Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books – Alec Soth

by Jonathan Blaustein

I signed up for Instagram a few months ago. As ridiculous as it sounds, I use my Ipad to shoot the photographs. It’s a crappy camera, but what I love most is that I see something, reach for the tablet, and make a picture. It’s perfectly unprecious, and I appreciate that the platform engenders occasional creativity in me, nothing more.

Normally I stay away from the day-to-day controversies in cyberworld, but this Instagram Term of Service kerfuffle is too good to pass up. We can all be as outraged as we like, and feel free to think that way. (Which comes first, I wonder, the liquor or the pitchforks? Wouldn’t you have drink first before you went out to hunt Frankenstein’s monster?)

Can we not acknowledge the silliness of trying to commodify the random, meaningless little compositions we create? If there are billions of these things (photos) getting made every day, how much could any one of them truly be worth? Value is traditionally derived from scarcity, for heaven’s sake.

How much money do you expect to lose when Instagram charges some dumb company $.00037 to put their ad next to your filtered photo? Does anyone actually think they’ll be denied untold riches from Mr. Zuckerberg’s secret vault? (I’ll have the rubies, thank you.)

Rather than focus on the news cycle, though, I wanted to write this last column of the year with a more important message. In the time I’ve been writing here, (2.5 years,) it seems as if the publication industry has started to stabilize, as has the American economy. So, many of you are off the proverbial ledge, worrying about how to pay the mortgage. At least, I hope that’s true.

So, for 2013, as we all emerge from perma-fear-mode, why not take a risk? Try something new. Learn a new skill. Make a conscious effort to improve yourself, and your knowledge base. Embrace the New Year with a sense of opportunity, rather than fear. (And of course I’ll try to do the same.)

Why am I off on this rant today? Why no mention of the wife and kids? Because I just finished looking at Alec Soth’s “Looking for Love 1996,” published by Kominek, and it seemed like the perfect catalyst for a “stretch yourself” message today. (Plus, that was the year I graduated college and took up photography, so I couldn’t resist the chance to wax philosophical.)

According to the text, Mr. Soth began investing in his photographic talents while working at a commercial printing facility in 1996. He would print other people’s birthday photos all day long, and then go out at night to drink and photograph away his misery. He also admits, after the statute of limitations has probably run its course, that he would make his own prints and sneak them out at night, wrapped around his legs. (Cue vision of the robot dance.)

I know Mr. Soth has many, many publications on the market. I don’t know if you should buy this one to add to your collection. That’s up to you. But his photographic style, though raw, is certainly on display here. He walks the line between pathos and poking fun at people. The photos display an eye for detail, and the ability to celebrate the awkward moment, rather than gut it like a branzino destined for the grill.

There is a bit of a time capsule feel to the book. It’s all in black and white, which is not the way we know Mr. Soth’s best work. It really is a cool little object, and ends with a dorktastic self-portrait. The artist, lacking his now-famous beard, lounges back in a tuxedo, sans jacket and bow-tie. The look in his eye is a bit doofy, but you can definitely sense the beginning of some serious confidence. (What the f-ck are you looking at?)

Let’s all take inspiration from Mr. Soth’s journey. Let 2013 be the time when you too try to build something fresh. I’m not advocating theft, per se. But my New Year’s wishes for you are clear. I hope, this time next year, that you find yourself fulfilled, and capable of new and dynamic things.

Bottom Line: Very cool collection of the artist’s early work

To Purchase “Looking for Love 1996″ 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.

 

The Best Photos I Saw This Year That I Haven’t Already Written About Yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I have a dirty little secret. Photography is not my favorite medium. I have equal love for Painting, Sculpture and Cinema, which inspire me greatly as an artist. Perhaps they should take away my cool-guy-photographer club membership?

But when in professorial mode, my first lectures are always about the magic of photography’s essence. Light and time. Harnessing powerful elements of the Universe. Freezing people and moments, forever. Thinking about that gets me every time.

Unfortunately, a by-product of living in a time of unprecedented image saturation, I’d be hard pressed to say I see that magic within the rectangle, very often. I see a lot of photographs in my line of work, and then we all do via our massive media addiction. We’re all drowning.

Fortunately, when I was in San Francisco earlier this year, I visited the Legion of Honor Museum on the edge of the Presidio. The gorgeous, resplendent building abuts a golf course, and sits above the rocky cliffs jutting up from the Bay. The fog was thick, sitting in a bank that touched the tops of the Eucalyptus trees.

I didn’t even know the museum existed, but there were banners plastered around the city, promising a Man Ray/Lee Miller exhibition. That was enough to draw me. Who wouldn’t want to see his work? I’d heard of Ms. Miller before, but didn’t know her work or backstory at all.

Down some old-school-curved-stone stairs, with vaulted arches hard at work, the exhibit was in the bowels of the historical building. Did it used to be someone’s mansion? What was the history? I didn’t have a chance to find out, as the museum was about to close when I arrived.

Time to cut to the chase. The gorgeous Ms. Miller stole the show, as well as my heart. Wow. What a presence. And through the exhibition, it was clear that my name is only last on a very long list of the infatuated that included Man Ray, Picasso, and probably every man she met in Europe before World War II.

She was tall and blonde, with striking blue eyes. Ms. Miller was beautiful the way Grace Kelly was beautiful. Just the perfect, Upper Class-looking WASP goddess. Normally not my type.

She exuded a kind of wounded, cold, intelligent reserve. Bottled up, statuesque. In fact, early in the exhibition, there are a couple of photographs of her playing a statue in a Cocteau film. The verisimilitude was off-the-chains.

Her photographs begin in the second room, alongside of Man Ray’s. It seems as if the show has been designed to show her off, as she is better represented than he. And subsequent rooms show only her work, and the work of others who were inspired by her.

Man Ray’s photographs of Lee Miller amp up the sexuality. He fetishizes her, and when you see the portraits of him, you can understand his excitement that he got to have sex with her at all. In her self-portraits, though, she is subdued and classical, her intellect beaming out. Two completely different visions of the same woman.

I’m still weirded out that I had powerful urges towards someone I knew to be dead. The whole notion of freezing time, of encoding moments from the rush of history, was foremost in my thoughts. In the bowels of this old museum, on a misty late afternoon, it was almost as if there were ghosts about. (Let’s hope she’s young and hot as a ghost. I’ve no interest in the 70 year old Lee Miller haunting my dreams.)

OK, the photographs are what this 2nd Annual column is supposed to be about. Ms. Miller had one image of breasts that had been lopped off in a mastectomy. Just sitting there. Right below a photo of dead rats hanging in a shop window. Of their moment, as surrealism, they screamed of the dark soul looming within the model’s body.

And she was also tough enough to go into the Concentration Camps after the end of the War. Her photos of German officer’s bodies, after suicide, reeked of that same Surrealist training. She knew from absurd, which was a fine a response as any to the atrocities, the death and destruction. Crazy photographs. Crazy. Together, they were definitely the best photographs I saw this year that I haven’t already written about yet.

Man Ray and Lee Miller eventually broke up. She married an Englishman. I have her biography on the shelf, given to me by a friend, but I haven’t opened yet. (I’ll get there.) This friend, in the know, told me that Lee Miller had been sexually abused as a child. Common knowledge, apparently.

Upon hearing that morsel, it all fit. I’d known something was wrong with her all along. That’s why I was so smitten. In those years that she and Man Ray documented, she had it all. The looks. The brains. The creativity. And the soul scars that seared her humanity into celluloid.

Richard Misrach’s lecture at the Center for Creative Photography

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

The weather in Tucson is brutally hot most of the time. 115 degrees Fahrenheit for almost 7 months a year, so they tell me. But the other five months are beautiful, when much of North America is freezing its collective ass off. Not being a lunatic, I’ve visited in October and February, and, as a result, love the place.

I was overdue for a visit to hang out with my good friend Ken, his wife Lisa, and their lovely daughter. Ken and I were chatting on the phone one day, and I made that all-too-familiar, non-specific promise to come “as soon as I can make it work.” Generic meaninglessness.

Ken then mentioned that the great Richard Misrach was due to lecture at the Center for Creative Photography, on the campus of the U of A. “Misrach, dude. Misrach,” was the final refrain of his argument. I stammered. No obvious excuse came to mind. “Uh, uh, Misrach, dude. You’re right. I’ll buy a plane ticket today.”

And so I found myself, earlier this Fall, fresh off the airplane, handing Ken a breakfast burrito from an Indian Casino outside Albuquerque. Before you say yuck, I got it only a couple of hours before, and it’s designed to keep in long-haul trucks on the Interstate. Delicious.

It couldn’t have been seven minutes from the time I stepped off the airplane to the time we were driving away in Ken’s Prius. The hybrid car is not as out-of-place as you might imagine in Super-Red-State Arizona. Tucson is actually a liberal island in a sea of anti-immigrant hostility. (Though these folks do have to live on the fringe of the Mexican Drug War, with a strong Mexican Mafia presence in town as well.)

I’ll spare you any more details on what he and I did in the handful of hours we had before the lecture. But cruising on the Prius-driving-tour gave me a bit of perspective on where the town is situated. The city is actually surrounded by mountains, and pretty ones at that. I’d rank it highly on the natural beauty scale. But that probably doesn’t matter if you’re sitting inside with your underwear pressed up against the air conditioning unit.

We turned up at the CCP about an hour before kickoff, to get some good seats reserved. And to catch up with the other artists that drove into town from California and Phoenix. People pay attention when a big dog pops his head out in public.

The lecture began soon enough, and the audience was both packed and silent. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve been in a quieter crowded lecture hall since taking final exams at Duke all those years ago. But this was fun instead of hysterically stressful.

Mr. Misrach structured the lecture as a linear narrative of the projects he’d done throughout his career. I was familiar with all of the earlier work, the Desert Cantos photos upon which he built his career. The Salton Sea. The fires. The Bravo 20 Bombing range pictures. The salt flats.

The projection was excellent, and the pictures looked amazing at 15’x15′, or whatever it was. It made me want to create super-giant prints, or do projection installations. Anything to achieve that powerful sense of scale. He claimed inspiration for the Cantos series, in which the projects interlock to inform each other and the whole, from Dante and Ezra Pound.

Mr. Misrach continued on through pretty pictures, like “Golden Gate” and “On the Beach,” and also showed newer things I’d not seen. Images from Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, Iphone images, (of course,) and a return to working in Cancer Alley, Louisiana. The project, which began in the late nineties, originated as a commission from the High Museum in Atlanta.

I’d first seen one of the large scale color images at the now-defunct Friends of Photography in San Francisco many years ago. He showed dozens of these photos, each more compelling than the next. Factories, chemical plants, plantations, riverscapes, old shacks, all in that famously perfect light. I felt the work certainly on par with Edward Burtynsky’s photographs of corporate-sponsored environmental degradation.

I heard the first seat creaks from the crowd at the one hour mark, just as he was discussing his new Aperture book “Petrochemical America,” with design work by Kate Orff. Then, things took a strange turn. (And then stranger still, but I’ll get there.) Mr. Misrach wrapped up the lecture with a segment on the private salon he has at his studio with a handful of younger Bay Area Artists. He went on to show slides of their work, including Doug Rickard, Paul Schiek, Jason Fulford, and my previously-mentioned-friend McNair.

That the San Francisco collaborative scene made such a prominent appearance here in Tucson, just a couple of weeks after I was in SF, was totally surreal for me. I’m not sure people knew what to think. Was he promoting his younger buddies, blatantly, or showing off work that inspired and intrigued him? This was quickly followed by an excellent Q&A, in which Mr. Misrach seemed to enjoy responding directly, rather than sticking to the script.

Here are a few quotes I thought you’d find interesting. On the political impact of his work: “Whether they can change public policy? I don’t think that’s real.” On how he stayed safe in the dangerous situations in which he often found himself: “I was young and stupid.” On how he deals with delving into bleakness of eco-misery: “It’s a job.”

He also said, of art making, “the process is metaphysical.” Let me be the first to agree. Finally, speaking about switching from large format film photography to medium format digital, he said, “I’m making better pictures now than I could possibly do with an 8″x10″ negative.” Hard to believe, but I suppose he’s earned our suspension of disbelief.

Seconds after he finished speaking, Lisa waved to a friend, and her diamond engagement ring flew off her hand, in full view of dozens of people, and disappeared into thin air. I’m always telling my son that things don’t vanish, but it happened before my eyes. Fortunately, the ring was discovered a month later, in the bowels of the pocket book of the lady sitting next to her.

Then, we headed back to their place for a Taco Truck dinner, and a little impromptu, photo-geek-salon/taco fiesta. We had five photographers with five MFA’s between them: a Guggenheim Fellow, two artists showing at Klompching in Brooklyn, a photographer who went to school with Gregory Crewdson, and me.

The consensus on the lecture was that Mr. Misrach was too literal and linear, and didn’t provide inspiration for my colleagues. His target audience was clearly the many young college students in attendance, who were likely less familiar with his canon than we. Alec Soth was suggested as a model of the inspirational lecturer, as several of the photographers had recently seen him speak at the Medium Festival in San Diego.

Personally, I hung on Mr. Misrach’s every word. Beyond the countless incredible photographs, and the consistently relevant issues, seeing that many years of production inspired me. Just do the work, he implied. Keep doing the work. It was kind of Zen.

Back at our round-table, I mentioned the Cindy Sherman show at SFMOMA, and we kicked around comparisons of major artists who’ve lost it and got it back again. Robert Mapplethorpe came up in the photo world, but most comps were to music. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen.

Finally, someone asked the following question, with which I will leave you. (Feel free to discuss it amongst yourselves.) Over time, what costs more, having a child, or an art career?

This Week In Photography Books – Chema Madoz

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last night, my wife trudged to bed in her green bathrobe. At 7pm. She looked at me, forlorn, and said, “It feels like it’s always time to make the donuts.” Then she continued down the hall.

Much as I wished to say something witty or helpful, I was at a loss. Our lives are pretty wonderful, all things considered, but she hasn’t slept right in six months. Every day, from wakeup to bed, she’s responsible for helping someone out of a mess, or cleaning one up from the kids.

Some day, she’ll sleep through the night again. Schedules will develop, allowing for some planned “downtime.” Fun will return to her life, and someone else can make those blasted donuts instead.

Drudgery is a part of the human condition, as much as fun. Death never happens without the sex first, right? But Art is one of the best ways to try to cheat said mortality. And when we make it, we preoccupy those parts of the brain otherwise used for neurotic self-criticality, or constant to-do-list-making. (And the prints we leave behind will outlast us, we hope.)

Those negative thought trains are silenced while the hand draws a line, types a phrase, or clicks a shutter. We all know how much fun it is to be focused on both the present, and the matter of creation at hand. Looking at Art does much the same thing, with the additional benefit of giving us new information about the world around us.

When we’re exclusively literal, we miss out on many of the best parts of life. Photography is a literal medium, but we all know it can be cheated. (I was fooled by a fake shark-in-a-Long-Beach-Island-Front-Yard photograph. Even tweeted it.)

Literature and painting are all better known for delivering abstracted realities. Hence the love for writers like Murakami and Garcia Marquez. And Spanish painters like Picasso, Goya and Dali. (Not to mention the not-quite-Spanishly titled “El Greco”.)

Personally, I love the blending of absurdity married to reality that we see in Spanish culture. I speak from the experience of the bastard son. New Mexico has deeply Spanish roots, but our particular kind of lunacy is homegrown.

As anyone would tell you, life is crazy. But that need not be a sorry assertion. Absurd humor can be cathartic and profound, and is rarely seen in modern photography. Much rarer still in Black and White. So I was happy to find a new soft-cover book from Chema Madoz, a Spaniard, published jointly by PHotoBolsillo and La Fabrica.

I’d never heard of the artist, but that’s not unusual for this column. The pin-through-the-cloud cover gives a quick and not subtle nod to surrealism, and probably Photoshop. The pictures within are excellent. Formally, they’re super-tight. The tonality is always well-crafted too, as is the use of light. The subjects are sculptural as well as whimsical.

We see a chair wearing suspenders. A burned match in the center of a thermostat. A set of plates, stacked in a storm grate instead of a dish rack. A cactus made of stone. Scissors with eye lashes. Shoelaces made of braided hair.

Surreal images like these are ideal for expressing the dreamlike world of the subconscious. And for reminding us that life is not all about punching the time-clock.

Given my own work, and my taste, it was almost assured that I’d love this book. But I think most people would. Once you’ve flipped through it, you’ll likely feel a bit better than you did before. I should probably show it to my wife when she gets home from work.

Bottom Line: Formal, Surreal, Black & White photo gems

To purchase PHotoBolsillo 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.

 

Interview with New Mexico Museum of Art Photography Curator Katherine Ware

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Katherine Ware is the curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe. In 2011, she curated the blockbuster landscape photography exhibition, “Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment.” We caught up earlier this Fall, chatting under fluorescent lighting in the museum library in the basement of its 1917 building.

Jonathan Blaustein: How did it all begin? Were you a little girl who aspired to be a curator?

Katherine Ware: I wanted to work in a museum. That was clear.

JB: Always? Growing up in Ohio?

KW: Yes. We would play museum.

JB: You would play museum?

KW: I did. We collected a lot of nature artifacts in my family. Fossils and shells. My dad had this thing called the floating rock. So there was a demo part of the museum that we would set up with a bucket of water, to reveal its extraordinary nature.

JB: You had a demo at your pretend museum?

KW: It wasn’t pretend. (laughing.) Initially we took all our stuff over to the neighbor’s carport. We would set it up there.

JB: With your parents?

KW: No, the kids would set it up. I was very into labeling things. And making labels for the collection. Very into arranging things. I don’t think anyone ever came. I really don’t.

JB: To the carport?

KW: Right. But it was a big production to drag it all over there. And we had to get it shut down by the end of the day so that their dad could park there.

JB: Did you sell concessions? Was there a lemonade cart?

KW: No. We didn’t have a shop. Later, when we moved to a different house, my dad built us some shelves, so we had our own museum in the house. We put our specimens on that. And now I have some of the things on a small bookcase in my laundry room.

JB: So how does one go from the childhood dream to a career? Did you study art history? How does it work?

KW: I was an English major, because I was going to be a features journalist. That seemed like something practical I could do. I feel like I ended up being something like that. As a curator, I identify something of interest, do research on it, study, read, and then write about it, share it with people. And then I move on to something else.

JB: You just cut my next question off at the knees!

KW: What was it going to be?

JB: I was just wondering whether the average photographer really understands the complexity of your job. I was going ask about the nuts and bolts. You were leading into that.

KW: Was I?

JB: Yeah, you condensed it. I was hoping you could expand it.

KW: I don’t remember what I said at all.

JB: For the record, neither of us is rolling with too many brain cells today.

KW: That’s right.

JB: Your average, everyday art viewer pays their money, walks into a beautiful space, and sees art and text on the wall. I don’t think they spend too much time thinking about the years of planning that go into it.

KW: Right. But hold that thought for a moment so I can declare that I like stuff. I like objects. I don’t quite know how the transition got made from fossils to photography in regard to the type of things I work with. I don’t have a great story about that. Maybe it could be anything. Maybe the important part is the power in a one-to-one interaction between a person and an object. With the original, so to speak.

JB: Do you love all art equally, or does photography move you in a way that other media don’t?

KW: I was really involved in art making for a while, but I never considered myself an artist. As to why I connected to photography? I don’t know. I was in Washington DC in the 80’s, and photography was really starting to cook. It was an interesting time, and I think I just kind of latched on to it. What a great ride it’s been!

To come back to your other question of what goes into it, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff, and we can talk about that if you want to.

JB: Why, is it too boring to talk about?

KW: We can find out.

JB: In all our interviews, beyond being interesting and keeping people engaged, the goal is to give people information that they would not typically have access to.

So beyond questions about your job, I’d also love to talk about the things that you see. You see a lot of work. And among the taste-makers, I think curators have that magic ability to get work on the wall. That’s part of your job.

Almost everybody wants to have work on the wall, and there are only several score of people that can do that themselves. That have the inherent power to take something from the ether and put it on the wall.

KW: There’s a funny split — people think I get to show what I want, or I get to decide what’s shown and it’s true to an extent, but it’s also really, really not true. There’s a funny tension there, well, not so funny. On the one hand, I am in this job, and I’m the most likely person to get to show what she wants to show. But there are lots of other factors that go into it.

JB: Like what?

KW: There are people whose work I like more than anyone else’s in all the world, but in many cases I never have found a way to show or acquire it. We think a lot about balance in an exhibition program. If we’re showing some contemporary work, then often we’ll try to balance that with historic work.

We think about what we’re going to show throughout the building from a variety of angles with the idea of providing a richness of perspectives, not just the experience of one culture or one artistic school or fraternity. Art in New Mexico, especially, has benefited from all the people and cultures that have touched it and we do strive to demonstrate that. But you can only balance so much, and ultimately I believe that if you don’t follow the curator’s eye you end up with something very wishy-washy and santitized.

JB: By committee?

KW: Yeah. There’s a funny level of ego to the job, in that sense. At the same time, we’re always trying to mediate that. Do the checks and balances on that. Probably about as effective as our national system of government, right?

JB: I would guess that you end up getting constrained by politics and money. What tends to stand in the way of you expressing your vision?

KW: There’s only so much gallery space. That’s a big one.

JB: How many exhibitions do you get to mount in a year?

KW: That is unclear at this time. (laughing.) What I could do, if it’s helpful at getting at some of these issues, is talk about how the “Earth Now” project happened. It’s a great example of how something gets generated.

I was new to the museum, I got here at the end of 2008. The idea was to do an exhibition that would showcase my arrival, but the mandate was that it be a landscape show, and primarily from the collection. That was what I started out with, and I was trying to find a way to distinguish it from other projects.

One of the things I found out was that we didn’t have a lot of landscape photography in the collection. So that made it more difficult.

JB: (laughing.) To pull together an exhibition from the collection?

KW: That’s right. And I also found out that there has been a lot of shows and a LOT of writing on landscape photography!

JB: Especially in the Southwest.

KW: I also found out I didn’t know much about it. And that was a real scramble. Turns out, I’d never done a show about landscape issues. That was new to me.

JB: I saw the show, and really enjoyed it. Our readers know I get to see a lot of work, which is a great part of my job. This show was unique in that you clearly incorporated a number of younger, unknown, and lesser-known artists alongside a lot of heavy hitters. Like Misrach and Robert Adams and such.

I don’t see that very often, in the museum context, and I’d love to see more of that. How did that come about? And were you trying to deviate from the norm in expanding the talent pool?

KW: Yes, I’m that deviant. (laughing.) I really like to contextualize things that way. I think that can be a really strong approach. But I have to say, I felt very boxed in regarding what I could do by what has already been done. The quickest out was to concentrate on contemporary work, because it hasn’t been done yet. It hasn’t been beaten to death. No one has written about it 17 times. But to look at it together with what preceded it.

People say this all the time about Ansel Adams and Stieglitz: Does anybody really need to see another show of those guys’ work? We hope there’s always richness to go back to in them, but there’s also so much more out there. It was a really great opportunity to tap into both sides of the equation. And also what motivated me was seeing how many people were doing work that seemed to be about human relationships with the environment. What’s more pressing right now? That’s really one of our top issues, I would say.

JB: I would agree. I turned my personal attention from food to nature. I thought it was a natural (no pun intended) progression.

KW: But the food is intertwined with that too.

JB: Of course. I want the projects to fit together, and to look at core aspects of the human condition. Our life on this planet is so limited.

KW: It’s interesting to think about that strategy. I’m just lumping you and I together, but are we doing something additive when projects overlap over interlock, or we are we just repeating ourselves? That’s always the question for me.

JB: What did you take away from your experience curating “Earth Now?” How did it change your perspective on contemporary environmental issues?

KW: I got a couple of really big things out of it. One is that I really do believe that Art can make a difference. I was very skeptical about that before, as were most of the artists I talked to. But it can be a real catalyst. And the thing that was most powerful to me was that images can reach people in a way that intellectual conversation maybe can’t. Because we put up our barriers to the words.

Most people, we’ve already decided what we believe, and we’re going to defend that. Whereas an image, because it’s not speaking to you on a factual basis, can be more emotional. It can get into you and stimulate contemplation. Of course, it all gets filtered through the brain eventually. But it can be a crack in the armor. A way you can reach people. I found that really powerful.

The other thing that I learned with that show was I’m less interested in telling; in being the expert. This isn’t unique to me, necessarily. But lately, or at this age, I’m less interested in being the person who provides you with the answers, than the person who guides you in the questions.

JB: I know a lot of artists view their job that way. Curation is a creative expression, as is Art-making. I mentioned earlier that you were bold enough to exhibit several artists whose work might not have been seen in a museum context before. How did you go about finding these lesser known artists?

KW: I want to address something you were saying earlier, which is, “What does Art mean?” We’re always pushing on that in the portfolio reviews. I expect an artist statement, and that the artist will know what he or she is doing. What they’re trying to communicate. These are all really hard-line things the reviewers can get very adamant about. But in the end, isn’t a picture always is more than we can say, isn’t that it’s strength? So in the past, I think I’ve seen my job as taking some of what you the artists are making, and draw it together and state the meaning in some kind of definitive way.

JB: Right.

KW: I think that’s what I’ve done in the past. And now I feel more aligned with what you guys are doing, which is you give it a title, you say what your intent is, but you know that it really is much more than that. It has this life out in the world that is far beyond you. Beyond your imaginings, even.

JB: We hope. That’s the best case scenario.

KW: Right. So I no longer want to decide on or dictate the meaning. I want to participate in making the meaning. I’m one of the hands it passed through. An interpreter, sure, but not the final answer.

JB: In some sense, you’re a gate-keeper to the audience. In 2012, it’s a little different, because people can run their own shows now. But historically, at least, the audience participated through the institution. But I asked how you found the artists, and then you mentioned portfolio reviews. So I’m guessing that’s the way you’re finding the new work?

KW: That’s right. And referrals from other curators and seeing who pops up in juried shows and online.

JB: I think a lot of photographers are a little resentful that they’re expected to both speak and write about their work at a high level. But most photographers are visual communicators, which is why they’ve gravitated towards this medium. As a talented writer yourself, how do you feel about those expectations for photographers?

KW: That’s a good one to touch on. But I’m going to say one other thing before I forget. I like being the go-between. I like being the conduit between the artist and the public. It’s an amazing role to have. Putting people together with pictures is one of the greatest parts of my job.

But increasingly, if we’re saying that words are not the way things are communicated, or words aren’t the most effective way that things are communicated, then what is my role? That becomes a very interesting question.

I was just talking about that with someone who’s been around the block a little, I think it was Michael Berman. Talking about artist statements, he bluntly said, “The artist can’t do that. They can’t be expected to make the work and to write about it.” I’m someone who’s always pushing on the artist statements, but I really had to laugh. There was just so much truth in it.

Photograph by Bill Owens

Photograph by Richard Misrach

Photograph by Suzette Bross

Photograph by Robert Adams

Photograph by Brad Temkin

Photograph by Sharon Stewart

Photograph by Joan Brennan

Photograph by Ansel Adams

This Week In Photography Books – Cara Phillips

by Jonathan Blaustein

My Dad told me a strange story the other day. Then he tried to tell me again, the next day, sitting in the same chair. Seemed like a great metaphor for Thanksgiving. Same day, same meal, same people, every year.

He read the tale on the Internet, so I immediately assumed it untrue. According to Dad, there’s a guy in China who sued his wife for giving birth to an ugly baby. Once paternity was established, everyone figured he’d lose. But then they discovered his wife had undergone massive plastic surgery, and used to be butt-ugly-heinous. He won a settlement from the judge, so the story goes.

Fortunately, my new baby daughter is totally gorgeous. For now. We’ll see what develops. If she ends up with a grand and Roman nose like I have, we might have to visit the plastic surgeon’s office in 2028. (Happy 16th Birthday, honey. Enjoy your new schnozz.)

Just as we haven’t yet digested how insane and unhealthy it is to be digitally connected to everyone else, all the time, the plastic surgery epidemic is equally absurd and troubling. One can only imagine the daily damage done to impressionable young girls by the cavalcade of fake everything on display in today’s myriad media. Fake boobs on Perez Hilton, fake skin in the fashion mags, fake lips on Top Chef.

People can now, for a fee, cut and paste their bodies, molding flesh like anthropomorphized DNA. That’s pretty nuts. Phil Toledano showed us the freaks, in all their Caravaggio’d-out horror. Great stuff. But mocking the loonies doesn’t exactly lead to subtle iconography.

Cara Phillips’ new monograph, “Singular Beauty,” published by Fw: Books, offers a serene and insightful look inside the scalpel industry. I must say, the book is curiously made. After unwrapping the plastic, one opens the solid, minimalist, white cardboard box-cover, and finds a color-copy-paper-ish, stapled catalog inside. Strange and super low-tech, it seems intended to subvert our desire to aestheticize everything. It also references a catalog in a waiting room, where a fancy lady might peruse herself some boobs.

I was off-put at first, as I’m used to leafing through so many of these expensively crafted productions. But I do give props to the structural metaphor, and it’s in evidence here. The pages are also quirky, as each is an inseparable double-fold, with the titles wedged in between. Black text emerges from beneath the white paper. (Again with the outside/inside dialectic.)

The photos are really well seen: medium or large format, lots of studio lights, banging away in high-end plastic surgery consultation rooms. With tight formal construction, Ms. Phillips shoots the fancy-leather-reclining chairs, the liposuction pump machines, anesthesia stations, metal pokers, and nasty tools of the trade. It’s cooly done, clean and meticulous. That enables the viewer to supply the mental details, like blood seeping into a plastic syringe. (Or liquid fat sucking into a lexan cylinder.)

The photos were all shot in LA, New York, the OC, and DC, so we’re probably only seeing inside the exclusive joints. Not sure that matters much, but it’s definitely not Bakersfield. (Hola, me llamo Dr. Reyes. Quieres un nuevo estomoco? Venga a nuestra officina para un grand discuento. Solamente esta semana.)

I like the work a lot. And for once, I don’t have to chastise the creator for exploiting the Boobs Sell Books℠ phenomenon. Whether as doctorly doodles, or in a sexy-type montage photo, they definitely belong. Couldn’t tell this story without them.

Bottom line: Conceptual book, killer photos, flimsy innards

To Purchase “Singular Beauty” 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.

The San Francisco Fall Season: Cindy Sherman at SFMOMA

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

It was sweating hot on the first Tuesday of October. If you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, keep that phrase in mind. First Tuesday. Because it’s free at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). If you’re the type to get off on saving $18, go then. If you are, however, the type to hate the hordes, then avoid it.

I can understand both perspectives, so when I dropped in on SFMOMA see the blockbuster Cindy Sherman exhibition, I was glad to save the money, yet noticeably cranky because of the crowds. (Karma got me back the following day. At the de Young museum, an older gentleman actually gave me an ironic bow/apology combo, with a smirk on his face, when I asked him not to stand quite so up in my grill.)

SFMOMA is one of my very favorite museums in the US. Amazing place, with consistently interesting shows. I was excited to see Cindy Sherman’s show here, having missed it on earlier incarnations. (It’s now at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.)

I’ve always been a fan of her early work, the “Untitled Film Stills.” It’s important, for the obvious reasons. (Feminism, Post-Modernism, Hollywoodism.) I’d never seen more than a handful at once, but they’re lovely. Together, those images pounce in a large 3 wall grid installation early on in the show. (It’s preceded by the earliest self-portraits, from 1975, which are electric and indicative of her continued style.)

Seeing the whole grid together, it’s clear that she’s genuinely acting. That’s what brings the vision through. She’s energetically invested in each photo, through varied landscapes. Ms. Sherman works the drama, and has the charisma of an of-that-moment-Suzanne Somers. (Yes, I just made that comparison.)
One photograph, taken at a train station in Flagstaff, gives off the Western vibe. In another, she has a crucifix in her cleavage. Classy.

The next room has color versions of the Film Stills, larger, mostly from the 80’s. Still strong. Upon closer examination, some of them, with more ornate, luxe costumes, are actually from 2007 and ’11. Despite the more expensive production values, the new ones are definitely not better than the old.

The “Centerfold” images are next, and still compelling. She’s working it, trying to squeeze the last of the “Film Still” style. From there, we walk along, and hit a big skidmark. (No future pun intended.)

The large scale color images adorning the walls of the subsequent room are offensive on every level. (Among those levels are quality and good taste.) The photos depict grotesqerie that makes Joel Peter-Witkin look slightly less alone in his crazy. A cut-off, limbless torso with a tampon in a vagina, and, also, a cock with a cock ring. There’s a photo of putrid rotting entrails, “Untitled #190″, that reminded me of the stomach contents of that fat guy who exploded in “The Meaning of Life.” (I couldn’t eat anover bite.)

So, so, so bad. What’s the point? I’m so rich and successful that I can get collectors to buy photos of rotting shit? Or was it, first, I gave them the surface version of femininity in America, so now I’ll follow with the extreme opposite: what it feels like to be objectified and relegated to second class status? Probably neither. But the pictures suck.

Then, the clowns. I had the privilege, or bad fortune to see these when they debuted at Metro Pictures. At the time, I thought they were horrifying, and the epitome of mailing it in. Once you’re famous enough, people will buy anything to get a piece of the investment action.

Here, they were creepier than in my memory. Again, bad. Bad, bad. Are they interesting for evoking revulsion? I suppose we’ll have to give her that.

At that point, I’d decided that Ms. Sherman was just one more major talent who got soft and rich and lost her edge. She’ll always have Flagstaff. And then, walking into the final rooms of the exhibition, I was surprised. (You know I like to be surprised.)

Those last few galleries were redemptive. Praise Jesus. And to what do we owe this renaissance? I’m going with The Great Recession as my hypothesis. “Untitled #463,” from 2007-8, is a large scale color photo that shows two versions of Ms. Sherman. Both are brown-haired, middle-aged, city party ladies after work. We see a red plastic cup filled with what? Probably not keg beer. She plays each broad to the hilt. Not exactly flattering.

Then, “Untitled, #466,” from 2008, shows a gray haired, grand dame in a beautiful blue silk caftan coat, floor length. She’s standing in an archway of a regal-type Spanish or California Mansion. It’s not a nasty image, but establishes the rich, powerful, older-lady-type vibe. A demographic which Ms. Sherman herself joined. It also references, no doubt, her collector base.

Grand dames buy a lot of expensive art. There are several pictures in the grouping, and they are subtly critical in their depiction of said dames. Her performances are nuanced, but powerful. No mailing it in here. The production design is as good as the acting. Great, great photos, I thought. She’s back.

Why then? Why at all, given how few artists ever pull out of the money-coma-induced nosedive. Well, though it was not so long ago, it’s easy to forget that the American and European economies fell off a cliff in 2007-008. People lost half their wealth within the span of less than a year. Fear was everywhere. Even, presumably, among the super-rich.

So I’d speculate that Ms Sherman felt the pinch, like the rest of us. Wherever her wealth is, she would have gotten hit, and then people would have stopped buying her pictures, for a little while. That kind of freaked-out energy feeds creativity. It’s primal.

Does it matter why she got it back? Or, for that matter, will we ever know? Of course not. It just makes for fun chatter. I loved all of the pictures in the last group, and was happy to see that “IT” could be re-captured, once lost. Inspiring.

In fact, it kicked off a long, round table, two hour conversation about who still has it, who lost it, blah, blah when I was in Tucson the following week to see Richard Misrach lecture at the Center for Creative Photography. Has he lost it? What is his new work like? Stay tuned.

This Week In Photography Books – RJ Shaughnessy

by Jonathan Blaustein

Initially, I hated it. Today’s book: “Stay Cool,” by RJ Shaughnessy. I picked the thing up off my bookstack, attracted to the bright yellow color. (Mmmm, yellow.) Then, I set it down a moment later. It seemed insanely cynical, like a mashup of Larry Clark’s “Kids”, anything by Ryan McGinley, and an American Apparel ad. (No offense.)

But wait, you say. Isn’t he supposed to start off with either a self-referential or quasi-philosophical hook? He never just writes about the book. That’s for squares, man.

Well, today, we’ll (kind of) make an exception. There’s been a lot of my voice on APE this week, and I really don’t want to burn you out. I thought it more appropriate to cut to the chase. (Sort of.)

As I was saying, I didn’t care for the book. I put it back on the stack, and forgot. Today, I peeked again, because, you never know. Opinions, left alone without adult supervision, have been known to change.

Do you remember what it’s like to be a teenager? I mostly recall the endless supply of insecurity that pumped through my blood daily. Yes, I was an angst-ridden youth. Quelle surprise?

Fortunately, having taught photography to high schoolers for seven years, I learned to appreciate the combination of energy, intelligence, passion, creativity and curiosity that so many people display at that age. Fire and brimstone. Piss and Vinegar. (Insert one last random cliché here.)

This book has little text, beyond the ubiquity of “Stay Cool.” Only an intro paragraph that speaks to the desire to tell the “story of youth.” (Naive, or refreshingly earnest?) It ends with an entreaty to pirate, copy, and share these photos any way you like. How Millennial.

The photographs represent a series of very-good-looking kids, in LA, goofing off, being very-good-looking kids in LA. They kiss, climb on top of cars, slap five with the PoPos, climb on some more things. Then they kiss each other again. Release some balloons. And walk around with signs that say “Stay Cool.”

Is this an ironic review? I’m not sure. Because as silly as it sounds as I’m writing about it, (and the first time I saw it,) the book kind-of does capture the spirit. In a world where everyone can’t stop talking about the obnoxious chick from “Girls”, and 20somethings living in their parents’ basements, this captures the phase, just before, when kids do stupid shit just because it’s fun. Not because they want HBO to option their life story.

Teenagers really do the sorts of things we see here. (Though I have no doubt this was thoroughly staged.) And in LA, of all places, I’m sure they’re not shy about showing off their trendy jeans and tight posteriors. No artifice, because it’s all artifice. (Wait, are we talking about LA now, or the kids?)

Bottom line: Fun, in a vapid kind of way

To purchase “Stay Cool” 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.

 

The San Francisco Fall Season: Binh Danh and Ai Weiwei at Haines Gallery

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Artists communicate with symbols. We use them to construct a visual language that can, at its best, transcend the need for verbal translation. As viewers, therefore, we expect to look at a photograph and evaluate the subject as itself, and as a set of ideas we believe it to represent.

In the Chinese Northern Song Dynasty, just after the turn of the first Millennium, huge cliff mountains were rendered, on screen paintings, to represent god. The power of the Universe. Fan Kuan’s “Travelers Among Rivers and Streams” is one of the best examples of this tradition. (Almost 7 ft tall.) Imposing.

This symbol set, plucked from the tradition of perhaps the world’s oldest culture, was at the front of my brain as I walked around Binh Danh’s exhibition of daguerreotypes at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. The photographs were made in Yosemite, that “Most Famous California Landmark,” shot in 2012. Old school new school make sense, in a dematerialized world.

We all know this particular set of rock cliffs, as the place has been shot to death. (Which doomed the show in my companion Kevin’s opinion.) These image/objects, though, shimmered silverly against the gray walls. Blue skies were evident in several, but not all of the pictures. The ghostly, non-realistic way of depicting the mountains brought me straight through time back to those aforementioned, thousand year old screen paintings. Excellent.

Stepping through the Danh exhibition, into the rear of the gallery, I confronted a low, dense, wide pyramid of sunflower seeds, by Ai Weiwei. Quiet. Heavy. Powerful. Beautiful. Zen.

I knew of the project, from which this installation was a small part. Reputedly, the artist commissioned 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds to be made and hand painted in the factories of China. That’s a big enough number to suitably represent 1.3 Billion Chinese people, all individuals, but having to adhere to the same operating code to avoid the gulag.

It also celebrates China. The current manufacturing base has lifted tens or hundreds of millions of citizens out of abject poverty, engendered by an overwhelming collective work ethic. The entirety of the sunflower seed installation was shown at the Tate Modern in 2011. (And they subsequently purchased 8 million of them.)

Here, I faced 500 lbs of the mini-sculptures. A quarter ton. (Or so I was told. Try to to count or weigh them, and security will be on you faster than my jaw dropped when I saw Clint Eastwood kill Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” So Postmodern I still have a headache.) That’s one of the pleasurable absurdities of work like this. We trust, but implicitly know the arithmetic could be off. Who would know?

In this gallery, fortunately, the version on display was worth Mr. Ai’s considerable hype. Massively beautiful, the perfect art stand-in for the experience of sitting beside a tree next to a cliff, listening to a waterfall behind you. (And I should know.)

Ben Lowy Interview – Part 2

- - Photographers

by Jonathan Blaustein

I caught up with Ben Lowy in August. He’s a busy man, juggling family and personal projects with a super-charged career. In the last year alone, he was in Libya, on Jon Stewart, won the photojournalist of the year award from the ICP, and had his book, “Iraq Perspectives” published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. This is Part 2 of my interview, part 1 is (here).

Jonathan Blaustein: We met in 2009, a little bit before you were king of the world. You were probably prince, but not yet king.

Ben Lowy: Whatever. I’m not king of the world.

JB: All right, I’m exaggerating a little. You get the point. You don’t have to be humble, you’re being interviewed.

BL: OK.

JB:You said to me, “I’m about to have my first kid, and I need to transition my career. I’m done with the war stuff because I’m going to have a family, and I need to figure out a way to be based more in New York.”

BL: As with any type of specialized job, where people excel to be part of a niche, a lot of it is ego. I couldn’t, and I still can’t put my ego aside. I worked really hard to be this war photographer. That started when I was 23, where my first assignment was the Iraq War. I was really ambitious.

JB: Did I read that you took Saul Schwarz’s place on your first job? Is that right? As a 23 year old kid?

BL: Yeah. There are no hard feelings between us about that. But I couldn’t give it up. Even now, when I see my friends who are in Syria, I feel a twinge. Not just because I want to cover that story. It’s what your contemporaries are doing. There’s a certain keeping up with the Joneses of every industry. That’s the only way you keep going, is to have somewhat of an ego.

Photography, regardless if it’s photojournalism, or some sort of esoteric contemporary art, you’re putting a bit of your soul in it. That soul is what makes you take a picture at that instant. It’s what makes you compose, to wait for things to happen. For serendipity.

Every photograph is a product of the photographer’s experiences in their entire life. It’s everything that comes together that makes them want to take that picture at that instant. Otherwise, we would all be robots.

When I had kids, I fought the idea that I have to give this up. Am I being an irresponsible parent to go back and do this? And I think what was really hard, especially after my second son, Kaleb, was my wife went into labor an hour after Tim Hetherington’s memorial. And Kaleb was born on May 25th, which was the day Robert Capa died.

Two months later, Tripoli was falling, and I wanted to go back. My wife had a big problem with me doing that. So I promised her, look at Joachim Ladefoged’s book on Albanians. It’s an amazing book, and there are no violent situations in there. So I can go back and cover Libya without getting into any violence. And she was like, “Sure.”

And then I went, and me, Ron Haviv, and Yuri Korzyev shared a car together. Of course, those dudes are just looking for violence. I ended up grabbing this picture of this guy getting his head blown off like 5 feet in front of me. Literally, he got his head blown off in front of me.

It was in a stairwell of an apartment building. I watched as the blood started cascading down the stairs. I took several pictures of it. And then, I was standing next to Ron, and we were like, “We need to get the fuck out of here,” because the rebels had just left. As we were running out of the building, someone chucked a grenade over our head. Ron has a video of this, as we were running down the stairs.

I sat on those pictures for weeks. And I didn’t move them. The minute I moved them, my wife was going to know. Actually that’s what happened. Within an hour of transferring them, my wife had seen them on the Getty site, and she was furious.

She said, “It’s basically like you cheated on me.”

JB: Wow. You cheated on her with War.

BL: Yeah. She was almost going to leave me. When I left Libya last year, I went to Afghanistan for an assignment, and I was there for about 6 weeks. My American phone bill must have been $5000, because I was constantly on the phone with my wife, begging her not to leave me.

One of the things that I had to recognize, which was really hard, was that I’m selfish. I had to man up and acknowledge that, for this job to work. Even yesterday, when I walk out of the door to come here, my son was crying. Standing by the door, crying. And I just took my camera bag, and I left.

I’m sure that happens to everyone with children, but to do this job, to be on the road, and then to risk your life when you have a child waiting for you is selfish. Is it any different than being a soldier or a police officer? No one has to do these jobs. We choose to do them because we feel like we bring something to the table.

A soldier protects his country, a police officer protects his community, and as a journalist, I’m trying to educate my community. We all make these sacrifices of our home, our friendships, or our family. There has to be an awareness that to do this, I was being a little selfish. Or a lot selfish. To put myself in danger, to say, “I might die and my kids might grow up without a parent because I want to take these pictures.”

Why do we as photographers always go straight to the worst parts? The first pictures any student takes are of homeless dudes. It’s easy, it’s grimy. We’re taught that it’s the epitome of photography, the off-center, because the normal photo of Billy on Main Street holding a balloon is not enough. He has to be holding a grenade like Diane Arbus.

JB: It’s the drama. It’s innate human nature, to look at or hear or read something that takes you out of your head. The drama of someone’s tragedy is what drives people to want to look at the pictures that you make.

I was looking at your most recent work on your website, “The Fall of Tripoli.” First of all, the work is so present. It seems like you’re growing, which I’m sure was your goal. I could almost smell the pictures. There were a lot of photographs of char, and burning. They bring you into the moment, and I was almost having phantom smells.

That’s interesting to me, because photography is clearly a visual medium. Beyond the smells, even sounds were popping in my head, like wailing sirens.

What sensory impressions do you have from your time there? Is it sounds, or smells, or what?

BL: Smell is amazing. Cordite, and explosions, and burning have really unique smells that you don’t smell in the West. The smell of death is really intense. It’s one of those things where if you smell it, even if you’re uninitiated, you will know that something is dead. The smell is that strong, that pungent, and biologically, you will recognize it.

When you’re on the front lines, you can smell burning gunpowder, the dust in the wind. There is something very visceral about that.

Sound is very difficult. We are ruined by Jerry Bruckheimer movies. We are ruined by Hollywood. When you see an explosion in a movie, you hear it. But in real life, you see it way before you hear it. The speed of light and the speed of sound are two different things. It’s very disconcerting. Not how we expect it to work out.

The closest thing is like a David Mamet movie. There’s no soundtrack. Have you seen “Haywire?” It’s by…

JB: Stephen Soderbergh? No, I haven’t seen it.

BL: If you look at “Haywire,” all the fight scenes have no soundtrack. And the gunfire was real. It was real sounds.

JB: Is that the one that featured the female MMA star?

BL: Yeah. Gunfire doesn’t sound like what it does in the movies. Silencers don’t work like you think they do. Explosions are…you only learn this stuff from being in the field. I guess it’s weird that I know that.

There’s no way to accurately portray what it’s like being there. We’re trying to do it in the most efficient way possible. But there’s no way to record smell. Yet. And I’m not sure that would really jive with the crowd who eats their breakfast and watches the news in the morning.

JB: Do you think it’s interesting that I thought your pictures were implying it?

BL: I do. But I have to say that’s not something that I was consciously trying to do.

JB: Your new work is some of your best work. You know, my training is in Art. That’s the way I make my work, how I express myself. And with these images, the sense of presence, of someone actually being there, combined with some formal compositions, there was a bit of transformation.

I look at a lot of pictures, as you can imagine, and looking at that particular batch, it wasn’t so much the thrill of the chase…

BL: I’m just maturing as a photographer. Earlier in my career, I was making images because I thought I had to make them. Or because this was what an image was supposed to be like. Now I’m making images purely based upon my experiences. This is something visceral to me, so I’m photographing it.

That’s where you’re getting more information, because I’m reacting to those sounds and those smells, and now, my eye has matured enough where I’m able to construct an image that implies all these things.

JB: Yeah.

BL: I’m there more in these images than in the past.

JB: That’s what I’m getting out of it. How do you gauge your improvement as a photographer?

BL: To be honest, I feel like I hit this plateau in the last few years. There was a point in 2007-8 where I was constantly working. I had a client at the time who really championed me, kept me busy. Because I was working so much, it was like I was practicing so much. I was able to really grow.

In the last two years, because of the downturn in the economy, it’s been very hard, and there hasn’t been a lot of work. And then, having kids, I haven’t been doing anything on spec, because I’m not allowed to raid the diaper fund. It’s been a little hard to grow my eye.

That being said, I’m definitely seeing the world more in a way that I want to see it, rather than the way I thought I should see it. I think when we all start, we look at the photographers that we enjoy, and we try to construct images based on those archetypes.

How many students have recreated that eyes cut off on the bottom of the frame picture that we’ve seen 1000 times? Or the foreground crazy out of focus head, and then something in the background, for easy layering? These are tropes of compositional photography that we use as crutches, and once you get through them, and you understand the language of photography, as you grow, you move past those. And you start creating your own tropes.

JB: OK. In the beginning of the interview, you mentioned that with your busy life, you don’t have time to do go see any shows or anything. Outside of looking at your colleagues’ photography, what do you look to for inspiration? How do you feed your brain?

BL: That’s a problem. There hasn’t been a lot of that of late. I read a lot.

JB: Anything interesting lately?

BL: I’m just finishing up my last Haruki Murakami book.

JB: The master.

BL: I wish I could photograph like that. I wish I could take his literary vision and photograph it.

JB: You and everybody else, dude.

Ben Lowy Interview – Part 1

- - Photographers

by Jonathan Blaustein

I caught up with Ben Lowy in August. He’s a busy man, juggling family and personal projects with a super-charged career. In the last year alone, he was in Libya, on Jon Stewart, won the photojournalist of the year award from the ICP, and had his book, “Iraq Perspectives” published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke.

Jonathan Blaustein: Forgive me if I’m a bit slow today, but we’re about to have a kid, so my mind is frazzled.

Ben Lowy: I absolutely love being a Dad. I love having two kids. They’re both in the tantrum stage right now.

JB: Because you bunched them up, right?

BL: Yeah, the oldest one’s about to turn three. And the youngest one is about 15 months.

JB: Oh my goodness.

BL: Yeah, they’re right together there. I love it. The thing is, I have no social life. By the time we put them to bed, at 7:30 or 8pm, we don’t want to go out or do anything. We’d have to do it separately anyway.

Whatever free time we have is either with the kids, or working on the evaporating work environment of photography. You’re holding on by this much. There’s no time to go to museums, or go to a movie. There’s nothing coming in to inspire you.

JB: That was one of my questions for later on, so we can touch back in on that. It might be really interesting to talk about it in depth, because I’m a big believer that input is really necessary to make us grow.

Let’s start with the obvious. You’re in Denver right now. What are you working on?

BL: I am shooting a UFC fight. A cage fight.

JB: When you said Denver, I assumed you were there for the aftermath of the latest psychopathic episode.

BL: I think that was covered right away. And the follow up is just the memorial. I think the American news cycle has moved away from things like that. There’s so much content on the wire services, and people who are out there. It’s sort of like the death of spot news.

JB: So they hire Ben Lowy for the action, not the reaction.

BL: I’ve been here twice, and neither time was for Aurora. I was here last week to shoot Broncos practice for Peyton Manning.

JB: You got to hang out with Peyton?

BL: No, no. I was working for ESPN, and the Broncos blew off ESPN. I got 20 minutes on the training field. That’s how high brow they think they are.

JB: You know why? Because John Elway is John Elway. He doesn’t even need ESPN.

BL: (Pause) C’est la vie.

JB: That was a big pause. Clearly, my amateur response was not quite it. There are more details there, and you’re not saying them.

BL: I wish there was more to it. You know, I’ve been shooting cage fighting on and off for the last 5 years.

JB: I didn’t know that. Is that a personal project for you?

BL: Yeah. I had really bad PTSD after a bomb in Iraq in 2007. And I had no one to talk to about it. My wife was going through her own battles with depression at the time, and was hospitalized. I don’t know if you saw the project she had done on it.

JB: No.

BL: She was in the hospital, and I really didn’t have anyone to talk to. I was starting to feel really guilty about surviving. And then also taking care of my wife. I started, at night, going around the city of New York picking fights. Because I wanted to get beaten up because I felt so guilty.

JB: I wanted to talk to you about how you protect and deal with your psyche. Before I could ask, you started talking about it in ways that are pretty extreme.

BL: I’m an open book. I’ve got nothing to hide. I was pretty fucked up by things that happened in 2007. And I felt really guilty about surviving.

JB: A bomb attack?

BL: A bomb attack. When I came back, I had no way to process it. I tried to work through it, but it just kept getting worse. I used to be a man of infinite patience, and found myself losing it. Little mundane things. Like if I dropped a glass while washing dishes, it would send me on a rant, and I’d end up punching the walls of my apartment. I was so angry.

A lot of it was feeling guilty for surviving, and feeling angry for being out of control. One of the leftover effects, after going through therapy, is that I can’t drink or do drugs. I just can’t do it. And it’s not because of a moral choice.

This bombing happened. This series of IED’s, that destroyed five of the ten car convoy. The last car I got in, I was sitting behind the driver, and was watching how he was driving. Turning the steering wheel here and there. He could have driven over any IED. I had no control over whether I lived or died. My life was in that guy’s hands.

JB: So we’re talking about a convoy of multiple humvees, five of which exploded, and everyone died, and you survived.

BL: A lot of people died, and were injured. Yeah.

JB: And you were there by choice.

BL: Yeah. Yeah. I had just gotten out of a vehicle that I didn’t want to be in. I wanted to be a bit further up to the front, where I thought I’d be able to make better pictures. The vehicle I’d just gotten out of was actually destroyed. Five minutes after I’d gotten out.

JB: For your photography, your method of expression, you’re putting yourself in situations that 99% of our readership are not going to understand. Myself included. But I don’t necessarily want to ask you why you do that, because that stuff has been covered. Do you ever get tired of trying to explain yourself?

BL: (Pause) You know, right now, I’m staying in a hotel. I’ll sit at breakfast with a bunch of other businesspeople. We’ll all be schmoozing, and I’ll tell them what I do. They’ll say, “You were in Iraq?” and I’m like, “Yeah,” and they’ll say, “What was that like?”

JB: That’s what people are going to say.

BL: That question is annoying after a while, but at the same time, how can you blame someone for asking that? You want people to be genuinely interested. You want them to look at your pictures and read the stories.

The one thing I would never ask a soldier is what it’s like to kill someone. That’s a very private thing. Everyone asks me what it’s like to photograph dead babies, or to see people being killed. It’s a very hard question to answer, because we’re all sensitive and empathetic in our own way to different things.

I always knew I was going to be a war photographer, when I first got into photography. I picked up a copy of “Inferno” by Nachtwey, and I thought, this is what I’m doing. I don’t know what it is inside me that let’s me operate. I feel a certain contentedness in doing this work.

Not all combat photographers or photojournalists are close friends. Definitely there’s animosity and rancor and jealousy and envy between a lot of us. It’s a very competitive field. But when you’re in the field, and you’re under fire… I don’t know if you read Sebastian Junger’s book on War?

JB: No.

BL: He talked about the brotherhood of soldiers. Regardless of where you’re from, when you’re under fire, there’s an intense brotherhood. Definitely with photographers, when you’re in the field, and you’re working, there is an intense comradeship. Is that a word?

JB: Dude, it’s the 21st Century. You can make a word just by saying it. Ready? Blart. To blart means…

BL: We’re blarting right now.

JB: Right.

BL: But there’s an intense comradeship. You’re part of this organic group, covering something very dangerous.

JB: To be honest, I am less interested in asking you why you do it, and more interested in the effect upon you, which is where you started.

BL: I was picking fights, and ended up joining a fight club. Then a friend of mine introduced me to cage fighting. I started fighting in it myself, but I’m not much of an athlete, and was getting my ass kicked. Which is what I wanted.

Then, I just started photographing it, and it’s been a catharsis for me. Not really the professional level, where it’s more of a sport. But the amateur level, where it’s more of anger. More of an explosive pride and frustration that builds inside the fighters’ hearts. Being around that helped me tremendously.

JB: It sounds like it puts together two different incredibly powerful aspects of your life. One is the anger and aggression that you’re talking about feeling, and the other is raw, primal nature of what they’re doing, which is gotta be what’s driving you to make a living the way you are.

You’re a very bright guy. You know there are a lot of things you could do. It’s not just that you’re capable of doing what you are, but it must be answering some sort of compulsion, no? There are a lot of things you could do, and yet you keep going back.

BL: I know. Much to my wife’s annoyance.

Part 2 tomorrow

 


This Week In Photography Books – Jonathan Hollingsworth

by Jonathan Blaustein

Here in the United States, we are a nation of immigrants. And yet, we have always demonized them. Does that make us self-hating Americans? Simply ridiculous. Do you know anyone who traces his lineage back to the Mayflower? I don’t.

Of course, those blasted Pilgrims were immigrants themselves. As were the brave, thoroughly crazy men and women who trekked across the Bering Strait land bridge 15,000 years ago. Can you imagine? How hard must life have been in pre-historic Siberia, (or Mongolia,) that it seemed prudent to walk across the frozen ice, into the great unknown? (And then to walk all the way to Argentina? I know people here who drive to the next door neighbor’s house.)

As you probably know by now, I live in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. In my town, the Taos Pueblo claims to be the oldest continually inhabited settlement in the United States. The Spanish conquistadors, who arrived to cut off feet and f-ck shit up, came sometime around 1600. The invading hordes of white hippies and bohemians dropped in (or out) much later, in the 1970’s.

Ironically, all three groups of people have some delicious irony in common. (If I may be so bold as to stereotype.) Each wishes things would go back to the way they used to be. Before new people came to change things for the worse. The Spanish descendants, even today, decry the growth and change, but never seem to mention how their ancestors just took whatever the hell they wanted, at musket-point.

When you stack it up like that, it’s hard not to think hypocrisy hardwired into the human condition. (I do, at least.) A nation of immigrants that has never stopped persecuting itself. How strange.

In 2012, the derogated population du jour is the invading hordes of Mexican and Central Americans who face unthinkable danger when they walk across a forbidding and death-filled desert. Their purpose? To take the fruit-picking, hedge-trimming, and dish-washing jobs deemed too low-paying and thankless for America’s resident citizens.

I still remember the time I met a few Mexican immigrants at a party in Durham, NC in 1995. The idea of Mexicans moving to such a random spot made me laugh out loud. Now, of course, immigrants from points South have gravitated to almost every part of the United States, and have become a political wedge of immense proportions. (I say almost every part, because who would be surprised to find white dishwashers in Utah?)

How and when we deal with our internal conflict is beyond my capacity to speculate. But if we focus on the arduous journey, it certainly helps to contextualize the situation. Some people are actually willing, on a daily basis, to walk across a 130 degree patch of hell, for days, just to make a better life for themselves and their families. Noble, yet tragic, because someone dies almost every other day. (At least.)

They succumb to the elements. Their bones are left to slowly desiccate, in silence. No tombstone. No funeral. No way home.

Is this news to you? Probably not. But when was the last time you saw visual evidence that made your stomach tighten and your tear ducts fire up? (I know, that doesn’t sound fun. But who said art was always fun?)

Jonathan Hollingsworth recently put out a book, “Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border,” published by Dewi Lewis, that does just that. It is among the more poignant and thoughtful objects I’ve seen in some time. If every American citizen had a copy, you can bet Mitt Romney would pretend he could speak Spanish. (Hola. Me llamo Mitt. Me gusta los niños, y caminando a la playa con mi esposa.) Demonizing such people should be a crime.

The book, though, lays out its case in a very straightforward and intelligent manner. The opening, short essay was written by the chief medical examiner of Pima County Arizona, in Tucson, where so many bones turn up at the end of the line. Credibility established.

There are three major sections to the project. The first set of photographs documents the sterile, fluorescent-lit confines of the autopsy locale. Sinks, tables, files, skulls, and a spine for good measure. It’s sad, of course, but also speaks to the power of our democracy. While tax rates are on everyone’s mind, it’s good to be reminded of the civil servants who toil in obscurity, day after day, to try to find the answers in these lonely deaths.

Then, we have a slightly-too-long section of images of the contents found on the possession of each corpse or skeleton. ID cards, cell numbers in Brooklyn, coyote contact info, girlfriend photos, belt buckles. Wow. The exact opposite of a dignified stone in a tony cemetery.

Finally, we have the establishment shots. Some landscape images, of course, but also a series of pictures made in a pick-up zone. Left behind shoes, water bottles, clothing. Were they to have come first, their impact would have been muted. At the end of the book, they tug the heart strings rather well.

The book closes with a very-well-written, but not-too-long piece by the artist. Once again, he does what he can to humanize a situation that normally just fumes as a set of statistics. Nicely done, Mr. Hollingsworth. Nicely done.

Bottom line: A sad, poignant, & important book

To purchase “Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border” 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.

 

The San Francisco Fall Season: A Series

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I used to have a friend named Adam. He’s kind of a dick, so we no longer speak. Such a shame. Despite, or perhaps because of his cranky narcissism, he had a huge impact upon the course of my life.

We met when I was 20, and were roommates in Albuquerque for a year. I followed him to UNM, where I studied photography, and to Pratt, where I got my MFA. (No, I’m not a stalker. Yes, I know what you’re thinking.)

Adam’s last great contribution to my education came during a visit to Brooklyn, back in 2000. Along with some friends, we were smoking cigarettes outside a historic pizza joint in Dumbo, and the guys were busting my balls. (That all-time NYC über-skill.) Jessie and I were living in San Francisco at the time, and very happy.

“San Francisco?” Adam yelled. “San Francisco’s not a city. New York is a city. It’s like living in Rome at the height of the Empire. San Francisco? It’s not a city, JB. It’s a country club. A f-cking country club.”

“Screw you, dude,” I drawled. (Proud of my Now-West-Coast-Style chillness.) “It is too a city. I live there. I should know.”

“No. You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s a country club. You’ll see.”

Prophetic words. Jessie and I moved to Brooklyn soon after. New York bitch-slapped us upside the head so swiftly, ferociously, and consistently that I wince even now. They were, fortunately, the most helpful, life-affirming, educational bitch-slaps I’ve received before or since. (Belatedly, I thank you, New York. It’s easy to see why you inspire genius on a daily basis.)

San Francisco, while clearly a city, elicits derogatory daggers from NYC-based writers all the time. Seriously, could they use the word “earnest” more often, while describing the famous San Francisco niceness? (Or chillness. Groundedness. Down-to-Earthness. Take your pick.)

What’s the secret? San Franciscans know they’re living in the prettiest city in the world. Yes, Amsterdam, Rome, London, Paris; are all exquisite. (And no, I haven’t been to Istanbul.) But SF has the architecture to match; thousands and thousands of Victorian and Edwardian gems.

No, the difference is the Nature. The peninsula boasts miles of extraordinary beaches along the Pacific Ocean, with rocky cliffs that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge. There are the views of Alcatraz in the middle of the bay, with sailboats glinting, and the golden/green landscape of Marin County and Oakland looming behind the shining Bay Bridge. (Gold in summer, green in winter.) Plus, the absurdist giant hills, crawling with cable cars, and the Eucalyptus-laden mini-mountains in the city’s heart. It might as well be a fantasy camp for Outward-bound junkies.

Always somewhere on the boom and bust continuum, boom-times are back in 2012. Twitter, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, all have major presences downtown now. Oracle was hosting a 50,000 person geek-fest-convention while I was there too. (Why didn’t Larry Ellison just rent the city, like he bought that Hawaiian Island?)

The Mission still has a Latino population, and Chinatown and the Outer neighborhoods contain a sizable Chinese contingent, but I was shocked at how white and wealthy the downtown section of the city had become. Safe and clean are attributes that draw a certain demographic.

The Bay Area also has access to a bottomless vat of cash-money that practically rivals the Chinese government for liquidity. (Apple and Google are just up the road.) The lifestyle is the big draw. Living in such a beautiful place, where it never snows, is good for your brain chemistry. As is the obvious access to healthy, locally-grown produce, the amazing restaurants and cafes, wine country across the red bridge, and all those nice, chilled out, progressive people as your neighbors.

Open-mindedness blossoms. So much tolerance is addictive. And many folks stay forever, given rent controls, another side-affect of progressive politics. Not surprisingly, co-operative spirit prevails in a place like this.

When I got to town in early October, I found an excited, successful, productive, collaborative, energized photography community. (Whether people were based in the City, or elsewhere around the Bay.) Everyone I spoke to seemed to be connected to one another and supportive of each other’s success. Artists, gallerists, curators, and publishers were working together in different combinations and permutations. (At Gallery Carte Blanche, in the Mission, there was even a mashup exhibition of books from the Indie Photobook Library and framed prints shown together.)

My local contacts, whom I’d met at Review Santa Fe, were so generous with their time. Pointing me in the direction of places to see photos. Sharing the principles that have engendered their success. Inspiring me to break my karaoke cherry. (Yes, I serenaded someone, by request, with Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Does video evidence exist? I don’t know. Would I be ashamed? I suppose we’ll find out.)

The photographers I spoke with, Kevin, Pacarrik, McNair and Sarah were all involved in different critiquing groups. Each was also shooting multiple personal projects at once. They were affiliated with similar publishers, (Owl and Tiger, Daylight) and either worked, printed or hung around Rayko, the gallery/everything space just up the street from SFMOMA, under a highway overpass. When I visited Rayko, Lydia Panas’ “The Mark of Abel” was on view, looking gorgeous, and Kevin’s show, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” was due to open the following week.

Ann Jastrab, the gallery director, gave me the guided tour. Rayko offers full, wraparound services for every possible photographer’s need. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) I saw a shooting studio with lights, gang and private black & white darkrooms, a color processor and darkroom facility, plus a full digital setup with computers, a rental Imacon, a drum scanner, and large format printers.

In addition, they have the aforementioned gallery, a full slate of classes, a glass case selling used cameras, a working vintage 1940’s photo booth, and an artist residency program too. Amazing. It’s like Rayko decided that the 21st Century Hustle was here to stay, and built a business model to satisfy its cravings.

Believe it or not, I told Rob that this San Francisco Series would be more condensed than normal. Not the Introduction, apparently. Henceforth, I’ll do a few specific exhibition reviews, as I saw so many stellar shows. (And one klunker I might just write about.)

Before I go, though, I’d like to deliver a message to my San Francisco peeps, meant with love. It is so gratifying to see your scene thriving. Especially as it’s obviously built upon mutual respect and communal positivity. Kudos.

It can be a challenge, when you’re all connected, to always share your truest thoughts in a critique. When people need to stay on good terms, in order to succeed, there can be a disincentive to probe and offend, which is often necessary to reach that next level of creative excellence. So stay vigilant while you stay classy, San Francisco. It’s a small concern, relative to all the things you seem to have figured out at the moment.

This Week In Photography Books – Daido Moriyama

by Jonathan Blaustein

Two months ago, I referred to Daido Moriyama as a woman. My mistake. Let this be my official apology. He is clearly a man, and I was remiss for stating otherwise. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

How could such a thing happen? Well, I’m not omniscient. Despite the fact that his work is everywhere at the moment, (Tate Modern et al) I’d not seen much before I picked up that Okinawa book. And let’s not forget Dido, that New Age singer who was sampled in that classic Eminem song back in ’99. It must have stuck in my head as a woman’s name. (Like any parent knows, accidents happen.)

But I’d love to atone, and see an easy way to do so. I will now tell you of the existence of “Labyrinth,” Mr. Moriyama’s new book, recently published by Aperture. Yes, this week is more show than tell; not quite a straight review. (Even by my absurd standards.)

Why? Because this book consists of hundreds of black and white contact sheets. Only. Thousands of images. Not even an essay, thank the photo gods. Just an endless stream of photographs, presented with the hits next to the misses. As they were shot.

I’m providing a couple of extra photos, so you can feel confident about your prospective purchase. My two cents? Dynamic imagery, innovative concept. (I’m sure if anyone has ever done this before, you’ll tell me. It’s cool nonetheless.) And to you, Mr. Moriyama, you have my apologies. Keep up the good work.

Bottom line: Excellent book, countless photographs

To purchase “Labyrinth” 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 – Berenice Abbott

by Jonathan Blaustein

I complicate things sometimes. With my elaborate introductions, I could be accused of stealing the spotlight from the books themselves. With the constant references to self, perhaps I am nothing more than a child of a meta-obsessed generation? Malkovich inside his own head.

If I were kind, though, I might focus on my laurels, like the desire to discuss these books in the context of a lived experience. We share more in common with each other than we don’t, I believe. And yet there are some ideas which cannot be accommodated with others. Some divides seem genuinely unbridgeable.

First on my list would be that gap between extreme religious believers, and the rest of us. Religion, taken to its limits, can be an Operating System. The code, once uploaded, can only work within those sets of instructions. No new information can infect a closed loop.

While Jewish in upbringing and somewhat Buddhist in leanings, I have nothing against the whole endeavor. Whether it’s creation mythology or community building, there is a lot of good in said holywater. But much of the death and destruction we see today is based upon either the nasty intertwining of religion and tribalism, or the inability of ancient beliefs to reconcile with a 21st Century understanding of the world.

Here in the US, we have an almost unbelievable battle waging. On one side lie those who believe that Dinosaur bones are only a few thousand years old, women are subservient to men, and the planet is not warmed by an excess of carbon in the atmosphere. Basically, they don’t believe in science.

The others, myself included, view the continuum of knowledge as a good thing. Physics and genetics and all manner of science wings pursue more and more information, while also admitting how much remains to be learned. It’s absurd and also humbling to believe we used to be Australopithecines, grunting and hirsute.

Is this going anywhere? Does it ever? This week’s book is special, and while I rarely go out and say it, this is probably a book to buy: Berenice Abbott, “Documenting Science” recently published by Steidl. Only in the end notes did I learn that this is the second in a series of books about the artist that Mr. Steidl is producing.

The book begins with a wonderfully written, obviously vintage letter by Ms. Abbott, pertaining directly to her desire to study the eponymous subject. So cool. “The artist through history has been the spokesman and conservator of human spiritual energies and ideas.” Serious intentions lead to serious work.

The photographic plates, made from scans in the Steidl studio, are masterful. (And will definitely suit the tonal range cultists out there.) Different scientific concepts, like Motion, Electricity and Magnetism, and Light and Optics are delineated through a variety of individual examples. Each idea has been rendered as an experiment, or visualization.

It’s terribly clunky in words, I know. That’s part of the point. There’s no magic in the phrase “Conservation of Momentum in Spheres of Unequal Mass.” Yet the photograph those words describe is genius. Kinetic yet Zen.

The book is solid as well as dense. If you read this column, and are a book consumer as well, this is one to consider. I’m not sure what it costs, but you’ll likely return to it again and again for years. As well as it’s built, it ought to resonate down the line, serving as proof that Science is more than just big words and thick glasses and white coats.

Bottom line: A masterpiece

To purchase “Documenting Science” visit Photo-Eye

This Week In Photography Books – Xu Yong

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Growing up hetero and male, there is nothing more alluring than a woman’s private parts. The vagina is talismanic, and leads to unhealthy obsessions. For years, in one’s adolescence, a woman’s naked body sits on top of the teen hierarchy, above even cash-money. Objectification may stem from the media’s depiction of women, but there is a genetic element as well.

Then one day, you have a daughter. The day you bring her home, and change the first diaper, the appearance of the vajayjay, as it’s now called, is disconcerting. Confusion follows repulsion, as one really doesn’t know how to recontextualize the situation. Do you look away? Stare at it? Wiping away the brown business requires focus and co-ordination.

I’m not the first man to have a daugher, obviously. We all deal with the awkwardness, and then get more competent. Now, I barely flinch at the task. But I do think, quite a bit, about how my perceptions of women were built upon that foundational obsession. And now, will it forever be different? Is this a cliché sentiment? Probably.

But it could also lead to growth. Sure, I’m an avowed feminist, but raising a girl will inevitably roll over my preconceptions, like a tank over a bicycle. Diggety, diggety, crunch, diggety, diggety.

Father, or not, though, I was totally engrossed with “This Face,” a new book by Chinese artist Xu Yong, recently published by Editions Bessard. It’s a nice follow up to last week’s book, as these images also meditate on the the intersection of boredom and repetition. (Plus daily suffering for the almighty dollar.) Or, in this case, the Yuan.

The book is soft-cover, and probably not built as strongly as I would like. But I’m not the publisher, and of course, it must have been cheaper this way. The string binding sits on the outside, and the initial essay is an insert that falls out too easily. Which is not always a bad thing, because, in this case, it allowed me to see the images without context.

Each photograph is a tight portrait of a young, Chinese woman’s face. It takes a bit of page turning to determine that it’s the same person, because our eyes must acclimate first. (Which builds curiousity and interest.) It’s a great way to add a touch of tension, and keep the pages turning.

She wears no makeup, then lots, and then none again. Her expression changes, but always maintains its guard. We see this face, and want to keep looking, but there is never the payoff of vulnerablity that we crave. Kept at a distance, yearning for the personal connection, the tension remains.

After the pictures, there is a text page, in English and probably Mandarin, that reads “The images of Zi U’s face, a prostitute were photographed at intervals through a day of her work.” Jackpot. That’s what the story is about.

From there, we’re given a dense but taut diary, written by Zi U, that graphically describes the events, and penises, that she encountered while the photos were made. Totally fascinating. And then, of course, you go back through the photos and try to read her face more carefully. The narrative is linear, so the waking up is easy to spy, as is the end of the day. The in-between? Still obscure.

People will always be fascinated by the world’s oldest profession. The allure of the salacious is hardwired. It explains so much of our entertainment habits, from action movies to MMA to pornography. Here, I believe the artist has personified it in a poignant way. It boils down to a woman, making money with her body, and hiding the rest of herself from her Johns, as well as the camera.

Bottom Line: A compelling look behind a hooker’s veil

To purchase “This Face” 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.

 

Alejandro Cartagena Interview

- - Interview

by Jonathan Blaustein

I recently spoke with Mexican photographer Alejandro Cartagena, who’s based in the battle-torn city of Monterrey. His work has been awarded and honored like crazy the last few years. “Suburbia Mexicana” was exhibited this Summer at Kopeikin Gallery in LA, and his current project, “Car Poolers,” was published in the NY Times Lens Blog and Lens Culture.


Jonathan Blaustein: Are you well? I know you’re busy.

Alejandro Cartagena: Yeah, I’m doing great. I’m doing a lot more commercial work than I expected. Commissions too. All the publicity. I don’t know how you say it in English?

JB: The hype. The buzz.

AC: Right. The hype, the buzz, it helped because people you wouldn’t expect to hire me for jobs are hiring me for stuff. Not just documentary stuff. Right now, I’m shooting chairs for a chic design firm.

It’s been really cool to be able to expand my job like that. I’m not a particularly good product or advertising photographer, but pushing those limits seems interesting. It makes you understand a little more how an image works. I think I’m starting to like it. I don’t want to do too much, but it’s good right now.

JB: So your career has shifted because of the success you’ve had as an artist? People have approached you and asked you to do stuff you’ve never done before, and you’re learning on the job?

AC: Definitely. Three weeks ago I got a commission to go to El Salvador, to shoot a coffee farm. That was a 3 day shoot. The farm, the processing plant, the owner, the people working there.

What I tell the clients is that I don’t know how to do work that’s used as advertising, but I do know how to do portfolios for your products. You want to show off how nice the design is on something, I can take that out of your product to make it look really nice. Not to sell the product, but how you produce your product. That’s where I’m trying to push my commercial work.

I don’t know how you put that. Documentary Commercial Photography?

JB: Have you had to change your equipment to make the switch? What are you shooting with?

AC: Last year, I bought my first big digital camera. The 5d Mark II. And now I have a 3 piece lighting setup. This has pushed me to have an assistant, who knows about lighting, who helps me to produce the shoots. It’s something I’d never done before. I’d just go out with the medium and large format camera and shoot whatever I wanted.

I’m still shooting my projects. One here in Monterrey, and one in Guadalajara. I have the flexibility to still do that, and also do the commercial jobs that bring in some money.

JB: We kind of launched into this, because my first question was “How are you?,” and here we are. So let’s back it up a bit. Given your name, and your accent, and the fact that you live in Monterrey, 99% of people will assume you’re Mexican, but your bio says you were born in the Dominican Republic. How did you end up in Mexico?

AC: My Dad came to Monterrey to study in the 60’s. There was this big thing in the Dominican Republic in education where the government was giving money out to people to go study abroad. But they were obligated to come back to work in the sugar cane factories or any specialized engineering job.

When he was here, he married my Mom. They went back, and me and my other three brothers were born there. They left Mexico in ’69, and they stayed in the Dominican Republic until 1990. That’s when I came to Monterrey.

JB: Can you do the math for me. How old were you?

AC: I was 13 when I left.

JB: Do you feel Mexican?

AC: At this point of my life, I’m definitely Mexican. I feel Mexican, I love Mexican food, I love my city, I love my country.

There is a strange thing going on between me and my wife right now. It’s this going back to our roots. We don’t know if it’s the baby that’s coming? My wife’s Dad is Canadian, her Mom is American, and she was born here in Mexico. So she’s this weird NAFTA kid, you know? American/Canadian/Mexican. And she’s been listening to all this country music and american oldies songs.

Weirdly, I’ve been going back to listening to a lot of Merengue music, which is Dominican. So I don’t know. This thing about having a child, wanting to be in touch again with my roots, it’s bubbling out a lot lately.

JB: Congrats. When are you going to have a baby?

AC: First of October.

JB: So you’re coming up. I can’t bitch too much about my stress because you’re sitting right there too.

Let’s talk a bit about Mexico, though. I just learned that Monterrey is the wealthiest city in Mexico, which caught me off guard. I would have assumed it was the DF. But I was wrong.

So you’re based in the wealthiest city in Mexico, which is up there in the Northern desert, in the middle of the Drug War shitstorm.

AC: Yes.

JB: The World wants to hear about this stuff, and you’re right there. You got a new President elected, and the PRI is coming back. The guys who ran the country for, what, 100 years or so?

AC: 70 years.

JB: 70 years? I was close.

AC: It’s almost the same.

JB: Right. That’s a big deal, and geo-politically, you’re sitting on the front lines. And I know that you make work in and about Monterrey, but thusfar, it’s touched only tangentially on the Chaos, unless I’m mistaken.

What’s it like?

AC: I think precisely because it’s the richest, that’s why it’s the most fucked up at the moment. There’s so much money, there are so many people wanting to have more money, there’s so much ambition. The downside is there’s not enough jobs to have that money, so there’s a lot of poor people at the same time.

An ex-girlfriend used to work in a government agency, it’s like what used to be the FSA in the US. It’s an institution that goes around and finds poor communities, and they try to find them jobs, they bring them food, they document them. And Monterrey has more than 60 below poverty communities.

So that speaks to the disparity. There’s so much wealth, but also so much poverty.

JB: It’s kind of a popular topic here in the States. Our statistics on income inequality are rising. The problems that come from that grand a chasm tend to cause a host of problems.

AC: Exactly.

JB: But as far as violence, is your quality of life impacted in the rising gang wars of the last couple of years in Monterrey?

AC: Yeah. Starting in that difference of income, that creates a sense of anger towards all the people who have so much money. And they’re so separated. The people who have money live in this part of town, and the people that don’t live in that part of town. I mean, this is nothing new in the world, but when the shit hits the fan like its happening here it feels like its never happened before.

Then with the building of all these suburbs, for the rich people it’s perfect. Just send them as far as you can. Only the rich get to stay in these prime lands.

That has created the perfect scenarios for the gang situation. I don’t know, when we talked before, if I told you how the drug war has moved into these suburbs I used to photograph. Those are the perfect spots for them to live, right now, because there is no police. And if there is police, they’re corrupt, or they’re actually part of the gangs.

My Mom’s from a place, it used to be a little town, it’s called Juarez. It’s not the crazy Juarez from Chihuahua, and it used to be 30,000 people in 1993/94/95, and now it’s more than 300,000 people, with the same amount of police and transit police. So that tells you how the growth of that city, and that suburb, has made it so easy for the drug people to move into those areas and just be Kings.

There’s nobody watching them, and if they are watching them, they’re part of the deal. That has made it very difficult to live in Monterrey. You don’t know who’s who. You want to be looking at people who look kind of sketchy, but at the same time, it’s the police also who’s sketchy.

That definitely impacted our way of life. We used to live right downtown, and six months ago, we decided to leave because its become unbearable. There are shootings in downtown. After 8pm, there’s no one on the streets. It was getting kind of dangerous.

We decided to move to just outside of downtown. It’s a bit safer. We’re close to a couple of embassies, so there’s police patrolling once in a while. It makes you feel a little safer, but definitely we changed our lifestyle.

You don’t go out at night that much. Or if you go out, you try not to go to a restaurant. Because that’s become a mess here. They go into restaurants, and they steal people. They take their cars. There’s been some cases where they rape women in the restaurants. So those kind of things just get you paranoid and scared.

You try to live your life around those things that you can’t do anything about it. You try to be in at night. You try to go out when you can. There was a point last week where me and my wife got a little paranoid about even going to parties.

The bad guys started going to parties. If they would hear music outside the house, it was a perfect place to come in and steal and make trouble.

JB: Wow. (pause.) I’m rarely speechless. I spent a lot of time in Mexico in the last 10 years, including going places 10 years ago that I would never go now. As an American, it almost looked like the whole Calderon Presidency was to see if the government was powerful enough to take down the cartels, and now that it’s over, it looks like the answer has been given, and the answer is No.

AC: Yeah.

JB: Is there a sense of fatalism in Mexico now that the cartels are so rich and powerful? Do people feel like Mexico is doomed? Or do people talk about Columbia, and how fast things turned around there? What’s the mood?

AC: Let me think what I’m going to say. I definitely feel scared of what happened in these past six years. I vaguely remember, maybe it was in January of 2007 or 2008, when Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers, to Michoacan, or another region where there was a lot of trouble with the drug cartels. I remember feeling, “This is so awesome. They’re finally gonna get rid of all of this shit.” (Laughs.) At least, from my perspective, I was really excited that a President had taken such a big decision to attack the cartels.

But then it all just went to shit. It all went downhill from there. Everything started to get worse. Before 2010, in 2007, you would hear of the killings, but it was always out of the city. In the suburbs. There was no violence in the city, or downtown, where there was more police.

And then, in 2007, it all turned around here in Monterrey. You started to hear about people being killed downtown. Bodies being dropped in the middle of the street in downtown. It just started to rise and rise and rise and just get worse and worse.

It almost seemed like the cartels were in a campaign of terror, for us as civilians. They started to hang people on highways. They started to line up people on the street and just shoot them and leave them there. I can’t speak for the other people of Monterrey, but for me, that got really, really scary.

Of course, you become paranoid. You’re always trying to watch out not to get in the crossfire. I’ve had friends who were close to the balaceras, how they call them here.

In 2010, that’s when I really got scared. That’s when the shootings really started in downtown, just blocks from our house. I remember there was one shooting that was really crazy. It went on for like 30 minutes, and I never heard something like that. It was like a war zone.

It started with a couple of gunshots, pop pop, and we were in bed. I remember looking at my wife, and thinking, were those firecrackers? And then, suddenly, Boom Boom, and all different sounds of machine guns and grenades. That’s definitely not fireworks.

We dropped to the floor, and went to the middle of the house, and we were lying on the ground. It was so scary. I’m sure, for war photographers, that’s something that you experience. But for a city boy, in your city, at 12 at night, when you’re getting ready to sleep?

JB: I can’t imagine. I just can’t. You use the word terror, and it looks like the cartels have been robbing the playbook from the Taliban, and straight up terror groups. They understand that if you create that degree of bone-shaking fear in a general populace, then you can control that populace. It sounds like the rule of law is not really there with you guys right now, and it’s tragic.

I don’t want to make light of it just for an interview. I love Mexico, and I go, because my parents live in Playa del Carmen in the Winters. I’ve seen the growth there. I’ve got massive curiousity as to how the Italian and Mexican Mafias co-exist so well down there. But that’s another story. I want to be a fly on the wall in that sit down to hear how they divide up the town, because the money laundering is off the charts.

AC: Yeah.

JB: But for “Suburbia Mexicana,” you were a guy walking around some sketchy rural and mountainous neighborhoods with some very expensive camera equipment, by yourself. Fairly recently.

So you’re telling the global photo community that now, even two or three years later, you could not do that work anymore?

AC: Now that I think of that, I feel so lucky that I was so naive to go into those places. At that moment, I didn’t know that those were the places that the drug people lived. From 2011 to now, it’s become really unbearable. Everything has become exposed, and you know that they live in these small suburbs in the outskirts of Monterrey.

I finished shooting in late 2009, early 2010. I would take my car and park outside of wherever I was shooting. I would carry my 4×5 and my tripod, and just walk. I felt that made people a little bit less scared of me, and made me not so vulnerable, even though I was vulnerable.

They wouldn’t be scared of me. I wasn’t in a car, and I had a huge camera. It’s not like I was going to run away or be trying to gather data on them. So people were very accepting of me an my presence. I don’t know. At this moment, I would not even think of doing something like that. I was lucky nothing happened. It’s getting scarier and scarier and scarier.

Most of the portraits in that book were done in Juarez, where my Mom’s from. My parents have a restaurant there, or they had a restaurant there. They actually had to close down the restaurant in February because of the Mafia-Cartels. They started to ask for money.

JB: Shakedowns. Protection. My god. We see photo essays about this. Maybe read an article in the New York Times. But I think it’s difficult for most people to straight up empathize, and to think about what it means to be living without governmental protection.

I know Mexico well, and I live in a border state. The fact that the US, this global superpower, has spent trillions of dollars, and essentially all of our political capital, fighting two wars on the other side of the planet…

AC: Yeah.

JB: And in that exact time, our most important neighbor, (No offense to Canada,) is living with borderline Chaos in some places. It’s an underreported story, how the US squandered so much, and left our neighbor to eat the shit.

AC: Yeah. As you were saying, I think it’s very difficult to be empathetic to the situation here, because I think, even we as citizens of Mexico don’t understand what’s going on, at some point. There’s so much rhetoric by our government saying everything is so well and fine, and nothing’s happening. A lot of people believe it. I don’t think there’s anyone in government, any politician saying, “You know what, Mexico’s crap right now. We need to do something about it.” There’s nobody saying that!

At least the elected ones. They’re just saying, “Oh that was a minor incident. They killed 52 civilians in a Casino. Oh, that’s nothing. That’s just between the drug people.” Man!

JB: Are they afraid of assassination?

AC: I don’t know what the fuck are they afraid of?

JB: Maybe it’s that they don’t have the juice. We started this with me asking, did the government lose the war? And the results on the ground seem to say they did. They don’t have the money or the power or the clout to stop the cartels right now. That doesn’t mean it’s over. Colombia’s got to be a good example for you guys, that things can turn around.

AC: Yes, but its different in many ways and things aren’t complete cured in Colombia yet.

JB: But look, one of the things I love about your work is that you’re a humanist. You’re able to look into complex stories. “Suburbia Mexicana,” in anyone else’s hands, would have been a snarky, ironic look at how mass consumption leads to environmental degradation.

AC: Thanks…

JB: And I reviewed the book twice, so I’m not going to repeat what I said, but you didn’t do that.

AC: Right.

JB: You’re able to understand the human element. What you’re living through is proof that human beings are insanely resilient animals. You’re living through things that people who live in Afghanistan, or Syria, or Iran, or Sicily have been living through for decades or more. God willing, that’s not going to be Mexico’s fate. But people like me, people here in the United States, we can’t help but take our governmental protection for granted. It’s crazy. You’re only a few hundred miles away from me right now.

Enough of my rant. Let’s segue for a second. I know “Suburbia Mexicana” is being exhibited right now, at Kopeikin Gallery, in LA. And concurrent with that, you curated a show called “Looking at Mexico.” So now we can call you artist and curator.

AC: No, no.

JB: OK, then we can call you a pretend curator like I’m a pretend journalist. Well, congrats. I don’t want to recite the list of honors you’ve racked up in the last few years. I know that you’re traveling a lot, you’re exhibiting across the world. You’re getting collected. All the things that people want.

On the surface level, you’re as successful as any of the colleagues I know. On a personal level, you’ve already shared that you’re living through an insanely difficult situation.

AC: Its a complicated thing.

JB: My heart goes out to you. But you were just in London, and in Amsterdam. When you’re in these safe European countries, with their decadent beautiful art cultures, is it difficult to reconcile? How are you dealing with that? Do you have to bifurcate your personality?

AC: That’s pretty cool that you brought that up. That’s definitely a sensation, not only when I go to Europe or the States, even to other cities here in Mexico. I understand how paraniod I’ve become. When I go to Mexico City, or Guadalajara, it’s like I can’t believe I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see if someone’s following me.

There’s this huge sensation of relief that I can be myself. And I don’t have to be looking out for myself. So definitely, I think I’ve become two different people. One outside, which is the normal me, and when I’m home, I’m me the paranoid Alejandro.

This Week In Photography Books – Florian van Roekel

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s the year 2000.

Google is a big number, but not quite infinity. Hanging Chad means the guy who’s always sitting on the couch, next to your roommate Aaron, drinking your beer. The Soviet Union is dead, China has yet to rise, and Americans feel like the world is a big apple tree, and all you have to do is grab what you can.

I’ve just moved to San Francisco, and live in the Mission District with my girlfriend, Jessie. (Now wife.) Dotcom millionaires peek their heads out of limousine sunroofs as they cruise through our neighborhood at night. I get my coffee with a bagel and cream cheese at the cafe on the corner for $1.50.

Tired of waiting tables and ready to be an adult, I get a job at a non-profit, progressive public relations firm on Mission St. The organization, since merged with Fenton Communications, was a spinoff of the famed liberal bastion, Global Exchange. My co-workers are a typically San Franciscified bunch; all colors, sexes, and sexual orientations are represented. (Yes, I’m being literal.)

We were housed within the same building as our Global Exchange brethren. Thick body-odor musk, wafting taqueria fry grease, and a lingering marijuana stench contributed to a healthy, lived-in aroma. Everyone was talking about how they were just in Nicaragua, or Guatemala, and pronounced the names with proper Spanish emphasis. Life was good.

Two weeks in, the ED announced the company was moving to the Embarcadero, right on the Bay. My commute would grow from a short walk to a 30 + minute hassle, requiring BART. And lots of rain.

We moved into a re-done, second floor office, built directly onto the pier. Nice view: seagulls, the TransAmerica tower, the shimmering reflection of the Bay Bridge on the water. Unfortunately, the space inside bore the typical corporate color scheme of gray on gray on gray. Carpets, partitions, office chairs, all gray. Immediately, my job, answering phones, helping to change the world, lost its glamour.

Sure, the higher-ups were battling to make the world a better place. But I was stuck fighting my myopic boss about which garbage cans to buy for under everyone’s desk. Foolishly, I made a rash decision, and was shamed as she slowly circumnavigated the room, interviewing each employee as to their desired preference of trash-bin-recepticle. Chastened, I promised never to make a unilateral decision on matters of such significance.

Days became weeks, and I became less happy as each passed. My naive desire to join the San Francisco non-profit community led me straight into my own, boring-ass version of Office Space. The phones rang, I answered them. The trash filled up, I emptied it. Wow, just writing about it bores me. So lets move on.

One day, I woke up and realized that the average-joe-lifestyle was not for me. Monotonous, sterile, repetitive. Gray on top of gray on top of gray. Please, make it stop.

So I quit, ready to commit to being an artist.

Here we are. It’s 2012, and this week marks my one year anniversary of writing this column. I’m sitting on my favorite green couch, my feet now wedged against my daughter’s crib. I’m headed back to San Francisco in a couple of weeks to check on the art scene, and report back. My how things have changed.

But this wouldn’t be a column if I didn’t write about a book. Today, the above musings were brought to you by Florian van Roekel, who seemingly self-published a super-cool book called “How Terry Likes His Coffee.” Some of you might have seen it before, but the 2nd Edition landed on my book pile, and I’m loving it.

The book is black, with yellow post-it-style sticker on the front. It looks like a fancy pad that you might use to take notes at the Friday Staff Meeting. Straight away, it opens on the doodles that some Terry might have made while studiously not listening to what was going on in said meeting.

Apparently, Mr. van Roekel spent some time in actual office parks in Holland, because you could never fake it so well. (And I’d guess he was influenced by Ricky Gervais’ “The Office” as well.) Even Thomas Demand’s fastidious recreations lack the soul-sucking, stultifying reality of what we see here. I’m having flashbacks. “Hello, Communication Works. This is Jonathan. How may I direct your call?”

The book follows a pattern of my current favorites, which is to include non-photographic imagery, and to create a natural progression. A narrative. A plan. It begins with with office party decorations, file cabinets, cubicle art, the water cooler, jackets on the back of chairs. All the images feature a heavy use of flash, which by now you must know I enjoy. Not everyone does.

Then we’re into the portraits, mostly backs of heads. Awkward. Uncomfortable. Too real to mock, to awesome not to appreciate.

–“Hey Terry, how was your weekend?”

–“Oh, you know, the ususal. Bought some terrific hash at the coffee shop, stared at my reflection in the canal for 45 minutes. Watched a football game on TV. That Robin Van Persie is such a wanker. How about you, Josh?”

–“Oh, you know, the same. Shannon’s mother is in town, though, and you know how that is. Hah, hah. If I’m not careful, she likes to grab my package under the dinner table. Just pour her whisky a bit heavy, though, and she’ll fall asleep before it gets to that.”

After the back of the head shots, and more portraits, the artist moves onto a set of double-images. Slightly, slightly different, but really the same. The sales pitch. The cold call. A terrific metaphor for monotony. If I use the word monotonous one more time, I will have acheieved its effect.

Next comes the office get-together at the pub at the end of the day. No faces here, just shoes, suits, & some sneakers on the ladies who got tired of high heels. Hands on shoulders, hands on elbows, coasters on the table. Routine. Finally, at the end of the book, we see some nature images. A walk in the park on Sunday? Has to be. Right?

Bottom Line: Has somebody got a case of the Mondays?

To purchase “How Terry Likes His Coffee” 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.