Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

William Clift at the New Mexico Museum of Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Gerry Johansson

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line: Brilliant book. Intricate too.

To Purchase “Hattfabriken/Luckenwalde” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

Alec Soth Interview – Part 2

[Part 1 is here]

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

Alec Soth: Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS: Not at all.

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

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

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

JB: Is that Mid-Western humility?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Insanely nice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS: (laughing) OK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: You start judging yourself by value added.

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

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

JB: Good luck with it. It sounds exciting.

AS: Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

JB: Just up the way from here.

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

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

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

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

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

AS: No.

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

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

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

Billy. Ironwood

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

Facebook main campus. Menlo Park

Highway 15, near Daggett.

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

Martin Etchamendy, Basque shepherd. Outside Bakersfield

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

Near Kaaterskill Falls

Alec Soth Interview – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

JB: This is at Sarah Lawrence?

AS: Sarah Lawrence. Correct.

JB: You studied with Joel Sternfeld?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS: (laughing.)

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

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

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

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

AS: (laughing.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS: I’ll get to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Part 2 tomorrow]

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

Harbor Marina Memphis,Tennessee 2002

Frankie Ferriday Louisiana 2002

Sunshine Memphis,Tennessee 2000

Charles Lindbergh's boyhood bed Little Falls, Minnesota 1999

This Week In Photography Books – Mike Brodie

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Excellent book, super-trendy project

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

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

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

 

Reviewing Work At The New York Portfolio Review

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

©David Emitt Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Walker Evans

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

Classy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Purchase “American Photographs” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

Mike Kelley at the Stedelijk in Amsterdam

by Jonathan Blaustein

There’s always someone better than you. Unless you’re Lebron James or Warren Buffett, you wake up each morning knowing you’re not the best at what you do. For most of us, that’s not a tragedy. It’s just the way things are.

I’ve always believed I had what it takes to get to the top of my profession. Deep down, I felt I could be among the very best artists in the world. While I was still in my 20’s, an influential curator at the Brooklyn Museum told me she thought I had the talent and intelligence to be as good as Andy Warhol, if I played my cards right. In hindsight, that was really bad advice.

With my innate drive, I took her advice to heart. Work hard enough, or push the right buttons in my head, and I could be an Art Star. For years, though, one mistake or another would hold me back. I’ve made some good work over the last fifteen years, and thankfully received some nice accolades, but no one would confuse me with Jeff Wall, or Robert Adams, or (insert your favorite photographer here.)

My failure to make it to the top of the mountain by the time I was (almost) 40 burned deep in my psyche, creating a sense of insecurity that I strove to overcome. I’ll get there, I’ll get there, the voice said. (Sometimes.) Other times, it said I was a pile of sh-t for not getting there already. Never, though, did the voice question whether the goal itself was the problem.

Back in March, I confronted the limits of my abilities. I came face to face with genius, and found myself wanting. At first, the psychic pain was immense. Slowly, though, it got better, and then the liberation was grand. Where, you ask? Who reduced me to mental rubble? Good question.

The Mike Kelley retrospective at the newly re-opened Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam was an ode to genius and misery. It was among the most impressive art exhibitions I’ve ever seen; certainly the one that most impacted me, in the moment. I saw it twice, on consecutive afternoons. The first time, I came straight from hanging out with the Rembrandts, Frans Hals, and Vermeers in the not-yet-then-totally-re-opened Rijksmuseum. (No wonder my self-esteem took a hit.)

It’s hard to explain what the Kelley exhibition was like, simply because the scope, scale and breadth of his work created such an overwhelming experience. The artist made objects in every medium imaginable: paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, tapestries, posters, photographs, videos, animation, appropriations, sound pieces and music. There was, seemingly, nothing he couldn’t do.

That I had heard almost nothing about him before entering the show probably had something to do with the power of its impact. (And is also something I’m embarrassed to admit.) One minute, I didn’t know who this guy was, and the next, I was put firmly in my place. I’ve written here that I like to see photography contextualized alongside other media, but never did I imagine one artist could do it so well, by himself. (Of course, by the end of his career, he had an army of assistants, so I’m not sure if one person really could.)

On my first visit, my friend Hugo and I arrived at the museum shortly before it closed. By the time we sprinted through the permanent collection, we arrived at the special exhibition space minutes before it shut. The guards tried to shoo us away before we even made it down the escalator, but Hugo has the type of confidence that knows how to breeze past objections.

My head spun in every direction, trying to take it in, as I didn’t know at the time I’d be able to return the next day. Manic, I thought. This guy was manic. And crazy. The amount of output was intimidating, like a bad haircut from a barber with sharp razors, but so was the content. Think R. Crumb tossed with Baldessari, mashed up with Quentin Tarantino, with a touch of Francis Bacon thrown in. Then add some steroids, and a lot of fecal matter. Got it?

We sprinted around the space, just trying to put our eyes over everything. There was no possibility to absorb information, other than the overall subtext. This was a tortured guy, with voices in his head I’d wish on no one. When we left, fifteen minutes later, Hugo pulled out his Blackberry for a little research. Mr. Kelley had committed suicide last year; slashed his wrists in the bathtub as his major career retrospective approached.

I was not surprised.

The museum was kind enough to let me back in to see the show the next day, as I was now dying to revisit the work, knowing how the story ended. Initially, I could only think, “I’ll never be this good. It would have happened by now. Face it. I suck.” As a photographer, my basic attempts to play with sculpture and drawing over the last couple of years felt revolutionary to me. But seeing this exhibition, I went to a dark place, lashing myself for foolishly thinking I matched up.

Day two, though, allowed me to read deeper into the work. Among the photographic projects was a series of portraits of stuffed animal sculptures that were cute and fluffy. Mixed in was a self-portrait of the artist, with slicked back hair and some very bad acne. He looked as though he wanted to look tough, but was really just a sensitive, Mid-Western guy that didn’t stand a chance in cutthroat LA. He was raised in Motown, among the makers of proud, massive cars and funky, earnest music. Hollywood didn’t seem like the best of landing spots.

Another photo project that jumped out was a diptych of black and white gelatin silver prints. A man, naked, had poop running out of his butt, and a stuffed animal was below him, eating it. Next to him, a naked woman straddled another stuffed animal, who was busy pleasuring her nether regions. Gross, trippy, absurd, offensive, you name it. Other telling works: a tapestry that claimed the artist to be a proud pants sh-tter, or the self-portrait drawings with his face melting off.

Strangely, a third photo project was just really damn good, and surprisingly straight. It was called “Photo Show Portrays the Familiar,” from 2001. Twenty-six gelatin silver prints were matted and framed, conservatively. The pictures, well-executed, could have been on the wall of any traditional gallery, and none would question it. An abandoned house, a ship wake in a river, a cul-de-sac with winter trees, a brick tower smokestack, Detroit sky scrapers, and lots of sculptures in museums. Here, amongst the chaos, it was downright shocking, in its quiet simplicity.

Up a separate escalator, there was a large gallery filled with video installations. (One had to pass the swastika art and shrieking digital-cartoon-pieces just to gain entry.) The noise was head-ache-inducing; the visual stimuli overwhelming. Devils and angels were everywhere, screens flickered, and anyone with any sense would want out of that room as soon as possible. The work was recent, and seemed like a massive cry for help. (Though the symbology was a bit simplistic.)

Walking through to the next room, it was clear the end was near. The artist’s last bit of work was massively slick and commercial. It was more in the “I have 50 assistants and someone else is making the work for me now” style. All the objects were extremely compelling, but the DIY, dark desperation was missing. An “Odalisque,” from 2010, showed a giant, black, styrofoam chess piece, lying in state, like a corpse with a wig on an autopsy table. One could feel his psyche about to break.

As you’ll know by now, if you read my articles on a regular basis, I love to read directly into objects and images, and see what they have to say. The end of the Mike Kelley exhibition was not ambiguous, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to get the message.

The artist was both blue-collar in his work ethic, and troubled by the visions inside his head. Coming from a working-class background, and city known for fashioning steel, one could see how the valiant effort to draw, sculpt, paint and photograph the ideas out of his head worked well, for a while. Once global capitalism got a hold of him, though, the prices went up, the ass-kissing got more time-consuming, the process of making things was removed from his hands, and the pressure to produce more and more was greater than ever, it was all too much for Mr. Kelley.

That’s what the show said to me, anyway.

Which is why its impact was so tremendous. Before I got to Amsterdam, I would have given anything to be that good. To be that famous, and wealthy. To be the best. I thought myself the tortured genius too. Wrongly, it turns out.

I’m a guy with an amazing family, who gets to live in one of the coolest places on Earth. I have a lot of good friends, and take pleasure out of, and am (mostly) respected for my work. There are many, many artists out there better than I am. For once, I’m OK with that. If the alternative is lonely suicide, or the relentless and humiliating hustle of the urban, moneyed world, I’ll pass.

Maybe in thirty years, if I keep growing, I’ll have a body of work worth talking about. Maybe not. But I try to no longer judge myself by other people’s success, nor do I measure my own by how many people tell me I’m special. As long as my wife and kids think I’m great, I’m doing all right.

I wish Mr. Kelley could have found some middle ground, some peace, to enjoy the fruits of his labor. But then he wouldn’t have been him. That wasn’t his path, obviously. He was a titan of the art world, a chronicler of the murky-yet-almost-beautiful misery of the human condition, and the Stedelijk retrospective was proof of that.

The exhibition has closed by now, so I can’t send you storming the doors to see for yourself. Fortunately, it’s meant to travel to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, MoMA PS1 in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I could not recommend more highly that you go, if you have the chance. It might not change your life, as it has mine, but it will inevitably give you something to think about. I promise.

This Week In Photography Books – Asger Carlsen

by Jonathan Blaustein

Remember Dolly? That sheep some weird scientists cloned nearly twenty years ago? Everybody thought it was the beginning of the end: man ripping the power of creation from the the cold dead hands of the gods. (After having stolen the power of mass destruction a few decades earlier. What’s left? I guess we still can’t telepathically communicate with dolphins, like Aquaman.)

Now most of us live in the future, without realizing it. Change, when it comes, can be as swift as a Tsunami, blinding us to its impact. Just the other day, in an airport in Newark, NJ, I noticed that every person I surveyed was tapping away at a little screen, oblivious to the reality surrounding them. The physical world is boring, I suppose.

What’s that you say? Tell us something we don’t know, Blaustein? I’ll allow the above observation is not Earth-shaking. We all know we’ve been sucked into the Matrix. But how often do people even notice? Short of teleportation and flying cars, the 21st Century is as freaky as it was imagined to be: robot warriors rain bombs down on hapless shepherds, human ears sprout from lab rats, bionic limbs sprint down the race track, and the President of the United States is a dead ringer for Spock.

Speaking of teleportation, I was lamenting the lack of its existence the other day, wishing I could just beam my family to the Mayan Riviera. Wouldn’t that be nice, I speculated? It’s empty this time of year. My five-year-old son, growing sharper by the day, pointed out that if teleportation indeed existed, then the beaches would be mobbed all the time. Damn. Can’t even bitch about imaginary inventions without someone bursting my bubble.

Where was I? Right. We’re living in the future, but haven’t truly grasped that yet. What might it take to shake us from our ignorance? Who might wrench our necks from beneath the white sandy beaches, which abut the clear blue water? (Sorry, dreaming about the Caribbean again.)

How about our good friend Asger Carlsen? Remember him? We published an interview early last Fall, where he discussed his imminent book release, “Hester.” (Published by the excellent Mörel Books in London.) Leave it to Mr. Carlsen to conjure wicked visions of our techno-present, thereby shaking us from our drunken slumber.

“Hester” comes wrapped in a beautiful, classy bit of fabric. It’s a hard-cover, unlike most of the Mörel offerings I’ve yet seen. Open up, and the inside cover is a velvety bit of purple paper. Again, classy. (Purple evokes royalty, no?) Flip one page further, and we’re treated to the only bit of text in the whole book, save the thank you page: Hester, Chinatown, NYC. We’ll remember from the interview that the artist’s studio is in Chinatown, maybe on Hester Street? Not much to go on.

The lush beginnings lull us into a false sense of security, just as our media addiction assuages our collective fear of big-picture thinking. (The 24-hour news cycle and our social media obsession keep our eyes off of contemplating anything of substance. I had to escape urban reality, moving to a horse pasture in the Rocky Mountains, for goodness sake, just to have any chance at staring skyward.)

Out of high-end beginnings, “Hester” devolves into a dark, dystopian tale, shrouded in banality. Right away, we see a naked torso, vagina looming above some seriously big feet. Where the breasts should be, we see only said torso tapering into skinny arms, with no hands. Just some almost-flippers instead. The setting is neutral: wood floors and a white wall. Like an art gallery?

Turn the pages, and the next two plates feature a blob of dark-skinned flesh, with a hand-ended arm and a foot-ended leg planted firmly on the concrete ground. A ladder leans against a wall, in the first, again suggesting the gallery vibe, maybe in the middle of an installation. Are these laboratory-created flesh sculptures? Damien Hirst’s animal-art version 9.0?

The grotesque, almost goblin-like renderings, courtesy of Photoshop, continue in an unending chain of bad taste. (Which married good taste, and had shockingly-of-the-moment babies.) Horrible, brilliant babies. I’d want to vomit if I weren’t so enchanted by the awesomeness of this project.

Just when it starts to get a bit old, there comes a photo of a thinner blob, skeletal, jutting vertically on a narrow table, like a skin-lamp. So the speculation ends. These things are really meant as art-piece-props, there to reflect back to us the futuristic insanity in which we live, where secret labs come up with all sorts of unthinkable nonsense we pretend isn’t really happening.

One of these days, I’ll write a column that doesn’t blatantly attempt to raise your ire, or mess with your head. Maybe I’ll show you a well-made book by an old master, and the lead-in will be witty but harmless. Look over here, I’ll say, because everything is going to be all right. Maybe that day will come. Maybe even next week? But I’ll tell you one thing: Asger Carlsen will be crouching in the shadows anyway, thinking up something twisted, no matter how pretty the flowers look today.

Bottom Line: Wicked, twisted, prophetic, excellent book

To Purchase Hester 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.

 

Kevin Kunishi Interview: How to make a photo-book

I met Kevin Kunishi a couple of years ago, and was impressed with his book, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” published in 2012 by Daylight. The book was included on several year-end best book lists, and the project was also exhibited at Rayko in San Francisco last Fall. Kevin was kind enough to chat with me this past Winter about the entire publishing process, start to finish.

Jonathan Blaustein: When we first met in 2011, you were working on a project in Nicaragua. You were also sporting this badass, bushy mustache that made you look like a campesino. Why did you choose to work in Nicaragua?

Kevin Kunishi: I got my undergraduate degree in UCSB, down in Santa Barbara. I was a history major and rented a room from an International Studies professor. We ended up having some great discussions, and it pushed me in a certain direction. I became really interested in US foreign policy in Central and South America.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in grad school, I made a commitment that I was going to use my MFA experience to delve deeper, to get past the broader rhetoric that I learned in my undergraduate studies. I wanted to meet people who were affected by those policies, and lived through those times.

JB: But it could have been anywhere that was affected by the US manipulations, no?

KK: I suppose, but I chose to focus specifically on Nicaragua. I was drawn to it. There is a lot to dig into there. U.S. involvement goes back a very, very long time.

I also had a strong visual reference. At that time, in college, there was a lot of imagery that specifically deepened my interest in Nicaragua. The photographers who covering the region in the 1970’s and 80’s, Susan Meiselas, Lou Dematteis, and others, who were down there. They did incredible work. It got under my skin.

JB: I think we can assume that most people will know what you’re referring to, but just in case, let’s do a quick recap. For many years, and during the 80’s in particular, the US government played an active role in either overthrowing or undermining governments in Central America, like Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, and others. They used the CIA, but also supplied weapons, and training at places like the School of the Americas.

So you decided you wanted to see for yourself what the impact of these policies was in Nicaragua, years later, and talk to people on the ground.

KK: Absolutely.

JB: You saw yourself doing this as an artist, not as a journalist? Or was the nomenclature irrelevant to you?

KK: That was irrelevant to me.

JB: And you self-funded your travels?

KK: Yes, I did.

JB: So which came first, the mustache or the project? Did you actually grow it at home, knowing that you wanted to fit in, looking like a badass? Or did you get down there with a shiny face, and somebody pulled you aside and said, “Listen, hombre, you need to work it?”

KK: (laughing.) I wish my wife could hear you talking about how much you liked the mustache, because she dreaded that thing. But seriously, I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was taking the bus or hitchhiking the entire time. In Nicaragua, the bus system is made up of those old Blue Bird school buses we used to ride as kids.

They’re packed really thick. And some of the places I was going up near the Honduran border were pretty remote, like 8 hours from Managua. When I first went down there, I was all geared up with camping sh-t. Stuff with North Face labels on it, and you stick out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t until I got rid of all that stuff…I picked up some old blue jeans and t-shirts, grew a mustache, and blended in.

JB: I’m sure a lot of photographers have picked up that concept, and then adapted wherever they’re roaming. How long were you working down there before you started visualizing the end product of the project? What were your goals, beyond exploring your own creativity?

KK: You mean, how did I approach the project, going down there?

JB: Well, I want to tie it into the book as soon as we can, but I wanted to give you time to discuss what you were learning down there. Did you always know, before you started shooting, that you wanted to make a book?

KK: Yeah. I always looked at a book as a vehicle to get the work out there, and have people engage with it outside of the gallery context. Images go up on a wall in a gallery for a month, and then they’re gone. A book is something you can have with you for a while, and you can keep going through it, growing and becoming something else. I love that idea.

JB: It was in your head from the beginning?

KK: No, it wasn’t in my head from the beginning. I did not want to go into it thinking, “How is this going to be a book?” I was just focusing on getting the images, first, and seeing where they led me.

JB: Well, once you decided you wanted this to be a book, how did the process evolve? What was the starting point on getting it together?

KK: Production wise? Editing?

JB: Did you start by making a maquette, so you’d have an object to show off, and then pitch it to people? Did you meet with publishers and show them some edited prints? I want to give our readers a sense of how somebody can go through the process and end up with a really well-constructed book like “Los Restos de la Revolucion.”

KK: Got it. Sorry. I’m so congested.

JB: It’s OK. Let’s just go ahead and say it. Ladies and Gentlemen, right now, Kevin has the flu. The nasty flu that everyone’s got, but he has it for the second time in two months.
But rather than cancel the interview, like a pro, he’s gutting it out. So if he’s not perfectly lucid, we have to give him that.

KK: Thanks for explaining. Getting back to the question, I amassed a lot of images. Like an obscene amount. Boxes and boxes of stuff.

JB: Work prints?

KK: Negatives, work prints. I started sequencing. Sequencing and sequencing. Then, I started doing portfolio reviews. I did one here in San Francisco put on by Photo Alliance, a non-profit here in the city. They hold it over at SFAI.

I was lucky enough to meet Taj Forer from Daylight, and we hit it off from the beginning. He really loved the work.

After Photo Alliance, we started spec-ing it out a little. What did we want to do? How many pages did we want?

JB: How did you pitch the project? Were you thinking of narrative? Were you trying to tell a story? How did you want to connect everything together? Or did that not come until after you started working with your publisher?

KK: It was there before the publisher, but what was fantastic about working with Taj and Mike (Michael Itkoff) was they pull from so much in their own backgrounds. It was very collaborative. We met several times. We would basically work through ideas constantly and they would be vetted. We could either discard it, or build upon it.

Especially with the edit. Things started getting crafted down, better and better. Honestly, the image editing process was extremely stressful, because I had emotional ties to a lot of images and individuals within the photos.

JB: Just to step back for a moment, once you met with Taj in the review, what happened next? Was it as simple as you got an email that said, “Hey, we want to run with this?”

KK: Yes. They told me right off that they wanted to do it. So from there, you spec it out, and then the funding issues come into play. You’ve got to start working on that. It was about a year-long process.

JB: Everyone wants to know about funding, and of course, I want to go there. You can be as honest and open about it as you choose to be. How did it work? Did you have to put up or raise significant funds to get the book to market?

KK: Yes. Whether it’s Kickstarter, Indiegogo, working with collectors. In my case I was able to make it happen. It was good that I had the benefit of time, because it took time to find the funds.

JB: How much money did you have to come up with?

KK: I’d rather not talk about that.

JB: OK. That’s understandable.

KK: I will say this, it can be a significant amount and can vary depending on the publisher.

JB: I’m trying to give people a reality check about what it costs to get a book made, but I understand that you don’t feel comfortable discussing the numbers. Money, in general, evokes stress in people across all spectrums.

KK: (laughing.)

JB: It just does. I knew once I asked you that, there was a chance you weren’t going to want to answer. But I asked not for my own edification, but to try to educate people.

Once you were confident you could raise whatever was required of you, how do you move from editing into design?

KK: A lot of printing houses will have an in-house design staff. We were lucky enough to work with Ursula Damm, who’s out in Red Hook. She’s a part of a great design firm called Damm Savage. You go to her with a bullet point list of what you want, the ideas that you’re working with, and she would come back with numerous design choices.

JB: What was the vision you presented to her?

KK: It stemmed from a very profound experience I had when I first got to Nicaragua. In the area I was visiting, there is this beautiful, ethereal mist that hangs in the mountains, and drifts down into the cobblestone streets at night. I met this older man on a bus. He pointed out the window and told me that those mists hide many horrible things, but also many wonderful things. “The more time you spend there,” he said, “the more they will be revealed to you.”

That really stuck with me. I shot everything down there in that soft light. I was interested in that idea of things lurking in the haze of the past, that fog of war. Embracing it and applying it. In the vision for the book, and the sequencing, I wanted the book to be almost dream-like, going from image to image.

JB: I hate to be obvious here, but you were conversing with people in Spanish?

KK: Yes. I took Spanish in high school, and lived in San Diego working on the piers for a while. But in those situations down there, it’s sink or swim. Especially out in the campo, I had to pick it up again fast. I got some books, and practiced every morning and night by candle light. I was able to get it going again.

With most of the interviews, I was lucky to piggy back on some of the NGO’s and non-profits down there. They were present with me when I would conduct a lot of the interviews. I would record everything, and if I had an issue with the translation, they would step in and help.

JB: You made use of an existing community?

KK: Absolutely. There are a lot of non-profits and Peace Corps volunteers doing great things in these communities. They were really helpful. I was able to tap into their various community networks to spread the word that I was interested in talking about their experiences during the war.

JB: Let’s jump back to the book. Your vision of the book was related to your vision of the project, which was related to your vision of the place. Mist and fog and dreaminess.

KK: Yes. So the question was, “How do I encompass that in an experience?” The cover of the book has a man with his eyes closed, and I wanted to suggest everything was within his head. Like a dream, a memory, a reflection of that experience, to use the book as a vehicle to create that. That’s where it was coming from. Does that make sense?

JB: Of course. But it also answers another big question I had. How do you choose what goes on the cover?

The book opens with a short poem. Did you write that?

KK: Yes.

JB: The book opens like that, and then we see all the photographic plates. There’s no mention of Nicaragua explicitly, but the back cover, in black on black, has a picture of the map of the country. That was your way of suggesting place?

KK: Absolutely. I have photobooks that front-load text in some way or another tell you “This is what you’re about to look at,” those are the books that I rarely open again. You know what I mean?

JB: That’s what I’m trying to find out. I want to know what your thought process was. I just reviewed a book from Sweden, and I loved that you got a sense of Scandinavia, and of a bleak sort of factory life, but you don’t know exactly where it is. I think anybody who picks up your book, even if they don’t know it’s Nicaragua, they would get that it’s Central America.

And I’ve been enamored, lately, of books that open with poetry, instead of didactic essays. So many essays are encoded in “intellectual speak.” Which is fine, but in my job, which involves looking at books all the time, I find that often the essays don’t engage.

In the end of the book, you give a lot of additional information. You provide the titles, under a thumbnail image, and then you give background information on the people and places. Things that no viewer would ever know: a tight crawl space is a prison cell, a tulip coming out of the ground is really a grave. A tree that looks like a pretty nature shot was used for torture and hanging people.

You’re giving the viewer all the necessary political information at the end. You wrote all that?

KK: Yes, there are some interview excerpts as well. I don’t really like books that have image, text, image, text. By having all that information at the back, I like the idea that if a viewer went through the first time, they could maybe sniff out what some of these images are about. With the text at the end, it could either validate or eliminate what their assumptions were.

JB: When I look at a book, I believe that if an artist needs me to know something, if there is information that is necessary to unlock the secrets of the book, I expect the artist to give that to me. Books that rely on hearsay, or they expect you to Google something…

KK: (laughing)

JB: Seriously, some of them do. I remember, one of my favorite books that I’ve reviewed was Donald Weber’s “Interrogations.” I looked at it thoroughly, and read every word, and there was no mention that it was a real scenario. I went ahead and assumed that it was staged, as art. Then people in the comment section let me know I was wrong.

Anyway, I liked that you allowed the narrative to be suggestive and mysterious, but then provided a lot of serious context.

I wanted to talk about the writing a bit more as well, because you did a great job with it. Almost all the books I look at involve the use of external writers. Often it’s essays written by intellectuals, curators, or famous people. You hear through the grapevine that there can be pressure on photographers to bring in a writer who can provide additional credibility.

How did it develop in the publishing process that you decided to handle the writing yourself?

KK: I have books and books of journals, from when I was in Nicaragua. I write constantly, when I’m on the road. To be honest, we brainstormed some ideas of having other people contribute, but I wanted the work to stand on it’s own. I wanted my own voice in it.

It was something we went back and forth on, in the beginning. And then, Susan Meiselas told us, “This needs to stand alone.”

JB: How did you get her involved?

KK: I believe Michael started a conversation with her. We sent her some of the work, a maquette with a small sequence of images, and she wrote back a really nice email about it. I agreed with her. It was a gut feeling I had from the beginning, and that’s how it played out.

JB: So you work on a collaborative design process, you raise funds, then you send it off to the printer. I noticed it was printed in China. Did you make a trip over there?

KK: No, I didn’t go to China. They would Fedex proofs back to me. I went down to Rayko, and put them up under the color-balanced lights, and would mark up things to be changed.

JB: How long did that part of the process take?

KK: Maybe two months, from the time I got the proof prints together, and sent them over to China as a reference.

JB: Start to finish. Production wise?

KK: Yes.

JB: Then the books come back. What happens next? Given that you provided the investment, did you have a contract that stipulated that you’d receive a certain amount of copies?

KK: Yeah, I got a certain amount. One day a palette was delivered. There are like fifty steps from the street down to my apartment, so it was a bit much.

JB: What about marketing and book signings? Was it your intention to try to recoup your investment? I’ve heard that most people don’t ever expect to make a profit. It’s more a promotional vehicle for their careers. What was your strategy with Daylight to get the books into people’s hands?

KK: Well it might be important to look at it for the long haul, if you sell all your books over the next decade you will be well on your way to making your money back. Couple that with press attention/commissions/print sales etc and you have the formula to move your career forward. What’s so great about Daylight is that they have a fantastic distribution network, with D.A.P., so that really helped get it out there. With regards to making money? No way. Making money on photobooks? (laughing.)

JB: That’s the word on the street.

KK: (laughing.)

JB: Hopefully, you can understand, that’s why I’m asking these questions. We’re trying to use your experience to give people an inside look into the process.

Your book was successful. It was listed on several year-end-best book lists. People like the book, so it’s a great opportunity for our readers to get a sense of how it really works. They’ll understand what is required, if they’re going to embark on the publishing process.

KK: I think it’s also important to define what “success” means.

JB: Sure. What was your vision of success?

KK: For this body of work, I’d have to answer that on two fronts. First, it involves creating a discussion around the work. And I’ve been really happy with how that’s played out. Second, it’s generated print sales, so that I can get money back to people who are in the book.

JB: You’d mentioned to me previously that it was your intention to give your share of print sales to the subjects of the photos? Is that right?

KK: Yes, I’m sending a significant cut of my proceeds down to Nicaragua. To put this in perspective, in some areas in the campo, $200 is an annual salary. The sale of a print can really make a difference in some bad situations that are going on down there. You know what I mean?

JB: Sure. It’s impressive.

KK: It goes into micro-finance projects, alleviates some of the debt load of these fertilizer loans that people are inundated with, I can go on and on.

JB: You’re happy with the way everything turned out?

KK: For the most part.

JB: What would you do differently if you could do it over again?

KK: I don’t know if there’s anything I’d do differently, specifically. I always think I can do better. I don’t know about you, but I’m never satisfied.

“Light from the Middle East: New Photography” at the V&A

by Jonathan Blaustein

Syria is a wreckage, its people bombarded by a psychotic former ophthalmologist. Egypt’s economy is in free-fall. The Arab Spring’s optimism has faded faster than a photograph bathed in the sunshine of a portrait studio’s front window.

Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Middle East live with the constant threat of violence and terror. When stories flood media outlets, dead bodies boost ratings. (I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.) Given that language barriers exist, even in an age of Google Translate, it’s not so easy to just throw out a couple of friend requests to get the real story from Tehran. Or Tel Aviv.

Fortunately, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has come to our collective rescue. “Light from the Middle East: New Photography” displayed photographs from North Africa through Central Asia, until it closed on April 7. It was the most dynamic photo exhibition I saw on my recent visit to Europe.

The show was broken down into three component parts: Recording, Reframing, and Resisting. The first referred to documentary work, the second to images that attempted to subvert existing photo traditions, and the latter section dealt with more original or innovative art practice. Surprisingly, given my predilections, I mostly preferred the initial grouping. But there were strong projects throughout; a fantastic exhibition, really.

Walking through the entryway, I was confronted with a group of photos by Abbas, from the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79. He managed to capture anger and passion pulsing through the frame, as in the grouping of women in abayas, toting machine guns. Another image featured a heap of dead old men on morgue beds, slid out of the cooler. (While some revolutionaries looked on, gloating.) The message from the curators was clear: We mean business.

Just down the way, Tal Shochat, an Israeli, exhibited a triptych of contemporary images that seemed to emanate from a different planet, as well as century, than those of Abbas. Three trees: persimmon, pomegranate, and grapefruit. Each had been meticulously cleaned and buffed, then shot in the landscape with strobes, against a black backdrop. They looked artificial, like corporatized nature. Smart and odd-looking, they referenced the intersection of agriculture and genetic engineering in the 21st C.

Cruising the room, I saw pictures from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kurdistan.

“Bodiless 1,” by Mehraneh Atashi, another Iranian, was an absolute favorite. A burly wrestler, in a mens’ only gym, throws around a chain of weights. (Old school equipment, for sure.) He had a serious head of hair, resembled Erik Estrada, and rocked a sexy-time mustache as well. The text tells us women are always excluded from such establishments, but the artist was, in fact, female. She received special permission, and included her own image as a little subversive shout to rule-breaking, reflected within a mirror.

A Mitra Tabrizian photo, again from Iran, was also amazing. (I’m just now realizing I like Iranian photography.) A long, horizontal panel depicted an obviously-staged scene filled with a host of “regular” people. Old and young, men and women, all stood, moved, talked, gesticulated, in a field outside of a generic apartment building. Up above, a pair of grumpy-looking clerics stared down, disapprovingly, from a billboard. (I wonder what they would approve of? Disemboweling Barack Obama?) Though I assumed it to be a digital composite, given how much was going on, the wall text assured that it was actually one exposure. Righteous people-wrangling.

In general, the Reframing section, which featured artists who appropriate or imitate images from the past, was the least successful. Most of the artists’ symbol choices were heavy-handed, so things were just off. (Close, but not quite right.)

Shadi Ghadirian’s project, yet again from Iran, typified this. Her series, “Qujar,” from 1998, featured women in portraits, shot in the historical style from the Qajar period, 1786-1925. The verisimilitude was spot on, but then the women held modern symbols, like a Pepsi can, a boom box, or a mountain bike. I wanted to love them, but kept getting stuck in the clunky juxtaposition. The one exception was the image of shrouded women holding a mirror that reflected blankly back to the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.

Youssef Nabil, an Egyptian, exhibited work from his project “The Yemeni Sailors of South Shields,” a series of hand-colored black and white portraits. The style aped mid-20th Century Egyptian studio portraits, and focused on the large ex-pat population in North England. I loved the hand-colored effect, and the guys were funny, but also poignant, like Gene Hackman’s sidekick in “The Royal Tenenbaums.” (Yes, I’m aware Pagoda was Indian.)

One last project here deserves a mention, but not in a good way. Taysir Batniji, a Palestinian, had pictures included from his “Watch Towers: West Bank/Palestine” project. The structures were blatantly shot in the insanely-famous Becher style. Basically, they were knock-offs, meant to create controversy. When the first sentence in the wall text admits that the work is derivative, I wonder if it actually belongs in the show?

Moving on, my brain slowly wearing down, I entered the last room: Resisting. The collected photos were meant to examine the manipulation of truth in photography. The quality ranged, here, but there were some memorable projects.

Atiq Rahimi’s work, from Afghanistan, featured plastic box camera pictures, called “The Imaginary Return,” from 2001. The artist played with scale and temporal dislocation, so my eye wondered if the pictures were from the 19th Century. A tree branch looked like it was about to topple a building, little men at the base of a wall look like toy soldiers, and a lonely clothesline suspended above the chaos seems like it might be holding up the world.

Amirali Ghasemi’s series “Tehran Remixed: Party Series” was also terrific. We’ve all heard stories of what goes on behind the closed, locked doors of Tehran’s youth. (I’m guessing they love Ecstasy, but what do I know?) Here, we see the good times rolling, but big white sections have been cut out of the subjects, censoring their identities. It was a perfect use of digital technique, and reminded me why I was less enthralled with the exhibition’s mid-section, which placed less emphasis on stylistic innovation.

There was a bit more hand-coloring in the last room, but nothing that really impressed. Nermine Hammam, an Egyptian, had a project where she photographed soldiers who were ubiquitous during the aforementioned Arab Spring. Rather than keep them in their natural surroundings, however, she digitally removed them, and dropped them against the technicolor backdrops of the Swiss Alps. (I’m guessing the soldiers would have preferred to frolic in the mountains, rather than tote guns around Tahrir Square.)

As I said at the outset, this was a really stellar exhibition. We often struggle, here in the West, to remind ourselves why art matters. A few rooms such as these, packed with photographs that attempt to codify uncertainty, document upheaval, and share stories with the World outside, are an excellent reminder.

This Week In Photography Books – Torbjørn Rødland

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was a wee bit angsty last week, I must admit. Trapped in an existential crisis of my own making, I freely rhapsodized about the meaning of it all. Quelle surprise.

I don’t want to imply, though, that everything in life is or should be earnest. We’re all doing the best we can, using our creative outlets to bring attention to deserving stories, release our pent-up mental tension, or allow joy into our lives. Art is process more than product.

Just yesterday, though, I realized that the string of books I chose to highlight recently was misery-laden. This space is well-utilized, I believe, if you come to read each week, and learn something about the world through the visions of talented image makers. But the human experience is not limited to death, chaos and violence.

Frankly, when we focus exclusively on the negative, we do ourselves a disservice. In a week like this, when terror again shook the United States, and an even bigger explosion battles for headlines, it would be easy to stick to the program; talk about what’s wrong out there. But since when have I opted for easy?

Humor is often misunderstood, seen as a less-than-intellectual response to external stimuli. Fart jokes are great, don’t get me wrong, but they give the impression that laughing is an LCD response. (If I were flatulent right now, and you were here to see it, would you laugh? Honestly?)

Many a great mind has come to realize that embracing the absurdity of our little dance with existence is the way to go. (As my Aussie friend Pappy used to say, “If you don’t laugh, you cry, JB.”) And I don’t feel like crying anymore. (Especially about my own lack of value to the human race. One week of whining is enough.)

So I was happy to pick up “Vanilla Partner,” by Torbjørn Rødland, published last year by MACK. I hated this book the first two times I flipped through the pages. I was in my austere, goatee-stroking mode, and just didn’t get it. Had I actually owned the copy, I might have hurled it against the wall, crunching its spine, while I shrieked like a coyote with its foot in a trap. But, as we’ve learned previously, sometimes you have to give art a little breathing space, and keep an open mind.

Today, desperate to leave my leaden spirit in an ash pile, I opened the book again, and nearly giggled in faux horror at the audacity. (It’s not LOL funny. More the “Oh no you didn’t” type of vibe.) The series of images within only makes sense if you lighten up. Octopi and sausages wrap around appendages. Bodies are contorted in uncomfortable positions. People are covered in paint, or writing, or plastic wrap.

Their faces are stoic through the silliness, like Thomas Ruff subjects who’ve been caught in a clown’s bad dream. (Though the picture of the smiling, breast-feeding mother is a keeper. Breastfeeding women don’t smile. Trust me.) The juxtaposition of levity and melancholy is fantastic; a solid metaphor for the dualistic nature of nature.

There are boobs, for sure, (Boobs Sell Books℠), but the nudity fits the overall mood. One guy has his penis hanging out while being body painted, and by the time I got to the girl’s butt with a rectal thermometer sticking out, my appreciation for the irreverence was complete. (This is certainly the kind of book that won’t make sense to everyone.)

Have you ever vomited on yourself, and blamed someone else? Or been drawn on while passed-out-wasted? (Some grown-up-frat-boys marked up my brother during his bachelor party, for heaven’s sake.) It’s the perfect symbol for the ridiculous-but-necessary side of our psyche. If that’s not enough for you, how about a child’s head covered with spaghetti sauce, or a girl with a woolen condom sticking out of her mouth?

I expect this book might offend many, if not most people. It’s ironic in such a dry way that you can miss it, as I did the first few times I leafed through. But really, when people die every day, severed limbs leaking blood on the sidewalk, and there’s no sense to the killing, sometimes, it’s a natural response to just say f-ck it, and spray someone with chocolate sauce.

Bottom Line: Edgy use of irony and humor, not for everyone

To Purchase “Vanilla Partner” 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 – Melissa Catanese

by Jonathan Blaustein

I might be having a mid-life crisis. I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never had one before. Since turning thirty-nine last month, and then bending my mind in Amsterdam, I’ve begun to question the value of my contribution to the human race. Difficult stuff, but not that original, I suppose.

I’ve always thought that making art was a valiant way to transform the chaos of the inner workings of one’s mind into positive catharsis. And of course, art is ultimately the way we judge culture, from the future looking back. Basically, it’s a noble and high-class profession, despite the poor pay and surfeit of insecurity.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that I’ve taken the last year off from teaching. (I look forward to picking it up again in the Fall.) Working with kids has always helped remind me of the power of supporting creativity. Art offers teen-agers (and the rest of us,) an outlet for their emotions, one that can improve self-esteem as well.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been wondering (aloud) in this space what we can do to make art matter more to the general public. Again and again, I’ve pondered the issue. But in my introspective, MLC mental space, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s not appropriate to pull a JFK. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Maybe the real question is, what can we do to make the general public matter more to art?

The last few weeks, I wrote about books that really dove into murky, dark problems in 21st Century society. The Mexican Drug War, the incarceration epidemic in the US, and then an uplifting tale of conquering addiction in Canada. (How’s that for a North American Trifecta. Boo-yah.) So I can’t exactly say that no one out there is doing the good work. I just feel like these projects should have a greater impact on society than they do.

Now that the boundaries between art and journalism have come down, maybe it’s time that the motivations mixed up a bit as well. Artists could use a bit more of the photo-journalistic sense of mission and responsibility to the public, and perhaps the PJ’s could use a tad more of artists’ facility with innovation and risk-taking in the creative process.

Personally, I feel a bit caught in between. My burgeoning MLC is forcing me to ask some hard questions about what I ought to focus on, and whether I need to prioritize other people’s needs before my own. Lacking that, art can often end up as just a cool diversion. We’ve all seen countless examples of pictures on the wall of major institutions, or in beautifully printed books, and said, “So what?”

“Dive Dark, Dream Slow,” by Melissa Catanese, published by The Ice Plant in LA, is just such a project. I’m not certain, but I’d bet that Ms. Catanese is trendy at the moment. The book has that vibe. (Of course I could be wrong, but you know I don’t google this stuff. It’s all about reacting to the info provided.)

The black and white images contained within are cool. They appear to be historical, and have the feel of archived material. (Which the end notes corroborate: from the collection of Peter J. Cohen. Along with a quote from Camus, of course.) People are diving into dark waters, ladies are lounging on the beach, or in the tall grass, explosions pop up in the ocean. That sort of thing.

Of course, there are a few pictures of boobs, (Boobs Sell Books℠)
the moon, waves crashing against rocks, waterfalls, a man in a tribal mask. You get the picture. (I hope.)

I don’t mean to be sarcastic about this. It is a cool book, and I spent a few minutes trying to figure it all out, before I gave up. Because it doesn’t mean anything. I doubt it’s even supposed to. Sure, the artist might say she was mining an archive, trying to present a metaphor for the way we mine our subconscious as artists. Or maybe the book is meant to represent the process of psychotherapy, wherein we “dive” into abstract dreams, dissecting, seeking deeper meaning. (Of course, with the Camus reference, it might just be a meditation on existentialism.)

Really, it doesn’t matter. As Roger Ballen mentioned in our recent interview, so much of contemporary art turns people off because it doesn’t ask real questions, tackle actual problems, or attempt to represent anything other than the whims of spoiled rich kids. (I’m paraphrasing. I don’t think he mentioned rich kids, but did speak of preferring Disney movies to most of what he sees.)

In a world of near-infinite photographic images, the rules have obviously changed. Getty pays photographers in decimal points, Instagram images are on the cover of the NY Times, and we’re all out there, struggling, trying to figure out how to create value out of what we do. It’s harder to make a living at our collective passion than ever before, and I’m not sure that’s going to change.

So I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t time for us to reach out the wider world a bit more, as they don’t seem to be coming to us. Everyone is a photographer now, that’s a given. People have fallen in love with our way of expressing ourselves, which paradoxically makes us smaller fish in an a bigger ocean. Something’s got to change, and I’m suggesting it might be us.

Because books like this one will not bring the masses around to a sense of art’s importance. Maybe I’m wrong to want that? Maybe a collection of smart-looking photos, bound together well, should be enough for me. I just not sure anymore.

Bottom line: Cool book, but is it enough to just be cool?

To Purchase “Dive Dark, Dream Slow” 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.

 

Laura Letinsky at The Photographers’ Gallery

by Jonathan Blaustein

Am I ever brief? Seriously. Whether these articles ramble on for a thousand or two thousand words, they always go long. I know some people enjoy that, and others look at blocks of text and just tune the damn thing out.

Occasionally, I try to break the cycle, but rarely succeed. It’s almost as if verbose were my middle name. (Instead of Benjamin. My name has eight syllables. How’s that for symbolically appropriate?) Ironically, my wife just suggested that the metaphorical meaning of my horrendous, insanely painful, glass-shards-through-my-goiter sore throat might be that I should talk less. (Ought that translate to write less?)

Let’s try it, though. Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting the recently redesigned Photographers’ Gallery in London. It’s a beautiful building, with glass windows cut out in sexy places, like bits of fabric shorn from a flowing jersey dress. And all those floors dedicated to photography? (Or tea, in the café.) All good in my book.

There were several exhibitions on display when I visited, but the highlight was a show of new work by Laura Letinsky. Occupying an entire gallery, the large, minimalist prints were quiet, as was the room. (Silent, really.) Ms. Letinsky has moved away from her straightforward, food-based still lives, bathed in gorgeous light. Here, we see mashed-up, studio experimental still lives, on white tables against white walls.

The images contain some actual items, but also two-dimensional cut-outs of photos taken from magazines. I loved the picture of the crushed white paper cup, against the white on white, and the desiccated grapes were great as well. The experience was like looking at the classiest collages you’ve ever seen.

The light is of course beautiful in the extreme, and the photos appear to be digitally created, thereby compressing the sense of space. By now, we all know that digital images flatten out the picture plane, as opposed to the celluloid aesthetic, which renders three-dimensionality so well. Here, it did engender a double-take or two, as my eyes tried to read exactly what was going on.

I wasn’t blown away by the work, or seduced into a Zen, drooling-on-myself-kind-of-bliss, but I liked it. It’s certainly well-executed, and beautiful. Mostly, the show seemed like a record of a talented artist who was experimenting; pushing her own process in ways that kept her engaged, while staying within a general stylistic preference.

This Week In Photography Books – Tony Fouhse

by Jonathan Blaustein

I picked up a nasty virus in Mexico the other day. No, not the Montezuma’s-revenge-type-thing. I’ve had that one before, though. Nasty business. Over the course of a twenty-six hour bus ride from Juarez to Mazatlan, I brazenly ate food from filthy roadside taco stands. The flies were buzzing around the fetid meat, which had obviously been sitting in the sun for hours.

Why would I do such a thing? I had a strong stomach and a small brain. I can handle it, I assumed. Over the course of a miserable four-day illness, I remember thinking how some lessons have to be learned the hard way. They say youth is wasted on the young, but really, if we don’t learn from our mistakes, what’s the point of it all?

Now, though, I’m struggling with an evil sore throat that feels like I’ve got an acorn back there. Every time I swallow, it’s like I’m rubbing sandpaper over my swollen squirrel’s treat. As it’s a virus, there was no tidy anti-biotic to quickly squash the little bugger. Instead, I’m hopped up on doctor prescribed percoset. (So if my ramblings are slightly less coherent today, please forgive.)

I paid for my poor choice of taco selection, but only for a few days. The suffering was brief, and the ramifications of my decision-making were not life-altering. Thank goodness. Because other youthful mistakes can be deadly. The alcohol-fueled cockiness that leads to drunk driving. The pent-up testosterone-rage that leads to violence. The foolish sense of immortality that allows for the first taste of forbidden addictions.

Honestly, I never want this column to be too dour. Sometimes, I like to write about light and fluffy things, but I’m at the mercy of the book-stack. I reach into the pile, and respond to the quality of other artists’ visions. (So if you crave a book on Easter eggs this week, I’ll disappoint.) But if you’re looking to see how an artist deals with one of the most serious social problems of our times, then today’s book certainly belongs beside Mr. Rochkind and Ms. Emdur’s offerings. (The two previous columns.)

“Live Through This”, published by STRAYLIGHT Press, is packaged smartly. I faced a plastic sleeve, sealed with a carefully placed sticker. Open it up, and there is a cardboard cover, secured with a single rubber band. There is no artist name, or any info beyond the title. I was intrigued. The first blank page features only the pencil signature by the artist, Tony Fouhse. Turn again, and you get a small story about Stephanie, and how she should have died, to make what follows a better story. What?

I’ll cut to the chase, and give you the crux of the narrative, as you don’t actually have the ability to slowly parse it out, page by page. (Unless you buy the book, which I would recommend.) Apparently, Mr. Fouhse was photographing heroin and crack junkies in Ottawa, and asked the young Stephanie MacDonald if he could take her picture. It’s the first portrait in the book, and she has a stunned-but-vacant look in her eye, a pock-marked face, and a staggering Eat Me tattoo just above her lady parts.

Thus began a relationship in which the artist offered to help Ms. MacDonald get clean. He intervened in her life, setting up a rehab stint, and stood by her when she had brain surgery, due to a dirty needle. The pictures throughout the book are accompanied by Stephanie’s own diaristic text, replete with bad spelling. (Who am I to criticize? I have typos almost every week.)

The pictures are certainly difficult to look at, but unlike those Meth-head billboards they have up some places, (I mean you, Colorado,) these images are not just meant to scare. They’re intimate and caring, while also representing a vision of reality that we don’t want to see, but should. Powerful stuff.

While I’m pretty sure Hollywood has not yet relocated to Canada, despite Vancouver’s sterling reputation for filmmaking, this book does have a happy ending. Stephanie cleans up, and even spent some time living with Mr. Fouhse and his wife. There is a cool little insert in the back that includes Stephanie’s entire narrative, the results of a drug test properly passed, and a signed portrait of her, post-addiction, with clear skin.

Drugs are a problem that will not go away. Despite being illegal, outlawed, the demand never dies. At present, the people reaping the rewards are often armed thugs, gangs of killers. So people push for legalization, which will bring tax benefits, and shift the profits elsewhere. Who will make the money instead? I’m not sure that’s been addressed.

But like David Simon demonstrated in his provocative “Hamsterdam” scenario in “The Wire,” even legalization will not tie a pretty pink bow on this intractable problem. People will succumb to addiction, do horrible things, and then die lonely deaths, either way. I had a cousin who went that way, despite seeming to have everything to live for. Demons often win in the end.

This book is a beautiful counterpoint to the misery, and a valuable lesson to us all. I know journalists are often in a position of having to tell the story, rather than intervene. That’s just the way it is. But here is a case where someone’s creative practice and generous heart made a difference in a young girl’s life. One less corpse to be discovered, and hauled off to the morgue.

Bottom Line: Difficult photographs of young woman’s climb out of addiction

To Purchase “Live Through This” 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.

 

Format ’13, Derby, UK

by Jonathan Blaustein

We used to have a film festival here in Taos. It took place in early April each year. Everybody in town would get excited, as there were opportunities to see films to which residents would otherwise not have access. (Pre-Netflix, obviously.) The locals loved it, and the film-makers did too. I got to meet James Coburn, so that was cool.

I worked for the festival in 1997, as an overly confident twenty-two year old. All bluster and little experience, I was hired as the Volunteer Co-ordinator, meant to boss around dozens of older folks who were working for free. I was hired last minute, as the original VC was poorly-equipped for the position, and subsequently fired.

I was told to do whatever I saw fit with the volunteers, so my first act was to handpick an assistant. Why not make my job easier, I thought. I went through the list, and chose a middle-aged female attorney who’d recently moved to Taos. She seemed sharp, and ended up helping immeasurably.

Within a year, she’d been elevated to Executive Director of the organization. A few years later, the festival was defunct. (Not that I’m blaming her, mind you.) There was some debt accrued at the beginning that could never be dealt with properly, and the best of intentions are not always enough. Competence, across a broad swath of areas, is required to run a successful event over time.

So I was displeased, if not completely surprised, at my experience with the Format Festival in England over the last six months. It gives me no pleasure to write this article, and I’ve certainly given some consideration to why there used to be boundaries between artists and journalists. Ethically, the tale that follows seem important to share, as I know our readers look to us for helpful information about what goes on inside the industry. But I’ve spent many a moment wondering whether this will damage the “artist” portion of my career.

Here’s the breakdown.

I met the Artistic Director of the festival at FotoFest last year. She seemed nice, and I was glad when she wrote a few months later to say the submission process to Format ’13 was about to open. Cool, I thought. If she took the time to reach out, I assumed they must be interested in my work.

Like the many competitions that exist around the world, there was a fee involved in submitting work for consideration. Nothing huge, but still, it cost something. When I didn’t hear back a month beyond the original deadline for replies, I knew things were not efficient as one might hope. Still, I wanted it to work out, and was thrilled when my work was accepted. Having an international exhibition on my resumé seemed like a great career move, and I’m enamoured of the British photo community.

Foolishly, I chose to overlook the fact that the exhibition to which I was applying, “EXPOSURE,” required me to pay all the production costs for my work, as well as shipping fees in each direction. (I don’t believe that’s the case with every exhibition they put on.) The forms also claimed there would be a stipend offered, but that was the last I heard of it until I arrived in England. My inquiries into how much funding I might receive were not answered. (Nor were most of the emails I sent looking for information.)

As the festival approached, I was asked to submit a proposal for my exhibition design. I worked on it for weeks, scratching sketches and fiddling in Photoshop. Surely, I thought, someone will be impressed. They will wonder at the power of my creativity and the brilliance of my art. (They didn’t. I shipped the box off and hoped for the best.)

So by the time I headed to Derby last month, I was pretty put out by the whole thing. I’d spent almost $600, and was beginning to regret it. (Not including travel costs, or return shipping, which I also need to arrange on my own. They won’t schedule the DHL pickup, apparently.) I’m sure they’re all nice people, with so much to organize. I get that there is a lot of responsibility. I do.

At last, though, on a Saturday in early March, I caught the train North from London with my friend Hin Chua. He told me he’d participated in the 2011 version of Format, and had encountered some problems too. He chalked it up to biting off more work than they could chew, rather than malicious intent, and said that most of the people he’d spoken to had some issues as well.

Before I got to Derby, I’d been warned several times that it was a less-than-enthralling place. Basically, people laughed when I said I was showing work there, and confidently described the place grim. I assumed it was just the famous British wit, pushing my buttons and dampening my expectations. Surely, they’re exaggerating, I thought. (Alas…)

The city was bleak and gray; the air freezing cold and moist, sucking the joy from my soul. (What little was left, that is.) I’m not trying to denigrate this Post-Industrial city, which has obviously fallen on hard times, but it is what it is. Folks were surly and suspicious, and the ramifications of decline were rampant. (I saw two businesses closing down on High Street.) As we got off the train, the first two people we saw outside the station were muscle-head teenagers in rolled up T-shirts. Genius.

After that, we stopped in at the Quad theater to see the Erik Kessels exhibition. I know he’s trendy at the moment, and I loved and reviewed one of his books recently, but this exhibit was surprisingly limp. Appropriated family album photographs were everywhere, though most were not-very-interesting. They were blown up into graphics that covered the walls, and were also presented on foam core, in racks, meant to be flipped through like items at a poster shop. (Points for trying to break out of the box, I guess.) I queried some fellow visitors who were equally disappointed, and one described the show as “graphic design” and “cotton candy.”

Next was a brief visit to the “Photo Market,” a few photo related stalls mingled amongst the cheesemongers of the local indoor market. The air was stale, the mood depressing. I got to see a few cool photo books, as there were several major publishers in attendance. It was pretty quiet, though, and one participating photographer told me there was a public opening the night before, and ten people came.

From there, we headed into an industrial neighborhood to the “Chocolate Factory,” to see the exhibition in which my work was included. It was the hub of the festival, in that portfolio reviews were being held there that day. I knew of several friends who’d be in attendance, and was excited to finally have some fun. We walked in, and noticed the entryway was open to the elements. No doors at all.

Immediately, I bumped into a colleague, who asked if I’d seen my work yet. His voice trailed off at the end of the sentence, so I knew something was awry. “No,” I said, “I’ve just arrived. Is there a problem?” He paused. “Well, the pictures are in the back. Better you see for yourself.”

We headed in that direction, and I quickly stuffed my hands in my pockets. It was even colder in the Chocolate Factory that it was outside: barely above freezing. The place had been abandoned, and reclaimed by Format as an exhibition space. It was filthy, and reminded me of something out of a former Soviet republic. Given that the festival theme was “Factory,” I should add that the choice wasn’t pointless. It makes sense in theory, but was poorly executed. (If the festival took place in Summer, it would have been an entirely different story.)

My pictures were at the very far end of the venue, by the toilets. While the location would normally be considered unappealing, on that day, at least, I knew my work would be seen. People kept heading to the loo to use the electric hand dryer to warm up, because the entire venue had no heat whatsoever.

Photographers were shivering, jumping up and down to stay warm. (Except for one of the festival sponsors, who was dressed in a burly Swedish mackinaw and fur hat. He was toasty, and suggested I not take my treatment personally. They didn’t reply to his emails either, he said, because they’re always so busy.)

I was told that the reviewers were provided with hot water bottles, those rubber things that evoke the 19th Century, and hot coffee as well. The photographers, on the other side of the table, were not. One American photographer told me she hadn’t even bothered to go see her exhibition, elsewhere in town, because she was too worn down by the travel, the elements, and the expensive cab fares.

Another photographer, a friend who was also attending the reviews, ranted about it perfectly: “I’m a f-cking chump. I just spent £200 to sit in a f-cking warehouse freezing my ass off all day. Even people who work in warehouses get minimum wage.” He wrote to me thereafter to stress that he did have some very good experiences in the review meetings, so it balanced out.

Just as I was about to lose my mind and head back to the station to grab the next train South, I saw a friend from Italy, Michele Palazzi. Michele and I, along with his wingman Raphaele, started to crack each other up almost immediately. (Telling jokes about Berlusconi, arguing about who made a better spaghetti carbonara.)Then, Barry Hughes, the publisher of the excellent online magazine Super Massive Black Hole, turned the corner. We’d corresponded on social media, but had not yet met in person. Format brought us all together.

We stood there, the four of us, laughing, beginning to see the humor in the situation. The seratonin flooded back into my brain. This, I thought, is why I really came here. Nothing beats the camaraderie of hanging out with cool people from around the world. Sometimes, a little temporary suffering brings everyone closer together.

From there, too cold to go searching for more exhibitions to see, we headed up the street to the pub. My mood improved, and the strong dark beer helped me get back to myself. For hours, we laughed, talked about photography, and shared stories about our respective communities. If not for the festival, our motley crew would have been spread back around the planet.

To be clear, I’m sure the Format does good things for Derby, providing opportunities for locals to see art and and expand their understanding of the world. Its residents must benefit greatly. In a parallel universe, I had a great day in Derby, visiting the many exhibitions spread all over the city, and came away impressed by what I saw. Just the other day, a colleague wrote on Facebook that he saw lots of great work at Format, and called the city “cool.”

There are many festivals around the world, and countless opportunities to show one’s work. Frankly, I submitted to Format without having done any research, and relied upon some specious assumptions. That’s on me. If you’re reading this in the US, though, I’d probably recommend you start somewhere else on your quest for world domination.

This Week In Photography Books – Alyse Emdur

by Jonathan Blaustein

The following anecdote is hypothetical. I am in no way claiming it to be true; only instructive. These things do happen, though. And mistakes can be costly.

I was in Amsterdam the other week. Such a great city. There are things there, certain things, that are legal. Things that might be illegal elsewhere. The great state of Colorado has also legalized some of the things to which I refer, but in the United States, Federal law still considers such things verboten.

I enjoyed the opportunity to sample the legal wares in Amsterdam. It’s fun. But I would never, ever take any of those things away from Amsterdam. Like on an airplane. Never, ever would I be that stupid. Leaving town at Schiphol, my friend and I actually saw a poor sap who thought he could get away with it. Bad news. I’m smarter than that.

It was so cold in Holland that I had on every piece of clothing I’d brought. Three sweaters, topped by a down vest, and then a leather jacket. Always, the leather encased my body like a cow-ish second skin, futily trying to keep out the wind. The jacket’s zipper got stuck on our last day in town, trapping the layers below. I only managed to fix it minutes before going through security, flustered. I flew back to London, and then left the next day for the United States.

So imagine my surprise when I reached into my vest pocket on the tube towards Heathrow, and found a tiny bag of something that would be considered illegal in the UK. It was in my possession the entire time, and I was blissfully unaware. (Again, this never happened.) But if it had happened, can you imagine what I might have been thinking?

I closed my eyes, and saw it clearly. The arrest in the airport. The lightbulb dangling from the ceiling above me as I was harangued in Dutch, asking why I would be so foolish. Then, the trial and sentencing. Ultimately, I’d end up in jail.

People like me don’t go to jail. I’m educated, middle-class, from a good family. I don’t even know anyone who is incarcerated. (Which is statistically unlikely, as there are nearly 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, as I hinted at in last week’s column.) But not me. It couldn’t happen to me. Right?

As my “fictitious” example proves, though, stupid mistakes happen. As I leaned against the train wall, I thought about how it would feel to not see my wife and children again. How would I tell them I’d been so careless, and was now trapped in a cell, unable to support them, or give them kisses and hugs? What would my wife say? How old would my baby daughter be before I saw her again? My pulse raced, and I came very close to crying. Which would have been a weird thing to do in public, but no one was paying attention to me anyway.

Fortunately, even in this “farcical” anecdote, I got away with my “crime.” Nobody knew what I had done, and whatever evidence was left, after I had munched a bit, ended up in an airport garbage bin. I might have watched a janitor empty the receptacle, just in case. The evidence, were we to call it that, would now be buried beneath hundreds of tons of English trash.

I was lucky. (Again, never happened.) But many people aren’t. Our jails are overcrowded, with so many victims burned in the wreckage of our mindless Drug War. As many prisons are privatized, there is a financial incentive to keep them that way. Some folks have gotten behind this issue with all their might, like fellow blogger Pete Brook, but I’m just visiting for the day.

Artists have also given to the cause. I’m thinking here of Alyse Emdur, the photographer and writer behind the amazing book “Prison Landscapes,” published by Four Corners Books in… you guessed it…London. I had no idea what lay beneath the plastic when I unwrapped this one, and what a surprise it was; among the smartest and most creatively powerful books I’ve come across in some time.

Ms. Emdur’s brother spent time in a New Jersey prison when she was a youth, so she’s lived with the reality of incarceration’s impact. (As opposed to my bourgeois fantasies.) She knew that in prison, all photographs are taken against painted backdrops- no realistic details allowed. (I only know of such photographic stylings from Jersey Bar Mitzvahs, not lockups.)

The book opens with an excellent description of the project, through which Ms. Emdur, via a pseudonym, became pen pals with inmates around the US, and had them send her photos of themselves, set against a number of paintings. They’d be absurd if they weren’t so poignant. Rarely is art this earnest, while still being gripping.

The book includes letters written by prisoners, including some that were were scanned, to show the penmanship. (Do we still use that word?) There are also photos that Ms. Emdur has taken of the backdrops in prisons, and the use of an artist’s good camera and formal composition makes a fantastic complement to the personal photos of hulking or average looking men, and gussied-up or plain-looking women.

There is also an interview at the end with a prison painter who did the cover image, taken from the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pennsylvania. If I can convince someone to let me keep this book, I will forever use the interview as inspiration to my students in the future. You want to know why art matters? Prisoner Darrell Van Mastrigt will tell you. (That name sounds Dutch. You know I love to bring these articles back around.)

If you’re a thinking person who has curiosity about the world, you should consider buying this book. It is the perfect example of photography showing us what we would not otherwise be able to see. I have no idea how many of these people committed heinous crimes, and “deserve” to be where they are. Whatever they’ve done, they’re people with families and friends. Their plight helps us realize that things are always more complicated than we’d like to think.

Bottom line: Brilliantly constructed book with an ambitious agenda

To Purchase “Prison Landscapes” 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 Rochkind

by Jonathan Blaustein

All we are saying, is give peace a chance. It’s a great chant, and a catchy tune. A little ironic too, as John Lennon seemed to be such a combative guy. (According to the documentary I saw last year.) Sure, it would be nice to give peace a chance, but I’d also love it if my fingernails tasted like white truffles.

I’m a pretty mellow guy, myself, far from the drunken lout that once smashed a dude’s head into a stone wall during a fight at Duke. I ended up on the ground, punching up, but told myself it was a draw. I can still hear the frat boys screaming for us to beat the shit out of each other. (Classy.)

I realize that I end up talking about violence a lot in this column, which is strange, given how little of it I see. I’m fortunate to live in a quiet place, in a country with a functioning legal system. (Of course, we have an incarceration rate that ought to give Barack Obama an ulcer, but he’s got enough problems, so I’ll leave him alone.)

Back in the early Fall, we brought you a gripping interview with Alejandro Cartagena, who spoke of the realities of living on the front lines of Mexico’s Drug War. I heard him speak the words, and then spent hours transcribing them, and still it was just an abstraction to me. I hope to never know what it’s like from personal experience, living with that degree of fear.

Fast forward six months, and everyone’s talking about Mexico’s impending economic miracle: a terrific growth rate, and a new President who’s more focused on busting monopolies than cartels. (Though I must admit, it does take some guts to go after Carlos Slim.) Alejandro and I discussed the possibility of misdirection, as there were signs that President Peña Nieto would leave the Narcos alone to import guns from, and export drugs to my blessed United States.

So the Drug War has been pushed off the headlines, and it seems as if the death toll is finally on the wane. In a piece about Mexico that I recently read in the Financial Times, the Drug War wasn’t even mentioned until the last paragraph of a very, very long article. Yesterday’s news, apparently. Making money is more appealing than digging up corpses best left to rot.

But I’m not the Financial Times. Hell, I’m not sure I’m even a real journalist. We’ll buck the trend, therefore, and take a look at “Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War,” a book by David Rochkind, published by Dewi Lewis in 2012. Here is your warning: this is not for the weak of will or stomach. Mr. Rochkind is a brave man, and he put himself at significant personal risk to bring back these photographs.

Truth be told, I met David at Review Santa Fe in 2010. I saw an early edit in person, and we’ve kept up since. That makes this the first book review I’ve done in which I was able to see a project evolve and improve. There are many photographs in the book I haven’t seen before, and the breath of the narrative has grown organically, and well. In a perfect world, photographic projects should get better over time, and a book ought to be the best-case-scenario. It is here.

This book was really put together with care. The size of the photos vary, with gorgeous full-bleed double-spreads popping up in just the right spots, and scale shifts keeping the viewer engaged. At one point, I did a double-take at the pairing of Evangelical parishioners in fervent prayer, across the page from a junkie mother shooting up. Escape, meet escape.

The use of color and tension is very strong, and enables the pages to turn, despite the graphic and tragic subject matter. Love, of family and God, even makes a brief appearance now and again. Thank goodness. It balances against visions of the dead, the dying, and the victims trapped in a loop of poverty and violence.

Mexico is an amazing country, with lovely people who deserve better. Obviously, we’re all hoping this phase of its history ends soon, and that the future is bright. It is possible. Let’s not forget, the Aztec founders of Mexico City were among the most bloodthirsty psychopaths who’ve ever lived. Fortunately, people persevere.

Bottom Line: Incredible photographs of a story most would rather forget

To Purchase “Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War” 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.