Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

Zack Arias Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: What’s the story with the beard? How long have you had that not-quite-quasi-ZZ-Top-looking thing?

Zack Arias: I have not seen my chin in sixteen years. I had a goatee after high school, and then in ’95, I went on a trip around the US, and I decided not to shave. It’s a really good device to cover up double-chins.

So I’ve just stuck with it. I had to cut it off once for a part-time job delivering pizzas. Other than that, I’ve had this stupid monster on my chin for a long time. One reason I keep it is it’s a reminder that I can’t go back to a normal day job. I have to make photography work for me.

It’s lost all its color, though, after four kids. It’s all gray and white. Part of me is ready to lose it, but none of my kids know me without it.

JB: I’ve had mine about as long as you’ve had yours. I can’t really imagine going back, they do become a part of our personality, no?

ZA: They do. I would not be able to think about things without it. Whenever I’m thinking, I twirl and pull on it. If I cut it off, I would be so lost.

JB: It’s a good point. It definitely is an advantage for guys like us. It makes us appear smarter…

ZA: Yes.

JB: …and it gives us that extra beat. That extra two seconds to figure something out. You touch it, and look pensive, but really you’re thinking, “I don’t know what to say, and I need to come up with something quickly.” Is that about right?

ZA: (laughing) That is exactly it.

JB: Our secrets have now been divulged to the cyber-sphere.

ZA: Awesome.

JB: Isn’t it safe to say you don’t have any secrets from the cyber-sphere?

ZA: Not too many. I try to be a fairly open book, wherever I am in life. I used to operate differently. I would play my cards close to the chest, and embellish whatever I was working on so people would believe I was working on more important things than I was. The whole fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude.

That didn’t go well for me, and my whole life fell apart. I’ve always been active on forums, or some sort of water-cooler-esque type of thing where photographers commune and get together. I just decided that when I came back to photography, I would be truthful with myself, and my colleagues. For better or worse.

And it’s been a lot better. I don’t feel like I have to position myself with anyone any longer.

JB: And yet so many people are nervous and afraid to speak their mind. Wouldn’t you say?

ZA: Yes. I think so. Some people are nervous about sharing where they are in their life or career, because maybe they have to keep up the persona that “Hey, I’m busy, and things are going great.”

In a world where we all need to be nice, and professional, and everybody’s worried about sticking their neck out, or saying anything that isn’t nice…if you have a problem about something in your industry, you keep your mouth shut.

There are fantastic arguments to be made for that. I do bite my tongue a lot. But then there are times that I let it loose. I’m going to say what I think, and try to be professional, and hope that works out well.

JB: I can relate. When I started writing for Rob, almost 3.5 years ago now, he encouraged that type of honesty. I remember being really uncomfortable the first few times I let it fly. His advice, which I took very seriously, was that people respect honesty.

In my research, looking at the way people respond to you online, where you have a huge presence, it seems like there’s been a correlation with your success. Or am I assuming too much here?

ZA: I would agree with you. My goal is not to build a community, or build numbers, or get people to follow me or read my stuff. My goal is to interact with my industry, my peers and colleagues, and help out where I can.

But I am going to say what I think. The people I interact with, I want them to be the kind of people that understand that. They don’t have to always agree with me, but there has to be a mutual respect.

I don’t want to make everything sugar-coated and happy, trying to bring in as many people as possible without ever stepping on toes. I think people do react to people who are genuine. People who are honest.

You can tell that about someone by just going through their twitter feed, or reading a few blog posts. I think my number one hero in this industry today is Joe McNally, and he is the most genuine, humble, truthful, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy.

He’s very helpful, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s honest with his success, and his failures. I love that man, as a photographer, as well as a person. There’s not many people I look up to more than McNally.

We’ve all met the divas and the rockstars, and their ego enters the room before they do. I don’t want to associate with that, really.

JB: As a photographer, have you found that working in such close quarters with people, under pressure-packed environments for years, that you can kind of smell that ego and attitude as soon as it walks in the door? How are you at getting quick reads on people? Is that a skill you think has evolved?

ZA: Absolutely. Maybe it’s a personal skill that you just bring to photography, or to life. But being a photographer, especially working in editorial or commercial fields, you never know who you’re going to be in front of, and who you’re going to be interacting with, day to day.

You get an email that says you’re assigned to go shoot Mr. Jones, over at ACME company, and when you walk through the front door, you have no idea who you’re going to meet. It is a good skill to be able to size people up quickly.

In photography, you don’t have very much time to interact. If I feel like this person is puffing themselves up, that lets me know how to deal, and get the best picture out of them. Sometimes, I’ll play into that, if it lets me make the best portrait I can.

Other times, I feel like I need to bust through the veneer, and I understand the veneer, because I too had that myself. But I want to bust through that, and get something different.

It’s a good skill to have, but I can’t say if photography has taught me that, or not. You get that gut feeling about someone, when you meet them.

JB: Speaking for myself, it’s definitely a skill that I’ve learned over time.

ZA: Yes.

JB: I know I was naive and worthless for some time. But pushing 40, I feel like I’ve begun to figure it out. It’s funny, because in a youth-obsessed culture, we often under-value these skills that you can only learn from taking your knocks.

ZA: Have you seen Craig Ferguson’s rant on youth?

JB: No.

ZA: It was one of his opening monologues. Fantastic. He comes out and says, “I’ve figured out what all the problems are.” He talked about the fact that society used to appreciate experience, wisdom and age, and then it turned to celebrating youth, and became stupid. That kind of thing.

I just hit 40, and I start to worry, am I going to be as relevant? Every art buyer I meet is fresh out of school, and twenty-something, and here comes the gray-haired old guy. But the reason that I really appreciate where I am in life now, though I know I still have a long way to go, is that I bring experience to things that don’t have anything to do with lenses, cameras and lights.

I can walk in a CEO’s office, or a hip-hop studio that’s filled with weed smoke, and I can do my job. Experience is invaluable.

JB: We’re all looking for that sweet spot. Because we’ve all seen work by older photographers, and we scratch our heads and say “when did he lose it?” So a lot of people are wondering “how do you keep it?”

ZA: I hope that the hunger to evolve always stays with me. This October marks the ten year anniversary that I left my day-job, and put a stake in the ground. I said, “I’m gonna be a photographer, dammit.” I had failed before at this venture, and this was my second chance to make it.

I’m proud of what I’ve done over the last ten years, but I want the next ten years to look different. When I hit 50, I want to change it up again. I don’t want to settle in.

JB: But for you, it’s not just shooting, of course. I think a lot of people are familiar with you through your web presence. You’ve got a popular tumblr in which you answer people’s questions, and you just turned that into a book.

You make yourself accessible to others, and you teach workshops, sell T-shirts. Do you see teaching as much a part of who you are as clicking the shutter?

ZA: I do. I actually had to back off on teaching, because I’m a photographer. I’d been asked to do some workshops, and I really enjoyed it, so I did some more. Then, a lot of my regular music-industry client work fell out from under my feet.

Teaching kind of caught me, so I started doing it more. But then, all of the favorite pictures I was creating, at that point, were at workshops. Not personal projects, or going out and getting steady client work.

I was becoming miserable as a photographer. I’ve watched photographers become popular with their web presence, start teaching, and stop shooting. We don’t really see them take pictures anymore. Yet they’re constantly out there saying, “Come on photographers, I’m going to help you out…to do the thing that I don’t do anymore.”

I love teaching, and I’ll continue to do it, but I want you to find me with a camera in my hand. I don’t want to just set up at the end of the dock and sell bait. I want you to find me with a hook in the water, and if you ask me what I’m doing, I’m going to tell you, and share my experience.

I don’t think I can be a relevant teacher, if I’m not out there shooting, and working with new technology. If all of your stories are, “Well, ten years ago, I was on this job…” I’d rather say “Ten days ago, I was on this job, and this is how I dealt with it.”

JB: I want to talk to you about Cuba, because the Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, and a little birdie told me that you did a workshop with those guys in Cuba. Then I saw on your blog that you made some images down there as well. So I thought maybe we could consider you our resident Cuba expert for the day.

ZA: For the day, yes.

JB: Are you comfortable with that moniker?

ZA: I’ve only been one time, with the folks from Santa Fe. They brought me in to lead a group of photographers through Havana.

JB: So what did you think?

ZA: It’s an Un-Believable place. And the people are so amazing. Cuba is just an unreal, fantastic place. The thing I tell people, when I start talking about it is, get your ass to Cuba. Get there now, before it opens up. Before the casinos come back, and there’s a Starbucks on every corner.

It’s a remarkable place that is just on our back door.

JB: What were some of the things that were most appealing to you?

ZA: The people were the most appealing, number 1. Number 2, it was meeting fellow photographers, Cuban photographers and artists.

They have done so much with so little for so long that they can do anything with nothing. Some of the best photography that I’ve seen in a long time was done by Cuban nationals that are down there.

The stories that they tell, like when the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba was the red-headed step child, and they got dropped. “Sorry, you’re on your own.” One photographer was telling me that during that time, there was no film. But he had gotten his hands on some expired, 35mm movie film, and he and a buddy of his cut it up, and put it into canisters. But they didn’t have any chemistry. So they went hospitals and doctor’s offices, and got the expired chemistry that they used for making X-rays.

With vinegar and water and such, they built their developer, stop and fix, and it was super-contrasty, but it worked. So they kept shooting.

I met another photographer who had gotten hold of an old Nikon D40, or something like that, and he had an old Minolta lens. Of course, the lens didn’t fit on the body, and there were no adapters. So he would take pictures by holding the lens in front of the body, and focusing it, and he made it work.

As far as other forms of art, it’s like, I’ve got some phone books, and a cardboard box, a broom, and someone’s going to make prints. It’s a purity, and I walked away from that experience in Cuba looking at all of us photographers in the West, in the developed world, and we have everything, and we’re not doing anything with it.

They have nothing, and they are pouring out their heart into the craft. They are so sincere about photography, and art in general. We went to a ballet school, and a boxing school, and the kids are so passionate.

It blew me away, and showed me how fat and rich and spoiled we all are. I left half my gear in Cuba. I dispersed it to people who needed it, and the next time I go, I’m going to buy some used stuff, or things I’m not using much, and leave all the gear there.

“You need a camera? Here you go. You need a flash, here you go.” You take down some AA batteries with a recharging unit, and you’ve made a friend for life.

JB: It sounds like the experience offers the photographers who come down to the workshop more than just the chance to photograph old cars and beaten up doors and windows.

ZA: Absolutely.

JB: It seems like degraded, weathered old Cuban things are images that we’ve seen so many times. How are you able to guide people away from just clicking the shutter at cliché?

ZA: You’ve got to remember, some people just enjoy photography for the sake of photography. They’re not trying to cure cancer with their camera. They’re not trying to be the next Richard Avedon, or Mary Ellen Mark. They go to Cuba, and they cannot wait to shoot an HDR picture of an old Chevy.

That is their dream, and they’re going to go home, and make a big print of it, and put it on their wall. Then, they’re going to sit back with a huge smile, because they’re going to remember going to Cuba, and getting their HDR picture of an old Chevrolet on the side of the street. And they’re going to love that.

You and I will scoff, and gag, and say “NO!” and tear at our clothes, but you’ve got to let people just enjoy it. Sometimes, I’m jealous, because there’s a lot of pictures I never take because everyone takes that picture, and I’ve seen it a million times.

What I tell people, especially on something like going to Cuba, is let photography be secondary. Your camera is your passport into experiences. There’s an old Jay Maisel quote that I harp on all the time: “If you want to become a more interesting photographer, become a more interesting person.”

You do that through increasing your experiences in this life, with the people you meet, and the things that you see. Going to Cuba will definitely make you a more interesting person. It opens your eyes to things, socially, politically and economically. You come back different, with a new perspective on life.

The pictures are good and fun, and of course you want to go down there and make photos. My thing is portraits, so I wanted to get some of those, and street photography and such. But when I think of Cuba, it’s not about the photography. I think about the people, and the music and the food and the art. Sitting out by the ocean, watching the young kids jump in the water. And the rum, and the cigars.

And the stomach bug I had for two weeks after the trip…

JB: OOOOOH.

ZA: All of that. I don’t think about the pictures, but the camera is what took me there. It allowed me into the doors of people’s homes, places I couldn’t have entered otherwise. The camera was the excuse to share a coffee with someone, which was far more valuable than whatever picture I took.

Does that make sense?

JB: Of course. It’a heck of an answer. So good that I’m going to spin it on you. Given how well you just described Cuba, now I’m a little curious about where you’re based.

I’ve only been through Atlanta, the ATL, one time. It was very brief, many years ago, and let’s just say my memories were clouded. We’ll leave it at that.

What’s it like down there in Hotlanta? You’re from Georgia, right, so this is home turf?

ZA: Home turf. Yes. I wasn’t born here, but I moved here when I was three, so close enough.

JB: That will qualify. Is everyone hangin’ out with Ludacris, smokin’ blunts and going to Braves games? Or what?

ZA: That’s just our life. No, Atlanta a great, big city that allows you to do whatever you want to do with your life. It’s got a big enough population, 5 million and growing, that it can handle that, but it’s still a small town kind of feel. The life in Atlanta is all about the neighborhoods.

Our downtown kind of sucks. Don’t bother going there. The life is in the neighborhoods. We’re a networking city, so we love to connect people with other people. Whenever I’m out talking to someone, very often I’ll say, “You know what, you need to meet this other guy I know, because he’s working on something you could connect with. I’ll put the two of you together, because I think y’all could do something with that.”

I get a lot of work in Atlanta like that. Two people are having a conversation, and then my name will get dropped into there, and then I get an email connecting me to someone else.

We’re a great hub. I love our airport, because I can go anywhere in the world I need to be.

And I would say we rival New York in food. If you want to come and eat amazing food in Atlanta, I will send you home fat, happy, and bloated out of your mind.

JB: Something tells me New York wouldn’t necessarily compete with you guys on the biscuit and gravy front. I would think you have that all wrapped up.

ZA: I’m talking international cuisine. Not just southern food. One of our favorite places to go eat is this little dive called Hankook Taqueria. It’s a Korean taqueria with a little Southern flair to it. It’s unreal.

We have the best pizza you’ll ever put in you mouth, in this town. And I’ll say that to any New Yorker.

JB: Are you intentionally trying to provoke controversy here? I feel like you are. If you’re going after pizza…

ZA: It’s hip hop. You’ve got to have some rivalry. We got to talk crap about other places and people.

JB: (laughing.) So this is now the pizza version of Dirty South claiming supremacy over NYC-style hip hop? Is that where we’re at?

ZA: That’s where it’s at.

JB: It’s hard out here for a pimp. Is that what you’re telling us?

ZA: (laughing) One of my top three favorite movies ever, right there. Hustle and Flow.

JB: It’s a great, great film. I actually found that out by reading an interview you recently did in which you claimed that those interviewers were the most prepared and excellent that you’ve ever interacted with. So I felt that, given I was guaranteed to not be number 1, I could just be lazy. I didn’t have to do any prep.

I really felt empowered by the fact that someone else was automatically better than me.

ZA: (laughing) Well you should. Because Tina and Ryan at The Great Discontent are…

JB: They’re better than me.

ZA: They’re blog gods.

JB: I hear you. I’m not even being sarcastic. I accept the fact that I am a blog human, and not a blog god. I’m empowered by it. You’ve done me a favor.

ZA: Come on? Don’t you want to rise up to the occasion?

JB: Nope. Nope. I’m a lazy, GenX slacker, man. You’ve been generous with your time. Is there anything else you’d like the audience to know about? When did your new book come out?

ZA: It’s been out a month or two. I can’t even remember.

JB: Where can people find that? Amazon?

ZA: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, things like that. But I don’t want to toot my own horn here. I do want to give a shout out to you, and Rob, and everyone working with A Photo Editor. You’re my number 1 photography-related blog that I follow.

There are a lot of good photography blogs, but about the industry, and working, and the people that you profile, everything Rob’s built has been fantastic.

And a shout out to the Santa Fe Workshops too. They took a chance on me, doing this trip to Cuba, and I appreciate that. Get your ass to Cuba. That should be the name of this article.

JB: Get your ass to Cuba. That’s the un-official title. And that was very classy of you. In all of my interviews, you’re the first person who’s ever turned it around with a reverse shout out to us. Good on ya.


This Week In Photography Books – Asako Narahashi

by Jonathan Blaustein

My next-door-neighbor spent most of the summer erasing a hill. Even now, as I sit and type, enormous machines are cranking and clanking away. They dig the dirt, gather the boulders, and then large trucks come and cart the land away.

He’s building a road a few hundred yards up the valley, so the hill has slowly disappeared, while the road takes form. Though humans are at nature’s mercy, we do our best to deny that reality. Foolishly, we think we’re capable of more than we are, simply because we know how to design and build things.

Most of the time, we only scratch the surface of this enormous orb. Occasionally, as we’ve seen in photographs of mining operations, we bore down a bit further. Either way, we rarely consider that the Earth is thousands of miles deep. There are rivers of water, and then lava flows, beneath the concrete on which you tread.

Wherever you live, it is difficult to get a fresh perspective on things; to be reminded our precious turf is a small fraction of the planet. Aerial photography is often used for this purpose, and it works. And we can all conjure the image of Earth taken from space. Close your eyes and try. (It’s not difficult.)

Asako Narahashi has come up with a different methodology: photographing land from the perspective of water. Wade, swim, photograph, and everything will look different. I know this, having just put down “Ever After,” the artist’s new monograph put out by Osiris. It is one beautiful production.

That’s the word that kept popping into my mind: beauty. How often do we dismiss that term as not-significant-enough? How many of you have that as your simple goal; the creation of beautiful, well made things? Were you to read the lengthy interview with Ms. Narahashi at the end of the book, (which I admit I only skimmed,) you’d see that she has loftier ambitions.

But I’m not sure they’re met, and I’m not sure they’re necessary. Looking at the photo of light gleaming off the ocean waves, with Mt. Fuji looming in the background, I wonder whether I could ever want anything more? Wow, is that a gorgeous picture. Though I haven’t complained until now, I’m actually feeling rather crappy, laid up with a cold. That photograph made me forget about my temporary troubles. I could look at it forever, withering to dust.

Flipping through, I briefly considered that the photos represent the view from inside a Tsunami, barreling towards shore. But they lack the sense of violence, so the thought was quickly discarded. And I was surprised when I recognized Amsterdam, seen from the vantage of a canal.

Only then did I realize the book moved beyond Japan’s shores, with photos taken in Dubai, Santa Monica, Brooklyn, and other places. It made for a nice diversion from my virtual Japanese vacation. Less successful was the later interspersing of land-based images. Certainly, though, the artist is free to mix up her pictures as she chooses.

That’s about it for today. I’ve got to go take some cold medicine, and put my sorry ass to bed. But this book is a keeper, and I’d heartily recommend it for your Fall Season Shopping List.

Bottom Line: Gorgeous photos of (mostly) Japan, taken from the sea

To Purchase “Ever After” 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.

 

Sam Abell Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: Are you still in love with photography, or has it gotten boring after all these years?

Sam Abell: That’s a good question. I was asked by a student what my most significant accomplishment was at National Geographic, after thirty years, and I said that my career came to an appropriate close, and I still loved photography. Not everybody who spends their career at anything ends up fascinated and involved with it.

I think that it’s workshops, honestly, that have kept me keen about photography, and about my photography. My career as a workshop photographer came while I was at the Geographic in the late 70’s, and has continued consistently since then.

It actually has transcended my career at the Geographic, so that when my career there ended, I had momentum as a teacher, and a belief in photographic education at the workshop level.

JB: Forgive my ignorance, but you speak of your role as a photographer in the past tense. How and when did that come about? Do photographers retire?

SA: (laughing.) Well, I can’t speak for other photographers, but the photographers who went forward strongly when the so-called “official” part of their career ended, to me, were those who had taught. Teaching enriches and enlivens one’s work.

When assignments were over, photography continued. One of the primary reasons it did was that I wanted and needed to have fresh work. Also, it’s very stimulating to be around non-professional photographers. They’re the ones with the purest flame burning about their photography. I appreciate that.

My Dad took a workshop from a photographer who worked at the Toledo Blade, a newspaper I delivered. I knew this photographer’s work. My Dad took a night class from him at the University of Toledo. Without that class, I wouldn’t have become a photographer, because my Dad came home and taught me what he learned in class.

People say to me, “Who’s your favorite kind of photographer?” Or “Who would be your favorite photographer to have in a workshop?”
And I always say, “My Dad.”

My least favorite photographer to have would be myself. Someone who wanted a career at National Geographic. Because it’s almost mathematically impossible to achieve that. It’s more difficult now, to be a Geographic photographer, than it was when I came along. And it wasn’t easy at that time.

JB: That’s the assumption that a lot of people are making these days. I often find myself talking about the literal tens of thousands of photographers who’ve come through art schools and educational programs in the last few decades. To speak nothing of the everyday hobbyists and enthusiasts.

If I was able to travel back in time, and tell you in 1974 that there would be 5 billion camera-phone wielding photographers in a few decades, what would you have said to something like that?

SA: That would astonish me, of course. For example, in my dorm, at the University of Kentucky, I had the only camera. I don’t think anyone came to college with a camera, other than me.

JB: People are constantly trying to parse what it all means. It seems like some people are astonished and excited about the fact that the world has become obsessed with our particular passion. Then you see a camp that’s almost resentful, because citizens are undercutting a lot of people’s jobs. The entire landscape seems as if it’s built upon earthquake territory, at this point.

How do you view this incredible shake-up that we’ve seen in a pretty short span of time?

SA: I’m in the first camp. I’m glad about it. I welcome it. I’m keenly interested and excited for this moment in photography, and am glad to have seen the evolution of it.

It was unexpected, of course, although I was a consultant for Kodak back in the late 80’s. There were engineers there who told me that in the future, most photographs would be taken on telephones. They weren’t able to do anything with that. They were engineers, not management.

But that’s the first time I heard about that astonishing idea. And now I’ve been watching the tsunami of images.

The class that I teach is called “The Life of a Photograph.” It takes up the question, of the billion photographs that were taken today, how many will have a life, and why? So the new reality has made the question more pertinent, not less pertinent.

JB: Anything that has any potential to stand out, one in a billion, needs to have something special about it. That seems like an obvious assumption. As a teacher, how has your approach to people’s expectations shifted?

SA: It’s shifted in a good way, away from what you might call the singular successful image, to the sustained body of work. Yes, there are billions more photographers, and billions more photographs every day, but who’s building up a point of view? Who’s photographing with intention, and whose body of work will sustain itself and survive?

This might seem off the track, but an interesting thing to me that others could talk about better than I, but one of the growth areas in photographic education has been the so-called slow photography. The tin types, daguerrotypes, collodion process…old processes, in short. Old, time-consuming, craftsman processes in photography.

The thing with my workshops is, photography is a thoughtful process. In an atmosphere of fast photography, and generally thoughtless, quick, automatic photography, I think that there is an interest in the slowed down, thoughtful approach. Even though I teach with 35mm, my method takes people by surprise, because it isn’t fast, and it isn’t about hardware or software, or even great results. It’s about great process.

JB: You’ve been teaching at the Santa Fe workshops, the sponsor of this interview, for a really long time now. How did you originally get involved with Reid and the crew?

SA: I met Reid at the Maine Photo Workshop, where he was #2. I saw him in action there, and when he went out to Santa Fe, I wanted to help him succeed. So my connection to Santa Fe is very closely, and continuously a connection with Reid. I believe in him and his philosophy of photographic education.

I teach at a couple of other workshops too, but I’m most loyal to Reid, and he’s been very loyal to his teachers, and to me personally.

JB: Do people come to study with you with the secret hope that you’ll help them launch the one in a million shot at National Geographic? Or do you mostly get students who appreciate your vision, and your understanding of color and light?

SA: Increasingly, it’s people not interested in National Geographic. In the last workshop I taught, a woman flew in from Thailand. She’s a medical doctor in Bangkok. I asked her in her one-on-one session where she wanted photography to be in her life.

Did she want a second career? Was it about earning money? Or was it art? And she said “None of those. I want photography to be serious in my life.” It would be like someone wanting music, like piano playing, to be a richer, deeper, and maybe even harder experience.

That’s who comes to my workshops. I jokingly tell my students that the class could be called “Your photographs: Better.”

JB: Well I’m sitting here, and it’s probably morbid, twisted professional curiosity as much as anything else, but I’m looking at “Stay This Moment,” one of your monographs, that I got at the Taos Public Library.

I’ve got the book open to a photograph of some cowboys castrating cows. This one guy actually has a surgical blade, covered with blood, jutting out of his teeth, while he’s getting ready to do some business.

SA: Right.

JB: It says something about me that I’d choose to leave that page open…

SA: (laughing)

JB: …but it seems as if you’ve seen quite a few crazy things in your days of traveling around the world taking pictures. Is that a safe assumption?

SA: That’s safe. But the picture that you chose is a singular picture for me. Probably the most singular. It’s on the spine of an upcoming publication of mine, in four sections. In other words, there’s four boxes, and each box has a section of that picture.

JB: And that’s a Radius publication?

SA: Yeah, that’s right. Though Geographic didn’t publish that photo in the story that it was done for, “The Life of Charlie Russell,” a cowboy artist in Montana. But later, maybe a year and a half ago, they named it one of the 50 greatest pictures ever made at National Geographic.

The picture has had a life, and after Geographic didn’t publish it, I got busy and published it in the book that you have, and wherever I could publish it. It’s a photograph that has gone on to have a life.

It’s also a good example of how I teach the composition of photographs: from the back to the front. Even though the picture is dominated by the cowboy in the foreground with the surgical knife in his mouth, the composition begins with the landscape, which was the first thing I saw.

Then it jumps forward to the cowboy, and everything in between is what I’m looking at. The last thing I’m looking at is the red bucket, as it exits the frame.

But the picture wouldn’t exist if the cowboy on his horse in the distance weren’t above the horizon. If the horizon were going through the head of that horse, I wouldn’t exhibit or publish that picture.

There are things that I teach, about building photographs, and that’s why people come to my workshops. Word has gotten out: Sam Abell has a way to take pictures. When people come to the workshops, they’re consumed with seeking the subject, and I teach seeking the setting.

JB: It’s kind of you to share that with the audience. I’m looking at these cowboy pictures, and they’re so iconic, I can’t help but segue to the fact that you were, at one point, the photographer entrusted with creating the massively important 20th Century archetype of the Marlboro Man.

As a National Geographic photographer, and an editorial guy, how did you come to work on that campaign?

SA: Well, I did it once, and they recruited me. I did it primarily out of curiosity. A lot of legendary photographers had worked on that campaign. Ernst Haas had done the early photography, and I knew him. There’s a lore in photography about that campaign, and I was curious.

So I did it once, and they asked me to do it again, and I declined, because my curiosity had been satisfied. It was enjoyable, interesting, and an insight into Americana on several levels that I couldn’t get any other place. Insights into advertising, and big production photography, which is the opposite of what I usually do, operating as a single person.

It was interesting to see the spectacle of a shoot like this, but it only occupied three or four days out of my life.

JB: Wow. Where were you guys shooting?

SA: New Mexico. Over where the Philmont Scout Ranch is located. The other side of the mountain from you.

JB: Up by Cimarron?

SA: Exactly.

JB: Who knew? I don’t like to be predictable, but given that our audience has risen up in anger many times about what Richard Prince did to you, or to your picture, I’d be a fool if I didn’t at least bring it up.

We all know the circumstances through which appropriation got hot in the Art World, and came to represent Post-Modernism. I would guess almost all of our audience will sympathize with you, as opposed to Mr. Prince. But would you mind if we briefly discussed your reaction to the way your Marlboro Man photo was appropriated?

SA: Let’s put this way: Richard Prince’s most famous photograph was made by me.

JB: Right. What does it feel like to be in that position?

SA: I will just say, appropriation is an intellectual idea until it happens to you. It’s a philosophy, and it’s got its own intellectual framework. Then there’s what happens when it’s your photograph. Then it’s personal, and that’s all I’ll say.

The reason I don’t want to say anything about it is it has a strange power to take over the conversation. Just like it’s doing with us. I was asked to participate in a documentary about Richard Prince, and be the voice of someone who was appropriated, and I declined. The reason I did is I don’t want it to be the subject of the discussion of my work.

It has that power.

JB: I appreciate that, and I will honor you and move off topic as we speak. I brought up the cowboy images, because they’re so powerful in this particular book. Clearly, through your work, you’ve been able to travel quite a bit. Now, I’m looking at a picture of Lake Como, and there are also pictures here from Japan.

Is there anywhere in the world that you always wanted to go, and haven’t yet had the chance? Or have you scratched all of your curiosity itches?

SA: I would like to go to Antarctica. That’s about all. I’m very involved in photographing America now, so I don’t think of faraway places, as I did when I was young. As I said in the Radius book, I now want to be a photographer of my time, and our common culture.

It’s what I’m photographing, and I’m very involved with that.

JB: Where have you been photographing lately?

SA: Wherever I am. I’m never not on assignment. What I’m interested in is modern American history. I’m taken with the changes that have occurred in America in my lifetime.

I’m interested in smokers standing on ledges, and big box stores, the rise of the suburbs, and the hollowing out of small towns. Self-storage. Things that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Our common culture. What we have agreed is OK to live with.

In my first class at the University of Kentucky, my American Literature professor came in, and the first sentence out of his mouth was “The central theme of American Literature is an attempt to reconcile what we’ve done to the New World.”

I wrote that down in my notebook, and thought, “What is he talking about?” But that’s what I think about now. The New World and what we’ve done to it.

I did a story for the Geographic on Lewis and Clark, and Stephen Ambrose was the writer. He said, “I’ve got the easiest job in the world. I just have to re-tell the story of the greatest fishing, camping, hunting, canoeing trip of all time. You, Sam, have the hardest job, which is, pretend like nothing has happened in the last 200 years.

That statement woke me up to the fact that the landscape that Lewis and Clark came across was greater than the Serengeti. And it’s gone. It’s been replaced by agribusiness and hydroelectric projects, and cities and towns, and networks of transportation. If that happened to Africa, there would be a world-wide outcry.

But it happened here.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Sebastião Salgado

by Jonathan Blaustein

Do they still eat people in Papua New Guinea? Apparently so, I read. But I’m not about to hike up into some jungly mountains to find out for certain. N.F.W.

Whether they still practice cannibalism there or not, we can all agree that people have come up with some seriously weird shit along our evolutionary history. You’re obviously reading this on some sort of digital device, so you’ve progressed beyond subsistence living.

You likely own an Apple product. If not, certainly Samsung. Worst case, you’ve got an LG something-or-other, as those Koreans are making good products these days.

Whatever you think of our 21st Century, First World lifestyles, we’ve come a long way from hunting animals with spears and eating alligator meat. Right? People don’t live like that these days?

But of course they do. (I tricked you with my rhetorical genius.)

Those folks are out there. We just don’t interact with them, unless we’re on some sort of safari/favela tour. (Hey Marge, get a look at the saggy boobs on that old Abo.) Naked savages exist in fantasy worlds. They don’t feel the crunch of cracked dirt beneath their callused feet. Do they?

If you doubt me, check out Sebastião Salgado’s new coffee-table book “Genesis.” Is this the first time I’ve reviewed a coffee-table book? For sure. Is it the type of work I normally proffer on a lazy Friday? Not really.

But I always, always preach that we need to get out of our comfort zones, and experience new things. That applies to me as well. No edgy-little-art-book-number today. No sir. This here is a genu-ine Taschen publication, meant for the masses.

What can I tell you about it? Are there a lot of boobs, presented in a manner that will make you feel a smidge awkward? Yes. There are. But I’m not showing them, as I used up my August boob quota last week. (Right, Rob?)

Set that aside, and it is a fascinating collection of images, by any measure. The artist has labored and trekked across this planet, many times, just to create this group of images. We see jungles and deserts and snowpack, oh my. There are indigenous groups who live in every extreme climate you can imagine.

It’s a powerful reminder there are people who exist as if it were 10,000 years ago. Poison darts. Drinking cow blood. That kind of thing. Mr. Salgado has photographed them for us, and if you don’t find this interesting, there is something very wrong with you.

The animals are here too: penguins, hippos, giraffes, crocodiles, monkeys, jaguars, you name it. Some of them are dead, festooning the backs and outfits of the natives who ate them. That might not even be the strangest body modification in the book. I’d go with the gourds or bones stuck through the chins of the Amazonian folks within.

Whether or not you appreciate the slightly ironic tone with which I am discussing this book, I must stress that the project is a massively impressive undertaking. This book is clearly meant for all of us. Mr. Salgado wants everyone to remember the world is infinitely less virtual than we realize, and I commend him for the effort.

Bottom Line: Massive coffee-table book with broad global vision

To Purchase “Genesis” 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.

 

Michael Crouser Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein: Right now, you’re in the Seattle airport, having just come from Alaska. Is that right?

Michael Crouser: That is correct.

JB: What were you doing up there?

MC: I was working on a job for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, shooting portraits of Alaska fisherman. Both subsistence and commercial fisherman, all along the Southeast and Southwest of Alaska.

JB: Wow. Had you been there before?

MC: Yeah, I’ve been to Alaska quite a few times, working for different clients. I also have worked on a personal project there.

JB: How big of an area were you ranging?

MC: I started in Juneau, which is in the extreme Southeast, and I ended up near Bethel, which is in the Southwest of the main body of the State.

JB: Can you translate that into the lower 48?

MC: Miles?

JB: Yeah. How far were you rolling?

MC: Boy, that is a good question. I just don’t have any idea. I’ve never sat down and calculated how far it is from Juneau to Bethel. But while I was near Bethel, I was going up and down the Kuskokwim River, photographing the fishermen in the different villages.

JB: Well, you and I have had a bit of a difficult time hooking up to do this interview. It occurred to me only last night that your lack of Internet might have something to do with you traipsing around the bush and the backcountry.

MC: It has everything to do with that. Occasionally, I could go to a tribal council office, where they would have Internet service, but it wasn’t available in most of the places where I was.

JB: You were in a pretty remote locale.

MC: Absolutely. But I like that. I’m very interested in these kinds of experiences and circumstances. It’s nice to see how other people live in the world.

JB: Did you get to eat some really killer fresh fish? What was the cuisine like?

MC: The most interesting thing I ate was walrus. They also have a dish that is made with seal blubber or shortening with sugar and berries. They call that Eskimo ice cream, so I had some of that as well. And I tried some moose meat. When you are in the villages, they really do live a traditional, subsistence life.

JB: Where will these photographs end up? Were you shooting digitally or film?

MC: For this type of job I always shoot digitally. I never shoot digital for my personal work, but commercial clients really don’t want to deal with film and prints anymore, for the most part. This client will use the pictures for a number of different things, as they’re trying to build a library of portraits of Alaska fishermen. They’re trying to promote the human aspect of this industry.

JB: You were shooting some pretty burly dudes, for sure. And you’ve photographed biker dudes as well, no?

MC: Yes, I’ve photographed members of a certain motorcycle club that operates out of Brooklyn. I’ve gotten to know some of these guys, and hung out with them, and done some portraits of those guys.

JB: And even though you’re a nice, soft-spoken guy from Minnesota, when you were shooting those big fishermen, do you ever slide into character and start dropping F-bombs?

MC: I do find myself shooting in a lot of different kinds of cultures and sub-cultures, and I never really try to pretend that I’m something that I’m not. Whether it’s ranchers in Colorado, or bikers or fishermen, I can pretty easily join in. I don’t pretend I’m one of them, but they don’t seem to mind having me around, just being myself.

JB: How do you split your time between commercial and personal work?

MC: It’s a tough question, because it changes with the different phases your life goes through. Sometimes, you don’t even know you’re in the phase. It used to almost all commercial, and a bit of what I would have called personal work.

I didn’t have an outlet for it as fine art, so I never thought of it as such. Now, I’m more involved in book publishing, gallery exhibitions, and selling my work. So personal work becomes fine art, with that label.

I spent a lot more time on that, these days, than I do on commercial work, but that’s not by any personal rule. I’m always open to whatever happens.

JB: Well, the impetus for this interview was that you and I met last year, when you had a show at Verve Gallery in Santa Fe.

MC: Right.

JB: I was really taken with the project, “Sin Tiempo.” I saw some really exquisite black and white photographs, that I recall being gelatin silver prints. I’m sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong.

MC: They are.

JB: And they were photographs taken in Europe that had the feel and emotional tenor of fifty, sixty, seventy year old pictures. You look at them sideways, and you can easily imagine some of the pictures being made by Cartier-Bresson, or Willy Ronis, or somebody of that age. Then, I looked at the title card, and they were dated as being 2011, 2010, 2012.

MC: Right.

JB: I was taken aback by your ability to channel a sense of time dislocation. The experience of the art was very different from the literal time in which it was made. And when I mentioned that, you told me that was very much your intention.

MC: It is very much the goal. I don’t claim that I’m trying to make old-looking photographs, but I am attracted to scenes that don’t give away a sense of popular culture today. I’m not very interested in reflecting or commenting upon our popular culture, and a huge percentage of photographers today are interested in that.

It just doesn’t appeal to me aesthetically. A lot of times, photographers are trying to make a critical commentary, or some kind of an ironic statement about the world in which we live, and I find myself looking for something that’s more aesthetically pleasing to me. A timeless aesthetic.

I call the project “Sin Tiempo,” which is “Without Time” in Spanish, because I prefer that to timeless, which is an overused and generic term. I’m trying to make pictures that are without time. I’m not conscious of trying to make pictures that look like they’re from the 40’s or 50’s, but I am conscious of eliminating elements that label it as now, or five years ago. Any specific time.

So there’s no particular hair styles or graphics that are shown. No cars. No fashion that would be able to be labeled as any particular time. And what you get are photographs that do look like images of another time. Fashion changes by the minute, as does typography.

JB: I’m about to throw a word at you, and I’m pretty sure you’re going to embrace it, or reject it strongly.

MC: (laughing.) All right.

JB: And I bet you could even predict it, if you tried really hard.

MC: (pause.) You already used Cartier-Bresson, and timeless, so…I’m not sure.

JB: Romantic.

MC: I think it’s great. I’m interested in an aesthetically pleasing, Romantic, perhaps even dream-like settings. I really am drawn to that. The compositions are rather formal, but the feeling is whimsical. Even the photographs that have some tension to them, there’s always still a Romantic feel. Or a calm feel.

Romance is a good word.

JB: I didn’t know which way you’d go on that. You’ve photographed bull fighters, and working cattle ranches in Colorado. You were talking about timeless, and of course that’s impossible, given that photography requires time, which our readers will know.

But it seems like there is an absolute sense of of longing for a simpler time. What is the attraction for you? What is the commonality of the things you’re choosing to focus on?

MC: Tell me if I go off-the-rails here, but there’s an aesthetic commonality in the photographs. I would hope, anyway. I can’t speak for the viewers, but for me, I am attracted to ways of life that are simpler. But also a little more dangerous. A little rougher. A little of the Earth. More to do with life and death. And the involvement of animals, and physical labor.

I find those things attractive/romantic, both sociologically and photographically. I always suggest to students that if they go after a long-term project, they go after something that interests them outside of the photographic interest. That they find something that they are attracted to, because then they’ll stay with it and explore it more deeply.

With regard to bullfighters and cowboys, we really are looking at at way of life that extends backward to before there were even cameras. This way of life existed before there was anybody to take pictures of it. And there are elements if it that have remained unchanged.

The series I call “Mountain Ranch,” which is about ranchers in the mountains of Colorado, concentrates on the traditional elements of traditional lives. It’s not the story of the modern cowboy. I’m not trying to hold up some juxtaposition between four-wheelers and horses, or baseball hats and cowboy hats.

It’s just that these things are fascinating to me, and they’re going away, as is their lifestyle. Part of it is, I just want to look at it. I love being around it. It looks to me like something that I, Michael Crouser, should be making photographs of because it appeals to me so strongly.

I don’t really know what to say when people say “It’s great that you’re documenting this for posterity.” I agree, but it’s not necessarily the full motivation. It’s interesting to me to be documenting for that purpose, but I think the motivation is mostly an aesthetic one.

These things grow. It starts off as something you might like to go take a picture of, but then you meet people, and start becoming interested in their lives, and families, and the way they work. And the fact that their grandparents lived on that land as well.

I’m not photographing everything about their lives. I’m photographing the traditional elements of their lives.

JB: You mentioned your students at the beginning of that answer, so that seems like a great place to segue a bit. The Santa Fe Workshops is sponsoring this interview, because you’re going to be teaching a worksop with them called “Finding Your Voice as a Photographer.”

MC: Right.

JB: We just heard, at length, about how you have learned to trust your own instincts. And that’s lead to your voice, aesthetically speaking. But all workshops need titles, so why did you choose that one? What do students come to you to learn?

MC: Before I started teaching, I was doing some self-exploration, as a photographer. Just wondering to myself what it is that makes my pictures personal. Why are they mine, as opposed to someone else’s? I became fascinated by this idea that by a series of decisions, or factors, or elements in a photograph, you start to hone your aesthetic voice.

The choices that you make with regard to light, medium, equipment, composition, perspective, subject matter, etc. As you work through those things, and experiment, your photographs become something more personal. More unique to you than they would be without the consideration of those things.

A lot of students that I have in my workshops are really interested in taking another step in their photography. That’s kind of a general way that people express the fact that they want to grow and learn and expand.

It’s often difficult for people to know where to go. How do you open up the door if you don’t know where the door is? So this class looks at a number of doors that are there for the opening. When you start to explore these things, and consider the work of established photographers, and how they use these elements, they get exposure to choices that they can make.

A lot of photographers who take these classes have never thought of these things before. Maybe they like to take pictures of their kids, or horse races, or maybe they’ve never thought about the qualities of light that appeal to them the most. Once you start experimenting with your own preferences, I feel like your own voice gets sharper. More articulate.

JB: How about group dynamics in workshops? What are some of your tricks for getting people to engage with each other?

MC: I’ve found I like teaching more in a group setting, than working with individuals, because there’s more discussion. It becomes more apparent to the students that there are differences of opinion, and different aesthetic tastes. It happens all the time where one student will be very attracted to garish color, and the student sitting next to them will say “That’s ridiculous.”

There are two vastly different opinions about the same photograph. I think that is interesting for a number of reasons. It shows them that taste is personal, that there is no right or wrong. That’s an important piece of this class, because I don’t teach people that there’s a correct way to take photographs.

I teach people to explore what is they like about photographs, and what they like about taking pictures, and to run with it. Explore it.

JB: Do you find people are attracted to your way of making work? Is there a Romantic vibe in the air, when your students come together? Or are they more attracted to the fact that you’re confident in your personal vision, and they want you to bring that out in them?

MC: I think that some people end up taking a class because they like the instructor’s work, but I wouldn’t say that’s universal.
There are a few classes in which I ask people, just as an exercise, to emulate one of the photographer’s whose work we’ve seen. And there are a lot of things we do as exercises that don’t necessarily correspond to the work they’re going to do for the rest of their life.

But some people do choose to emulate my photographs, which is incredibly flattering, because it never occurs to me that people are there because of my aesthetic. But I am also aware of the fact that there are a lot of reasons to choose a certain workshop instead of another one.

JB: You mentioned that you show other photographer’s work in you workshop. Who are some of the artists whose work you like to use as examples?

MC: I like to show extremes. I try not to just be limited to the people that influence or inspire me. There are people that I find to be controversial, whose work I show.

Are you looking for names?

JB: Of course. We’re always looking for names. People love names.

MC: There is a lot of the aesthetic that appeals to me, like Edward Curtis, and of course Cartier-Bresson, and Willy Ronis, and Robert Doisneau, and Lartigue. I call it the French Mt. Rushmore. Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Lartigue and Brassai. It’s an era that speaks to me so strongly.

But I also like people to see David LaChapelle, and Annie Leibovitz, and Albert Watson and Herb Ritts. (pause.) I’m trying to think of more contemporary photographers…Susan Burnstine…

JB: I demanded names, and you gave us some. Now we know you’re also intrigued by editorial masters, as it were. I just wanted to give people a sense of what inspires you.

MC: I might add that I’m inspired by people who are inspired. I’m inspired by certain photographers, but I’m also inspired by teaching; by people learning and growing. It really gets me going.

JB: Do you enjoy getting to come down to New Mexico? It sounds like you get to travel quite a bit. Do you think that Santa Fe offers anything special, compared to other locations?

MC: It’s a great atmosphere in which to learn. The people are so nice in Santa Fe, and at the Workshops. They’re so helpful and positive. They make available a lot of locations that the students can utilize, apart from classroom learning. There’s a lot at hand, as far as landscape and setting.

When you go to Santa Fe, you know you’re not in California, or Minnesota, or New York. People get a uniquely Santa Fe experience when they’re there, from the light to the farmers market. It’s a great place to be. Very comfortable and positive from start to finish.

JB: As far as travel goes, we started this conversation mentioning that you were on a long layover in Seattle on your way to China.

MC: I’m going to Beijing. It will be my first time to Asia. I’m going to speak to the organizers of an upcoming exhibition, to help them plan it from the photographer’s perspective. I do a lot of work for and with Kodak, and they’ve been so very supportive of my projects with Tri-X film and darkroom chemicals. They’re sponsoring it.

JB: If when you’re walking along the road, you see knock-offs of your own photographs, what are you going to do?

MC: It’s interesting that you mention that. I recently found some different examples of knock-offs of my pictures online. People selling paintings of my work, and things like that.

JB: I have an idea. You could just bring in the biker dudes.

MC: Right. I could mix projects for protection.

JB: You gotta call in backup.

MC: (laughing) I like it. They’d probably love it. Riding their Harleys around Beijing.

This Week In Photography Books – Jane Hilton

by Jonathan Blaustein

Boobs sell books℠. I’ve said it before, and I’m saying it again. (Because it’s true.) But they also sell cars, coffee, cake, coffeecake, kielbasas, and anything else you can think of.

Wow. Sex sells. How original. Tell us something we don’t know.

OK.

Most people are out in the world, looking for companionship. We pair off, two at a time up the gang-plank, because it’s in our embedded code to reproduce ourselves. Right? Sex is nothing more than a pleasurable way to create the next generation, according to some.

But that doesn’t explain why single people get cats, dogs and birds. Don’t we all know someone who treats an animal like a person? Or at least creates a lasting, meaningful relationship with a pet? Of course we do, and it has nothing to do with sex. (We assume…)

No, people are social creatures. Like horses, we need the company of others. We need to tell someone what happened during our day, even if we know it was boring, because we just lived it. (For example, this evening, I will tell my lovely wife that I stared at a dirty computer screen for hours on end.)

The need to share our lives with others drives our actions far more than we think. For every dollar you’ve ever spent in an overpriced bar, throwing back watered-down drinks, I’m here to tell you that it wasn’t just about the potential booty call. We need each other.

Which is why I was so intrigued by “Precious,” a new book by Jane Hilton, offered by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam. (Where the lights are always red, and the coffee shops sell lots of green.) For all the times I’ve mocked artists for including a few naked photos to boost sales, you might be surprised that I’m writing about this today.

But books are meant to be opened, and ideas are meant to be spread. (The good ones, anyway. I wish someone would put that stupid Justin Bieber haircut out of its misery.) Yes, this book features a bevy of naked women, but it’s not what you think.

Ms. Hilton has spent fifteen years among the brothels of Nevada, where prostitution is legal. She knows the culture, and the women who populate it. She seems to understand the vagaries of human nature that would lead someone to work there, and others to pay a lot of money to touch their bodies. This book gives us a glimpse inside, and it costs a lot less than a “party,” that’s for sure.

A statement, early on, suggests that the subjects were photographed naked, as their clothing made them look like stereotypical hookers. That was not the point of the photographic exercise, so off came the clothes. The emotional walls came down, too, in some images. Other pictures depict guarded women, who perhaps trust the photographer more than the process.

There are a wide range of body types and ages on display. For the most part, these are actual women; not people who’ve been scarred up by cheap plastic surgeons who’d use scotch tape to seal up the implants, if only they could. Some of the women are nearing sixty, and it’s a strange sight to behold. (A compliment for a photo book, no?)

The real treat here, beyond getting to look at boobs without feeling guilty, is that the artist includes testimonies from the women at the back of the book. Their voices come through, and make it impossible to just huck metaphorical tomatoes at their faces. Many are married. Many are proud. One girl, 18 and pregnant, has to do the work because she can find nothing else. She said it hurts to get f-cked while she’s knocked up, and that is hard to read.

We learn that black prostitutes make less than white ones, which is incredibly wrong, but not totally surprising, given what we know of racism. One woman is writing a book about sexual sub-cultures, and decided to do her research the old-fashioned way. (We’re reminded, several times, that it is the world’s oldest profession.) Apparently, the brothels are safe and clean, but take a massive 50% cut. (Just like art galleries.)

Above all, a one message was consistent: clients come for the companionship, far more than the sex. They build relationships, and the money-exchange keeps everything honest. So next time you giggle when you drive by the Chicken Ranch, if you happen to be in Nevada, just remember: people will pay a lot of money to have someone listen to their problems.

Bottom Line: Up close and personal with some Nevada prostitutes

To Purchase “Precious” 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.

 

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.