. This was an epiphany for me!

This encounter with people who had no complex about simply being naked combined with my experience with feminism in the early 70′s and set me on a completely different path from where I started. Very happily so, because, since then, I have not photographed a great many people, but I have photographed the people I do photograph a great many times.

JB: So what led to photographing younger girls was that starting earlier enabled you to potentially open up a lengthy, multi-decade process?

JS: That’s exactly right. In fact, as time went on, I got more and more interested in even starting with pregnancies, when possible — starting as early as possible so that I felt like, when I’d been photographing for a number of years, that I really knew something. 

Now, I’m photographing a third generation. You begin to have something on the order of a significant understanding of who a person is when you’ve known her parents, and then their parents before that, most of their lives.

The first two Aperture books did me a real disservice, in that respect. Michael Hoffman refused to allow me to edit them chronologically, as I wanted to. I had edited my first book, “The Last Day of Summer,” with a great editor from Aperture, and we had worked it out together as a chronology to our mutual satisfaction. With each of the models depicted, you’d see them getting older image by image, and that painted the picture of a relationship.

That didn’t suit Hoffman at all. He wanted to edit it graphically, so he ditched our chronology as not interesting, and basically did it as an exercise in graphics. His mantra was, “You don’t know anything about making books. I do. Shut up.”

JB: Had you gotten your way, it sounds like you would have created something within the realm of what Nicholas Nixon did with “The Brown Sisters,” which, of course, drew him massive acclaim.

JS: Exactly right. I’d been doing lifetime studies for a long time at that point. I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t just pictures of pretty girls, it was a long-term relationship with a huge amount of respect as the engine, and that the project was open-ended and continuing.

All my subsequent books with Scalo and Steidl, etc, and, after Hoffman was gone, even with Aperture were in fact edited chronologically.

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1990

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 1996

Fanny; Montalivet, France, 2011

JB: It seems like a great opportunity to talk a bit about the way your vision of your own process, your motivations and intellectual curiosity, have led you in one direction. Clearly, the elephant in the room here is the way an audience, critics, and other people have responded to what you’re doing.

It’s not edgy here to say your work is among the more controversial that’s come around in the last three or four decades. 

Can we start with the way you react to other peoples’ reactions? What’s it like for you, when you feel your own actions are coming from one place, and other people are responding from such a massively different set of assumptions?

JS: The Aperture book set off a certain amount of reaction that was conservative, as you depict. I think, if it had been edited chronologically, that wouldn’t have necessarily been the case, as much as it turned out to be. Subsequently, most of those critical voices have gradually been stilled, by seeing the chronologically edited books, and the long, long timespans.

And then came the Aperture book, with Misty Dawn which described a quarter of a century of her life. That kind of calmed people down. It became impossible not to realize that there had to be a profound level of trust between a model, who was letting herself be photographed for that many years, and who then entered her own child into the process. There’s no harm being done there. Just the opposite, in fact.

In fact, the work is reifying, and re-enforcing in a very positive way for the models. Simply put, the people whom I photograph love both the process and the work. People who are too conservative to appreciate that, frankly, just don’t interest me that much. I’m fine with how the work is made. I know that it’s a great joy for me to make it, and it’s a huge pleasure for the models to be in it.

Finally there are only two entities that I answer to: myself, and the models. What the rest of the world makes of it is, frankly, just not that interesting or relevant for me.

JB: Context is key. It’s hard to have any kind of art conversation in the 21st Century without bringing it up. 

I’ll speak plainly here. I saw one print, decontextualized on the wall at Aperture a couple of years ago. I hadn’t been face-to-face with the work before, and it threw me. I had a very powerful, negative, visceral reaction to it. And I wrote that as well.

It was just one print, a slice pulled out of the narrative that you’re describing. I have to say, I think it did you a disservice in that regard.

JS: We’re not there to protect the work and make sure that doesn’t happen. 

To advance my notion of it, the most important thing in my work is an absence: the absence of shame. The people that I photograph are basically living a lifestyle without clothes because that’s the lifestyle they choose. They’re not taking their clothes off for me. They live that way.

That’s one of the things I discovered at Marlboro, was that getting people to take their clothes off for you is something that’s been done rather too much. It’s essentially artificial; kind of understandably hormone induced. 

I have this visual curiosity, and became fascinated, later in the 70′s, when I finally started on the body of work that I’m doing now, by the reality that I encountered in the counter-culture in Northern California. Dress or undress was dictated only by weather – not social convention. A new world.

There I found the nude, per say, as something that was organic to the being of the people. They were completely unashamed of themselves. Coming from the East Coast, an absence of shame was a little startling, because I was raised on it. 

That absence, even in an individual picture, can be breathtaking for people who’ve been raised in a context where it doesn’t exist. Where the body is hidden, and where nudity is routinely conflated with sexuality. That’s really not my problem, and it’s not the model’s problem. It’s the viewer’s problem.

JB: That’s why the work creates such powerful conversations, and can so easily end up in the political crosshairs. Given the times, and the decades we’re talking about, did you ever find yourself in a room, sharing a conversation with Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano? 

JS: No. I never met either of those two artists. I wish I had done, and I would have been intrigued to speak with them.

My roll as a test case, as it were, was not a role that I enjoyed or embraced in any way. I wish that it had never happened. But, culturally, it was more or less inevitable. The fact that I was unaware of that, and hadn’t thought to predict it, is evidence, once again, as AD Coleman points out, of my naiveté.

As we record this interview, you’re in New Mexico and I am in France in a naturist resort with a summer population of 29,000 people on the Atlantic Coast. There are many other such resorts up and down this coast and elsewhere in Europe. I’ve been coming here for thirty years. Nudity means nothing to anybody here. People come here to exist wearing whatever they want. When the weather is cool, people wear something. If women have their period, they usually wear bottoms. People wear whatever’s relevant or nothing – as they please.

Children, especially, are rarely clothed here, because they enjoy so much not having clothes on. If you exist in that context for a while, it gives you an artificial notion of what’s reasonable behavior as regards the rest of the world. This is such a comfortable place to be. 

JB: It’s great to learn more about the roots of your process, especially as one who was so offended by the work out of context.

Given that we’ve been talking about nudity, that seems like a good segue to discuss your upcoming workshop with the Santa Fe Workshops. It’s called “The Portrait and the Nude.” 

How long have you been teaching? 

JS: Pretty much my whole life. I’m kind of a natural teacher, if I can say that without sounding self-aggrandizing. It’s probably the thing I do best in life. I love it.

It is an abiding sadness for me that, given the political take on my work, probably no major University would dare hire me. But I’m brought in as a lecturer from time to time and I love doing it. I particularly like looking at people’s work, and then trying to help them figure out how to do it better. 

JB: What do you think are the advantages of working in small groups? What is it like for you as an instructor, and what do you think your students tend to get out of the environment?

JS: Every student is a different person, and it’s my job as a teacher to try to figure out who they are, and then turn the key in their lock to help them be better. Help them manifest themselves in the work. 

In a small group, I have time to spend with individuals, to try to get my head around who they are, what skill set they have, and what skills they could use to go further. Sometimes, that’s a manner of looking at what equipment they’re using, and then figuring out if they’re frustrating themselves unnecessarily by using equipment that’s not appropriate for what they need and want to do. You’d be surprised by how often that is the case.

Other times, it’s talking about the larger philosophies that are behind making pictures; understanding them, and how they relate to what they might have been born to do. I’m not much fond of art schools, where people are often taught to think in parallel as it were — where political cant has a large place, and political correctness often holds sway. This can result in students manifesting popular schools of thought as opposed to the individuals they were born to be.

My assistants during the summer come from The Norsk Fotofagskole in Trondeheim, Norway. Five years ago I had occasion during the Nordic Light Foto Festival to review the school’s entire student body’s work during one long day. No student had work that was anything like anybody else’s! Every student was doing completely original work and all of it was extremely well-made. That’s a terrific photographic education.

That’s my ideal. I’m trying to help the students be individuals. I don’t want them to be me by any stretch of the imagination. I give a gentle hard time to those people who think they’re flattering me by resembling me.

JB: A gentle hard time? I haven’t sorted that out yet. I’m more accustomed to a hard hard time. 

JS: I really believe in blowing on sparks and encouraging people. Figuring out what it is that they do well, complimenting them for it, making them feel good about themselves, and then getting in a little medicine by saying, “And you could do this even better if…” I never want to do anything but encourage students.

JB: In something like this, where the purpose of the workshop touches so closely on your own process, do you ever encourage students to photograph people with clothes on? Does it always stick to the nude? 

JS: Absolutely. What I like best to do, if it’s a two day workshop, the first day we’ll shoot kids who are dressed. Working with young people obliges the students to be decent people, because kids won’t pose for them if they’re not. 

Kids simply won’t accept a person who’s being mean to them, or being officious, bossy, or pushy. You’ll get nothing from them, under those circumstances.

Then, for the second day, we transition to the figure, which a lot of people come to study. I still emphasize, of course, that you need to be treating this person as a person, not a model. It’s vastly better if you accept from them what they have to give, and not tell them what to do. The set of ideas we have when we instruct a model to pose is tiny, compared to what people do naturally.

There is far more beauty in the awkward grace of a natural position than there is in any sort of Neo-Greco-Roman pose. If I never saw another one, it would be too soon. I’m sick to death of all the arms behind the head and everything. No thank you!

For a five day workshop we do two or three days of younger models followed by the days of figure models. I let the group decide on the balance of what they want to do.

JB: What about San Miguel de Allende, where the workshop is taking place? Have you been there before?

JS: I’ve taught there I think as much as a half a dozen times. It’s a terrific location. My first workshop there was a real eye-opener, and was actually my first time in Mexico. San Miguel is at altitude, and has enormous charm. As a photographer, it is a paradise of brilliant locations and amazing light.

The model population is surprising too, because they’re not the kind of over-tired, worn-out models that I sometimes associate with workshops. They tend to be relatively new to it, and quite beautiful. They’re interesting people, and the workshop students become enamored of them. They develop a relationship and of course that for me is the holy grail.

JB: I’ve been through that part of Mexico. It’s lovely. There are some cool, smaller cities around there, like Guanajuato and Queretaro. Do you get out of San Miguel at all? Are there outdoor shoots?

JS: They’re all outdoor shoots, and we go all over. We go to people’s ranches. We spend a day up at an abandoned silver mine, which is a bit higher. It’s a long trip up there, but it’s a stunning location.

We definitely get into the real Mexico doing this. It’s as rich a workshop experience as anyone could ever hope to have. At the end of the week, we are all pretty beat, because we do so much. Tired but happy.

The Santa Fe Workshops does a great final evening, where everyone’s work is seen. There are slide projections. It’s a terrific experience for people. It’s my favorite workshop that I’ve taught. 

JB: That’s great to hear. I’m glad we got a chance to talk about it, as the Santa Fe Workshops are sponsoring this interview series. We all know each other here in New Mexico, and I’m a big fan of how they promote education and creative practice.

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on right now?

JS: This evening I’m shooting Flore, whom I have known for more than 25 years. With her kids. So I’m doing a mother and daughter portrait there. 

At a greater distance I am leaving for China in a few weeks where I have a series of museum openings of my work to attend. I then come back to Europe to print a new book of 25 years in the life of my goddaughter, Fanny, with Steidl. And then I get to finally fly home.

JB: What’s the light quality like on the Atlantic Coast this time of year?

JS: The light quality is staggering. The first time I walked onto this beach, 30 years ago, I suddenly understood the Impressionists in a new way. The light here is stupefying. It has a lot of moisture in it, and in the evening, it fluoresces. Things are lit from all directions when you’re on the beach. 

Shadows have an enormous amount of information in them. The highlights are soft, with beautiful, beautiful scale. The light saturations here are just so richly appealing. 

JB: Do you get to travel around and hit the museums, or do you mostly stick to your beach?

JS: I tend to be doing just one thing. I’m either with my family here, or I’m shooting. I’m also in Europe a lot during the winter. That’s when I hit museums and shows, because I’m omnivorous. I’m much more influenced by paint, in fact, than I am by photography.

I love ingesting new art. It’s one of the reasons why I love teaching so much because I see things I would never have thought to do myself. I hope that I’m learning permanently.

JB: I try to use this platform to encourage people to go look at work as much as possible. I find, anecdotally, when you talk to photographers, they often say they’re too busy. But I believe, without good input, there’s very little chance of great output.

JS: I couldn’t agree more. You are what you eat. Period.

Occasionally, I’ll teach someone over the age of 60, and they’re often a lot harder to teach. Very often, they’ve made up their minds, and they’re not taking on new ideas. Because I am 66 now, I’m terrified of that ossification.

I’m always trying to push myself, and at least once every couple of days, I’ll make a picture that breaks some or even all of the personal rules I have for making pictures. I don’t want to live in a cage of my own habit and practice. Often those experiments fail – but not always. The only truly bad picture one can take is the one that one does not take at all. We learn from all the rest.

This Week In Photography Books – Aaron Huey

by Jonathan Blaustein

My mother was sitting in her home, recently, minding her own business. Suddenly, she heard a loud thump, and was shaken and concerned. (Obviously.)

Mom looked out the window and saw a majestic, brown and gray raptor. It was lying on the ground, just outside. As she peeked, its last breath escaped into the atmosphere. It was beautiful, she thought. So beautiful.

Later in the day, she invited me over to see it. I arrived, and realized I was looking at a Peregrine Falcon, meant to be the fastest creature known to man. It was perfectly still, lying on the brown dirt, but flies and ants were crawling on the corpse, preparing for a large meal.

“What should we do with it,” my Mom asked?

A fair question.

Immediately, I thought of our good family friend, a Native American artist, who lived less than a mile away on the Taos Pueblo. After a brief call, she agreed to take the bird, honor its spirit, and make sure the feathers were harvested properly to be used in ceremonial attire. Problem solved.

I roughly shoveled our dead, new friend into a garbage bag, and entrusted it to my almost-six-year-old son. He was entranced, holding it carefully, and kept saying, “I like it so much. I like it so much.” He wanted to keep it, so we discussed the taxidermy process, and my belief that the bird’s soul would be sad, trapped on a shelf until we moved or died.

We delivered the cargo in short order, and were promised it would be treated with respect. My son asked for the talons, as it was clear the Falcon was now his spirit animal. (Mine used to be a coyote, then an eagle, but now it’s a snake.) Needless to say, as crazy as the two previous sentences might sound to you, out here, they’re commonplace concepts.

Our collective fascination with the religion and culture of Native America will never abate. It is a permanent fixture in global consciousness, one that enables us all to focus on the majesty that remains in a set of communities that have been ravaged beyond belief. Our collective shame, so much less pleasurable a sensation, gets buried under our obsession with magic and mystery.

Whether or not you forever brand me as a new-age hipster, I’m speaking the truth. Having been around Native American communities since I was a teen, and written my first essay excoriating US policy as a freshman in high school, I speak with confidence. The vestiges of conquest have yet to lift from the broad shoulders of Native America, and the resulting alcoholism, drug and sexual abuse, and internecine violence are max-level-tragic.

I wish things were different. Would that I could make it all better. Would that anyone could. As photographers, image makers, and media manipulators, it’s hard to imagine anyone capturing that spirit of desperation, misery, beauty, and cultural pride. Even if it could be done, would it make a difference? In an age of infinite distraction, if a tree of truth falls on a plain, will anyone be there to listen?

Fortunately, this is not a thought-experiment. Aaron Huey has put in the requisite time, and spent years among the Oglala Lakota in South Dakota. You might have heard of the Pine Ridge reservation before, but you’ve never seen it like this.

The project, which has received much acclaim, is now in book form, called “Mitakuye Oyasin,” published by Radius. Like last week’s offering, this one speaks for itself. I’ve seen bits and pieces of Mr. Huey’s work on the Internet, and admired from a far. But now, I’m officially blown away.

The photographs contained within are supremely excellent, and drip with tension and emotion. It’s a big, well-crafted book, and there are many photos, (and a few inserts,) so I’ll only be able to share a small sample, unfortunately. You’ll have to buy it to get the full impact.

With my eyes closed, I can see a little girl bathing in the filthy kitchen sink, surrounded by dirty dishes, a boy playing atop a trash pile, pockmarked faces and swollen noses, and another boy, leaning out his window, talking to a friend on horseback. There was a graffiti tag that said “All my heroes killed cowboys,” or something like that. I recall a cavalcade of people carrying a fallen tree, a masked gunman, a child pressed against the rear window of an overstuffed car, and a bison in someone’s back-yard.

I’m sure I come off as an ethnocentric American, at times. (I do love this country, though I live in a spot that is far from typical.) Love it or hate it, the fact remains that this continent was stolen, and most of its inhabitants were killed. We cannot change this, so we choose to forget.

The depth of poverty experienced on many, if not all, Native American reservations in this country is a national disgrace. Can it be improved? Is there any hope at all? I don’t know.

I can tell you that if you want to see for yourself what an in-depth reality looks like, this is the book for you. That Mr. Huey is a Caucasian-American has no bearing on this story. He may have a spirit animal, as I do, or he might believe that such babble, out of the mouth of a gringo, is disrespectful and bourgeois. I have no way of knowing.

But I have come to see this weekly column as an opportunity to shine light on the best work out there. Some weeks I’m funny, and some weeks I’m not. Today, I’m just doing whatever I can, small as the gesture might be, to claw back some of our collective ignorance. No matter what you’re doing today, or how pitiful your paycheck has become, there are people out there in far worse shape than you are. And they were here first.

Bottom Line: A brilliant book that honors a culture, and exposes our national disgrace

To Purchase “Mitakuye Oyasin” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: 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 – Vanessa Winship

by Jonathan Blaustein

The fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP. I heard it first from the other end of the house, where the children sleep. It’s loud like a jet engine is loud: in a painful manner that will damage your hearing.

I was doped up on two Benadryl, as my allergies kicked up the other day. I never had them before last summer, but now I suffer like so many others. (From allergies, not fire alarms.)
Aggravated, I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but my muddled mind was afraid the BEEEEEEEEEPING might return.

I knew there was no fear of fire; only that the tired batteries were giving way, having been changed this time last year. My anxiety crested, and then it BEEEEEEEEEEEEEPED again. Before I knew it, a door creaked in the distance, and a crying child soon crept into bed. A good night sleep was not to be had.

So I sit here, now, trying to force my brain to think properly. Deadlines wait for no man, and books need to be reviewed. After three double-espressos, I felt now was as good a time to try as any other. Forgive me if I’m less-than-profound.

Fortunately, I picked a great book up off the stack this week. It should help alleviate your concern for my lack of witty banter. “she dances on Jackson” is a lovely publication, by Vanessa Winship, recently put out my MACK. (I have a love-hate relationship with those guys. Some books are poetic and perfect, like this one, while others stretch my credulity. At least they don’t play it safe.)

The book cover depicts an image of birds and trees. The color is as close to a “Burnt Sienna” crayola crayon as I’ve seen since I was eight. It’s a beautiful color, and yet the only one we’ll see. The rest of the book is in black and white.

I must have mentioned before that I came to photography on a cross-country road trip in 1996. Does that make me a sucker for this type of work? You bet it does. But given that we all still talk about “The Americans” as if it came out last week, I’m surely not alone in this preference.

So many artists are out there at a given time, pointing cameras at anything that moves. Or doesn’t. And yet, how often do we feel that someone has actually added to our overall body of knowledge? How often do we look at a photograph and think, I’d like to meet that person and visit for a while? Surely, I’d learn more about the human condition if only we could chat for a few minutes.

These are such pictures. I loved that all specific references to place were erased. It made me curious where she’d been. At first, it seemed like a Southern-based project, with drippy trees and lots of overgrowth. But, as I turned the pages, I saw mountains, and then desert that looked like here in New Mexico. Soon, Northern cities appeared, and industry followed.

The people within are mostly young, and don’t seem to be on top of the world at present. The landscape photos, devoid of people, share that sense of worn, warm comfort. The bank-type-office built into a dirt berm was a favorite, as was the tree stump adorned with shoes, and the abandoned subway cars sitting still on overhead tracks. Your favorites, invariably, will be different.

At the end, we get a taut, brief story, in French and English, that alludes directly to the otherwise opaque title. A list of locations is also provided, ending the confusion: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia. (A pretty solid sample of the US of A, IMHO.)

I’ve been to all, save Montana, hence the sense of familiarity. One photo of some cotton growing along a dirt stretch took me right back to my own big adventure, in the previous century. I remembered a day in Mississippi, and how free it felt to be so unencumbered.

Bottom Line: Excellent, poignant B&W photos across contemporary America

To Purchase “she dances on Jackson” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: 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 – Patrik Budenz

by Jonathan Blaustein

Tourists just love Times Square. They flock, as if someone was giving out free, all-you-can-eat ice cream. Hordes of people drive, train or fly across the country, just so they can eat in a Fridays. (Or Sbarro) Depending on your personality type, you either find that ironic and hysterical, or poetic and sad.

The reality is, most people prefer to know those things that reenforce what they already believe. It’s easier to fit new information into the tidy, empty folders of a well-organized mind. Juggling juxtaposition and hypocrisy is best left to professional bloviators like me. Most folks from the heartland, therefore, are happy to hit Times Square, take in a Broadway show, and then hop a cab back to Newark Airport.

I mention this, because I recently had occasion to view several versions of Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise over Hernandez,” which is meant to be the world’s most famous photograph. It reads differently here in New Mexico, as we locals always giggle that Mr. Adams hornswoggled everyone so thoroughly. Majestic and magical as the photo might be, it depicts the massively edgy Española Valley.

Española, or Espa, as we call it here, is among the most hardcore places in the New Mexico. It sits along an important drug trafficking route, so heroin is always a massive concern. (Probably an epidemic, but who am I to say.) Mostly, Espa is a rough, tough, La Raza-style place, filled with bumpin’ low-riders and tinted down, jacked up trucks. It’s like a mini-East LA, surrounded by mountains and desert cliffs.

As I was approaching Espa from the South last week, I noticed a billboard that almost made me laugh milk through my nose. (Which is tricky, if you’re not actually drinking milk.) Some poor sap was advertising cremation services, right next to the local movie theater. Honestly. Cremation billboards? $1200 to pre-plan the vaporization of your bodily remains?

Of course, I found it ironic and amusing. (That’s the way I roll.) Perhaps someone else would have found it tragic; that the best way to get people to engage with the inevitability of death was with a roadside advertising message. It’s possible, even, that some old lady drove by, dialed the number, and gave up her credit card info on the spot. (Operators are standing by now. Our fires are the hottest around, so you don’t have to worry about any pesky bones rattling around the urn.)

Joke all you like, Blaustein, that still doesn’t change the fact that death is sad. Right? Well, I suppose so. I’d love to say that I’m so enlightened, I’m anxiously awaiting my chance to decompose into the waiting Earth. But it’s not so. I’m hoping to get as many good years on this planet as I can. (Aren’t we all.)

What comes next is not pretty, at least for the shell that houses our soul. We might not know where our spirit is headed after we die, but there is little surprise about where the corpse goes next. Which is why it’s surprising that I’ve never seen a book like the aptly titled “post mortem,” by Patrik Budenz, recently published by Peperoni Books in Germany.

*Spoiler Alert* Don’t look at the photos below if you aren’t prepared for a little gruesomeness. After last week’s Summer Vacation column, I came at you hard this week. Mr. Budenz’s book is literal, and looks at a succession of human remains at a funeral home. (Could be multiple homes, maybe even a morgue, but does it matter?)

Gray skin, suture marks, pursed lips closed forever, toes wrinkled like they’ve been in the bath too long… it’s all here. The open chest cavity was a bit much, but mostly, the book delivers on the title’s promise. The camera even follows the corpses into the cremation chamber, which is interesting, technically, but also provides a glimpse of something we were not meant to see.

It’s a fantastic photography project, embedded in a well-made, spartan book, that basically shows us something we work really hard to avoid. That’s as good a definition of excellent art as I’m likely to muster up today, sitting on my trusty green couch. Forgive me if I’ve upset your appetite, but there is always time to get hungry again. Until there isn’t.

Bottom Line: Powerful, excellent, morbid photos of dead people

To Purchase “post mortem” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: 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 – Martin Parr

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Oi. Lad. You’re in my sun. Move your arse.”

“‘Scuse me?”

“I said you’re in my sun.”

“Your sun? It’s not your sun, mate. It belongs to everyone.”

“Does it now? And will the sun come and save you when I bash
your skull in? Move your arse or you’ll find out.”

That must have happened countless times over the years,
on the endless beaches around the UK. Right? Where I grew up, on the Jersey shore, it might have gone something like this:

“Hey, asshole, you kicked sand on my blanket.”

“Aaaay. Oh.”

“You heard me. You kicked some f-ckin’ sand all over my girlfriend’s towel. Clean it up.”

“Take it easy. It was an accident. Deal with it, meathead, or go back to Staten Island.”

“F-ck you!”

“F-ck me? F-ck you!”

Ah, the beach. Given that we are now smack in the middle of summer, you knew I was going to pull out a beach column. Right? Last year, around this time, I reviewed a book about some blue lakes in the Czech Republic. (Summer-y, yes, but it lacked a certain sex appeal.) So let’s bring back the Summer Vacation column, but do it right this year.

Martin Parr is a photographer who’s made many a book, yet I’ve never managed to review one before. Today, that changes. “Life’s a Beach,” published by Aperture, has a pink cover, dotted with flowers and leaves. It looks like a photo album you might pick up in an overpriced grocery store on Kauai, (along with some $4 flip flops) in anticipation of all the great memories you were planning to record. (When people still did such things.)

The photos within are cheeky. Witty. Fun. Take your pick of positive, light-hearted adjectives. The images were made of and in beach cultures across the world, thereby giving us a look at the similarities and differences. (A saggy tush on the beach in Miami, a cow prowling the sand in Goa, a woman sucking down a crab claw in China, sausages on the barbie in Australia, a tuft of back hair in Spain…you get the picture.)

It wouldn’t be a Summer Vacation column if I didn’t wrap it up quickly. (Thank god, they say, as they chuckle into their Iphone screens.) Too many words and it will seem like work. So, to recap, this is a super-fun book by a photographer renown for his wit and sense of humor. It’s very cool, and if you buy it, Aperture will give you one free beach pass at Spring Lake, Point Pleasant, or some other spot on the Jersey Shore. (I just made that up.)

Bottom Line: Martin Parr at the beach. Need I say more?

To Purchase “Life’s a Beach” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: 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 – David Maisel

by Jonathan Blaustein

Imagine if hamsters were self-aware. Wouldn’t that be strange? The first hamster to achieve consciousness would be a hero. Then he’d whisper in all the other hamsters’ ears: we’re going to die. (You know he would.)

For a while, all of hamsterdom would be in an uproar. We don’t want to die, they’d say. What can we do to forestall this calamity? How can we lengthen our lives? Certainly, all activity at the hamster wheel would stop. Who wants to run in circles while the fate of the species is at stake?

All around the water bowl, hamster plans would be hatched. What if we eat more? Or less? What if we pray to the human who gives us food each day? Pray more, dammit. I said, pray more!

Alas. Nothing worked. The hamsters began to die, one by one, when their time was up. Eventually, the rest of the hamsters got bored of examining the situation, as it was clearly futile. They couldn’t stop nature, so they went back to running in circles.

The End.

We’re no different. We’re going to die. You know it. I know it. And still we go about our daily business. Toast is buttered. Metrocards are swiped. Babies are born. It’s the way of things.

I believe our acceptance of said reality leads to short-term thinking. Around the world, people will do what they have to do to survive. Without bread and water today, (or a Big Mac,) there will be no tomorrow. So tomorrow will always have to wait, because I’m hungry today. (Those cows won’t eat themselves.)

This is the best explanation I can muster for why we degrade and destroy our planet. Why else would we shit where we eat? Anyone who’s raised a puppy knows they don’t do that. They know better. But we don’t. We constantly dump our pollutants in the water and air, and scrape away sections of the Earth until mountains are plains.

In fairness, the planet will survive. We can’t hack it all away. It will continue to spin, long after we’re gone. All of us, that is. Sure, it would be tough to wipe away all the people at one time, and maybe technology will save us all in the end, but it’s not likely. So much damage cannot be undone.

Personally, I’m an optimist. I’ve got two young children, so I have little choice. I’d like to think we’ll adapt together, us and Earth. We’ll make some concessions, maybe move some houses back off the coasts. Perhaps she’ll agree to terms limiting all future temperature changes? Who’s to say.

But what about the book, you say? Doesn’t he have to review a book in a book review? Right. I guess I do. Rules are rules.

“Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime” is a new monograph by David Maisel, published by the always steady Steidl. (Try saying that five times fast, with a German accent: steady Steidl.) As you might have guessed, I just spent some time leafing through its large and luxurious pages. The above riff is evidence that Mr. Maisel has been successful in his multi-decade examination of how humans are changing the skin of the World.

It is an excellent book filled with aerial photographs of various altered places. No criticisms today. (Even of the veiled or back-handed kind. My speciality.) These photographs ought to be seen, and their aesthetic awesomeness ensures that they will. It’s a little uncomfortable to view pollution and environmental degradation, and remark upon the beauty. But view these you will.

It’s clear that the inter-connected projects will at some point be parsed by historians. The images speak to the future, while they record the present. It’s a fairly high compliment, but I’m sure the artist is used to hearing it by now. The pharmaceutical colors, and reliance on modern technology, (airplanes and helicopters) embed the work in time. Can’t you just hear some future critic, elongating certain vowel sounds, ironically laughing at how stupid everyone must have been in the early 21st Century?

Bottom Line: Terrific book, important photographs

To Purchase “Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

Boris Mikhailov at FOAM

by Jonathan Blaustein

You’re in a museum, in a foreign country. Your brain has been inundated with massive amounts of new information. This is not unusual. Travel makes you smarter, as does art. Still, you’ve been on the road for days, and everything is starting to look the same.

You visit a famous photo museum in Amsterdam. It’s called FOAM. They have a magazine too, which you’ve heard of, but never really seen. It is assumed that you’ll like what is on display, because they ought to be experts at showing people cool photographs.

Let’s remove the hypothetical now. I did visit FOAM this past spring, and was jazzed up to see some great art. I was also more burnt than a chocolate chip cookie in an eight hundred degree oven. I’ve previously admitted to having killed off several million brain cells during this very trip, so you’ll have to imagine that my vision was woozy. (Though not literally. I was not under the influence at the time, as I’m a professional.)

As I wandered through the “Primrose: Russian Color Photography” exhibition, my expectations were not, exactly, met. The work presented spanned most of the Communist era, and was as indistinct as I can possibly recollect. The photos reminded me of magazine pictures from forty years ago covering news stories that no one remembers anymore. (Like a neighborhood fire that destroys five buildings, but leaves no one dead.)

Back and forth I marched, looking for any photo that excited me, or any tidbit of information that I could consider new or fascinating. “Fascinate, me, dammit. Fascinate me,” I screamed. The guard came over and told me that if I didn’t lower my voice, they’d have to escort me to the street. (Never happened. The Dutch guards were actually the nicest I’ve encountered, and they let you take photos of art in all the museums I visited.)

Basically, I found myself parsing photographs made during a totalitarian regime so powerful that it was able to erase even pleasure or meaning from a parade of color photographs. Yes, I was more impressed by the rigor of the Soviet censors than I was of the photographers trying to make anything interesting without saying anything of interest. (The color was pretty, I guess. So that’s something.)

And then, I walked into a small room and heard the familiar hum of a slide projector. A couple of people were seated, and not in an antsy kind of way. They were not moving, which was a good sign.

I leaned against the wall, and began to look. The pictures moved quickly, so each was gone too soon. But they were not boring, not from the outset. I began to see people, some naked, others frolicking, or doing real, actual things. There were plenty of seedy Soviet scenes, which were absent in the main exhibition space. What’s this, then?

I pushed myself off the wall, as my body was covering the wall text. Who made these naughty, beautiful photos? Boris Mikhailov. As if I should have been surprised. (Click here to read my insanely positive review of his 2011 exhibition at MoMA.) The project was called “Suzi et Cetera.”

It’s difficult for me to actually describe an onslaught of photographs, each seen for an instant, that took place almost four months ago. So that makes this a challenging review, I suppose. But I did manage to jot down some notes, so here goes:

A vagina peeing on the ground, a ram’s head, a girl with grass on her face, a Soviet sculpture, a flag, some nude girls, a grandma in a nightgown, a girl screaming, an image of Lenin, a skinned rabbit, a disgusting mottled leg, some rotten tomatoes with a milk bottle, a bruised and swollen penis, a fish like something out of a Hiroshige print, flowers, drying clothes, a guy on a moped talking to a girl, some horn players in a field, women dancing in a square, blood running down a leg…you get the picture.

Why was it so impressive? Why do the remnants of Mr. Mikhailov’s vision linger in my memory, despite the copious amounts of THC that tried to wipe it away? Desperation. Necessity. Toying with the ultimate risk.

At the time, in the 80′s, these pictures were illegal in their taking, making and showing. The underground group of compatriots that would have gathered to watch such a show, back in the day, were willing to face death and torture to experience these photographs. And that energy was palpable. It was kind of like watching Michael Jordan play pickup basketball in a North Carolina schoolyard, circa 1979. (The talent and need were dripping with sweat.)

I don’t know if the folks at FOAM knew that most of the Primrose exhibition was less-than-memorable. There is a business relationship between Holland and Russia at this point, as evidenced by the Van Gogh Museum collection’s long stint at the Amsterdam branch of the Hermitage Museum. Was this just another case of politics and money driving a museum’s exhibition program? I don’t know.

I’d like to think, though, that the curators were very conscious in their exhibition construction. A heap of PC, Soviet-acceptable photographs were the pomegranate husk, and Mr. Mikhailov’s flickering images were the juicy bits hidden within. It was the perfect structural metaphor for what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain. The public face, with it’s inscrutable inoffensiveness, and the living, bloody heart at the core of it all, left to exist behind closed, locked, doors. (With the curtains drawn, of course.)

This Week In Photography Books – Dash Snow

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was sitting on my porch the other day, chatting with a friend. He’s a wicked smart photographer, and has had a good bit of success, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. The ideas were flying rather quickly as we sat, rocking in our rocking chairs, killing black and red ants as they explored my territory. (They’re aggressive, and they bite, so they had it coming.)

He’d just returned from forty days roaming the hinterlands of Dick Cheney’s Wyoming, and was hungry for conversation, like a Jew who’s fasted after dropping a Torah. Mostly I listened, because he likes to talk. At some point, we reached the subject of artistic intent, which is guaranteed to rile up anyone/everyone.

My friend was an environmental activist for many years, and makes art for the noblest of intentions. He’s either trying to save the planet, or make us realize we’re all doomed. I haven’t decided yet. Regardless, he comes from a long line of artists who want to make the world a better place. The serious guys.

I mentioned that, though I occasionally vacillate, I mostly believe that no one reason for making art is inherently better than another. It’s the moral relativism argument, grafted onto an art conversation. He smiled, (or was it a smirk?) and said, sure, that’s the politically correct thing to say.

“But do you really believe that,” he asked?

I paused, and then said yes. I do. I’ve seen enough interesting art, over the years, that came from infantile experimentation, or anarchic rebellion, to believe that it’s not only the serious strivers who get to make the good stuff. Sometimes, great (or provocative) art can come from hedonistic, nihilistic nitwits, whether we like it or not.

This week’s book is a great example of the phenomenon. “I Love You, Stupid,” is a very thick book filled with Polaroid photographs (and video stills) taken by the now deceased art star Dash Snow. Before I say anything else, I’ll admit that the pictures you’ll see below will likely offend your better sensibilities. They’re meant to, and they succeed.

Mr. Snow was famous before he died, as he came from a line of very important people in the art world. (The de Menils.) I didn’t know this, nor had I seen his work while he was alive. I do remember him dying, but only because I must have heard third hand that some junkie art dude overdosed. That was the extent of my knowledge, though perhaps you know more than that.

The book contains a very well-written opening essay by Glenn O’Brien, of GQ and Andy Warhol circle fame. Great stuff, really. It will make you excited to make art, for sure, and also prejudice you towards liking the images that follow. He’s extremely persuasive, and also forthright in countering any rich-kid bias you might have. (Basically, he presents Mr. Snow as a 21st Century Shaman.)

Once you’re fired up and ready to go, you get to see countless photographs of all the bad stuff you’re not supposed to do. There is tons of sex, drugs, blood, semen, graffiti, partying, homelessness, vomit, and more sex. Seriously, if I had a dollar for every penis included in this book, I could…well…buy the book. Fortunately, all the bad behavior reeks of genuine effort. (Must be all the smack and coke.)

A little while back, I wrote about Mike Brodie’s book “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” and was a bit cynical about his intentions. Great project, but I could see his mind whirring as he realized how perfectly his photographs would deliver what people wanted. It wasn’t that he didn’t seem serious about his frisky lifestyle choice, (freight train hopping,) only that the concurrent calculation was also evident. This book obviates those concerns. This mayhem feels real, like it doesn’t care whether we’re there to look or not.

I’m not saying this art is brilliant. (It’s not.) Nor that you should like it. (You probably won’t.) But I’m pretty sure Dash Snow wasn’t trying to be bad. He just was. And darkness walks upon the Earth, whether we like it or not. So art that captures that essence is valuable. Every bit as valuable as the art that tries to improve upon our faulty existence on this spinning blue orb.

Bottom Line: A nihilistic, voyeuristic, bad boy thrill ride

To Purchase “I Love You, Stupid” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: 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 – Stefan Olah

by Jonathan Blaustein

Everything’s bigger in Texas, and Americans love their cars. How’s that for mashing two stereotypical truisms into one. It’s like a mixed metaphor, only better. (Like if you kill two birds with one stone, you might cry over spilt milk. Poor little birds. They never hurt anyone. What’s wrong with you? Killing two defenseless birds.)

What was I saying?

Oh. Right. Americans and their cars. Ours are bigger than yours, if you live anywhere but here. We like big trucks and Hummers and things like that. Little cars are for sissies. And Europeans. (We all know how much I like Europe, so let’s not take my joking too seriously.)

Kidding aside, Europeans drive smaller cars than we do. It’s a fact. (Maybe the Japanese do too, but I’ve never been there. If you want to fly me over to Japan to give a lecture or something, send me an email and we can talk.) Small cars make sense in Europe, what with the ancient streets designed for horses and fiestas and such. Can you just imagine trying to navigate a Ford F-350 through the streets of Rome? No thanks.

Things are different over there, and mostly, we assume they’re better. (Except for the economy, of course.) The charm and the history are seductive to us, as we often lack that here. But we do have our own strengths: empty highways, endless horizons and kitchy gas stations, like the ones immortalized by last week’s artist, Ed Ruscha. (No, I won’t throw him under the bus again this week.)

Like “Some Los Angeles Apartments,” Mr. Ruscha made an artist book in the 60′s called “Twenty Six Gas Stations.” They were depictions of Americana, and the categorical title was likely inspired by the 19th Century Japanese woodblock printers Hokusai and Hiroshige, not to mention Marcel Duchamp and his readymades. How do I know this? Because I read it in a book called “Twentysix Viennese Gas Stations,” by Sebastian Hackenschmidt and Stefan Olah.

In this, the second edition, there are actually far more than twenty six gas stations. The name remains to ensure the reader gets the connection/allusion to Mr. Ruscha. He was the clear inspiration, and the book includes a pastiche of interviews he’s given over the years. But the book is not about him, really.

The focus is on a car culture that is as alien as I can imagine, living, as I do, in the heart of the American West. (Or as I like to call it, the land of lunatics and dropouts. Which am I? Do you have to ask?) Out here, there is space for everything. Gas stations are expansive, with plenty of room for people to hang out and try to bum spare change for cigarettes or booze. (Which they also sell, in most places.)

In Vienna? Forget about it. There’s no room for such extravagance. And if there were, they’d probably still do something different, what with their refined tastes. As it is, this book shows us that people buy gas for their cars in some pretty weird places. Like alleyways, apartment building basements, and little courtyard hideaways. Strange, and almost effete.

Let’s be real here. This book will not change your life. The photos are well crafted, with solid, formal compositions and good use of (bleak) color. They’re cool, in that pan-Germanic kind of way. But you won’t have an epileptic fit from their genius.

Instead, they provide a window into the antithesis of an archetype. Or, rather, they give us ethnocentric Americans a solid look at how the other half lives. And how we might, too, once gas prices rise enough that Smart cars are the intelligent choice for all of us. For now, they’re pretty useless out here. Once you see some 18 wheelers hauling down the road at 85mph, you’ll know what I mean.

Bottom line: Cool book riffing on Ed Ruscha’s idea

To Purchase “Twentysix Viennese Gas Stations” Visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: 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 – Hiroshi Sugimoto and Mark Rothko

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last week, I wrote about the Holocaust. It’s a hard one to follow, even for someone like me, who rarely lacks an opinion. (Are you kidding me? That salsa was way too bland. What kind of a person serves coffee that bitter? How many times are you going to tweet about your upcoming exhibition?)

As I was saying, given how much I like to control the flow of my week-to-week ramblings, writing about the worst event of the 20th Century leaves me in a bit of a pickle. Do I go right back to the heavy stuff, and risk ruining your weekend? Or do I trot out something light and fluffy, the photo book equivalent of a cuddly, stuffed bunny?

How about neither? Given that the Roman Vishniac article might bring a reasonable person to question the existence of a higher power, how about we contemplate the counter-argument? When we think of the sublime, we relish feeling small. We delight in the reminder that powers greater than we can comprehend make planets dance around stars, and waves crash on every shore. Right?

Hiroshi Sugimoto and Mark Rothko are two seemingly unrelated artists, one living, one dead. One guy photographs, the other was a painter. (How’s that for brilliant exposition? Tell us more, Blaustein.) I can’t pretend that there is more to the book I’m about to mention, because there isn’t. “Rothko/Sugimoto,” a new book published by Pace London, doesn’t seem to have ambitions beyond putting the two famous men’s work together in one volume.

Here’s a Rothko, and then, here’s a Sugimoto. And then here’s another Rothko, and here’s another Sugimoto. The pattern is not that hard to discern. As you turn the pages, you’ll find yourself guessing, rather successfully, what will come next. (Unless you’re really, really bad at prognostication. In which case, I’d love to play you in Rock/Paper/Scissors.)

Am I mailing it in today? I’m not sure. Is that allowed on a hot summer day? Are you going to call the Blogger Police? Will they suspend my Hotmail account for a couple of days as a punishment? All kidding aside, today, I just wanted to give you some beautiful, meaningful photos to contemplate. Mission accomplished. (How many George W. references is that this year?)

Bottom Line: Ham-fisted premise, great pictures

To Purchase “Rothko/Sugimoto” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

Roman Vishniac at the ICP

by Jonathan Blaustein

Growing up, there was a lot of talk about the Holocaust. In the 70′s and 80′s, we were not yet so removed from the atrocities. People knew people who’d been in concentration camps, and, somehow, survived.

Back then, we Jews seemed to feel as if our particular horror defined us as a race. I can just imagine the perverse fun people must have had in certain Post-Modern-Theory classes, on certain college campuses in the 80′s. (African Slavery was the worst, obviously. It’s pointless to even discuss it, Jeffrey. Don’t be ridiculous, Stephanie, the genocide of Native Americans was worse than that. You know, smallpox in the blankets, killing all those bison to starve the people. Really, guys, come on. You’re both totally off base. Everyone knows the Holocaust trumps them all. Poison gas showers, OK? Screw me? Screw you.)

It’s safe to say that people have done lots of nasty, unspeakable things to other people down through the eons. There’s not much new under the sun, as far as human cruelty goes. For millennia, though, there was no photographic evidence. Nowadays, we can see pixelated packets of bloody misery any time we want. (Whether it’s Quadaffi getting violated by a justifiably furious horde, or that poor British soldier after he got chopped to pieces on a London sidewalk.)

It’s far too easy to become inured to it all. I even skipped the Oklahoma City tornado news coverage last week, as I was so tired of empathizing with the tragedy of the moment. Not to suggest those people didn’t suffer enough. Just the opposite. The constant barrage of other people’s misery can be a bit much to bear, sometimes.

So I was truly surprised at the power of my reaction to “Roman Vishniac Rediscovered,” a recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. I saw the show in April, shortly before it closed. To be honest, it was kind-of an accident. A friend was having a book signing there on a Friday night, so admission was pay as you wish. (I coughed up a buck.) Had that not been on my agenda, I would have missed the show entirely.

In the museum’s basement, there was a large selection of photographs of the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe on the cusp of the Nazi rise to power. The black and white pictures were absolutely superb. Cobblers and merchants, fathers and sons, farmers and city folk. Big brown eyes expressed emotions, people went about their business.

Essentially, it was a documentary project that focused on a culture on the verge of annihilation. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m not sure if anything else like it even exists.

Yes, I’m Jewish, as I’ve said many times, but I identify as an American more than anything. (I’m fourth generation, and none of my close relatives remained in Europe through WWII.) My years of miserable Hebrew School irrelevance squashed much of my Jewish identity away. (Despite the fact that I mention it here often.) My point is that I’m not sure my reaction was specific to members of my tribe.

I almost cried so many times. (Five or six.) I felt like screaming out at the people in the rectangles: Run for your lives. Get the f-ck out of there. Hitler aims to drink your blood. (Futile, I know.) Even if they hadn’t been killed, they’d be dead by now anyway. One of the ironic and beautiful subtleties of our medium.

There was also a film projection, showing a group of sturdy Jewish farmers in the Carpathian Mountains. But for the attire, they looked like they could have been my neighbors in 21st Century Northern New Mexico. It would have been fascinating if it weren’t so terribly sad.

I’d never heard of Roman Vishniac before I visited his show. Maybe you’re familiar with his work, maybe you’re not. Either way, I highly encourage you to look it up here. No, it won’t be the same as walking through a physical space. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to write this before the exhibition closed last month.) But there is an old saying about those who are unfamiliar with history being condemned to something or other. You know what I mean?

William Clift at the New Mexico Museum of Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s a magical process, creation. One minute, something doesn’t exist, and then, click, it does. Embedded chemically or digitally, light from the world codifies into an illusion, packed with information. Occasionally, that information is meant to challenge and provoke. Some photographs are hard to look at, intentionally. They capture the essence of brutality or hypocrisy. Think Richard Misrach.

Other times, though, pictures strive to contemplate the sublime: the alluring beauty that reflects our incomprehensible insignificance. Flowers are pretty, but mountains and oceans are sublime. Think Hiroshi Sugimoto. Or William Clift.

I wasn’t familiar with Mr. Clift’s work, though he did beat me out for the Eliot Porter Prize in 2011. (Asshole. Just kidding.) I recently saw his black and white photography exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, and came away extremely impressed. Much as I’m often harping on here about work that pushes towards the political, or the grotesque, these pictures were about nothing more than harnessing the pure power of history and beauty. (Not the sort of thing I normally champion.)

The exhibition, “Shiprock and Mont St. Michel,” was organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, where it was originally shown. It will be on the wall in Santa Fe through September 8th, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who lives in NM, or is passing through town this summer. Why?

The gelatin silver prints are the photographic equivalent of the perfect soufflé; far easier to consume than to make. (It’s often difficult to appreciate the power of simplicity, masterfully-executed.) Layers of tonality and silky textures. Exquisite shades of gray and upward-jutting land forms. That sort of thing.

Though the two locales seem a bit arbitrary, they exist together simply because that is where Mr. Clift chose to focus his attention over a forty year time horizon. His creativity, his choice. There is a nice Old World, New World balance to the whole endeavor.

While we’ve all seen majestic landscape photos over the years, the images here, made near Shiprock, New Mexico, in the Navajo Nation, indicate a definite point of view. Energy radiates through the rectangle. We feel the essence of a multi-million year time horizon, and the spiritual thoughts that such a landscape engenders over time. Deep beauty, for sure. (And a bit of irony, as Shiprock is a pretty hardcore place. It currently has the 3rd highest poverty rate among the Native American population in the US. Which is saying something.)

The other set of pictures, made on an island off the coast of France, focuses more on man’s mark within the historical continuum. The shock of a Gothic spire spears its way into shadow, multiple times. Architecture and light commingle. The sense of community, of a group of people making descendants over time, comes to the forefront. Again, the prints are extraordinary.

I wanted to highlight this exhibit, because it’s important to remember that there are countless reasons why we make pictures. Despite my freakout six weeks ago, I do believe that no one reason is inherently better than the next. It’s the quality of the vision, and the resulting photographic objects, that keep us engaged, and ready to look. Again. And again.

This Week In Photography Books – Gerry Johansson

by Jonathan Blaustein

They say nothing is certain but death and taxes. (Whoever ever they are, that is.) To that short list, I’d add another constant: change.

Take people, for instance. Each day we live, we’re that much closer to dying. But age begets wisdom, so it’s not all bad. (And growth is possible too.) Though we admittedly live in a youth-obsessed culture, I’d like to think I’m getting better at what I do. It would be sad to peak too early.

Take this column, for instance. It began as a weekly synopsis of three books, a simple paragraph for each. We included a few photos taken from the photo-eye website. (No muss, no fuss.) Within a few months, though, I found myself enthralled by a special book, and the format with which you’re currently engaged was born. Gerry Johansson made a photo book so good, I just tore off into the unknown, making connections and speculations with equal fury.

A year and a half has gone by. I keep writing, and you keep reading. But things change, no matter what. As of yesterday, I’ve begun to write about photography for the New York Times, as a freelance contributor to the Lens Blog. We shall see, indeed, if I can write without the crutch of the first person perspective.

As of next month, you may come to read on Fridays and find the this column no longer there. In its place, you may find I’m presenting an interview with a photographer or a curator, or perhaps an exhibition review. The weekly flow will have been interrupted. Plus ça change…

We can follow the trajectory from Gerry Johansson shooting some pictures in Pontiac, Michigan to me writing for the New York Times. Everything’s connected, say the Buddhists, and history ties many things together.

Take Mr. Johansson’s new book, “Hattfabriken/Luckenwalde,” for instance. It opens with a set of square, black and white photographs. (As do each of his books, most likely.) The Swedish photographer is one of the most capable working today, I’d venture, and these pictures grabbed me immediately. We see a cool looking building, with prominently designed architecture. What is it? Where?

As we turn the pages, we begin to notice that the photographer seems to be circling the building, as the perspective shifts slightly, picture to picture. It’s the rare artist who’s able to make the viewer feel his or her presence, standing somewhere in the world. Here, that sense was palpable. It raised my curiosity. Even more so when he finally entered the building, and it was wrecked and abandoned.

From there, as we continue to flip, we find an essay written in Swedish. And then one in German. As I don’t read either language, I continued on through the narrative. There were two paintings presented, mirror images of the same building in the photographs, with a Swastika added in for good measure. (That I’m discussing Swastika art for the second time in three weeks is an odd coincidence worth mentioning.)

In the subsequent English version of the essay, we learn that the paintings were made by Dick Bengtsson, a prominent Swedish postal worker-turned-artist. The building was a Hat and Cap Factory, in East Germany, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, a Jew. The architect ultimately fled Germany in the Nazi purge, and ended up helping the Allies plan bombing raids against his home country during the War. How much of this history influenced Bengtsson, and Johansson by extension? We can only speculate.

Flipping onward, we see a series of photographs of Luckenwalde, the city in which the factory resides. The pictures are so, so good. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone work a square composition like this since Robert Adams. And the light and tonal qualities are brilliant as well. Wow.

Except, now that I think about it, we’re not given the name of the city yet, which is only referenced once in the previous essay anyway. So the tension slowly builds. Where is this place we’re peeking in on. And why?

The pictures are followed by a brief statement that names the city, and gives a bit of background on its socialist history. (So then we can piece it together.) A beautiful factory was built in an East German city that was Socialist before becoming Nazi, German before becoming East German, and then German again. The building, in the city, was designed by a Jewish German, who was welcome in Germany, before he wasn’t. And then he helped ruin his former country, which was busy attempting to annihilate his entire race.

A Swedish artist found a photo of the building, and made some paintings of it, which included Swastikas. He may or may not have known the entire complicated history. Then, in the 21st Century, another Swedish artist, this time a photographer, goes to visit the hulking ruin, and makes his own work on the subject. Are you still with me?

Like I said at the beginning: change is as constant as death. I’ll still be here each week, exploring and discovering along with you, going forward, but we might not discuss a book each time. Regardless, I feel a bit of a connection to Mr. Johansson, who’s work has helped inspire me to grow as a writer, and a person. Perhaps we’ll wrangle him for an interview, and we’ll publish it on a Friday, in place of this very column. Time will tell.

Bottom line: Brilliant book. Intricate too.

To Purchase “Hattfabriken/Luckenwalde” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

Alec Soth Interview – Part 2

[Part 1 is here]

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: You’ve got a publishing company, LBM, that you started in 2008. Is that right?

Alec Soth: Correct.

JB: It’s based in Minneapolis. You built a team of collaborators, and a print studio. How did that come about, and where is it going?

AS: It’s related to how my blogging activity came about. I started the blog around 2006, and did it because I wanted to have these conversations with people. I was hungry for art talk, and there was a new way to do that. One person could just do it.

It was a blast, but it became all-consuming. I felt like I needed to keep feeding this machine. So I quit.

Then, in 2008, I was having a show of work that was basically produced in the previous eight years: “The Last Days of W.” It was election time, and I wanted to mark this moment in time, so I self-published this newspaper. I made 10,000 copies, so I could make it as cheaply as possible. Like so many people do, I found that experience of self-publishing to be thrilling.

I threw this little name of Little Brown Mushroom on it, which has some special meaning attached to some other stuff. I didn’t really know that I was going forward with it.

JB: Is that a little nod to your psychedelic phase?

AS: Not at all.

JB: Truffles, porcinis? Where are we going with this?

AS: None of the above. I never had a psychedelic phase. Like I said, I’m of a pretty conservative background. The name comes from different things. There’s this character in my life, Lester B. Morrison, and his initials are LBM, so I was looking for LBM.

In researching different LBM’s out there, LBM is a mushroom hunter’s term for a Little Brown Mushroom, which is mushroom that is incredibly common, but you can’t identify it because it’s so common. I liked that meaning: making these little average things that are unidentifiable.

JB: Is that Mid-Western humility?

AS: Honest to god, it’s not true any more, but as a kid, I used to say my favorite color was brown. Is that humble, or is that just pathetic? (laughing.) I don’t know.

JB: Peculiar. We’ll go with peculiar instead of pathetic. I’m not going to be the guy to call you pathetic in print. It won’t be me. Idiosyncratic? How about that?

AS: Idiosyncratic. That works. More important was Lester B. Morrison, at the time that I was doing this. I created this name, Little Brown Mushroom, and I thought, that’s fun, I’ll do some more stuff, and get some other little ‘zines. This was all just me doing it myself: my own design, everything.

Then, I got interested in story-telling, and thinking about how children’s’ books are such a great way of combining text and image. I wanted to use that format, so I ended up finding this designer named Hans Seeger, who was excited to work with me on this. I had the idea of using the Little Golden Book structure.

We did one of these with the Australian photographer Trent Parke, and that was hugely successful. It sold out in five days, and was just a thrill. The act of creating a website, and selling this thing… it only cost $18, but it was not my own. It was another artist, and another designer. To be involved with that, and to sell that was just exhilarating. As exhilarating as making my own work.

I wanted to have a place to play with that stuff, but I was really adamant that I didn’t want it to be a grown-up business. I didn’t want the success of the first book to become intoxicating. Like, for the next one, we have to get a bigger name artist, and sell more copies.

The goal has always been to break even; to not lose money. And to have this experimental, fun place. I can try out new stuff, and the stakes aren’t so high.

JB: I noticed that a lot of the things you’re offering through LBM have sold out, including the tote bags and baseball caps. Have you ever considered giving people what they want? If they want more, sell them more? Or is it too much extra work to reproduce things? Have you thought about that? Being able to make money because people want to buy your stuff?

AS: I’ve thought about it a lot. We re-printed one thing, which is “House of Coates,” because Brad, who was the writer on that, really wanted it out there. He wanted more people to have the opportunity to read it. So I did it.

Generally, I have not wanted to do it. The primary reason is that it’s a pain in the ass. Like I said, there’s this enormous thrill about getting together with an artist and designer and making this thing. It is not thrilling, however, to receive the boxes, to put them in little containers, to put them in the mail. It’s full of problems and returns and hassles.

Re-printing an old thing, and trying to promote an old thing, it’s just not exciting. Very simply. With my limited time, I’m not that excited about spending it that way.

JB: We’re talking about Little Brown Mushroom at present, but the initial question reflected the fact that you’re a highly successful artist, and you’re lecturing around the country, constantly. It sounds like it would be enough of a job for anybody.

Are most or all of the folks at LBM based there with you in Minneapolis? I’ve heard a lot of great things about the photo community there. Did you always plan to stay there, or did you ever consider moving to New York or LA?

AS: First of all, not everyone is here. The main designer is in Milwaukee, which is not at all close to here. Another designer is based in Philadelphia, and one in New York. But most of us are here.

In terms of being here, it is a great photo community. It always has been, based largely on good support for the arts in Minnesota.

JB: Some folks actually move there to be able to qualify for the McKnight Fellowship?

AS: Yeah. That is true. I always thought I was going to live in the Bay Area, because it’s…

JB: Insanely nice?

AS: Yeah, it’s insanely nice. And there’s a great photo community.

JB: They’re pretty hot right now, too.

AS: I have a lot of friends out there. I thought that was going to be the case, but real life circumstances kept me here for a variety of reasons. When I had some art world success, I confess that I flirted with the idea of New York. And then, I came to my senses on that one. For a moment I thought about it, and I’m so grateful I didn’t do that.

In terms of staying here, it’s not Paradise. I don’t want to over-romanticize it, at all. It’s freaking April 17th, and I’m looking at snow right now. So it’s ridiculous. But as I travel around, it’s a pretty good place.

JB: And you guys have Kirby Puckett. (pause.) No, that’s right. He died.

AS: (laughing.) Yeah, we no longer have Kirby Puckett.

JB: See that. Even my attempt at topical sports humor crashed because I remembered Kirby Puckett died a while ago.

AS: Not only did he die, there was a big sex scandal before he died, so it’s even more depressing.

JB: Oh my god. I didn’t know that. I read an article a couple of years ago in Sports Illustrated that rattled off the litany of Walter Payton’s indiscretions. He shot some guy. That one crushed any of my childhood sports idealism that was left. If Sweetness was a prick, there’s nobody left to respect.

AS: (laughing) One quick thing, though, I’m not super-engaged with the local community. I don’t want to give that impression. We have a lot of interns from the local schools, but I travel all the time.

When I’m here in Minnesota, I’m either at the studio, or I’m with my family. There’s not much else. But it’s a good place for that, because I don’t have to socialize all the time. If I lived in New York, I’d have to go to a freaking opening every weekend.

JB: We’re clear. If people move to Minnesota to get a McKnight, they should not plan to hang out with Alec Soth all the time.

But as far as bringing people to town, you’re having a camp for introverted storytellers?

AS: Socially awkward. Introverted is your word. If that’s your definition of socially awkward.

JB: I totally pulled that word off the website description. Don’t make me Google it right now.

AS: (laughing) OK.

JB: I know the deadline for submission will have passed by the time this is published, but where did you get the idea to set up a camp?

AS: In the last year, I’ve been doing this project with Brad Zellar, and he and I are doing these road trips. For every one of these, we work with a student assistant. They’ve been incredible encounters. And I like to think we have potentially changed people’s lives.

As I told you at the beginning, I had a teacher who changed my life. So I really want to be a part of that experience. I feel like the traditional educational structure is a way to do that, but it doesn’t have to be the only way to do that.

JB: That structure is in massive flux in 2013 anyway.

AS: Yeah. There are things that can be done with it. I am outside of that structure, but I’m hungry to have that be a part of my life. Doug DuBois is a good friend of mine. He and I teach together one week out of the year in Hartford.

JB: They have a low-residency MFA program there. Is that the term?

AS: Limited residency. Doug teaches at Syracuse, full time, and goes to Hartford for a week. He is clearly one of the great educators. A couple of years ago, Doug was awarded the SPE educator of the year. This parade of students came on stage, one by one, talking about his influence in their life. It was so powerful.

Wow, I thought. It’s such a meaningful thing to do. I want a piece of that. I want to engage with people in that way. So, how to do that?

I thought, why not do something here? I’m invited to do workshops all the time, but it’s always a pain for me, because I travel too much. It’s hard to justify it to my family, to go away, again, for something else.

I thought, why not have people come here, and do it entirely on my own terms, so I can make it what I want to make it. The fact that it’s free was a big part of that, for a number of reasons. One is I didn’t want the expectation of anything. I feel like if you charge $2000 for a workshop, it needs to be officially certified in some way.

JB: You start judging yourself by value added.

AS: Yeah. And it’s also going to attract different people. This is just a big experiment. It’s hard to talk about, since I haven’t done it yet. But I’m really excited about it.

And I continue to be excited about working with these students on the various “Dispatch” trips.

JB: Good luck with it. It sounds exciting.

AS: Thanks.

JB: But we’re deep into this interview, and I realize we haven’t been able to talk about your big career news, that is relatively hot off the presses. By the time we publish this, it will be slightly less fresh. But you were just given your first Guggenheim Fellowship.

AS: Yeah. And last, because I think you can only get it one time now.

JB: Congrats, on behalf of our disparate global band of photo geeks. What project did you propose?

AS: I’m really committed to this “Dispatch” project. To explain what that is, it’s a collaborative, self-published newspaper. Brad Zellar and I do a two-week road trip, in a certain geographical location; usually a state. We tackle whatever issues and topics we feel are pertinent to that area. We’ve done four so far: Ohio, Upstate, (which is Upstate New York,) Michigan, and Three Valleys. (Which is in California.)

JB: San Joaquin, Death Valley, and Silicon Valley?

AS: Right. And then next month, we’re doing Colorado.

JB: Just up the way from here.

AS: We considered doing the Four Corners, but ended up doing Colorado.

JB: I just drove across the state yesterday. I left Jersey, where it was 65 degrees and sunny, and I landed in an actual blizzard in Denver. It was pretty horrendous. Back to the topic though…

AS: We’re continuing that project, and we’re using the Guggenheim funds to expand it in difficult-to-fund regions. We’re doing Texas, and it’s easier to get funding there, than some place like Idaho. It’s a very expensive project because there are three of us traveling, and I pay Brad. Then we produce the newspaper.

It’s a pretty epic project, and the Guggenheim is going towards that. I’m also fund-raising in other ways, for the project, which I’ve never really done before. I just believe in it really strongly.

JB: I can’t wait to see how it evolves. You’ve been so generous with your time, so I know we have to wrap this up. Are there any exhibitions coming up that some of our readers might be able to see?

AS: No.

JB: (laughing) I try to end this with the most average, softball question anyone could ever ask, and I get a one word answer that totally subverts my intentions. That’s awesome. It’s a great ending right there, unless you want to say “Goodnight, Gracie.”

AS: This new work that I’m doing, I talked it over with my galleries, and I’m not selling any of it right now. I want to wait. That’s part of the Guggenheim, and other funding that I’m getting as well.

I’m using it to give myself some space to produce this work without showing it, and selling it, and doing all of those things, until it’s done. It’s like the way one would do with a movie. I’ll release it when it’s time to be released in its entirety. Happily, I don’t have any big shows on the schedule.

Billy. Ironwood

Cade and Cody. Au Gres-Sims High School Wolverines. Au Gres

Facebook main campus. Menlo Park

Highway 15, near Daggett.

Jesse Reese. American Legion Post 205. Dover Burial Park. Dover, Ohio

Martin Etchamendy, Basque shepherd. Outside Bakersfield

Miguel, ten months old. Woodville Farm Labor Camp. San Joaquin Valley

Near Kaaterskill Falls

Alec Soth Interview – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: When did you first start taking photographs? When did it all begin?

Alec Soth: In high school, I had this experience that a lot of people have. I had a great teacher that woke me up. In that case, he was a painting teacher. He did a little session, once, on photography, and I wasn’t particularly drawn to it. But I knew that I wasn’t a painter, deep down.

So I did other things. I made sculptures outdoors, and stuff like that. I went to school thinking I’d be some sort of painter or installation artist. While I was in school, I discovered photography in a new way, partly through photographing these sculptures I was making outdoors.

JB: This is at Sarah Lawrence?

AS: Sarah Lawrence. Correct.

JB: You studied with Joel Sternfeld?

AS: Yes. Joel taught there, but it was impossible to get a class with him. He was too popular. So I took two different summer courses in photography, while I was home in Minnesota. One was at the University of Minnesota, and the other was at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

I got excited about photography, and then finally got into Joel’s classes. I took two classes with him, and it was amazing and fantastic.

JB: What were some of the core concepts that embedded in your young artist consciousness when you worked with him?

AS: It’s curious. At that time, when I fell in love with photography, I was a typical American who was influenced by American things. I was really influenced by that American tradition of photography, in which Joel was a major player.

You know, that whole MoMA, Stephen Shore, Eggleston to Walker Evans trajectory. And I was in love with that. Road photography. The standard stuff.

The curious thing about Joel, as a teacher, he was adamant that people not mimic him. He’s interested in a lot of different things. This was, at the time, 1990 or so. Post-modern, Cindy Sherman, staged photography was the rage. He really encouraged that.

The truth is that I did that sort of work back then. And I didn’t do work like him, or straight photography much at all, at that time. But I wanted to. I just felt that it wasn’t right to.

His influence is a peculiar one. I loved his work, I loved him, but almost out of respect, I didn’t want to work like him. It was only when I was away from school that I started dealing with his influence, and the influence of that generation of photographers.

JB: Do you now feel comfortable seeing your work in that continuum? It’s funny that you mention MoMA, because I was just there, and there was one wall in the permanent collection installation that was totally insane. It has one of Joel’s pictures, and then the Bechers, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Eggleston, and then below it were all the Ed Ruscha artist books. It was like 200 square feet of real estate that captured the fantasies and wet dreams of tens of thousands of American photographers.

AS: (laughing.)

JB: So next time MoMA hangs something like that, if one of your pictures is up there next to those guys, what does that do to your head?

AS: (pause.) I don’t know. First of all, with all respect to MoMA, it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It’s a different world. Without a doubt, my work, whatever its quality, falls in that historical lineage. There’s no getting away from it. That’s cool. I’m an American photographer.

I don’t want to be limited strictly to that. Hopefully I’m not just covering old ground. But I’m fine with that comparison.

JB: You dodged the whole ego question, about people putting your work in that pantheon, which is cool. But I think it’s easy to differentiate you, as it’s easy to differentiate the time in which we’re living. One of my little catchphrases, because as a blogger, it never hurts to have a catchphrase, is I love to talk about the 21st Century Hustle. I’ve got to trademark it one of these days.

AS: (laughing.)

JB: The idea is that today, the old traditions and the old business-models are gone. It seems like most everyone who’s having any success is hybridizing, these days. I’m mostly familiar with your photography, as is everyone. But in addition to being a photographer, you’re a writer, a professor, a publisher, a lecturer, and a camp counselor, if the LBM blog is to be believed. That is the 21st Century hustle, dude.

Was that the plan? Did you build it piecemeal, or did you have a vision to do as many things as possible, both for your creativity, and to pay your bills?

AS: No. It was not a vision. Going back, when I left college, I had a general Bachelor’s degree. No speciality. But I had photographic skills, which were somewhat marketable. I worked in darkrooms, did different things, and ended up working in an art museum. Et cetera.

But the notion of making a living as an artist seemed very unrealistic, particularly living in Minnesota. At a certain point, I thought, it’s just not going to happen. It’s important to tell you, also, that despite going to Sarah Lawrence, I was never a bohemian wild-child type.

I thought it’s always important to have a job. I always feel a sort of responsibility to do the things that Middle-Americans are supposed to do. So I was living a fairly, (not politically conservative,) but conservative lifestyle.

JB: Except for the fact that you were sneaking prints from your job out the back door inside your pants.

AS: (laughing) Exactly. OK. But that’s fairly normal as well.

JB: So that was the exception? No late-night drunken brawls? Just a bit of mild theft that we’re only discussing now because the statute of limitations is up.

AS: Exactly. Mild theft. And there was definitely drunkenness, but it was lonely drunkenness. Not angry drunkenness. Just sad, blubbering-by-myself drunkenness.

The point is that I really didn’t know how to make a living outside of conventional means. Now, I know many other things. If I was twenty again, I’d do things very differently.

JB: You’re actually stealing questions from down my list. I’m trying to be polite, and I don’t want to interrupt your thoughtful responses, but that one’s not supposed to come up until later. But what the hell, I’ll just cross it off the list. What advice would you give your younger self? What are the do-overs?

AS: I’ll get to that.

JB: All right. We’ll keep it going in a natural way. Please continue.

AS: What I’m getting at is, this diversification, I didn’t have a vision for that. My vision was, you need to have an employer, and you have a job, and you go forward. Like that. And I would do my work on the side. So then, once my life changed, (and we can talk about that later,) and I had all sorts of opportunities in the art world, I felt distrustful that that could sustain itself.

I felt a need to have a backup plan. Since I didn’t have a Master’s Degree, and teaching didn’t seem like a real possibility at the time, I started doing editorial photography. And then I started doing blogging. That was not as a commercial activity at all.

I didn’t have a real art community, and I was dealing with the art world mainly through the economics of the art world. I wasn’t having art conversations, so I used blogging to do that. These pieces have been added on over time pretty organically. It wasn’t planned out at all.

How that relates to when I was twenty, and what I’d do over again? I just feel really strongly now that being a creative person means being creative with your life. It doesn’t mean being creative with this one particular activity that you do. Now I see that running a business is a creative activity. How you organize your daily schedule is a creative activity. You can be creative and entrepreneurial in all sorts of different ways.

I think art students should be thinking about that. It’s not just that I go to graduate school, become a teacher, and there’s this formulaic pattern. Be creative.

JB: I like that we went non-linear there, because it’s gorgeous advice. I’m really curious how you’ve done it, because, unlike most of our readers, I wasn’t really familiar with all the different aspects of what you do.

AS: I don’t think most people are familiar with it. We’re in a tiny bubble. Most people, if they’re aware of you, they’re aware of one thing. Sometimes, people that really know my work only know one thing.

It’s a real struggle to communicate Little Brown Mushroom, and what that means.

[Part 2 tomorrow]

Bonnie (with a photograph of an angel) Port Gibson, Mississippi 2000

Harbor Marina Memphis,Tennessee 2002

Frankie Ferriday Louisiana 2002

Sunshine Memphis,Tennessee 2000

Charles Lindbergh's boyhood bed Little Falls, Minnesota 1999

This Week In Photography Books – Mike Brodie

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve always loved “East of Eden.” Such a brilliant book. My brother and I didn’t get along well, for years, so the novel just made sense to me. I’d never before read anything that resonated on the personal, intellectual and spiritual level. That Steinbeck, man. What a genius.

It’s not the opus most people think of, though, when the great man’s name comes up. Like Walker Evans and the Great Depression, when most hear Steinbeck, they go right to “The Grapes of Wrath.” Dust covers everything. People roam and wander. Desperation wafts thickly. “Okie” is an epithet. And Tom Joad is a character that sticks.

Hell, even Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen mined his well-worn talent, (perhaps for the last time,) when he wrote “The Ghost of Tom Joad” back in ’95. If ever there were a story that sells in America, it’s the wandering vagrant, riding the rails. (Hey Acorn, you got any spare strips a duct tape? Got me ‘nother hole in mah overalls. Landed funny comin’ off that goddamn train.)

Much as I love to tie these reviews back to my own life, today, I’ve got nothing. Sure, I’ve been around, but always from the comfort of a car, bus, plane, or passenger train. I’m just an average, everyday civilian.

As opposed to Mike Brodie, whose project “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” recently exhibited at Yossi Milo in New York, and was released earlier this year as a beautifully produced book, by Twin Palms. No, this dude has seen his fair share of disemboweled varmints, festering sores, and never-washed hair. And he seems to be spry, if the pictures are to be believed. (Fence jumping in the opening picture? Great way to kick off the narrative.)

Mr. Brodie spent a few years hopping freight trains, and hanging out with the kind of kids who would emerge from a test-tube birth, if the parents were Ryan McGinley, Nan Goldin, and the aforementioned Californian, John Steinbeck. (What? You can’t have three parents? Says who?) They’d be glamorous, if they weren’t so dirty. They’d be normal, if they weren’t so misunderstood. They’d be happy, if they weren’t so damaged.

These photographs have gone everywhere, (as have the protagonists,) and it’s not hard to understand why. Looking at this book gives you a window into an unseemly world that you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. (Though the Sean Penn film from a few years back with the *Spoiler Alert* super-sad ending did a fair job, I suppose.) It’s the equivalent of US Weekly for the intelligentsia: see how the other half lives; we dare you to put it down.

I love to be surprised, but I don’t know if that happened here. It felt more voyeuristic than truly insightful; more entertaining than informative. But looking at the situation facing members of the artist’s generation, (he’s 27,) maybe this is just the most perfect set of “peoplesymbols” anyone’s come out with yet? It’s a bit cynical, but keeps it real at the same time. Sounds pretty GenY to me.

There are lots of photos looking down, which works very well, and the overall color palette is gorgeous: muted when need be, ugly when appropriate, and glowing at just the right moments. At a time when everyone is talking about Punk, because of the Met’s Fashion exhibition, this book gives us a sense of what the movement’s descendants might look like in 2013.

Basically, this is the ultimate project for now. It’s guaranteed to get people’s attention, well-crafted enough to hold it, yet not brilliant enough to force people to think too hard. It’s easy to tell yourself: boy, I’m glad I didn’t end up like that. But then you think, if I had, I’d be the one sitting on the gold mine photo project.

Is it worth it if you have to poop on toilets hooked up to vacuum cleaners, and change the dressing on your best bud Tray’s ass wound? I don’t know. But it’s too late for you anyway. This merry band of misfit roaming rebels has been photographed already. Find your own subculture.

Bottom Line: Excellent book, super-trendy project

To Purchase “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

Reviewing Work At The New York Portfolio Review

by Jonathan Blaustein

I sat in the back row for orientation, flanked by two friends. The large conference room at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism was buzzing. To my left sat David Emitt Adams, an Arizona photographer who prints on oil drum lids. To my right was Jaime Permuth, a Guatemalan based in New York, who photographs in Queens. We were excited, and probably a little nervous, to take part in the first ever New York Portfolio Review, sponsored by the NY Times Lens Blog.

I was listening to the tail end of Michelle McNally’s introductory speech, when David’s elbow gently poked my rib cage. He pointed across the room, and whispered in my ear, “Get a load of that guy.”

I looked up, and noticed that one of our fellow photographers was wearing a Mexican-style lucha libre wrestling mask. Awesome, but maybe a little inappropriate. Like everyone, I was curious as to the identity of our masked man.

There were over a hundred photographers in the room, many of whom had flown in from around the planet. The Times was hosting its first portfolio review, which was announced on the Lens Blog this past winter. Those sitting there, patiently waiting to have their work reviewed by some of the biggest names in the industry, had been chosen from among the several thousand applicants who submitted work. The event was totally free, which is a rarity. Even the food was complimentary.

It was an august group of seasoned professionals, and, of course, the guy wearing the lucha libre mask. My friends and I giggled, reflecting the personality of adolescent troublemakers in the back row. “Dude,” I said to David, “I’ll give you twenty bucks if you climb on the table and tackle him, like Macho Man dropping down off the top turnbuckle. Twenty bucks, dude. Twenty bucks.”

©David Emitt Adams

He laughed, but was wise enough to pass. Then, the lucha libre guy got up from his chair, and started heading our way. “Quick,” I told the guys, “when he walks by, let’s all yell ‘Que Viva,’.” It’ll be awesome. Like. Totally.

The anonymous photographer was tall, and bore down on us like a lumberjack eyeing a tasty bit of tree. Just as he was about to walk by, our taunts at the ready, something surprising happened. He stopped.

Suddenly, I was looking up at a pair of sparkly eyes, peering out from behind the wrestler’s mask. “Heeeeeey, Jonathan,” he said. I let out a long breath, ashamed at my recent behavior. Everyone within a few rows was watching, or so it seemed.

Immediately, it came to me: Sol Neelman, who put out the cool book “Weird Sports” a couple of years ago. I reviewed it, and then we met once in Albuquerque. Had to be him.

“Sol?” I said, tepidly. It was indeed.

“I have a present for you,” he said. The next thing I knew, he handed me a lucha libre mask of my own. “Put it on.”

“Come on, dude, put it on,” chimed the gallery.

By then, it was clear I had an audience. What the hell, I thought, might as well be a good sport about it. As I posed for the inevitable photos, however, I realized that I couldn’t actually see. The mask didn’t fit, so my eyes were covered. Fortunately, David captured the moment in a Polaroid, which he graciously scanned, so you can now snigger accordingly.

What’s the lesson here? Maybe it’s best to keep your mouth shut sometimes, rather than mocking the one guy who looks different? Or, maybe we should all lighten up a bit? Que viva.

From there, I had a fantastic day, as all my reviews were stellar. I met with some excellent people, but, really, we’ve been through this before. I’ve written several articles about attending portfolio reviews, so let’s not go down that road today.

The next day, though, I was asked to review the work of a great group of younger photographers. (It was the first time I’ve been a reviewer at a portfolio review event.) As I was the only attendee to be on both sides of the table, it occurred to me that I could use this article to highlight the best work I saw. (You know, like an actual professional.)

I sat behind a table that Sunday, anxiously waiting to dispense advice. I was open with the photographers, admitting I was much less influential than the other people in the room, and that it was likely I could offer nothing more than my honest opinion about where to take their work. I hadn’t thought of writing about them in an article like this, so the possibility wasn’t discussed.

Given the international flavor of the event, three of the six photographers I met were European. Two young women, from Italy and France, had not-yet-developed work, so we focused on picking out the best few images as a foundation on which to build. The third artist visiting from the continent, Daniel Alvarez, was from Barcelona. (Who doesn’t love that city?)

He showed me a recently published book, which I’ve photographed for you. Black and white, high-contrast, grainy images of his Japanese wife were mixed within a non-linear narrative. They were more intense than erotic, and personal in a way you don’t often see with photography like this. (Probably because he actually knows, loves and lives with his model, rather than just being a male photographer fetishizing some random hottie.) The sequencing of the book was also strong, and I’ve included a particularly impressive run. (Negatives/modernist building/contact sheet.)

Of the Americans I met, the two young women also showed images that indicated promise, but were not quite there yet. I encouraged them, highlighted the best images, and pointed out that their evident talent and work ethic, extended over time, would likely yield the results for which they were hoping. The other American, Andrew Burton, was rather confident, and gave the sense that I was probably not high on his list. (Not that I blame him. I wouldn’t have ranked me highly either.)

Andrew is a photojournalist of the old school, and had pictures to show me on his laptop. The project we discussed had recently been shot in Afghanistan, where he was investigating the American military handoff. The pictures were unquestionably excellent.

I pointed out a compelling succession of images, and mentioned that the formal compositional structure would read well in an art context. (On the topic of how to show his work outside the journalistic milieu.) Many of the other images were more angular, with less rigid use of cropping. The advice was: the fine art photo world is, and will likely always be in love with formalism.

An Afghan National Army soldier practices drills at Command Outpost AJK (Azim-Jan-Kariz) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 29, 2013.

Soldiers in the Afghan National Army's 6th Kandak (battalion), 3rd company walk through a poppy field during a joint patrol with the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay on April 5, 2013 in Kandahar Province, Maiwand District, Afghanistan. The United States military and its allies are in the midst of training and transitioning power to the Afghan National Security Forces in order to withdraw from the country by 2014.

An improvised explosive device (IED) detonates underneath a vehicle during a patrol outside Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 28, 2013. No one was killed in the attack.

A 10-year-old girl injured by an improvised explosive device waits for a helicopter to evacuate her for further medical attention from strong point DeMaiwand, Maywand District, Kandahar Province, on January 18, 2013. The IED also injured a 25-year-old man, who had both legs blown off.

A member of the Afghan Uniform Police, on patrol with the U.S. Army, wipes his brow after an improvised explosive device (IED) attack during a patrol outside Command Outpost AJK (short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a near-by village) in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, January 28, 2013. No one killed in the attack.

 

We also talked a bit about how the photography industry is changing, no matter which wing one inhabits. I shared with him my belief that today’s photographers have to be multi-talented, and be able to create various incomes streams. The old ways are dead, I theorized, and they’re not coming back. (Then, I might have pounded the table for emphasis.) Shortly after that meeting, Andrew was hired as a NYC-based staff photographer for Getty Images. Just like the old days. Shows what I know.

After the reviews were done, everyone got together for a pizza feast, again catered by the Times. The afternoon featured a slate of lectures, which I had to miss, as I was due for a second pizza party with my family, across the Hudson River in Jersey. Before I headed back into reality, though, I made sure to stop in to thank James Estrin, Lens blog co-editor, and the visionary behind the event. (Along with David Gonzalez, the Lens Blog co-editor, who took the time to give me some tremendous journalistic advice.) Mr. Estrin is a generous guy, and I’ll reiterate my appreciation here. It was an amazing event, and I’m honored to have been included.

This Week In Photography Books – Walker Evans

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever been to Walmart? It’s a fair question. If you live in a major American city, or elsewhere in the world, you might not have had the experience. (Spoiler alert: you’re not missing much.)

I avoid Walmart whenever possible. Sometimes, though, I have no choice. Here in the sticks, if you need something specific, immediately, you might have to succumb to the unctuous undertow. I try to find an alternative if I can, because I’m so tired of being “Walmarted.” Yes, my wife and I use the noun as a verb.

To be “Walmarted” means to go into the store looking for a particular, inexpensive item which, invariably, they’re out of. Then, as you try to navigate the chunky aisles, in which things are sometimes moved around to confuse, you end up grabbing other goods; stuffing your basket with unnecessary trinkets made in China. Finally, you find yourself in a long, slow queue, wasting time. After five minutes of waiting, you realize you aren’t actually buying the thing you came in for. Fed up, you put down your basket, and walk out of the store.

Classy.

If I were asked, by some time-traveling Americans from the future, to codify the signs of our collective decline, Walmart would be a pretty good place to start. It has its defenders, who focus on its ability to deliver low-cost goods, but the Arkansas-based mega-conglomerate has many sins for which to repent. Chief among them, the corporation has done much to hollow out America’s once-thriving Middle-Class. (Look here, and let me distract you with super-cheap garbage that will break in a few weeks time, while I run your Mom-and-Pop establishments out of business.)

Yes, Walmart would be my answer, if queried by these imaginary Americans from the future. What if, however, they asked me to show them what America looked like in the past? Perhaps they were curious about depictions of the United States the last time we were mired in a period of deep stagnation?

“You want a sense of what things were like during the Great Depression, future people? That’s easy,” I’d say. “No worries. Here’s a copy of the 75th Anniversary edition of ‘American Photographs,’ by Walker Evans, recently re-issued by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Have a seat, take a look,” I’d say. “By the way, do you guys have flying cars yet? Because that would be righteous, future dudes.”

This book needs no actual introduction, so I fabricated one, as I’m wont to do. It’s just that good. Clinical, poetic, formal, intelligent, political photographs line up for your perusal. All you have to do is turn the page, and stare.

While I rarely mention price, this book is not expensive, so it belongs in any good collection. (Hint, hint. Buy it.) It begs repeated viewing, as the details are so compelling. Even photos you’ve seen before feel fresh and modern, like the “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife,” from 1936. Another, “Interior Detail, West Virginia Coal Miner’s House,” from 1935, is another I’d seen before. This time, though, the humor of the situation jumped out at me. Who on Earth would use those cheesy adverts to decorate a living room? This guy, apparently.

Structurally, the book is broken down into two sections. The first deals with people and signage, predominantly, and the latter focuses on American Architecture. Both are stellar, and show Mr. Evans’ range. There is a sequence of structures in Part 2, a few ramshackle churches, interspersed with a Greek-Style stone facade, that indubitably influenced the Becher style, decades later. Brilliant.

Finally, I must give a shout out to the incredibly-well-written and somehow timely essay by Lincoln Kirstein, which follows the plates. (From the original publication in 1938.) It’s the rare bit of intellectual prose that holds one’s attention with its severe intelligence, and I found myself shocked by the contemporary relevance. (“A batch of younger photographers, usually their dark-room assistants, is always just around the corner, ready to do the new jobs for less cash. Just as with automobiles, the style-turnover is rapid and the old dogs can’t seem to learn new tricks.”)

Two closing statements, by the curator Sarah Hermanson Meister, give a clue as to how much work goes into re-producing a book like this. She also offers us an inside look at how seriously those MoMA folks take their jobs. Obsession and attention to detail are a given, I suppose.

Those of you who pay attention might just have realized that I foreshadowed this review in last week’s column. I, too, take my work seriously, even if that only means keeping it fresh from time to time. This book, by a master, as promised, is one to own. No questions asked.

Bottom Line: A re-issued masterpiece. Buy it.

To Purchase “American Photographs” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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