Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

Roger Ballen Interview

by Jonathan Blaustein

Roger Ballen is among the most talented and successful photographic artists in the world today. He was kind enough to agree to an extensive interview last month, and is also allowing us to publish images from two forthcoming books.

JB: Why did you choose to move to South Africa from the United States?

RB: When I was a young man in my early twenties, in 1973, it was a time of cultural revolution. I guess I was swept up with that. I graduated from University of California, Berkeley, and was quite restless. Previous to traveling from Cairo to Capetown in 1974, two important things happened. One is I got interested in painting for about six months, and the second thing my mother died in early ’73.

My mother had worked in Magnum photos, and also started one of the first photo galleries in the United States, with people like Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz. I’d gotten a real introduction to photography, and had a passion towards the field by the time I was 23. Although at that time, I had a degree in psychology.

Then my mother died in January of ’73, and I began this trip that would take me four and half years, an overland trip from Cairo to Capetown. I got to South Africa, and spent some time here. Then I made an overland trip from Istanbul to New Guinea, and that was about a two and half year trip. During that time, I did
my first photo book, which was called “Boyhood.”

I got to South Africa that way, and then when I got back to America, in ’77 or so, I did a PhD in Mineral Economics at the Colorado School of Mines. Then, I came back to South Africa in ’82. This is an ideal place to practice the business of mining exploration, and anything related to the mineral business. South Africa and the surrounding countries are well-endowed with minerals.

Despite the political problems, I’d liked being here for the first time, and then married a South African lady and stayed here. I’ve been here permanently since 1982.

JB: I imagined it might have something to do with the natural resources. I was raised in New Jersey, in the shadows of New York City, and ended up living in a horse pasture, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, in an old Spanish village, because I married a local. So I can relate.

But as far as South Africa goes, co-incidental to this impending interview, I recently came across some information about the place, and thought we could continue to talk about it for a few minutes. Some of the statistics are kind of crazy. According to The Economist, South Africa has the highest rate of income equality in the world, even all these years past Apartheid. I wondered if you might share what that’s like, on the ground level?

RB: South Africa, as you mentioned, is a First World and Third World country. You’re living in this schizoid environment. Where I am right now, speaking to you, could be suburban St. Louis, or Des Moines, or Chicago. With suburbs, shopping centers, and reasonable, suburban houses.

A mile away could be Zimbabwe, or Mozambique. People there are living in poverty and crowded urban conditions. Lots of immigrants from Nigeria and other African countries, mixed up. You hardly would ever see a white person in those places. You have this divided culture, which has been inherent here for two or three hundred years. It’s nothing new. I guess the only difference is, over the last fifteen years, you have a greater amount of very wealthy black people, as well as more middle class black people. But the population is increasing, so there’s still no substantial difference in the unemployment rates, which are still at 40 or 50%.

The gap is not something that’s closed because the government changed. It just hasn’t happened. It was the same before. Or worse before. Or maybe it was even better before? I don’t know.

JB: Do communities build up gates and walls and guard towers? Are places physically cut off from one another, then? Because the violence is pretty horrific, I’ve read.

RB: I guess so. I think most of the violence occurs in these areas that people like myself don’t go into on a regular basis. It’s the violence of people living in poverty, under stressful conditions. You know, you have this in America. You go to urban America and you find the same problems.

It’s really no different. These things are always exaggerated by the media. It’s not a War zone here by any means. You can live your life. There are walls around your house, and you deal with the problem of security. Johannesburg and the other cities have the same problems that any other Third World country might have. A lot of poverty, and a lot of people desperate to survive in one way or another.

I would say, the problems here, they certainly exist, but if you look at the rest of the continent, there are a lot of things that are more positive and dynamic than most of the places in Africa. I am in Africa, not in Europe. It’s relative. What happens here shouldn’t necessarily be seen in relationship to Europe or America. It should be seen in relation to the rest of the continent, which also has significant challenges.

JB: I was curious, because I’ve never been to Africa before. One of the things that I’d read that I thought was hard to fathom, and starts to tie into your work, is that there’s a murder rate of 99 people per 100,000 in the farming communities, in the rural areas, numbers that were off the charts.

I was thinking about the work you’d done in the “Platteland” series, where you were meeting people in the rural communities. I know it was a while ago. I wondered if anything had filtered back to you about people that you knew, of if these communities were now less accessible? If the people that you’d photographed had become victims to crime?

RB: Not really. The countryside is like America. You go down to the South, in the countryside, and things seem relaxed in their own way. The real violence occurs mostly in the urban environments. There are farm murders, but it’s nothing like what goes on in the cities.

Most of the violence here is in the townships, where people are living in difficult conditions. Probably eight out of ten of these murders here occur in these township environments, and most of it is probably related to drinking, and squabbles over women, and money and tribal issues. I’m no expert, but a lot of them have to do with tribal issues.

JB: Why don’t we move along…

RB: I think so, because the media has its own reasons for concentrating on certain places in the world. Somebody’s pushed down the stairs in Tel Aviv, and it will be on the headlines on CNN and the BBC. And if twenty five people are killed in the Congo, it won’t be on TV. It’s where the media is, and how they fabricate the world and create their own political dynamics based on their own ideology, which is based on maximizing their viewer network.

JB: Absolutely. But let’s move, and talk more about art.

I studied Economics in college, before becoming an artist. It’s easy to see the influences in your work, but I didn’t know until I did some research that you had been trained in geology, and worked in the resource extraction industry. I wondered, as you transitioned from that industry to your art career, if you had ever thought about the comparison between the market for precious metals, the way value is constructed for things like platinum and gold and diamonds, relative to the way the market has evolved for contemporary art?

RB: The value is like night and day, trying to compare those two. The value for commodities is very much derived from physical demand, and physical supply. It’s very much a proper market based on actual usage and material consumption. There’s not a huge aspect of subjectivity involved, like there is in contemporary art.

Really, the business of mining, and selling minerals is a much more clearly defined business, a much easier business in nearly every way than being involved in the art market.

JB: At what point in your career did you segue from having a day job to being able to focus exclusively on your art career?

RB: I never really sold any pictures, or offered any pictures in any real way until about 2000, 2001, when my “Outland” book came out. There wasn’t much of a photo market up until the early 90’s anyway. The thing that got the photo market to boil was the technology of large color prints.

The black and white business plodded on. There were some specific collectors who would buy vintage work, historical work, but the average person who wanted to put money into art really wasn’t so interested in photography. And then, somewhere in the mid-90’s, the technology developed to enable people to make larger scale color prints on a fairly regular basis.

Artists could find labs, and get them to produce this type of larger sized work with ease. This equipment started to proliferate, to the point where you can now buy printers, and learn how to print digital photographs in a short period of time.
As a result of this technological shift, large scale color prints then became available to the art market.

I did this purely as a hobby until about 2000. When my “Platteland” book came out in ’94, it caused a lot of controversy, and became a famous book. That gave me the initiative to continue, and from ’94 to 2000, I put a lot more time into photography, but it was still sort of a hobby; a half-profession. When “Outland” was published, it also became a renown book, and I started to sell a lot of photographs. I began to put a lot more of my time into photography, and to see it as a profession rather than a hobby.

JB: Before you were focused on selling prints, books were the final output of your photographic narrative?

RB: Yes, and they still are to this day. I’m much more focused on books. That’s really what interests me. Selling pictures is OK, it’s part of the business, but it’s not a goal in itself. The real goal in my career has always been geared towards making books. Most of these projects take about five or six years to do. I work on them that long, and try to define the aesthetic that comes to mind.

Now, I’m just about finished with a book called “Asylum,” that’s going to be produced by Thames & Hudson early next year. It deals with birds in a Roger Ballen world.

JB: What is it about the book form that is so fascinating to you?

RB: It’s a permanent thing. It’s like getting to the top of a mountain. You’ve actually taken the process through from beginning to end. You’ve made a statement that has a sense of permanency to it. An exhibition comes and goes. Living down here, I don’t spend much time at the shows, if any at all. I get a few newspaper clippings back, but I can’t read half of the newspaper clippings anyway.

And that’s all I get. You think you make a lot of friends during the show, and nine times out of ten, you never see the people again. A book, in a way, is part of you, like your own children.

JB: Of course. That makes plenty of sense. Last week, I was in Texas, and driving home from the airport, which is three hours away, I happened to listen to a Public Radio program called “Afro-pop.” They were focusing on Punk music in South Africa in the 70’s, during the Apartheid era. I didn’t know much about the disappearances, the murders, and the censorship.

The show talked about how Punk came along, and the musicians themselves would challenge the conventional notions, break the laws, and inspire change. Then I also saw that you have a foundation, promoting photography in South Africa, if that’s correct.

RB: Yes, that’s correct.

JB: I was wondering what you thought about the role of art in the 21st Century, and the place of art within culture? I’m not necessarily talking about political or social change, but certainly here in the US, visual art is marginalized compared to cinema and music, and other types of expression.

RB: It’s a good point. I think about it quite often, because I’m quite shocked what I see in the contemporary art market, whether it’s art fairs, or exhibitions. I really scratch my head in disillusionment at people’s choices. Most of the art that I see merely re-enforces what people already know.

I do the art only for myself. I’m not doing it for an audience. I’m doing it to learn more about my own interior. That’s the only purpose. If it weren’t that purpose, then I wouldn’t do it. I’d rather stick to mining, because then it’s just another business.

It’s my own journey into my own life. But if we take that as one point, and then look at the other point: what is the purpose of art for the third party? What do I want my art to do for the other person? To me, art should be making people delve inside. It should be a mirror for their own interiors, as I mentioned for myself. It should open them up from one part of their mind to the other part of their mind. It should be something that maybe even scares them, or gives them a jolt or shock.

Unfortunately, most contemporary art doesn’t do this in any way. The purpose of art is to expand the consciousness of oneself. It’s only through expanding the consciousness of the self that art can have any ultimate effect on a person’s condition.

If we look at art as a political tool, what should art be doing? Art should be liberating the self from the self. It should be helping the person break through his or her repression. I’m a Freudian in some sense. It’s only through liberating our repression do we have any chance of improvement in the world. I’m certainly not optimistic about that happening.

It’s a Freudian interpretation in so many ways. There’s so little art that deals with this. And 99% of the art I see is stuff I’ve seen endlessly before. I might as well go watch a Mickey Mouse film.

JB: I was just about to accuse you of being a Jungian, frankly.

RB: Jungian also. It’s the same sort of stuff. A psycho-analytic interpretation of the mind. It could be like Joseph Campbell. It’s an attitude; a way of life.

JB: It seems like that’s the root of a lot of the symbolic resonance in your work. I read some of Jung’s writings in graduate school, and of course at the time was very impacted by this idea that the Shadow, the dark side, obviously exists within the human condition. Cain killed Abel. Saturn ate his kids.

Jung theorized that when you deny the Shadow, when you repress it, that’s when it comes out in negative and destructive ways, like violence. I suppose others have put this forth to you, but it does seem like your work is a visual manifestation of that idea. Would you agree?

RB: I’m trying to delve into my interior, to mirror the dynamics of that, visually, in some way or another, through a photograph. It’s a process of going down to one’s own shadow zone with a camera and a flash, and once in that place, taking pictures.

I always tell students, on their first assignment, to close their eyes, turn their eyeballs around, and go out and take pictures that reflect what they’ve seen. That’s the sort of thing I’m interested in. These relationships are very complex; very hard to define in words. We’re so obsessed with words, but the better the picture, the harder it is to put a word to it.

JB: Indeed.

RB: To go back into contemporary art again, most of the stuff you can put some silly word to it. I think with my most recent photographs, it’s almost impossible to put a word to it. There are contradictory meanings, there are meanings that there is no word for in the dictionary. The work stands on its own, and has its own essence that is unlike any other essence.

JB: Do you ever censor yourself? Are there things that pop into your mind, and you think, no that’s too hardcore. That’s too dark.

RB: No. My conclusion is the dark is the light. So to me, the darker it is, the more light shines. It means I got down further.

JB: You’ve been able to create the visions you have because, if it’s a part of your psyche, it’s OK?

RB: It doesn’t matter whether it’s a part of my psyche, or a part of anything else. What you see is what’s there. If it’s there, it’s there. If you walk across a dead person in the street, if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s dead, it’s dead. That’s the reality that I come across. It’s not good or bad. It’s reality as you deal with it, like death.

What is death? Is it good or bad? Is it dark? You die. That’s life. It’s not good, bad or anything. It just exists. I just come across things and take them for what they are. I don’t try make value judgements. I just deal with things in front of me, in my own emotional way. Sometimes it has a big impact, sometimes it doesn’t.

But I’m not trying to make political judgements. I feel I need to go further. There’s more to life than having to try to deal with the issue of morality. Life’s a little short for that. I’m not going to solve what’s right or wrong in this world, I can tell you that.

JB: Thank you for sharing. I’ve been wondering these things myself in my growth as an artist. Most readers would probably agree with you about the dearth of quality visions within the world of contemporary art. But whose work, what type of work, which media do you look to, beyond your own experience, for inspiration? Do you have any favorites?

RB: I don’t really work with inspiration. I’ve been working for fifty years, nonstop. I just keep working. It’s like brushing my teeth. If I had to say anything, the thing that inspires me most, by far, is the natural world. Whether it’s looking at the sky right in front of me, watching the sun go down, or looking at a rock in the distance, watching flowers and animals.

That’s why I love geology, because I experience the mystery of the planet and the Universe. To me, that has always been a tremendous inspiration; something that is beyond my own ability to comprehend. It always challenges me. I’d say what inspires me has always been nature.

To go back to art itself, I’m inspired by anything from cave art to the traditional art in New Guinea. And traditional African art is tremendously inspiring to me. But I like artists like Picasso, and some of the Abstract Expressionists. I have a full range of things that I like, and that have had some influence on me. I just take it one by one. If I like it, that’s fine, and it goes in my head somewhere. Maybe it stays there, maybe it falls out. Then I go on to the next thing.

But you know, when I try to make a picture, the key to making the picture can come from a memory I had when I was six years old, or something that happened today. My photographs are made up of thousands of little points. It doesn’t matter, really, that I’m inspired by this or that. I still have to go back to the camera and say, yeah, this picture’s about to come together.

JB: I know inspiration can be a bit of a cliché term, but mostly, I’m asking questions that I want to know. I was curious to see what, within the realm of Art History, resonated with you. I can make assumptions, based upon your work, but the benefit to this conversation is that I get to ask.

For instance, I was at the Menil Collection in Houston last week, and they have a room filled with artifacts from African and Native American art traditions that directly inspired the Surrealists. It was this dark room, all compressed. I was thrilled, as that type of work has had a big influence on me as well. Right outside that room was this incredible exhibition of Surrealist Art, with Max Ernst and others. It was fascinating to get to see the connection between one influence and the other.

RB: You get the jolt, which is what I’m talking about. The things that jolt you are what’s important. You can be inspired, like you said, but then you’re back to square one when it comes to creation. You have to filter what you see, and build on what you’ve done, and something else comes out of it. It’s really hard to know where all this stuff connects. Every time one creates a photograph, one starts from the beginning, like a painter with a barren canvas.

JB: You recently directed a music video for the band Die Antwood. What was it like for you, as an artist, shifting media like that, and collaborating with other artists? What did you learn from the experience?

RB: It was another challenge. It was interesting, I made these installations like I normally do every day. And then I integrated their music within the realm of the installations that I created. So it was a different experience. What I do in a lot of my exhibitions, I just had one in Durban yesterday, I try to make an installation as well as a photo show. I’m expressing my vision in other ways. When people go to my shows, there are not just photos on the wall, there’s an installation that mirrors the place of the photographs.

I think the music video, more than anything else, opened my mind to the size of that market, compared to the size of the photo market. We got 25 million hits on Youtube on this thing. Can you imagine 25 million people seeing a video? Compared to an exhibition, where in a month or two or three, you might have 25 or 30 thousand. But it’s nothing like 25 million.

It was an amazing thing to see the power of music. If you can integrate your work with other fields like that, it’s great, because it propelled what I did into 25 million people’s heads, most of whom would have never seen my work.

JB: That’s why I asked that earlier question. Speaking as a younger photographic artist, I often wonder what we can do to expand the potential audience for our work. I have a belief, as I’m sure you do, that when people experience art objects, that they have the same ability to create a powerful impression in the way that music or cinema does. But our audience has thus far been restricted.

You mentioned your practice earlier, and the rigorous manner in which you work. I was always struck by a quote from Andy Warhol that I once heard in a documentary film. To paraphrase, he said make as much art as you can, as often as you can, as many ways as you can.

I’m attracted to that idea that practice and execution, game-time, if you will, is how you grow. Is that how you came to work as often as you do? To keep the skills sharp and the mind open?

RB: It’s a good question. The first thing is a practical thing. I was fortunate I had another profession, because I never would have survived in this without another profession. That’s the first issue. In fifty years I hardly sold one picture. I had another profession, so I was able to support what I was doing.

If I talk to young people, they have to find the right balance. Because you can’t be expecting to become another Andy Warhol overnight. Your chances of success in this business are much less than almost any other profession as far as making any money. There’s not much of a middle in this business. That’s the first point.

The second point is that, like anything else, practice makes perfect. If you’re an athlete, or a lawyer or a dentist, the more you do it, the better you become at it. I gave a lecture yesterday, and said “What’s the best way of learning about photography? It’s just to do photography. You learn through doing. Furthermore, one needs to rigorously look at your own work and find the holes in it, and close the gaps.”

I don’t think this is any different than any other field. Unfortunately, probably more to do with the economics, a lot of artists can’t do it all the time, because they can’t survive in the business. They have to do other work. It’s not like being a dentist, and being able to get jobs all the time. This is the problem.

Also, it requires a focus on what you’re doing to find new areas to develop into. It’s really difficult. You’re really trying to extend who you are, and find new ways of expressing it. It’s not easy to get on the road and find the path…and stay on the path and disappear into the forest.

JB: Wow. I hate to shift from the metaphorical to the prosaic, but as I know we need to wrap this up, do you have any upcoming projects we can tell the audience about?

RB: The first thing is I’m giving a Master Class at the Palm Springs Photo Festival at the end of April. So maybe some people might be interested in that. And the second thing is I have a show at the Smithsonian Museum that opens on June 19th. It deals with the evolution of drawing and painting in my photography for the last fifty years. It will be up in Washington DC until February of 2014.

Prestel will be publishing a new book of mine in the Summer of 2013, titled “Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky,” and in early 2014, Thames and Hudson will be publishing my latest body of images, titled “Asylum,” that I have worked on for the past six years.

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Asylum"

From the upcoming book titled "Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky"

From the upcoming book titled "Roger Ballen/Die Antwood: I Fink U Freeky"

 

This Week In Photography Books – Charles Harbutt

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got home rather late last night. The trip back from London took 22 hours, all told. I was lucky to avoid jet lag while in Europe, but at the moment it’s difficult to remember how to type. My brain is working slowly, like a magpie building a nest, one broken twig at a time.

So I hope you’ll forgive me if this column is on the short side today. Last week in Europe was brilliantly surreal, and I look forward to breaking it down in a series of articles examining the exhibitions and festivals I saw, and the many conversations in which I took part. Lots of coming and going: planes, trains, trams, buses, shuttles, subways, taxicabs, and rambles.

As photographers, we all love to travel. No news there. Visiting new places, with eyes keenly focused, is difficult to beat. Pay attention, and you really don’t know what comes next. For example, my travel mates yesterday included a Mexican vascular surgeon living in Germany, an English planetary scientist en route to a NASA conference in Houston, and a Cameroonian businessman seeking funding opportunities in Santa Fe.

But my travel tales are yet to come. Fortunately, escape, synchronicity, hope, and the joy of discovery are all themes depicted in “departures and arrivals,” a new book by Charles Harbutt, published by Damiani. If you’re desk-or-studio bound at the moment, this one ought to deliver a jolt of the travel buzz.

Mr. Harbutt is a fellow Jersey boy, and has spent much of his life traveling about. He was a journalist, and one time president of Magnum, so I’m guessing some of you might know the pictures. Black and white, and mostly grainy, they’re really excellent.

From the opening highway double-spread driving through New Mexico, a route I cruised just twelve hours ago, through Europe, Mexico, and beyond, the vibe is positive, and the compositions excellent. I was particularly impressed by his use of scale, as he’s always finding ways to frame small and large together to enhance the sense of mystery.

I could go into greater detail, but this a book of photographs that speak for themselves. I will now allow them to do just that. Enjoy.

Bottom Line: Excellent B&W photos from a life of exploration

To Purchase “departures and arrivals” 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 – Daniel Naudé

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was walking near my house the other day. Looking down at the wet dirt before me, I saw a curious pile of reddish goop. Bear poop, I wondered? Too early in the season. Coyote vomit? Possible. Or maybe it was just something the dogs threw up.

I live in a place of wild nature. The creatures are out there, and many emerge at night. It can lead the mind into curious diversions. Earlier this Winter, for example, a somewhat-paranoid neighbor reminded me that there were mountain lions about. “Be careful,” she warned me, “and keep your eyes out.” (My five-year-old son was with me. I was scared witless, but he thought it was cool.)

The next week, as I tugged his fluorescent-orange sled across the frozen field to grandma’s house, we saw an enormous set of tracks on the fluffy fresh snow. They were big enough to give us pause, so we stopped to contemplate. “Dad,” he said, “is that… a cougar track?” Stress chemicals dropped in my blood. Fear sweat began to form on my well-buffeted skin. “I’m not sure, buddy,” I replied, “I’m just not sure.”

Trust me, there’s a big difference between knowing something is out there, and seeing the evidence for yourself. Within a few minutes, we had convinced ourselves what we’d seen. Speculation gave way to certitude, and then the gossip spread. Before long, that same neighbor called us up, seeking confirmation. Were we sure?

In the end, it was nothing but a big dog’s paw print. Mountain lions have retractable claws, and the dogs don’t. Crisis averted. Our imaginations had sped off into the distance, like a white-tailed deer running from a pack of wild dogs.

Speaking of wild dogs, I got a look at a new book this week, “Animal Farm,” by Daniel Naudé, recently published by Prestel. Cool photographs, I must say, and the book is very well-produced. If it were me, though, I’d have skipped the Orwellian title and the didactic explanations in the opening artist’s essay. The pictures are good enough on their own.

The narrative focuses on one of the artist’s main projects, photographing feral dogs in the South African wilderness. Big, majestic creatures, these. Most look like a cross between a bull mastiff and a greyhound. There are many portraits of the beasts spread throughout the narrative, and often they look the photographer in the eye, communicating gravitas.

The book follows Mr. Naudé’s expanding explorations, focusing on the relationship between animals, and the people who raise them. (In several parts of South Africa.) We see an enormous bull on a beach, a man riding an ostrich, the extruding feet of a calf being born, another man holding a clawless otter, a different bull urinating on the green grass, and goats and zebras and donkeys. (Oh my.)

The compositions are formal, the light well-rendered, and the captions give just the information required. No more. No less.

It might seem hard-to-believe, for some of you, that I manage to find things to write about each week. (I’m not that interesting, after all.) But the real pleasure of this job is that I get to rejuvenate my curiosity, at regular intervals. The joy comes when I see photographs I’ve never seen before: rectangular or square bits of new information. This book delivered. Enough said.

Bottom Line: Very cool photos of animals, and the people who love/eat them

To Purchase “Animal Farm” Visit Photo Eye

Will Michels Interview – Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Co-Curator of War/Photography

Joe Rosenthal, American (1911–2006), Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945, gelatin silver print, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the Kevin and Lesley Lilly Family, The Manfred Heiting Collection. © Associated Press

Luc Delahaye, French, born 1962, Taliban, 2001, Chromogenic print, The High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with funds from the H. B. and Doris Massey Charitable Trust. © Luc Delahaye, courtesy of Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris/Brussels

Jonathan C. Torgovnik, American (born 1969), Valentine with her daughters Amelie and Inez, Rwanda, from the series Intended Consequences, 2006, chromogenic print, ed. #11/25, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of the artist. © Jonathan Torgovnik

Peter van Agtmael, American (born 1981), Darien, Wisconsin, October 22, 2007, chromogenic print, ed. # 1/10 (printed 2009), the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, gift of David and Cindy Bishop Donnelly, John Gaston, Mary and George Hawkins, and Mary and Jim Henderson in memory of Beth Block. © Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

Will Michels is the co-curator of the “War/Photography” exhibition that recently closed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The show will travel to venues in LA, DC and Brooklyn, so be sure to check it out if you can. Will was kind enough to speak to me in the exhibition space while I was in town earlier this Winter.

Jonathan Blaustein: Thanks for meeting me here, Will. I’ve never done an interview like this, in the middle of an exhibition, so forgive me if I nervously start at the beginning. What was the impetus for something this large and grand?

Will Michels: The impetus was that I’m a Houstonian…

JB: Born and raised?

WM: Born and raised.

JB: But you don’t call yourself a Texan?

WM: Absolutely.

JB: You do?

WM: Absolutely.

JB: Understood.

WM: I went to the High School for Performing and Visual Arts,and then went to Pratt Institute art college in New York Brooklyn. I graduated with a degree in architecture during the worst architectural recession in this country’s history. The job I found was project architect restoring the Battleship Texas. So this art guy got thrown into a military world by chance. I worked for the Battleship Texas for approximately ten years.

JB: Where is that?

WM: Thirty miles South of here. Between here and Galveston, Texas.

JB: So you graduated from school in New York, and then came back to Texas to work?

WM: Absolutely. I got thrown into the military world, and embraced it. I’m a photographer, and after many years, I began photographing veterans of the Battleship Texas, and military re-enactments that were all associated with the ship that I worked on. So that’s where military and photography mixed.

As part of my job, I had to look through pictures to help restore the ship back to the way it was. That’s where my interest in military pictures comes into play. I would read books, and would turn the page, and there would be a Robert Capa. Uncredited.

It drove me nuts. Just started making me think. Also, I’ve worked at the Museum of Fine Arts since I was 17. I’ve worked here for 28 years.

JB: People can’t see my facial expression, so let me go ahead and describe it as perplexed; shocked. I’ve heard of people starting in restaurant kitchens at 17. That’s not uncommon. But I’ve never heard that in a museum. Were you an intern?

WM: I started selling recorded tours for the “Kandinsky in Paris” exhibition in 1985. I’ve been on payroll ever since. I’ve only been full-time for seven years, but I’ve been either teaching or doing part time jobs since 1985.

JB: What about this particular show?

WM: A few years back, the museum acquired the Manfred Heiting collection, which included a copy of Joe Rosenthal’s “Old Glory goes up Mount Suribachi”. It is the first print ever made.

JB: This is from Iwo Jima.

WM: Yes, Iwo Jima. It’s a print made by the man who processed his film on Guam, named Werner Schmidt. It’s a remarkable little print. I assume you’ve already seen it. It was the research surrounding that photograph, and other photographs in the Manfred Heiting collection, that gave me the confidence to approach Anne Tucker, the primary curator, about doing a very small exhibition about War photography in a small stairwell gallery.

Her response was, “You know that’s only twenty pictures.” And mine was, “That’s all I want.” (laughing.)

JB: That’s funny, given where it ended up. Unfortunately, no one who reads this will be able to see this exhibition in its current format. So how many pictures are in this wing of the museum?

WM: Four hundred and eighty one pictures.

JB: It took me three full hours yesterday, and I think I got my eyes across everything. But retention wise…

WM: It’s hard to digest it in just three hours.

JB: Right, but…

WM: That didn’t really bother us much. We wanted it to be an all-consuming experience.

JB: Well, the exhibition is almost the size of a building, and I’m not exaggerating. From an audience perspective, this experience is overwhelming. It’s almost not designed to be seen only one time. Was that something that you and your colleagues took into account?

WM: I just want to say that this is a result of Anne Tucker and I looking. We had a great opportunity, because we had early grant money that allowed us to travel and look, with no agenda. All we did was gather pictures, and look at them. We started recognizing patterns. There are some things that happened in every conflict. The woman grieving at the grave is in every conflict, every War, no matter what size.

We started seeing this commonality that was happening, and it started driving us to think about the pictures. After that, we started editing, and in our natural conversations, things started breaking up into the categories. One of the last decisions we did was to make it be in the order of War.

The desire to have it in the order of War, that’s what drove the numbers. For us, it was not only about visitor experience. We were concerned about the people who serve, and the photographers who shoot pictures. We needed to include enough pictures to honor what they did, for visitors to be able to get what they did.

JB: It comes across as a comprehensive, informational record of a core human experience.

WM: One of the mistakes is to assume this a history of War photography. And it’s not. There are major, major pictures missing. It’s about the relationship between photography and War.

JB: I get that. At the same time, almost all the images in the show, more than 90%, come from the field of journalism, or from the military photographers themselves. And this is an art museum. So what…

WM: There are four types of photographers: military photographers, including amateurs, which is the soldiers by soldiers. The journalist. The commercial photographer, which includes portraiture. And the artist. So what was your question again?

JB: I wasn’t quite there. I was headed towards the fact that we’re standing in the middle of an art museum. From a standpoint of art, context is, was and will probably always remain a buzzword. The way we experience something has a huge determination on the impact that it ultimately has upon our brain and our soul.

The vast preponderance of images here come from the tradition of journalism. There are so many of today’s journo-stars on display here: Damon Winter, Peter van Agtmael, Yuri Kozyrev, Jonathan Torgovnik, Ashley Gilbertson and Tim Hetherington… I could keep listing, and maybe I’ll come back to it.

Did you want to make a statement about presenting journalism in an art context, or was it more that you didn’t feel that there was as much art that dealt with these issues?

WM: For me, a photograph is a photograph. I don’t care who took it. It’s not about journalism to me. It’s about amazing pictures. It’s about good compositions, good storytelling; the photographer being at the right place at the right time, and the choices that he or she made to get there. I think journalism is one of the most overlooked genres of photography because it’s just pigeonholed as journalism, and not amazing compositions.

One of our earliest conversations about this show was, Ann said, “This exhibition will fail if we are not true and make sure that every picture is an amazing picture that stands on its own.” We didn’t want it to become “The Family of Man,” which because of its tight edit, reduces everything to be about one thing. And War is very complex. Everybody brings emotional things to it. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t this oversimplified look at War.

JB: I think you unequivocally achieved that, both in the scope and the quality of images on display. I even stopped and asked a couple of people, who I noticed were in there as long as I was, what the hell they were doing. You wouldn’t think regular folks would have two hours in the middle of a week day. They were both students.

As far as the selection process, there was a three person curatorial team. How did you choose, amongst the three of you, which images were of a proper quality?

WM: First of all, let me say that Ann and I are confident that we looked at over a million pictures to cull it down to this 481. That includes playing cards, cameras…481 objects. So the process is we would go to the print room, and put up Xeroxes of all the photographs, and we would do it by trip.

The first thing we would do was peg them into categories. For example, we would move something that was originally categorized from our trip to Perpignan, and then put it in “Patrol.” Then we would spend a day, and just review “Patrol.” Then we would edit down. Each category is like its own exhibition, and we treated it as such. We wanted to make sure that each category was diverse in its time periods, in its subject matter, and in its photographers.

The final result was a vote of all three of us. If things got there three votes, of course it was in. If it got two votes, we argued and discussed it. If it got one vote, it was knocked out.

JB: A friend, who had been to one of the museum talks, told me that the most contentious argument in the exhibition was over Nina Berman’s “Marine Wedding.” Is that true?

WM: Absolutely. Because I can’t stand it.

JB: I’m not trying to put you on the spot here, but Nina was one of my first interview subjects. I saw that project at the tail end of the Whitney Biennial, and it moved me to push myself further as an artist. But since you said it so vociferously, why don’t you like that picture?

WM: (long pause.) I’m pretty well-spoken, and I can speak about photography well, but I have a hard time speaking on that one, because I can’t put my finger on why I don’t like it. One thing I wrote to her is that I do not feel like she took advantage of the people. That’s not what I feel.

I just don’t think it’s a good picture. I don’t like it as a portrait. And she argues that it’s not a portrait, it’s a picture of somebody having their portrait taken.

I’m just not compelled by it.

JB: So it’s not that you don’t like the emotions that it brings up in you?

WM: No. But clearly, it brings up an emotion that I can’t quite peg. But the reason why I can’t peg it is the reason why it’s in the show. Because it does spark a dialogue. One thing I told Nina, when she was here for the opening, she pulled me aside and asked me if I still felt the same way. I said, “Yeah, I still don’t like it.” And she said, “That makes me really sad.”

I said, “No, it shouldn’t. Any show, whether it’s War or Monet, if visitors like everything in it, the curators have done something wrong. They haven’t pushed boundaries.”

JB: Earlier, you talked about how important it was to you guys to do justice to the photographers, and the experience of War. I’m really curious at what point you started to consider the experience of the viewer, and what your hopes were for the impact of something this comprehensive on your audience?

WM: (long pause.) For me, it was a genre of photography that is seldom looked at. I would bring books back from Europe, and the festivals we would go to, and people would say, “How come I haven’t seen pictures like this before?”

JB: It’s not seen in the art context, for sure.

WM: It isn’t seen, period.

JB: Well, I’ve interviewed some of these War photographers, and they’re rock stars, within the world of photography. They sit at the top of the Pantheon for their bravery, and their seeming insanity, and their willingness to put their life on the line.

WM: That world is pretty small. And I don’t think people know that that world really exists. Your average everyday human. (pause.) Sorry, I forgot where I was going after that. Because you ask good questions.

JB: Thanks. You spent the better part of a decade of your life sifting through the darkest, nastiest corners of the human condition. We all know they’re there.

WM: I have always felt that people need to see this stuff. I agree with Ken Jarecke. (ed. note, in the exhibit, Mr. Jarecke has a photo of a burned up Iraqi soldier’s corpse.) There’s an amazing quote up that says, “If we’re big enough to fight in a War, we should be big enough to look at it.” I’ve never wanted to pull any punches about this. If you’re going to look at it, you should look at every part of it. Including things that make you uncomfortable. Like the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan.”

JB: I have it in my notes to ask you about that film. While I was walking through the exhibition, I kept thinking that it’s so quiet in here. Still photographs don’t have sound. I was mentally comparing it to what Spielberg did, which was so emotionally manipulative.

And just as I was taking that down in my notes, a police siren went by. My first thought was that it was part of the exhibition, but then I realized it was street noise.

WM: What is never a part of anything is smell. It’s the smell of War that nobody can comprehend, unless they’ve experienced it.

JB: When you’re using an inherently quiet medium to discuss an inherently overwhelming sensory experience…we’re standing in this huge room, and it’s so quiet. I wanted to know what you wanted the viewers to walk away with, or what you hoped they’d walk away with? I feel like you couldn’t have spent ten years, and then not had personal desires for that.

WM: There are two major groups that come to look at this work. The art world, and the military world. The military world, in general, just looks at pictures. And they want to know what type of tank it was, what the battle was like, and the insignia on the uniforms. They don’t have much interest in the idea that there was a photographer, or any idea of the craft that it took to make the picture.

Art people tend to want to make it have a bias. To make a statement. And they look at composition and mood, and put it in the context of history last. My hope was that the two groups would become aware of each other. And that the military people would be aware that the photographers are standing there, taking pictures as well. And vice versa.

But also that one is not more important than the other. They are absolutely symbiotic, and work together. I don’t think people in the past have looked at it in that context.

Every artist has been affected by War, in some way. Almost all of them have done pictures about it, in some way. One of the things I love about this show is that there’s a Robert Frank in it, and a Walker Evans. And a Diane Arbus. Most people don’t think of those as War pictures, but they are.

I’m interested in how War permeates into everything, whether you want it to or not. I was brought up, not Anti-War, but if I got a cap gun as a present, it quietly disappeared. Poof. It was gone. It was my Mom’s way of dealing with it.

And then, when I got to the ship, every stereotype I ever knew about War, and people who fight, was proven wrong. I took a step back, and gained a deep respect for it. Because I don’t understand War.

JB: That was one of the things that really struck me. I like to think big picture, so I spent a lot of time yesterday contemplating what I could take away from this. I don’t think I learned much about humanity that I didn’t already know. But it presents reality in a way that is impossible to ignore.

WM: We’ll go back a little bit. I think one reason why this is successful is that we never had an agenda. We wanted people to make their own conclusions, their own comparisons. People can look at every picture in here, but they’re only going to remember one hundred of them.

JB: If that.

WM: And for everyone it will be a different hundred. That’s what we wanted: people to be immersed in something that they hadn’t before. For them to be able to generate their own thoughts and conclusions about what’s happening. The end wall is kind of evidence of that, where people get to make their comments.

JB: I think you were extremely successful in that agenda. I looked very hard for a slant, and you’re not going to get one.

WM: You’re not going to find one.

JB: This show is about to move, no? It’s going to the Annenberg Center for Photography in LA, the Corcoran in DC, and then it finishes at the Brooklyn Museum.

WM: This is the only place where it’s going to be like this.

JB: I’m not going to push the “Everything’s bigger in Texas” narrative, but people won’t see this. They’ll see a condensed version of it?

WM: Right. We were able to build this space for it. One thing we are very pleased about, though, is that the catalogue exists, because it is even more complete than what is on view here in Houston. Because we’re an art museum, we have to have a physical piece to hang on the wall. There were a few occasions where we’d have something on the checklist for years, and when we requested it from the institution, they said no. So we have to find a substitute.

The catalogue, though, has every photo that we wanted to be in this exhibition, whether the loan was denied or not. There are four or five pictures in there that are reproduced as giant plates, but they’re not here. The catalogue is the most complete expression of the vision. At the Annenberg, they’re only going to have 150 pictures. That will be really whittled down.

JB: Where can people buy the catalogue? Amazon?

WM: I’m unsure at this time. I believe it’s sold out at Amazon and Yale, and that the only place you can get it right now is here at the museum’s bookstore. We’re working to get it re-printed. It’s been selling very well.

JB: There are a few contemporary photographs mixed in within everything else in the early rooms. There are pictures by An My Le and Luc Delahaye, both of which are really powerful surrounded by everything else. But then, in the last room of the exhibition, after a viewer’s brain is pretty well wasted, we see a group of contemporary art photographs exhibited only by themselves.

I don’t have much to criticize about this show, as it’s pretty fascinating. But I felt a little let down because, A. I didn’t really have the chance to give them their due, and B. they were less powerful by themselves than the earlier images that were interspersed. Why did you go that route?

WM: The difference is that with both the An My Le and the Luc Delahaye, that artist went to the front to take pictures, knowing that they were going to put them in an art context. The pictures in the last room are all done after-the-fact.

JB: You mentioned earlier that the exhibition is sequential, with Reconnaissance at the beginning, and the casualties at the end. So from a narrative structure, putting the art at the end was the choice to make?

WM: I had to initially argue to get the Remembrance section even considered. But we’re an art museum. To exclude a major genre in War photography would have been a travesty. I think people have a hard time going from documentary to interpretive art. They have a hard time making that transition.

But I think it’s a really, really, important genre in the idea of Art. I see no difference between this Luc Delahaye and the Walker Evans in the other room.

JB: There’s a good chance the artist (Delahaye) will be selling this picture of a dead Talibani soldier for five figures. $10,000? $20,000? Who’s to say?

WM: They were very expensive, in an edition of 3, and they were sold out immediately. We looked into purchasing it, but the edition was already sold out.

JB: From a standpoint of exploitation in art, this to me is a far more controversial picture than Nina Berman’s, and yet it’s given…

WM: It’s a better picture. Period.

JB: (pause.) It’s certainly compelling. I think it was the picture that elicited the strongest emotions in me. I hated it, pretty strongly, when I first saw it. I’ve learned that it’s best to take some space and then come back to something. Upon second viewing, I thought, I know this is an art photograph. And because it’s an art photograph…

WM: Why is it an art photograph to you?

JB: Why? The oversized scale. The use of what’s obviously a large format camera. The fact that I’ve heard his name as an artist. But I hadn’t seen his work before.

WM: A large format camera? The old Rosenthal is a 4×5.

JB: Sure, but even though this is an art museum, the journalistic images speak for themselves. Within the art world, we’ve been trained for the last 30 or 40 years, post Jeff-Wall, to question the veracity of a picture. So much staging, if you will. An informed art viewer is going to look at this photograph and say, “How do I know this is even real?” I can’t assume that this is a real, bearded, dead Afghan dude.

WM: I think it’s really a mistake to start pigeonholing the pictures like that. I’ve never done that. That is where people assume art has a bias.

JB: If I saw that in a gallery in Chelsea, I would have been forced to ask those questions. Context is key. I don’t think it’s a bias so much as a training.

WM: The bias has been trained.

JB: Why should I assume that he’s dead?

WM: Why should you assume that anybody in any of these pictures is dead? That’s my question. Why are you singling out that one picture to question it?

JB: Fair point. I’m not coming at this from a negative perspective. Anybody walking through here should be asking questions of themselves. I singled out a particular picture mostly because it was interspersed with everything else, as opposed to the art that was segregated. You gave a reasonable answer. Obviously, everything in this experience has been thought out and planned, and it shows. It’s a little sad that everybody who gets to see it in the other cities is not going to get this experience.

WM: I’m curious if you noticed, when you were going through the show by yourself, that the photograph next to it is of the same dead Taliban?

JB: No. Most definitely not.

WM: (laughing.) Luc Delahaye, (on the left) Seamus Murphy. (on the right.) They are two very different pictures.

JB: The second one that you’re alluding to is black and white, smaller, and has a more journalistic composition. (As opposed to deadpan.)

WM: It’s more about the landscape. Additionally, people who are used to looking at War pictures, when they look at the Delahaye, they look at it and assume it’s a pilfered body. He’s missing his shoes. His wallet has been pulled out, and is at the top of the frame. When a soldier falls on the battleground, one of the first things that gets taken is their shoes. They’re like gold. If they fit you, and his shoes are better than yours, you swap them out. So that’s what it implies in this picture.

In reality, he was shot while praying. And his shoes are still there. They’ve never been stolen. So they’re two very different pictures. This one (Delahaye) does reference painting, and the other references journalism.

JB: And you don’t have a problem with the degree to which this death was commodified as art?

WM: Absolutely not. What matters to me is that the photographer was there, and took the picture. As far as I’m concerned, he’s taking it for an audience that would normally not look at a picture like that. So he is doing journalism a favor by forcing the Art World to look at these pictures.

JB: Great answer. Some of the most successful photos for me, the ones that resonate in my brain, have a power and an ambiguity, outside of the caption. Like the dead arm jutting up through the grave dirt. Pancho Villa had someone assassinated, and they weren’t dead enough, so they tried to climb out.

Some of the pictures don’t need a caption. Were there photographers that you thought were so successful that they elevated above the rest of the meta-narrative?

WM: What was really great about the project is that we looked at all of the images without names in front of us. We just looked at them in terms of categories. Those mini-exhibitions, as I called them earlier. Pretty late in the project, both Ann and I separately panicked. Because we hadn’t looked how many Capa’s were in it, and such. We didn’t know how our weight was. So we shook the project, and everything percolated up to the top. The great photographers had the most in it. The most is Roger Fenton.

JB: The Roger Fenton photos were from 1855, and throughout the show, I thought they were consistently genius.

WM: He’s one of my favorites. He’s a brilliant, brilliant photographer.

JB: That was a broad question, but I came up with the same answer in my viewing experience. His great-grand kids have got to be dead by now, but let’s give him a collective shout out. The dude was massively talented.

Another surprise, given the World War II focus, was how little we see of Hitler. The ultimate “bad guy.” Because every good War story has to have a great bad guy.

Who did you think was the biggest monster in the show? There were a few that I’d take a free shot at, if I had one.

WM: I don’t know what you mean by your question?

JB: You know, straight up “bad guys.” You don’t see a lot of that in the exhibition, given the measured tone. People who when you look at the photograph, they elicit hate and anger. Like that Serbian soldier kicking the corpse he just killed. But I don’t want to give away my top choice.

WM: Laurent Nkunda. (by Cedric Gerbehaye, from the Congo.)

JB: Yeah, he was the Number 1 a-hole. He reminded me of Marlo Stanfield from “The Wire.”

WM: He’s a cocky, arrogant, evil man. That’s what he is.

This Week In Photography Books – Hans-Peter Feldmann

by Jonathan Blaustein

Yesterday was a good day. I paid a visit to the high school in Taos where I used to teach. I’m working with a couple of my former students, helping them participate in the New York Times Lens Blog project that solicits visions of 21st Century America, seen through the eyes of high school photo students. It’s open to all who meet those rather broad qualifications, so be sure to spread the word. Needless to say, the kids’ excitement was infectious.

In addition, for the first time in my career, a museum curator offered me prime exhibition space, with the opportunity to do whatever I want. Immediately, I mentioned that I have a finished project, framed, and ready to go. “We can slap it right onto the wall,” I said. That’s right, my first thought was to go the easiest, cheapest route. I even referred to the artwork as “inventory.” How creative.

Her face fell. It was subtle, but I noticed. Her eyes lost a shade of their sparkling blue luster. “We could do that…” she said, her voice trailing off at the end. “Really, though, you should take some time to think about it.” She went on to explain that this was my chance to pull off my dream exhibition, the coolest thing I could come up with. Open your mind, she implied.

It’s harder than it sounds. As a nearly 39 year old artist, you’d think I’d have had a better vision of what said dream installation might be. Instead, I first reverted to the safety of what I already knew. It’s scary to contemplate that one’s ideas might not be as grand as previously imagined.

Fortunately, the final good thing that happened yesterday snuck up on me like a black-clad ninja in pink, padded socks. I reached into my book pile, and came up with an innocuous looking hard cover book called “Katalog/Catalogue.” It didn’t seem remarkable in any way, and then I looked at the artist’s name: Hans-Peter Feldmann.

Given that there are probably five people in the world who’ve read all of my APE articles, (including Rob, my Dad, and me,) I’ll give you a quick refresher. Back in 2011, I wrote a short piece about an upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, by the aforementioned artist. He had won the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, and, for the accompanying show, had chosen to exhibit the actual money, in the form of 100,000 one dollar bills. It was the epitome of a clever, conceptual hook, and I was sad not to see the results in person. (We get some installation shots in the book, thankfully.)

On the heels of my compare/contrast series looking at the way photography is exhibited in Art versus Photo World contexts, the timing couldn’t have been better. Now we get to revisit the classic “artist who uses a camera” versus “photographer” argument. Or maybe not.

I’ve learned that “conceptual” can be a bad word in the Photo World. Just last month, I was encouraged by a museum director not to even breath the term, if I wanted to have my work considered by the institution. Many times now, I’ve heard people confidently state that they don’t like any “conceptual” work at all. No matter what.

Why is that? I’d speculate that “conceptual” is code for the type of off-putting, intellectually narcissistic clap-trap that people see in Art Fairs run by condescending gallerinas who relish the opportunity to ignore. The exclusivity of the Art World makes almost everyone feel like a peon, and work that smacks of the “Art” vibe can bear the brunt of the understandable resentment. Especially as so many “concepts” described in art-speaky press releases are nowhere to be found in the objects themselves.

Which is why this book was so timely for me to see yesterday, and why I’m thrilled to share it with you today. I’ve written a lot lately about stereotypes, and this is one more to break. Yes, there’s a lot of crappy, pretentious Art out there. Just as there are millions upon millions of photographs that lack any imagination whatsoever. (You know it’s true.)

But occasionally, far too rarely, we get a glimpse into the mind of someone who is doing it for the right reasons. Someone who has figured out how to unshackle his/her creativity, and mine the brain for all sorts of crazy, witty and poignant material. This book provides just such an opportunity.

It was produced in conjunction Koenig Books, and the Serpentine Gallery in London, a public space that sits atop the Art World hierarchy. We can all bitch about the Gagosians of the world, and the dominance of hedge fund/petro dollars, but not today. Serpentine is open to the public seven days a week, and free. Its Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, Hans Ulrich Obrist, is among the most respected curators in the world.

There was an exhibition of Mr. Feldmann’s work there last year, and the book project reflects the survey nature of such a show, and the irreverence of the artist’s canon. It also contains some fascinating interviews with the artist, one conducted by Mr. Obrist, in which one’s depleted fount of idealism can easily be restored. Terrific, thoughtful stuff.

Mr. Feldmann has worked directly with photography for years, in a variety of ways. Some projects track small changes and movements over time: a woman opening the shutters of a window, a barge floating along a river, a seagull coasting through the sky. There are many other series included, like “Views from hotel room windows,” “All the clothes of a woman,” and “Car radios while good music is playing.” Some will find them witty and original, others dry and typological, I suppose. More random still, we see pictures of the contents of women’s handbags that the artist purchased, sight unseen. Or the photograph of Walker Evans’ bathroom sink, unchanged after his death.

There are paintings and sculptures, readymades, and appropriated imagery. One favorite was the series of old paintings that the artist purchased, and then altered, adding clown noses to stuffy portraits, or overpainting people with crossed eyes. We learn that he took ten years off from exhibiting his work, to get a break from the Art scene, and also ran a business selling thimbles. Yes, you read that correctly. Thimbles. There is more craziness than I can describe, so I’ll stop.

I spent another half hour with the book just this morning, and look forward to taking it for another spin. Already, I have some cool ideas for what to do with my blank-canvas-museum space. Even better, I’m no longer afraid to sit with the uncertainty. Opening one’s mind can be difficult work, indeed.

If you read this column each week, you’ll know that I often vacillate between being entertaining and preachy. Sometimes, I even do both in the same week. But I hope the photographers out there will accept the following advice in the spirit in which it’s intended: pick up a paint brush, a piece of charcoal, a video camera, a chisel, a pen, or a computer. If you try to do new things with your creativity, things that are certain to result in failure at first, you will get better at everything else that you do.

Bottom Line: A primer in creativity, taught by a Master

To purchase “Katalog/Catalogue” 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.

 

Texas Roundup Part 4: “The Progress of Love” at the Menil Collection

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The day after my three hour “War/Photography” marathon, I paid a visit to the Menil Collection. It’s located on a beautiful little side street with grandiose trees and well-kept sidewalks. Tow-headed little Texan kids frolic on large public sculptures jutting up out of the grass-covered park next door. It was downright serene.

The Menil is an outpost on the global Art trail, like Marfa, so far to the West. (Or the Rothko Chapel 100 yards up the street.) Flip-flop free, the Menil attracts scarf-wearing bohemians, bespectacled intellectuals, and super-skinny hot chicks. I’ve been twice now, and noted both demographics each time. (So it must be true.)

Surprisingly, the Menil is free of charge. While it draws an elitist crowd, used to paying significant sums for the pleasure of viewing high art, it is open to all. In a perfect world, this would mean that everyone would know and go, but that’s not how it works.

There was a temporary exhibition on display, “The Progress of Love,” organized by the Center for Contemporary Art, Lagos. (And the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. Odd mix, no?) The show featured work from and about Africa, and in true Art World fashion, mixed up all the different media together. Glaring neon sculptures sat beside paintings on cell-phone bills, installations on the ground, and gelatin silver prints on the wall.

It always comes back to context, no? Photography is typically ghettoized by itself, or occasionally seen as one form of expression among many. (Really, why have we grown so accustomed to our medium sequestered from the rest?) Personally, I enjoy looking at photographs in such environs.

Just outside the gallery, one confronts a giant Valentine’s style heart on a wall, made up of pairs of custom glass night-sticks. Upon first glance, they look like nun-chucks, but are really ceremonial police skull crushers. The heart and the fist. Sex and violence. Love and power. Get it?

There was a large contingent of photography on display, and all of it good to excellent. Early on, Kelechi Amadi Obi had two color light box pieces, each showing a female warrior Queen, on horseback, rocking a big sword. (Like Jeff Wall does the Arabian nights.) The Queen was in the company of men, a hard-scrabble bunch, but seemed to rule naturally. I was hoping it was created by a female artist, but alas…

On the two walls on either side, Lyle Ashton Harris was showing pictures from the “Jamestown Prison Erasure series.” We see colorful cell walls from inside thickly buttressed prisons. Decals were depicted, Jesus, of course, but also fancy cars. Then the same walls showed the discolored phantom where the decals once stood. Existence/non-existence. Life/death. Freedom of the imagination/the oppression of incarceration.

Contemplating severity, I looked up and saw a bright yellow Volkswagen bus. Not a model; the real thing. Life-size and shiny, by Emeka Ogboh, it was commissioned for the exhibition. The vehicle had stickers on the back, with sayings like “No Money, No Friend,” “I am afraid of my friends, even you,” and “No food for lazy man.” There was also a sticker for Arsenal Football Club, based in North London, where I’ll be next week. (Assuming they let me in the country, notorious as I am.)

The door to the van was open, and there were headphones on one of the seats. There were no signs to explain whether the piece was interactive, so I slowly reached my hands out, waiting to see if a guard would jump me. (I felt like a kid playing “Operation” for the first time, hoping I wouldn’t get tased.) I placed the headphones over my ears, and heard an African man dictating a personal ad to a sexy, high-class sounding British lady. I got bored after a minute or two, and moved on.

There were many other photographs on display, most dealing with varying takes on sexuality and desire. One diptych featured a transvestite, rocking the makeup in one photo, his face stripped stripped bare in another, by Zanele Muboli. In one photo, he stood just beyond a field of tall grass, his legs scraped up. In the other, he stepped out onto a roof-deck, waiting to party, or perhaps model for a photo shoot?

In the next room we see a naked man, on a bed, looking back at the camera, teasing with sexual ambiguity, by Samuel Fosso. I thought about how hard it must be to be gay in a continent in which some countries deal with it so harshly. (I mean you, Uganda.)

That room had music piped in, a repetitive refrain, “It’s a thin line between love and hate.” As many of the photographs included people in bars and nightclubs, and the theme was Love, it fit. If I were a museum guard working in that space all day, though, I’m sure I’d want to kill somebody. (Again, with the sex and violence. We’re hardwired to pay attention to both, said some guy on NPR the other day. And NPR is never wrong.)

Walking back towards the Volkswagen, I realized there was traffic and street noise blaring in that room too. I hadn’t heard it on my first time through, as I was too busy concentrating on the work on display. And, I suppose it didn’t surprise me in the least. Much as I wondered why there weren’t other sensory experiences in the “War/Photography show,” in a place like this, it took me some time to even notice.

This show, like exhibit at MFA,H, was absolutely worth a visit. When I mentioned it to my Photo World buddies around town, none had even heard of it. And most told me they hadn’t been to the Menil in ages. No surprise.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Art World experience is superior. It sticks to its non-traditional tropes as cleanly as the Photo World loves its traditionalism. Neither is better or worse. Just different. But as one who walks in both worlds, and never feels perfectly comfortable in either, I do wonder how much we’d all benefit if more people dipped their toes in unfamiliar waters.

This Week In Photography Books – Pieter Hugo

by Jonathan Blaustein

Hello, Controversy. Como estas? We haven’t had a chance to catch up lately. How have you been? Keeping busy, I’m sure.

I’m well, thanks. I made it to Texas and back without getting hassled by the fuzz. It hasn’t been as cold here recently, so I don’t have anything to complain about. I’ve been trying to push the envelope as a writer, but some weeks I just don’t have it in me.

But what about you? I was thinking it might be fun to invite you into the column again this week. Sometimes, it’s tricky to predict your next visit. Like that RJ Shaughnessy dustup. Who knew people would get so worked up because I kinda-liked a book about pretty LA teenagers self-published by a commercial photographer?

Other times, though, it’s not hard to guess. Take Pieter Hugo, for instance. That guy courts you like a horny hedge funder sniffing around an ovulating supermodel. You and Mr. Hugo have dinner together every week, right?

Yes, Pieter Hugo is guaranteed to get people talking. But so is the idea of plagiarism. (Or copying.) Do people actually do that? Ideas are in the air, and everyone’s afraid of getting ripped off. Personally, I’ve never had the stones to ask that guy who did “The Poverty Line” if he saw my work before making his. Too unseemly. What? I just called him out? Shit.

But what about Mr. Hugo? Let’s deflect it back. His new book, “There’s A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” is compelling and taut, like everything he does. Super-well-made. It consists of photographs of his friends, made in color and then converted in the computer. He manipulated the channels to make the portraits reflect the damage done to skin by UV rays.

Which is almost exactly the same project done by Cara Phillips a few years back. (To be clear, she used actual UV photography, and he digitally altered. She photographed with eyes closed; he with eyes open.) What happened here? Who made the work first? Did he know of her project? (Or she of his?) If so, did he decide to proceed because it was his right to make whatever he wants to make?

Or is this just another instance of two people having a similar idea around the same time, and then coming to market separately? I’ve seen it before. At Review Santa Fe in ’09, Emily Shur showed me photos of cell phone towers masquerading as trees. The next month, I saw the same idea, done by a German photographer, published in Aperture. Did she abandon the project, knowing she was beat to the punch? I don’t know.

But the book, you say? Well, Controversy, it’s a good one. Super sharp, weird portraits. This guy is a pro, and really knows how to make a picture. The images definitely reference old school photography, like new school wet-plate-collodion. (That filter has to exist somewhere, right?) And some of the subjects’ eyes are totally possessed, referencing back to his Nollywood pictures. The dirty-ish faces also make me think of miners, which in South Africa is an apt reference.

But what about the Elephant in the room? Since these were photographed in Africa, ought we not mention the unmentionable? Mr. Hugo, as you know best, Controversy, is often lambasted for being a white guy who photographs black people, sometimes in unflattering ways. So I can’t omit the fact that in some of these pictures, it appears as if he’s painted his friends in blackface. (If I didn’t say it, someone else would have.)

Of course, I like this book. And I like the pictures. They’re raw and experimental and powerful. Did he cop the idea off of someone else? I don’t know. Am I accusing him? Definitely not.

But in the Internet age, it’s easier to steal or be influenced by ideas than ever before. We’re all inundated all the time. It’s often hard to know when you saw something, forgot it, and then it popped back up in your head later on. Nobody remembers every page they breezed through, or every status update they liked.

Take my Texas Roundup article series, for example. Did I steal the name from that recent photo event, the Texas Photo Roundup? Of course not. Had I ever visited their website? Yeah, a few months ago. Did I remember it when I came up with the name? No. Do I feel bad about it? A little. My apologies.

Bottom Line: Terrific photographs of a project you might have seen before

To Purchase “There’s A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends” 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.

 

Texas Roundup Part 3: “War/Photography” at MFA,H

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The “War/Photography” exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston lured me into town. When I heard that Anne Tucker, the long-time chief curator and power broker, had spent the better part of ten years on the project, I figured that was enough of a reason to head Southeast. (On Southwest, ironically.) Political capital is scarce in this world, and I figured if she’d gone all in, the result would be worth my time. And it was.

As I entered the spacious gallery on a breezy Tuesday afternoon, my attention was pulled from the exhibition map by a strange clomp, clomp, clomping sound. I looked up, and saw a scruffy, messy college kid in a ratty t-shirt and gym-shorts. His flip-flops were slapping the ground like an obnoxious metronome. Rarely have I seen someone dressed like that in a fancy museum, but rarely have I been in Texas.

The show was daunting and grand, with galleries off-shooting a main hall, like capillaries stemming off a blood-filled artery. Pump, pump, pump. It took forever to make it out of the first big room, dominated by historical and contemporary journalism, and a multi-image panel of the second plane striking a Twin Tower, by Robert Clark. He got to the roof of his apartment building just in time, after seeing the first crash on television.

Other highlights: Roger Fenton’s horse drawn photo van from the Crimean War in 1855, and Ashley Gilbertson’s photo of a soldier watching George Bush’s apology for Abu Ghraib on TV. When I finally looked down said hall, it seemed to be 100 yards long, like a football field in a Texas High School stadium. (Side note: I once flew into Dallas and saw two full-sized High School stadiums on opposite sides of the same street. Different school districts.)

Calculating the distance, my spirit was crushed. So much violence, so little time. Three hours, all told, I spent in the custom-built-hanger space, filled with almost five hundred photographs that presented as categorical a photographic depiction of War as has likely ever been assembled. In the end, the nice Vietnamese guards insisted I had to leave, as the museum was closing. (Actually, they subtly suggested it, and as I didn’t get the hint, they got a bossy colleague to shoo me out the door.)

In the span of those hours, I slowly looked and contemplated. Death and destruction, bombs and ships, planes and slingshots, guns and swords, frightened boys and casualties of War. I thought of all the fat cats that designed these conflicts, plucking hicks from the sticks to use as cannon fodder to advance their greedy ambitions. There were decomposing corpses, burned-off faces, miserable rape victims, and even the goofy Diane Arbus dude in the silly straw hat. Ultimately, it was a joy to witness such sorrow, if that makes sense.

The show clearly lacked an agenda. No obvious “War Should Be Abolished” message here. If anything, it made me grateful to be an American, as we haven’t had to live with the horrific repercussions of grinding conventional War on our shores since the 19th Century. (Excepting Pearl Harbor, I suppose.) Too many others have.

As I crossed the threshold into the first side-gallery, I found myself lamenting the absolute silence in the room. War is the messiest, most sensory overloaded phenomenon humans have created. (See our previously published Ben Lowy interview for confirmation.) The show was so traditional in construction, created to highlight photos and wall text. I craved something to break it up.

No sooner had the thought popped into my head than sirens wailed about the room. Ah, piped in sound, I thought. Now we’re getting somewhere. Then I realized it was just an ambulance going by on the street below; a happy accident. In a more Art World context, (as opposed to Photo-World,) I noted, such things would be built into the experience. Not better or worse, just different. (Co-incidentally, a subsequent visit to the Menil Collection provided the perfect Art World counterpart. I’ll tell you about that one next week.)

As I walked in and out of galleries, back and forth, I appreciated that they were well-attended. People looked like average citizens, out and about, educating themselves. Suddenly, I heard the clomp clomp clomp again, and saw the kid who entered with me. I was impressed, as we’d been there an hour and forty-five minutes by then. I couldn’t help but query him, and learned he was a photography student, an intern at HCP, and was biding his time because he couldn’t afford see the show twice. (There was a surcharge on top of regular admission.)

When I asked him what impact the show was having on him, he grew silent, contemplative. I waited for him to deliver a reply, until I realized it wasn’t forthcoming. He just didn’t know. So I let him off the hook, politely. After all, he didn’t turn up expecting to be interviewed by a pushy fake-journalist with a bushy goatee.

I’ll spare you too many more details, because I was fortunate to interview one of the co-curators, Will Michels, and we’ll bring you that piece shortly. (Natalie Zelt was the third curator behind the project.) Will delved into the specifics of the decade-long process, so I’d rather not repeat. But one point I found incredibly salient was that the show was designed with two audiences in mind: museum goers, and Military viewers. (This being Texas, and not the coasts.)

That’s why it seemed to lack a typical liberal agenda. Personally, I don’t know anyone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s easy to demonize the evils of war, lacking intimate knowledge of the experience. What do I know about the pride of proper execution, a job well done? Like it or not, violence is embedded into our human operating system, and wishing it away comes to naught.

The show closed in the beginning of February, so this review comes to late for you to check it out. Thankfully, a condensed version of exhibition travels to the Annenberg Center in LA, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC, and the Brooklyn Museum as well. If you can, go see it. It’s worth the investment of time, money and precious brain space. You’ll probably feel bad for a while, but in a good kind of way.

This Week In Photography Books – Viviane Sassen

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m addicted to Project Runway. There, I said it. Since the beginning, I’ve been beguiled by the tangential relation to the fashion world. So close, and yet so far.

To make matters worse, a few years ago, my wife began subscribing to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Which means I can now recognize Michael Kors style from Burberry. And as to the models? It’s pathetic that I can name drop Karlie Kloss, Lara Stone, Karmen Pedaru, and more. My good friend Melanie mocked when I correctly recognized Karen Elson in a photo she shared on FB.

The industry may be leagues away from my little horse pasture, but the fantasy and feast of consumerism still make sense. This is America, after all. Selling fancy clothes is not that much different than selling beer. Like everything else, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Lately, the worlds of art and fashion seem closer than ever before. Exhibitions laud both, and the upper class consumers that buy one luxury good often buy the other. What has that got to do with us?

Well, I just had a look at Viviane Sassen’s new book “Roxane.” (It took me three glances to realize it was spelled non-traditionally. Thereby depriving me of any jokes about putting on the Red Light.)

The book is cool, no doubt. And it doesn’t really make any sense, in a narrative sort of way. Which is not a problem to me. It just adds to the off-putting vibe that so many fashion mags court anyway. Feel bad about yourself for being too fat or poor, and then buy this Hermes scarf to feel better. (Ah, capitalism.)

The awkward poses are straight off the runway, as are the clothes and the strange-but-hot heroine. Throw in the natural landscape locations, and the obligatory Paris reference, and you’re good to go. Sarcasm aside, though, I do like the photographs very much.
The poses are sculptural, and the mood is almost surreal.

Ms. Sassen is in demand these days, from MoMA to the fashion houses. And the last-page-thank-you notes, which name drop Celine, Nina Ricci, Maison Martin Margiela and a few others, leave no doubt about that. No Marchesa, though. Pity. A few pictures of Georgina Chapman would have definitely put the book over the top.

Bottom Line: Fashiony photos of fashion as art

To Purchase Roxane 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.

 

Texas Roundup Part 2: Kate Breakey at the Wittliff Collections

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Everybody loves a good idea. The best are often simple and elegant. What if we could build a machine to let people fly like birds? What if people could fit their entire music library in the palm of their hand? What if we could all share tiny bits of information, for free, with anyone, anytime, anywhere in the world?

Good ideas would not exist without their counterparts: bad ones. The worst are often genius, in a bad is good kind of way. (i.e., the mullet.) Most often, though, they’re just plain bad. For a while, my favorite bad idea occurred when I was hired to photograph the bloody slaughter of some local New Mexican cows. My client was a restaurant that wanted to use the snuff pictures to market hamburgers and steaks. Not surprisingly, they are now out of business.

As high as that one might rank, though, while driving from Houston to San Marcos, Texas the other week, I witnessed the granddaddy of all horrible ideas. El numero uno. El jefe. The boss.

I was headed NW on Highway 80, between the little town of Luling, and San Marcos. En route to the Texas State campus, I was excited to see Kate Breakey’s new exhibition, Las Sombras/The Shadows, at the Wittliff Collections.

While carefully minding the speed limit, as I was reminded many times that Texas cops are best avoided, there it was, just off the road to the East. I saw the wrecked plane before anything else. Like the car crashes I mentioned in last week’s column, plane crashes, while less frequently seen by the side of the highway, are equally riveting.

The plane had a crumpled nose, mushed into the dead grass. (Well, sir, you have my attention.) Next, I saw the sign next to it… for skydiving lessons. The hanger loomed in the background, like a kid at a soccer game, ashamed of his dad for berating the ref. Shall I summarize? A company that sells sky-diving lessons thought it wise to advertise said services with a plane crash. I have to nominate this as the worst idea of all time. Anyone care to disagree?

Without bad ideas, though, there would be no such things as good ones. (Yin, yang, etc.) And Kate Breakey’s exhibit was the perfect antidote to the ridiculous wreckage. Should you live anywhere in Texas, or plan to visit Houston, San Antonio, or Austin before July 7th, I’d recommend that you drive to San Marcos to check out the show.

I’d seen an installation of Ms. Breakey’s work at the excellent Etherton Gallery in Tucson back in 2010. I was intrigued. The taste whetted my appetite, and was the impetus for my 3 hour trek through Texas.

Speaking of appetite, I was fortunate to stop at Luling City Market for some of the best Texas barbecue on Earth. It’s so good, when I pulled up outside the joint, a fat man jumped out of a still-moving mini-van next to me, so excited was he to stuff his face. The sealed smokehouse in the back of the restaurant offered some seriously brilliant meat. Cows and pigs, which I rarely eat, called out to my rumbling innards, and insisted they make their way inside my belly. Mission accomplished. (What would a Texas series be w/o at least one George W. reference?)

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve always been fascinated by the dichotomy between animals and meat. Alive, they’re animals. Living creatures. Sentient beings. They moo and oink and quack and baa. Dead, they’re food. We don’t call them animals anymore. But if you don’t want to eat them, or kill them, or sell them, there are yet other ways to enjoy a good carcass.

A few years ago, Ms. Breakey got the great idea to pick roadkill and other dead things up off the ground, and turn them into art via the simple, direct process of a photogram. (Talk about preservation technique.) The resulting images do justice to the realities of nature: death is the inevitable conclusion to the cycle of life. And it also perpetuates the food chain, in each and every ecosystem. Bug eats grass, lizard eats bug, bird eats lizard, bobcat eats bird.

There are over two hundred images on display, in different sizes and random vintage frames. Save mountain lions, wolves, bears and humans, the biggest predators around, we see as categorical a display as I can imagine of life and death in the mythical American West. Snakes and birds and mice and rats and frogs and javelinas and foxes and leaves and everything in between. (Including the ominous vultures, which were everywhere in Texas.)

The exhibition map gives all the specific names, but dead, in shadow and repose, there is no way to tell the difference between a yellow-billed cuckoo and a black-throated sparrow. They all just look beautiful, and a little bit horrible as well. The basic human fascinations with collecting, categorizing, preserving, memorializing, and fetishizing are all interwoven.

Some animals repeat, but I was told no two prints are alike. The vultures are huge, as are the coyotes, but the bald eagle is the picture guaranteed to grab your attention. (Like a crashed plane by the side of the road. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) Apparently, the eagle photo was the most difficult to obtain, as bald eagles rarely drop dead in front of roaming photographers. But strings were pulled, and there you go.

The group of photographs, which I enjoyed in a large, empty gallery, with the subtle sounds of the air conditioning unit in the background, is absolutely fantastic. As a resident of the Southwest, I can attest that the fascination of living in the midst a raw and dangerous natural world is real. If you bump into the wrong creature on the wrong day, you might just end up dead yourself. But the ability to communicate those feelings via art is extremely difficult.

I’d heartily suggest that those of you who can see the show do. There are a few parking spaces reserved for visitors to the Wittliff Collections, in a parking structure under the college library. Kids on skateboards will whizz by you, daring you to hit them with your tiny rental car. (I came so close.) The gallery is on the seventh floor of the library building, and the entry way welcomes you with classic Southwestern decor, including a Saltillo tile floor.

One installation in said entryway was a particular favorite. An eagle, a snake, and a cactus were brought together again. Otherwise known as the sign that led some bloodthirsty Aztecs to found Tenochtitlan so many years ago. (Now Mexico City.) Of course, this wouldn’t be a good story if I hadn’t seen an eagle with a snake in its mouth fly over my shrimpy rental car on the way out of town. Is this true? Do you have to ask?

Texas Roundup, Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last week, I wrote a column that tried to tell it like it is. The world we inhabit, one that revolves around photography, is painfully un-diverse. Here in the United States, those in the profession are very, very likely to only interact with others of a similar background. (And skin color, sadly.)

While I left room for the exceptions, the fact that there seem to be so few is troubling. How do we change this? Whether it’s people complaining about all-white competition-jurys, all-male Superbowl commercials, or writers like me scrambling to review books by women and minorities, the numbers are obviously skewed. What to do?

The only answer I’ve been able to glean is to do some boots-on-the-ground style outreach. As I’ve said before, I spent seven years teaching photography to at-risk minority youth. I’ve done the work, and seen how easily art concepts can become embedded in young minds of any color or gender.

Another tried-and-true methodology is to honestly examine one’s own biases, and then try to challenge them. Most of us have a hard time admitting to negative preferences or stereotypes. Not a pleasant conversation to have with oneself.

Looking inward, I had to admit I was biased against Texans. (Here in New Mexico, it’s a state passion.) As I mentioned in a column a month or so ago, after years of seeing Texan plates on personal Tour Buses towing Hummers, it was easy to get angry. Throw in the bluster and big belt-buckles, and I can honestly say I was proud of the hate.

Whether geographically, racially, or gender-based, it’s not OK to dislike people en masse. (Obviously.) So I was thrilled to spend a little time in Houston last year, and realize that my pre-conceptions were off. I didn’t hate Texans, just the folks in the Dallas to Amarillo corridor. And even in Texas, that seems to be an established sentiment. (Yes, I am now mostly joking.)

As much as I enjoyed last year’s taste of Texas toast, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to re-visit H-town last week. I even planned a little road trip up to Central Texas for a quick visit to über-hip Austin. (Did I listen to some country music along the way? You bet I did. KNRG, the Renegade, is all Texas music, all the time. The first three songs I heard were all anti-urban. (Including a hysterical mockery of the aforemetioned Dallas.))

To be clear, this article is but an introduction to a series, like we did with San Francisco late last year. (How’s that for polar opposites?) I saw some fantastic art exhibitions, met with some intelligent, friendly and unpretentious art professionals, and ate some truly amazing food. Basically, I had a great time. From Texas hater to convert in 10 short months.

Before I leave you, though, I want to share one of my thin-sliced-stereotypical observations. I can’t take advantage of it myself, being chained by mortgage and blood to this extraordinary piece of rural paradise I call home. But some of you can. So here it goes.

Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States. The three cities above it, NYC, LA, and Chicago, are famously expensive. Houston is not. They are also known for exclusivity, and make it difficult to break into established networks, lacking the proper school connections and/or friend lists. Houston is extremely open and accessible, from what I’ve seen. (And the FotoFest Biennial provides entry to all comers.)

Beyond that, Houston has the kind of financial and cultural resources that exist in very few places in the world. Its economy is booming, and ought to continue to grow, as the energy sector is unlikely to wither. The port, connected to the city via the shipping channel, is also thriving. (And global trade is not going away any time soon.) The unemployment rate is below 6%, and the median income is over $70,000 per year. (Thank you for the statistics, Houston Public Radio.) Essentially, the place is leaking money.

The city is vast and diverse, with massive immigrant and minority communities, including Vietnamese, African-American, and Latino. It’s like a Texan Los Angeles in scope, minus the mountains and oceans. (Of attitude.) It’s the perfect place to encounter those from backgrounds different than yours: a city where biases go to die.

I noticed vacant commercial real estate everywhere; storefronts just waiting to be turned into artist-run galleries or commercial photo studios. I also spoke with an artist/curator who produces art shows for those downtown mega-corporate-skyscrapers that I mentioned in last year’s article. While state funding for the arts has been cut, (it is still Texas,) the public-private combination seems to offer insane amounts of cash and opportunities for the local community.

In the parlance of economics, Houston is an undervalued resource: a city just waiting for a fresh round of hipster-style-gentrification. And if you doubt me, you can trust Forbes magazine, which listed Houston as the coolest city in America in 2011. I’m not sure what their criteria was, and it’s likely to be very different from mine. (As Forbes itself is actually uncool.) But you can bet there will be a proverbial gold rush of 20-something energy-sector/hedge-fund yuppies who’ll rush down there due to Forbes’ blessing.

Who are they to you? Will they be your new friends, if you move to H-town? Probably not. Would you find them “cool,” in their khakis and button down polo shirts? It’s unlikely. (Again with the stereotyping.) But might they make up the bulk of your collector base, or client base, for decades to come? Now you’re getting the picture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Week In Photography Books – Rikard Laving

by Jonathan Blaustein

We’re all middle class, aren’t we? We, the creative class, were reared to have options. Here in America, at least, if you’re reading this, you’re probably white, and you likely grew up comfortable. (If you were upper class, you’d be reading Frieze, and planning to jet off to Dubai to take some sun.)

In case you’re wondering, I am aware that one of these days my penchant for stereotyping might just get me into trouble. But until then, I will endeavor to keep it real. If you grew up with enough education to become a photographer, or an editor, or an art buyer, it’s unlikely that you come from a dirt poor rural spot of nothing, or a gritty inner-city ghetto.

I believe our respective middle-ness is a big driver for the need many photographers have to visit emerging nations to document poverty. (And violence. And misery.) The obsession with “The Other” is well-worn. On the flip side, our mission to share truth and reality with the wider world, through our respective media outlets, often comes from noble roots.

Seriously, how many of you have a colleague who rose up from nothing to become an artist? Or a journalist? Of course it’s possible, but I’d suggest that for those with little or nothing, the desperate need to ensure survival supersedes the desire to make pretty, or important pictures. Given how much I believe in the power of Art, would that it were different. But class matters, as does one’s home turf.

I got to thinking about this, having just put down “Steel Work City,” a new book by Rikard Laving. (Journal) If bleak beauty is your thing, this is one to buy. If you love a peek into how the other half lives, those who toil thanklessly in dirty industry to make the cash to buy food, pay for gas, and perhaps have time to fish a bit on the weekends, then this one is for you as well.

The slim volume opens with a lovely poem by Mattias Alkberg, in Swedish, and then English. To be fair, you don’t know it takes place in Sweden until the end notes. The initial viewing provides a generic, cold, Scandinavian experience. Sitting here in New Mexico, it could have been Finland, Norway, or Denmark for all I knew. (It’s funny that some neighboring countries have internecine rivalries, but all look the same from the other side of the planet.)

But Sweden it is. The narrative is based at the Swedish Steel AB compound in Oxelösund, and the surrounding areas. (It employs 54% of the local population.) Lots of billowing smoke, modernist institutional architecture, and gray light. In the wrong hands, the material could easily be bland and banal. Instead, I was hooked.

This book is a great example, (as was last week’s,) of what happens when everything comes together. The production quality, the text, the graphic design, the use of suspense. (Where is this? What’s going on?) I loved that each image was allowed to breathe on the page, and that the titles gave me the info I needed just below.

The subtle color shifts communicate cold, and even boredom. The school children pictures truly surprise, as we see that diversity has hit this sleepy little area. It’s not just a bunch of little Aryan kids. Who knew?

I’ll readily admit that bleak beauty doesn’t do it for everyone. Some folks prefer otters and ocelots. Cacti and chameleons. Boobs and bikinis. Why not?

But I love the experience of opening up a photo-book, and being reminded how lucky I was to be born with options, in spitting distance of the most powerful city in the World. (Here’s your shout-out, NYC. Enjoy the mantle while you’ve still got it.) It’s a big part of why I worked so hard for seven years to share the power of Art with kids less fortunate than I was. The other reason, unsurprisingly, was that the bills needed paying. I’m a working stiff too. Thankfully, though, my fingernails are clean, and my hands are as soft as a baby’s belly.

Bottom Line: Lyrical, bleak life in a Swedish Steel town

To Purchase “Steel Work City” 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.

 

Jennifer Shaw Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jennifer Shaw is a fine art photographer based in New Orleans. Her project Hurricane Story was published in 2011 by Chin Music Press. She is represented by Guthrie Contemporary in New Orleans, and by Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta. Ms. Shaw also teaches photography, and is the director of the photoNOLA festival.

Jonathan Blaustein: Did you ever watch the Jetsons when you were a kid?

Jennifer Shaw: Uh-huh.

JB: When you were watching people talking to each other on screens, did you ever think it would happen in your lifetime?

JS: Not really.

JB: And here we are.

JS: It’s my second Skype conversation ever.

JB: Ever? I’m honored that I pushed you to do something new. I just used a bank drive-thru window for the first time in my life. Sometimes technology is scarier than it ought to be. I always thought I was too dumb to figure it out, but it wasn’t that hard.

Do you use the drive-thru window?

JS: Of course.

JB: Everybody had it figured out but me. You are in New Orleans right now, as we speak.

JS: Right.

JB: But I saw in your bio that you were born in Indiana, and raised in Milwaukee. So you are a child of the great Mid-West.

JS: Correct.

JB: What brought you to NOLA?

JS: I graduated from art school. I don’t know if you went to art school, but there’s not exactly some great corporate job lined up waiting for you. It’s more of a decision of where you want to go to make a life as an artist. I always had this fascination with New Orleans. You know, the mystique. The Crescent City.

I decided after one last long, bitter winter in Rhode Island that I was going to move South. I came down here, and here I am.

JB: How long ago was that?

JS: 1994.

JB: 1994? Old school. I was just in New Orleans for photoNOLA, which all of our regular readers will know. When I do these travel pieces, I don’t have a lot of time to make observations. I keep my eyes open, and talk to people. It works. But the downside is that I’m making judgements based on a really thin slice of reality.

I wrote a piece about the city booming with money and energy and galleries. Putting Katrina in the past. That was a spot observation. I have to admit that I could be really wrong. Just because Mercedes Benz is sponsoring the Superdome…was I rushing to judgement? Or are things doing really well down there, as I surmised?

JS: New Orleans is always a mixed bag. There are parts of New Orleans that are doing really well, but there are still some areas that haven’t fully recovered from Katrina. But culturally, we’re definitely in a beautiful, Post-Katrina boom.

The arts scene is thriving. It’s always been healthy, but especially now. The St. Claude arts district is new. A lot of artist-run co-operative-type things going on. So that’s exciting.

JB: So I wasn’t completely off base?

JS: No, no.

JB: Because that was your opportunity to tell me I was full of shit in my article from a few weeks back.

JS: (laughing) No. I loved your observations.

JB: It’s 2013, so we’re coming up on almost 20 years of you living there. Is this boom unprecedented in your time in the city?

JS: I think so. A lot of the larger institutions have been here for many, many years. The Julia and Magazine St galleries have been here for a long time. But the St. Claude and Downtown scene, where it’s funky and fresh and vibrant, where the artists are starting their own spaces…that’s all pretty new. Post-Katrina.

JB: When I was in town, it was suggested that maybe part of the boom had come from the people who came down to New Orleans to help out after the storm, and then stayed. Thereby bringing in aggressive, fresh energy. Was that something that you noticed? Was it all the government money? What do you think was the cause of the Renaissance?

JS: There definitely has been some “brain gain,” as they say. People who maybe came down to volunteer to help with the re-building, and then just fell in love with the city. There certainly was money flying around afterwards, but I think that’s dried up to some degree. There was a point where there was federal or insurance money, and things felt really hopping. (With lots of construction and renovation everywhere.)

I almost feel like I’m not qualified to answer the larger, institutional-type questions.

JB: No problem. Ladies and gentlemen, while you read this interview with Ms. Jennifer Shaw, you can choose to disregard some of what she says because she does not claim expertise. All right? It’s in the record. You might not be the right person to answer these questions, but you’re on the other end of the video screen, so you don’t have much of a choice right now, do you?

JS: No.

JB: What about the Southern Hospitality? When you first moved South, what was your reaction?

JS: It’s charming, right? Makes you feel right at home.

JB: photoNOLA, as I understand it, is an off-shoot or project of the New Orleans Photo Alliance.

JS: Correct.

JB: And the Alliance is an artist-run, artist-founded, member-supported community organization, with its own gallery in the Lower Garden District. Is that about right?

JS: Yes, non-profit as well.

JB: When did it get started?

JS: The New Orleans Photo Alliance formed in 2006. Another one of those Katrina silver linings. Don Marshall runs the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, and has a long history of working in the arts in New Orleans. After Katrina, he started calling meetings with different groups of artists, encouraging us to form our own collectives and non-profits. To help resuscitate the arts, and the wider cultural rebuilding of the city.

Out of these groups of meetings with the photographers, we eventually decided what to do, what to be, and the name. One of the things I thought we should do was start a photography festival.

JB: Was that emergence concurrent with the creation of the Photo Alliance, or did it take some time?

JS: It was pretty concurrent; it came out of one of the early meetings. We first met in February or March of 2006. There had been a couple of Mardi Gras-themed group photography exhibitions. You know there’s always a big crowd at a group show.

Everybody came out and was just so thankful to see each other again. Hugs all around. Lots of “How did you make out during the storm?” There was this great energy flowing, and I think Don had attended one of those openings. I don’t know if that was one of his catalysts for getting us together, or if it was a part of his mission to organize lots of different types of artists, and getting us forming these self-sufficient organizations.

I’m totally losing track.

JB: It’s OK.

JS: So there were these two shows, and then a formal meeting is called at the Jazz and Heritage foundation. We decided, yeah, this is a good idea. Why not go ahead and do this?
Start an organization. So we had a series of monthly meetings to figure out what we might accomplish as a group. What sort of form it would take, and what the goals might be. What the structure would be.

By December of that year, we had our first officers, and a group show that started membership. We made it so the entry fee gave you membership into the New Orleans Photo Alliance. That was the beginning of it all. Don hooked us up with an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center. When he got that plotted, I said, “Let’s take this December show at the CAC, and use it as an anchor to get the festival started.”

I knocked on the doors of galleries and other venues, and said, “We’re going to do a festival. Would you have a photo exhibition in conjunction with our show at the CAC? It’s going to be called photoNOLA, a month of photography.”

So that was the beginning. The first year was just exhibitions throughout the month, but nothing what it’s like now, obviously. (Portfolio reviews were added in 2007.)

JB: I didn’t know that the Photo Alliance came out of the immediate aftermath of Katrina. It’s a really interesting idea, the DIY ethos of artists getting together to do if for themselves. Given how much work it takes to do the business and self-promotion aspects of a career, the idea of getting together to lessen the load, and create the rising tide model, makes so much sense.

Were you the head of the photoNOLA festival from it’s inception?

JS: Pretty much so, yeah.

JB: Now, we both know that there are people who do that job, the Director of a non-profit, and that’s their only job. But on top of that, you also teach photography, and you have a full-time art career, and you’re a Mom.

JS: Right.

JB: So you’re trying to juggle everything at once. The 21st Century Hustle. I wanted to hear a bit about the founding of the organization, so thanks. It’s kind of a leading and inappropriate question, but do you think this would not have happened without the storm? Was there a burgeoning sense of collaborative energy because of the Internet anyway? Or do you think this was really a reaction to tragedy?

JS: I think it was totally a reaction to tragedy. I don’t know if something else would have come up in a different form later without the storm. But with Katrina, with everybody being out of the city for two months, and desperately wanting to get home, and desparately missing all of our friends and connections, I think it made us all appreciate people in a way that we never had before. Community ties too, not just in the art world.

There was a whole civic rebirth after the storm, on many different levels. Schools, and community organizations. So Katrina had a lot of silver linings, and the art scene and the Photo Alliance are certainly two of them.

JB: As is your book, “Hurricane Story.”

JS: (laughing.)

JB: So there’s that. My house got destroyed in a Hurricane, and all I got was a hard-cover book. Is that a T-shirt yet?

JS: (laughing still.) No. I should clarify, though, my house did not get destroyed. I’m on the sliver by the river, where there wasn’t any flooding. Just wind damage.

JB: Oh, congratulations.

JS: (laughing again.)

JB: I know, it’s seven years later, and I’m saying, “Congrats that your house didn’t get destroyed.” Let’s not give people the wrong impression.

I picked your book up and reviewed it in the very beginning of my book review column. I didn’t know you, or your name, or your work, or photoNOLA. I grabbed the little object off of my stack, and was kind of shocked. I hadn’t seen anybody personalize the tragedy in such an empathetic, but slightly light-hearted way.
Because you used toys.

JS: Right.

JB: What was the impetus for telling this really difficult story that way, about your evacuation, and having a baby on the day the storm made landfall? What was the genesis?

JS: I had a Holga that I’d modified into a macro-camera, and I hadn’t done a lot with it. I had some King Cake Babies lying around, and I think one day, I saw one lying around, and it reminded me of…I don’t know. Something just sparked, and I decided to pull out that macro camera and try it on those King Cake Babies, and maybe that’s the way I can deal with Katrina.

I’d taken some traditional disaster pictures, but didn’t feel like I owned that. You know? I felt like I was doing it in a documentary sense, for posterity. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable saying that was my art, or trying to sell that kind of work in galleries. I don’t know.

It was just these King Cake Babies, this macro camera, and a roll of black and white film. It just rolled, and made sense. This is it. This is what I need to be doing.

JB: What exactly is a King Cake Baby?

JS: Good question. Sorry. Every year from 12th Night through Mardi Gras, New Orleanians have mounds and mounds of King Cakes. Inside the cake is a little plastic baby, and the tradition is, whoever gets the slice with the King Cake Baby has to buy the next King Cake. It’s a continuing tradition at parties, and in offices, for weeks on end. We all get really fat. Getting the baby is a special thing, so you tend to collect them. They’re small and plastic, and made in China.

JB: Just like everything else.

We left in the dark of night

At 3:47 a boy was born

There were rumors of alligators in the streets

The chaos was hard to fathom

Convoys of rescue trucks passed in the other direction

Mardi Gras was amazing

This Week In Photography Books – Paolo Ventura

by Jonathan Blaustein

Three nights ago, I flung raw chicken out the second story window of my Aunt Lynda’s house. With a salad fork. In East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Two nights ago, I traveled to a parallel dimension, and then back again. I was accompanied by a childhood friend named Brett. We made the journey in a machine; a cross between a sauna, and the hot tub from “Hot Tub Time Machine.” When I returned, I was a woman.

Last night, I repeatedly bashed a former summer-camp counselor about the collarbone with a hammer. Again and again, I beat him. Whump. Whump. Whump. A giraffe trotted by in the background.

You’ve probably guessed these narratives come from my dreams. I rarely remember them, but my son recently asked me to try harder, and now I can’t shake the visuals from my mind. I’m ambivalent about the whole thing, as the retained images are as troubling as they are bizarre.

We’re all comfortable with the fact that each evening, our conscious mind cedes control. The conductor of the night shift is clinically insane. We know this, yet still wake up refreshed, or screaming for coffee. Either way, how many of us spend significant time parsing these madcap adventures? And if we did, what might we learn? (No, I’m not about to quote Freud.)

Within the realm of art, when people think of the dreamworld, they invariably go to Dali. Melting clocks in the desert. Maybe the photo-geeks think of Robert & Shana Parke Harrison, or that young woman who ripped them off and is showing her work around these days. (No, I won’t name the offender.)

Some of the most compelling dream-scape images I’ve seen, though, emerge from “Lo Zuavo Scomparso,” a new, magnificent hard-cover book by Paolo Ventura. (Punctum Press, 2012.) Just last week, I assured you that it’s nothing to me if you buy these books or not. Today, I’ll reverse course, and suggest that this is one for the collection.

The book is experiential on multiple levels. The cover is bright red, with terrific design. Open it up, and you’re treated to a cryptic, repeating graphic inside the cover. Then, we get two poems, in Italian and English, that establish the narrative to come. (Anyone with a brain knows that Italian is the most beautiful language in the world. I encourage you to read the Italian text out loud, for sonorous pleasure.)

As many of you probably know, Mr. Ventura builds intricate sets for his imagery. They resemble paintings, while reflecting the camera’s power to observe. Here, the subject is a Papal Zouave who comes to Rome, and then disappears. (The city itself competes for attention.) The mood is mysterious and elegant, the light not easy to describe.

After the photos conclude, there is an interview with the artist, again in English and Italian, that gives compelling clues to the nature of his process and obsession. Rare for my somewhat-short-attention-span, I found myself reading, then going back to the pictures, then reading again. I returned to some passages three or four times.

Eventually, I decided I needed to know more, and googled Papal Zouave. Normally, I won’t do that, believing that the artist ought to provide all necessary information. Here, I was too entranced to care.

Papal Zouaves were 19th Century soldiers in service to the Pope. In Italy, they fought against the Risorgimento, or unification of the country. (In light of Silvio Berlusconi’s ridiculous escapades, perhaps they were on to something. Bunga, Bunga.)

The book concludes with a set of polaroids that were presumably used as sketches. And then that crazy graphic again, which I could by-then recognize as a Papal Zouave’s profile, repeated over and over. (Just like gelaterias in Rome. How much f-cking ice cream can people eat?) This book will be tough to give back, because it transported me to a different reality. Will it do the same for you?

Bottom line: Masterful, beautiful, dreamy piece of work

To Purchase “Lo Zuavo Scomparso” 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.

 

Scott B. Davis Interview

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Scott B. Davis is a San Diego-based fine art photographer. He recently had solo exhibitions at Hous Projects in NYC, and at the San Diego Museum of Art. His work has been reviewed in the New York Times and the New Yorker. Scott is also the Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Photographic Arts, and the founder and director of the Medium Festival of Photography, which debuted in 2012.

Jonathan Blaustein: It’s a New Year, and I wanted to inaugurate a mini-series interviewing people who represent the new pathways to success in the 21st Century. I can’t speak to what it used to be like, but it seems many of the folks who are getting their work out in the world are creating multi-pronged careers. Multiple talents, multiple income streams.

Of course, I thought of you. We met back in 1998, in a Photo 3 class with Patrick Nagatani. Is that right?

Scott B. Davis: Yeah.

JB: Our audience knows a lot about me, but they don’t know what I was like back then. Do you have any embarrassing stories about me from back in the day? What did you think of me when we first met?

SD: (laughing.) Let’s see. (long pause.) You were a guy who seemed to think he had it all figured out, and wanted to jump right in the deep end with everybody else. I say that with all due love and respect.

JB: Of course. You’re allowed to make fun of me. That’s the point.

SD: What I also love is one of the early memories, where you then turned it on me. You said, “I couldn’t stand you when we first met. You were this guy who just knew it all.”

JB: You knew a lot for a young guy.

SD: I think the bottom line is we both approached the medium from a very different place, personally speaking, but with a lot of passion and drive to make it a career.

JB: Well, you had a free shot at me, and you didn’t exactly take it. Classy. Let’s move along, though.

You are a working artist, and just had a big solo show in New York at Hous Projects. You’re also the Director of Exhibitions at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and you just started your own photography festival, called Medium, from scratch. And you’re doing all three of these different jobs at the same time.

SD: Yeah.

JB: Why?

SD: Why?

JB: Yes. Why?

SD: I guess it goes back to that undergraduate experience. I knew I wanted to be heavily involved with this medium from a very young age. As I’ve grown older, and watched the world diversify around us, I realized there’s no singular experience that’s going to fulfill all the hopes and desires I have as an engaged photographer.

Working at a day job gives me these office skills, for lack of a better word, that allow me to understand the nuts and bolts of the industry. As a fine art photographer, that part goes without saying. It’s expressing personal beliefs, wishes, taking wild
attempts at making statements without language. That drives itself.

For the festival, it’s a culmination of those two things. It’s an opportunity for me to say, “How can I create something in my community that reaches other photographers, that gives other photographers a platform and a voice, and that engages me in a new way with photography itself?”

JB: It’s all really heady and high-minded, but isn’t there more to it? Isn’t it, the day job pays the bills, and the festival is where you party, and the art is where you get your crazy out?

SD: (pause) I guess you could put it that way too. The day job pays the bills. And as you know as well as anybody, it’s a dangerous trap. It can be.

But for the festival, it really is about creating a space and a place for other photographers. If it were just about a party, I’d have a party. It’s a business. Really a mega-business, for one or two people to undertake.

JB: I like to put my finger up in the wind and see what people are thinking about. Now that the worst of the Economic Collapse has passed, it’s good to see people come out of retrenchment mode and try to build things. Try to grow their own capabilities, so I thought you might be able to give us a little insight.

We’ve got readers around the planet, and thankfully photo festivals continue to pop up. But there are a lot of communities out there that could benefit from opportunities to see work, and meet new people, learn and grow, kick back a glass of wine.

You shared your motivation a bit, but I’d like to dig a little deeper. Did you always want to do this? Or was it a random idea, and then you decided to put your nose down? How long had you been planning the Medium festival?

SD: About 18 months. But it’s interesting when you materialize something like this, and then you achieve it. You can look back in hindsight and have a little bit of clarity about where it came from.

When I first moved back to California, there was a part of me that wanted to start a center for photography. A do-it-yourself frame shop, and a place where photographers could come together and mount exhibitions. Host lectures, stuff like that. It was 10 or 12 years ago, though. But I didn’t have the personal need or the experience to do it.

But to cycle back to 10 years of working as an industry professional, you start to learn how things operate. What it takes to organize something like this. That, and watching other art fairs and festivals crop up all over the world, it makes you realize there are micro-communities as well as macro-communities that want to have these experiences.

I guess what I’m saying is it’s a lot of world experience that comes together and makes you realize you can take a nascent idea and start to create something unique for this region.

I’ll give you one example. Photo LA, the established photo fair, has really changed a lot in the past several years. One thing I realized it became, by default, was a place for photographers to meet. Photo LA does their own programming. They had Stephen Shore out last year. They bring in big names.

But as that really changed, and less photographers were attending it, because of personal grievances, or not liking the fair, or it not having the same energy, I realized that that community in Southern California could use a place to come together like photo LA.

I’m not trying to create photoLA, through Medium, but when I realized that there’s nothing like this in Coastal Southern California, I thought we could really use something to get the creative juices flowing.

JB: I couldn’t go this year, unfortunately, because the festival was two weeks after the new baby came. I still feel bad about it, but I’ll be there for 2013. Big ups.

Earlier, though, you mentioned 10 years as an industry professional. I know you started out cutting mats in the bowels of the UNM Art Museum in Albuquerque. You were an exacting dude with a good internship.

Then, you started as a preparator at MOPA, and have worked your way up to the Director of Exhibitions.

SD: Right.

JB: Have you had any experiences over the years where you were taken less seriously as an artist because you were working as an arts professional? Or were there situations where anyone tried to hook you up as an artist to get in with the museum? Over the years, have you noticed any changes in the way people perceive a hybridized career?

SD: If anything, I’d say it’s gotten more difficult. I don’t know that people look at me and say, “Wow, he’s this multi-faceted guy.” They usually look at me as wearing one primary hat. It’s challenging, because, particularly as a museum professional, I don’t want to breach that trust, or cross that line.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that people want to reduce you to one simple thing.

JB: I can relate. When the writing started to take off, there was a time when I was worried that people would know me more for this than for my art-making. But very quickly, I realized that if people know me at all, then I’m fortunate. I prefer they know me and like what I do, rather than wanting to firebomb my house, though.

But getting back to Medium, now that the festival came off successfully, was there anything you learned that really turned your expectations on their head? Was there any part of the process that caught you off guard?

SD: I don’t know if I can give you a good answer to the question.

JB: No? Should we just move on?

SD: Well, the reason being is that it’s anything that anyone would tell you. Anybody who’s done it, or anybody with common sense will know it’s a lot of work. And then people will turn around and ask you, “How did you do that?”

Getting back to which hat you wear, and how people associate you, it’s interesting to me, when I step back and take it all in, I’m not to worried about how people are going to categorize me. I know that doing every single one of these things is not motivated by profit, or fame or any kind of worldly riches.

JB: Speak for yourself, dude.

SD: Come on, now. It’s motivated by a very deep-seated love for what I do. From my perspective, I see it all as part of a rich life. I go to my day job, I come home and work in the darkroom, or shoot photographs. I organize a festival. To me, there are not always clear boundaries between those.

As far as advice goes for someone who’s thinking of starting something, if you’re really passionate, and you have the inclination and the capacity to do it, I think that’s the most important question to ask yourself. Because everything else has
to come from within.

JB: I ended 2012 with a column that suggested to folks that perhaps this would be a good year to try to stretch yourself, take a risk, try something new. Looking at what you went through, having a solo show, buying and renovating a house, putting on a festival and working full time all during one Summer. Wow.

Now that it’s behind you, what did you learn about yourself? Are you actually a more capable human being for pushing yourself to the limits?

SD: Definitely. I achieved what I set out to do, which is to give added dimension to a community that I passionately feel could use it. That’s something I can’t underscore enough for readers, is this idea. If you really believe in what you want to do, whether it’s to start your career as a photographer, or to start a festival, or create a publishing company. If you believe there’s a need for it, that it makes sense…this is just Business 101. Then it’s totally worth it to stretch yourself.

If you’ve done your job right, you’ve added value to the community. Whether it’s your community by zip code, or by theology. You’re adding value.

JB: Thanks for the honesty. Is there any cellphone footage of you berating an intern during Medium, like Christian Bale? Did you ever lose your shit? You might as well admit it right now…

SD: No. I don’t lose my shit. It’s something I work at more and more as I get older.

JB: I get it. I used to be a hothead, and now I’m not. I’m much happier this way.

But I wanted to shift to the museum for a second. I noticed on the website that you guys have a show up now that was crowd curated by your audience?

SD: Yeah.

JB: You guys gave your audience a chance to vote on pictures from a certain grouping, and then you showed the highest rated pictures in the exhibition?

SD: And the lowest rated.

JB: How did it work?

SD: There are forty photographs on exhibit that the crowd curated. The photos with the most and least votes are highlighted in the exhibition. Because it’s not always about winners.

JB: Forgive me if this is an obvious question, but wasn’t anybody afraid that this might prove the irrelevance of the curator as tastemaker, if the crowd can do as good a job? What’s been people’s reaction to the idea and the show?

SD: The reaction has been really positive, all the way around. The idea was born out of crowd-sourcing in general. The museum is really there to serve the community. Our photographs are held in the public trust, even though it’s a private museum. Why not give the community an opportunity to take an active role in things?

It also allows us to learn things about our collection. It’s one thing for an educated person to make decisions about what’s going next to what, and to develop thematic ideas. But it’s also interesting when you let non-experts look at something and discover new things, and in this case, new images.

It allowed us to ask some hard questions. How strong is our collection? Let’s be real. Let’s be honest, and not hide the duds. And, of course, we don’t believe it’s undermining the role of the curator.

JB: I know it’s off topic, but I think we came up with a new drinking game. Every time people read the word community in this interview, they have to do a shot.

Seriously, though, what happened when the crowd picked? Was it just, oh, they love Henri Cartier-Bresson, and nature and cowboys? Could you learn anything broad from their preferences?

SD: Well, the top three pictures were a photo by Kenro Izu of a sacred Tibetan mountain, a photograph by Bradford Washburn of climbers on an icy peak, and the classic photograph of a nuclear explosion on the Bikini Atoll. Think about that for a minute. People are responding to photographs that elicit emotions. Beautiful pictures of mountains elicit primal emotions, or fantasies about what the world should look like.

The lowest ranked images are basically abstract photographs that, when they’re set out there, on their own, without a voice, don’t make sense to people. Clearly, people didn’t respond to them.

JB: So they prefer the epic, and they eschew the abstract. At least in this experiment. That is not particularly surprising. But it sounds like it gave you guys a chance to get your own metrics in an evidence-obsessed society.

As far as your own work goes, you spend a lot of time rambling around empty deserts, at night, with a big camera. I read an interview a couple of years ago with Robert Adams, and he talked about having someone with him to watch his back, when he was shooting at night in Colorado Springs.

Is that something you’ve had to do, or do you just roll the dice?

SD: I roll the dice, and nothing that exciting has ever happened to me. The worst thing is people in Los Angeles, who find me in the middle of the night, and are whacked in the head, and think I’m making a movie.

Out in the desert, it’s a different story. The worst thing that happens is the border patrol comes by in the morning and says there was a lot of activity last night. You guys had neighbors.

JB: For years you’ve been out there working, in the middle of the night, when the rest of us are asleep. What’s the fascination?

SD: The fascination is discovery. I’m a landscape photographer. But as landscapes in the Western US become more and more well known, more and more seen, I’m interested in letting the camera help me discover worlds that I didn’t know existed otherwise. I’m looking at the world and seeing how it’s transformed, the other 50% of the time. In the darkness. Once the magic hour happens, most people head off to the bar to knock back a drink. Not me.

Three Female Artists in NOLA

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. So they say. But what if Mars is the better planet? If so, isn’t it sexist to give Mars to the men? Shouldn’t women be from Mars, and men from Venus? That would be more equitable.

Of course I’m joking. I’ve been thinking about this, though, since mid-November, when I realized that I hadn’t reviewed a book by a female artist in a long time. It wasn’t conscious neglect. I’m fairly indiscriminate when I grab the books at photo-eye, and then choose to review those to which I truly respond.

I was disturbed by my lack of awareness, but not surprised by my preferences. Early on in my relationship with my wife, we realized that all of my music was made by men, and all of hers by women. One man’s Bruce Springsteen is another woman’s Ani DiFranco. (Then, thankfully. Now it’s Lilly Allen and Regina Spektor. Much better.)

Still, I wasn’t going to let the trend continue. I had Cara Phillips’ “Singular Beauty” in my book stack, and reviewed it straightaway. I thought it was a fascinating book, and said as much. It belonged in the column. In retrospect, was this a case of affirmative action, or a belated remedy to a problem resulting from carelessness?

Shortly thereafter, it came time to give photo-eye my best books of 2012, and again I had to temper a male-centric list. I could have left it as it was, but that seemed inappropriate. Is it controversial of me to admit this? Probably, but the alternative is less attractive. I’d rather be open, and let you choose to respect my stance, or take exception.

This blog, and my effort in it, has always been about radical honesty. I’m not trying to offend anybody. I take this platform seriously, and think it’s vital to show a diversity of perspectives in the things I cover. Furthermore, I only want to discuss projects that are interesting and provide value for your precious time. If these articles promote dialogue, so much the better.

Men and women are both part of the human species, but our structural bodies and body chemistries are different. We couldn’t possibly have the same experience navigating the world. As an artist, it’s socially acceptable for me to have a lot of “female” characteristics. I’m emotionally sensitive, like to talk, and ask a lot of questions. I can empathize, and appreciate taking baths. But I also like football, farting and cursing. I’m still a dude, albeit one with a healthy dose of estrogen.

With all that in mind, I was thrilled to see three exhibitions by three super-talented female artists while I was in New Orleans. On a Sunday, just after my reviews ended, I was walking quickly towards the Ogden Museum when I got a text to stop in at the Contemporary Art Center. I was meant to meet my new friend Kathleen Robbins, so she could take me to see her show “Into the Flatland,” at the New Orleans Photo Alliance gallery. She asked me to change course, and there she was in the lobby, standing with a few women I didn’t know.

Kathleen told me she’d set up a little gallery tour, and would that be OK? I said no problem. Within a matter of minutes, my slow brain surmised that our companions were the artists featured in the shows were were to see. (And the three prize winners from photoNOLA 2011.) Sarah Cusimano Miles was exhibiting at the Martine Chaisson Gallery, two blocks away, and Priya Kambli had just wrapped an artist talk right there at the CAC. The last of my guides was photoNOLA chief Jennifer Shaw, whom I’d yet to meet.

Did I suspect a set-up? Of course. But I didn’t care either way. What a great opportunity, and it just dropped in my lap. I’d been thinking about how to include more female artists in my articles, and there they were. (Was it just like having brunch with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda? No, not at all. Does my cliché reference make me square? Probably.)

We went to see Sarah’s show first, in a shiny, beautiful white gallery space. The photographs were still life masterpieces: objects from the Anniston Museum of Natural History in Alabama, (where the artist lives,) combined with her own possessions. (Mostly food.)

The photographs looked like twisted visions from a Victorian Curiosity Shoppe. Lots of dark, rich browns and plenty of dead things. The photos were very sharp, as well as sumptuous. Sarah told us she thought female artists were more motivated by intuition than were men. The other women all agreed, heartily, and the best I could muster was, “I’m down with the ladies.” (Yes, that’s a direct quote.)

Sarah shared a bit about her insanely intricate process. Apparently, she wasn’t happy with the sharpness of her lens across a variety of focal planes, so she put together the tableaux in pieces, shot by shot, with as many as 200 photos per picture. (A few inches of focus at a time.) I think that much composting in Photoshop would drive me back to coffee. (Or cocaine.)

They were incredible photographs, for sure, but didn’t speak directly to my viscera. It made me wonder about the intersection of gender and taste. Is there a feminine aesthetic, relative to a masculine one? Furthermore, does the male view still predominate throughout the art and photo worlds? (Again, probably.) But most of the curators and photo editors I know are women. And given that women now outnumber men in college, and seem to have the upper hand in the economy of the future, (health care, education) at what point will the scales tilt?

I’m not suggesting that equal rights have been achieved. Women still earn less on average, and are hampered in career tracks when they take time out to have kids. But I know more than a few families in which the woman is the primary earner, including my own. The story is far more complicated than it used to be, thankfully, and progress is undeniable. (Let me also shout out Taryn Simon and Susan Worsham, two of my favorite photographers working today.)

Back in NOLA, we walked the two blocks back to the Contemporary Art Center, and I got to speak to Priya for a few minutes.
She told me she teaches in rural Missouri, having studied in Louisiana and Texas, so all three artists have Southern roots. (For fun, try saying “rural Missouri” five times fast.)

Her photographs, at the CAC, were installed against serene blue walls. She’s from India, originally, but has lived in the US for many years. The color scheme references her background, I’d guess, as it’s a powerful theme throughout the work on display.

The pictures were, for the most part, diptychs printed together. One panel would contain scenes from her family domestic life: little toys and household objects and constructed things. They were personal as well as sculptural. Very well seen. The other panel would typically be a historical-looking portrait of family members back in in India.

Beautiful work, beautiful show.

After a few minutes, we piled into a very small car to go see Kathleen’s exhibition. There was a class going in inside the multi-purpose space, so by the time we got in to see the show, it was nearing dark on my last night in town. I was exhausted and drained, and couldn’t spend more than four or five minutes with Kathleen’s pictures. My apologies.

These reeked of a bleak, wintry, poor South of which I know nothing. The artist is from Mississippi, and the photos were of her family, herself, and the area from whence she comes. Lots of broken down shacks and barren fields. (I recognized one image from Fraction Magazine, and realized that I had seen the work before.)

The pictures are lyrical and Romantic; about place and home and sad light. Were they feminine as well? I suppose so, but they clearly had some edge. I responded emotionally to this show, most of all, and could almost hear some dark blues music in my head. (Or Ry Cooder’s opening riff to “Paris, Texas.”)

Did it make me want to go to Mississippi? Not exactly. But these three shows did give me a lot to think about. They were a great reminder that looking at art made by people of different backgrounds (or genders) opens one’s mind. I’ll keep on trying to maintain the balance, in 2013, as it benefits us all.

This Week In Photography Books – Risaku Suzuki

by Jonathan Blaustein

Karl Marx got it wrong. He prophesied the demise of Religion and Nationalism. Bad call. I know it’s ballsy of me to quibble with a dead great mind, but it was never going to be thus.

As long as humans have been upright, they’ve looked to the night sky. Before pollution, every part of the planet would have provided proper vantage to see the billions of stars above. Speaking as one who retains the privilege, you don’t need to know what those things are up there. You just feel, in your genetic code, that you are a small, insignificant nothing in the face of it all.

From there, it’s not a long leap to name that feeling of awe and worthlessness. And then to worship that name, and then again to ask for favors. (And to pray.) That progression happened everywhere on Earth, and many names developed as such. My wife was just telling me the other day that we Jews have multiple names to suit the many faces of our lone deity.

We, the people of the book, who have such a prominence in the state of the safety of the World, are but .2% of its population, I recently read. (Seriously, Bibi, you can’t keep building on what will obviously be Palestine.) Christianity leads the way with 31%, and then Islam is second with 23%.

Both religions seek converts. And we wonder why countries with those tendencies are oft at each other’s throats. (ie, the Bush Wars.) Nationalism is nothing more than our need for the tribe, of which I’ve already written, and that’s never going away. Put the two together and the reptilian brain takes over, leading to conflict.

Elsewhere in the world, there are Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and many other types of worshippers. In Japan, Shintoism remains popular. To those believers, there are entrances to the sacred world called “Torii.” Which is also, conveniently, the name of a new book, out last year, by Risaku Suzuki. (Superlabo)

(You knew there had to be a connection there, right?) The mid-sized hardcover consists of a set polaroid photographs, taken in Japan, in 1993. Almost all contain the presence of the large scale shrine-temple-type structure. It looks like the entrance to something that ought to be just behind it, or above it, but that got vaporized into a parallel dimension. (Or razed to make another mini-mart.)

The pictures look vintage, and some are washed out or have disintegrated edges. The colors might have shifted a touch here or there, but it serves the look and the meaning. Seeing these Torii in parking lots and dwarfed by city architecture hammers home the point that some ideas are eternal, and times always change.

The repetition of the beautiful, shape, over and over again is mesmerizing. Such a beautiful shape, this portal. Peaceful. I loved the one framed against the open car door. Not a big leap from this to the oft-mentioned Murakami vibe. (Pass through and you too can talk to the Sheep Man.)

I hate to state the obvious, but the book and pictures within are Zen. They close that loop on religion, in the way they inspire some immediate mental calm. And that is high praise from a man who’s staring at a snow covered mountain peak as he’s typing these words. (No easy feat.)

Bottom Line: Super-Zen Shinto shrines from 1993

To Purchase Torii 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.

 

photoNOLA, New Orleans, 2012

by Jonathan Blaustein

They say time heals all wounds. I’m sure that’s not true. To heal implies making things better. The parents of those poor Connecticut children will never be better again. With time, though, they will likely hurt less. They will keep on living. And in six weeks, most of us will forget they exist.

Sometimes, though, the rest of us, those glued to our screens during a tragedy, are the ones who get stuck. Occasionally, the bystanders will latch on to the moment of horror, and not let go. Like with Hurricane Katrina.

I went to New Orleans last month to attend the photoNOLA festival. I was booked for their portfolio reviews, and was also hoping to get around the city a bit and see things. But my very first impression, in the airport, served to solidify my preconceptions about this storm-ravaged region. The place was under construction disarray, with plywood tacked up willy-nilly. I even grabbed a snapshot of a marker-written “Baggage Claim” sign that was about as ghetto as anything I’ve seen.

Like I said, my vision was stuck a bit in 2005. When my Eritrean cab driver approached Downtown, I saw the Superdome up ahead, and then we drove right past it. At first, I held my breath, and saw those roof tiles gone in my mind. Then, I looked more closely. The place was shiny-metal-gleaming in the rosy late afternoon light. It is now sponsored, heavily, by Mercedes Benz. The stadium was stylish and expensive looking, in 2012.

I was on notice. The multiple cranes seen erecting buildings around the city were another sign of money and development. (You can learn a lot from the cranes on a skyline. We saw so many in Spain, in 2004, that I knew something was up. Or, as the Spaniards would tell you, tragically unsustainable.) Lucien, of whom you’ll hear later, told me the cranes were raising jails and hospitals. Two constant sources of cash.

I also learned that Eritreans will eat in Ethiopian restaurants. Though the two countries were locked in vicious wars for 30 years, that forced my cabbie to flee to America, apparently the food is pretty much the same. (He was sullen, so I tipped him poorly. I still feel guilty about it.)

The short version of my trip is that I found a city booming. So much so that I only saw a fraction of what was on display. Photography exhibitions were everywhere. Robot parades, Second lines, lectures, openings, music, art, it was everywhere. Good for New Orleans. While we may still have Katrina on the brain, especially in Sandy’s wake, the folks living there have most certainly moved on. Thank goodness.

I ate amazing food, day after day. I was kidnapped, three times, by photographers visiting from various parts around the South. The cliché about Southern Hospitality was on full display, and I’m now officially down with it. (For you foodies out there, Friday’s dinner was at Clancy’s. Book it. And celebu-chef John Besh’s pizza place, Domenica, was also a standout.)

The festival began a couple of days before I got there. There was a gala benefit on Thursday night, and lectures by Sasha Wolf and Mary Virginia Swanson earlier on Friday. I missed them all. You know I’ve got a baby at home, so my trip was too brief. If I return next year, I’ll make sure to stay longer. And I’d heartily recommend you go yourself, but don’t shortchange it.

My reviews were on Saturday, and I began with a meeting with an associate curator from the Museum of Modern Art. It was the first time I’d met with someone from there, the gleaming art Mecca, and I thought hard about how to approach it. I decided that the likelihood of her seeing something in a box, and it then ending up on the wall, or in the collection at the MoMA, was next to zero. Probably more like zero. (Maybe down the line, but still…)

The second route would be to be “insanely memorable.” While I can be charming on a good day, 20 minutes is not a very long time to strike up the kind of conversation that impresses someone enough to go straight to the top of their to-do-list. Possible, but, again, unlikely.

On the other hand, one thing I could reasonably hope for would be to get her honest opinion about my work. Presumably, you don’t work there unless you really know what you’re talking about. So advice, a critique, was something that seemed attainable, and potentially very helpful.

That’s how I approached it. I didn’t even show her prints from my established project, “The Value of a Dollar,” or try to woo her with my extensive resume. Rather, we focused on my in-progress work, where it was headed: what she liked, what she didn’t like. It was fascinating to hear her riff on my work, and very encouraging.

I’m sharing this, here, because I’ve been and am an advocate of portfolio reviews. The process has really made my career, and many others before me. But I’ve been victim, in the past, of that desire to make every meeting out be the game-changer. To hustle and schmooze. Talk without listening. What do they call that, the elevator pitch? Please.

The beauty of these events, and photoNOLA was an excellent example, is that you can learn more about what you’re doing from seasoned professionals. Can these meetings lead directly to exhibition, publication, and acquisition? Yes, they can. But even more, they can help push us further along, outside the domain of the “like-asphere.” (Am I coining this term, or does it already exist?)

The event was based out of the International House Hotel, just next to the French quarter. (In which the streets truly do smell of booze and urine.) The reviews took place in the hotel conference facilities, across the street, in a couple of rooms very well set up for the attending photographers. (Free wifi, free food, coffee and water? Classy.)

There were countless events in the evenings, so much that without a car and a better sense of direction, it was hopeless to try to attend most. I was bummed about that, as I didn’t get to see as much as I’d hoped, and was mostly restricted to the CBD and the Quarter. (Though one kidnapping brought me to the Lower Garden District. Cool spot. Hipster central.)

Ultimately, I realized that a surfeit of options of things to see is a good problem. You can only be in one place at a time, and you can’t talk to everyone. That’s why I’d recommend a longer stay, and why I hope to get back as soon as I can.

As for the events I did see? It started with the Shelby Lee Adams Lecture at the Ogden Museum of Art, on Friday night. He was super-intelligent, and showed a range of lesser-known work from his long career. Some of his portraits of Appalachians reminded me a lot of Roger Ballen’s pictures of poor South Africans. The pictures are straight, but the folks are so seemingly pitiable, and the lens so sharp, that the intent can seem mean or exploitative. Or, I should say, some folks interpret them as such.

As Mr. Adams is from and lives amongst his community, and his subjects love the depictions, I’m inclined to find them cool as hell. But he was very defensive about his critical reputation, mentioning it on three or four occasions. He took swipes at “Academics” at the University of Kentucky, and others. My companions and I all commented about it, as it seemed a waste of energy. He’s got great work, and is successful and acclaimed. (As he said, to paraphrase, once you get a Guggenheim, you can do whatever the hell you want.)

I was reminded of my own past fury at our pack of rabbly commenters, though I’ve since decided to leave people to their opinions. The critics are out there, in every field and forum. If you put your work out there, and it’s good enough to draw attention, then you have to learn how to take/live with the criticism. Because it will most certainly come.

Still, it was a great presentation over all, but we had to split a bit early for late dinner reservations. The next night, I was able to catch the end of a group Q&A with Keith Carter, Josephine Sacabo, Shelby Lee Adams, and Louviere + Vanessa at A Gallery for Fine Art Photography, in the French Quarter. The place is a must on any future visit to New Orleans. Tons of great historical work, and some contemporary Black and White photography as well. (Helmut Newton’s pictures jumped off the wall. Sexy photos, sexy town.)

Let’s wrap this up. photoNOLA rocks, and New Orleans rocks. It’s a city with an unfathomable amount of cultural events, and more insane restaurants than you could ever, ever eat at. The cost of the portfolio reviews is less than some competing events, which is a bonus. And every dollar you spend will pump right into the local economy.

The cabdriver who took me back to the airport was, in fact, right out extras casting for all the movies they’re shooting here these days. He could easily have been a character on David Simon’s “Treme.” Aforementioned, his name was Lucien, a fifty-something African-American guy, born and raised in NOLA.

He was funny, loquacious, and intently offered me his wisdom. We swapped stories for the whole ride back to the airport, talking shit about money and power. (I wish I could quote him on that week’s NFL shooting tragedy, but it’s NSFW.) When I lauded the local hospitality, and promised a speedy return, he summed it up for me as follows: “It don’t cost anything extra to be nice to people.” Amen.