Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

This Week In Photography Books – Kehinde Wiley

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Thank You,” and “I’m sorry” are among the most powerful phrases in any language. (As words are only ideas encoded in sounds, fortunately, the concepts are universal.) In my day-to-day business, I’m constantly surprised that so many people are unaware of the import of appreciation and contrition.

Taken together, those twin values synthesize into Respect. Which is, in my opinion, the key to happiness and success. If you don’t respect yourself, you cannot possibly respect others. And unless you’re a super-talented, pathological narcissist, you’re unlikely to make it far in this world without a healthy dose of Respect.

I mention this, today, because I’d like to temporarily tackle an issue that’s been consistently bugging me for my two-year tenure here at APE. Yes, I’m going to directly address the cadre of knuckleheads and d-bags that leave nasty, heartless, and comically un-self-aware comments at the end of these articles. Lest you think me a simpleton, I do know that these words you’re reading ensure we’ll see more such comments below.

That’s right. It’s time to speak to our gallery of fools; the short-tempered, know-it-all, sadsacks who hide behind the veil of anonymity. Here’s the truth: you make yourself look really bad every time you drop the hatred on our heads. Secretly, deep down, you know this to be true. If not, you’d add your name and email address to each post. But you don’t.

When you disrespect me, (and Rob,) with your petty, childish zingers, you disrespect the rest our the enormous audience that follows this blog. They know better than to admire your thoughtlessness. Ultimately, you disrespect yourself. Your shame spiral all but guarantees that you’ll do it again, here or somewhere else. There is no bucket of Ben and Jerry’s big enough to drown your self-hatred. (Clearly, I’m differentiating between hating, and constructive criticism. The latter is beneficial, as I’ve said many times.)

If you are one such person, gathering your thoughts to trash me at the end of reading this, how about you try something else today? Stop reading, here, now, and go do something else. Take a walk. Lift some weights. Read a book. Even better, grab your camera, and go make some Art. Channel your anger into something more productive. Because if your goal is to hurt my feelings, or get me fired, it won’t work.

However, if this community, (and the Internet in general,) were to lose that mindless hatred, we might just have ourselves some interesting, intellectually challenging debates. I’m certain there are countless readers who never, ever write in because they’re afraid of being embarrassed by one of the few people to whom I’m speaking now. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what those people have to say?

Yes, Respect is the word of the day. It was the keyword for the recently completed European Football Championships too. (Plastered all over those Polish and Ukrainian stadiums.) It’s also a word you hear a lot in inner cities. Minority and low-income communities are constantly decrying the lack of respect they feel from the police, the powers-that-be, and from the rich folks who live a neighborhood or two away.

One way to combat a dearth of Respect is to challenge people’s pre-conceptions and bedrock assumptions. It’s the reason that I wrote those incendiary paragraphs above. It’s also the reason that Kehinde Wiley has had such a remarkably successful career in a short span of time.

Mr. Wiley, the SFAI and Yale trained painter, has made a living off of placing not-quite-sterotypical visions of contemporary African-American men into the traditional, art historical painting context. (At present, he’s also working with Non-African-American-Men-Of-Color.) I say not-quite, because, despite the clothing and bling, there is a vulnerability to his subjects, and sometimes almost a sexual ambiguity, that defies easy stereotypes.

I missed his show at the Jewish Museum when I was ever-so-briefly in NYC late last month, mostly because of a lack of time. Additionally, I knew I had his book in my pile. Big mistake. If you live anywhere near NYC, go check it out. The book has stoked the embers of my curiosity. But now I’m back in my horse pasture. Oh well.

Mr. Wiley has a new monograph of his work, published by Rizzoli, and I’ve given it a good look. Fantastic stuff. The artist photographs his subjects, and places them in ornate, painted compositions that are often titled to reflect their art historical origins. As so many photographers wish they could paint, including the brilliant HCB, this book is worth checking out. The transformation from person to photo to canvas is symbolic of the entirety of Art practice.

Furthermore, there are a suite of photographic images included in the book. The style is the same as the painted images, but they lack the magic, spark, genius…whatever it is, they lack something. Definitely not as good, but still interesting. I only mention it, because I believe it behooves all of us to be proficient in more than one medium, but of course that’s much easier said than done.

Bottom Line: Very cool book, probably not something you’ve seen before

To purchase “Kehinde Wiley” 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 – Christian Patterson

by Jonathan Blaustein

I hated scary movies as a child. My twisted cousin Jordan showed me “Altered States” as a 6 year old, and followed with a low-budget flick about a monster that lived in the sand and swallowed beach-goers whole. (I lived 7 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.) Oh well.

There was a period in college when I sampled the bloody genre, starting with “The Shining.” I pushed it a bit with the Scream series, defying my nature watching Drew Barrymore get hacked to bits with a very sharp knife. Not fun. It continued through “Seven” (Gweneth Paltrow’s head in a box,) and came to an abrupt end several years later, thanks to “The Blair Witch Project”.

I was traveling abroad when the movie dropped, and so missed the enormous, watercooler, pre-Internet hype here in the US. (Ring, Ring…”Hello, Tabitha?” “Yes.” “It’s Ashley.” “Oh, Hi Ashley, what’s up?” “Sweetie, I saw this super-scary movie last night, called, like, The Blair Witch, or something. I almost crapped the floor. You have to see it.) As I avoided the first wave, I decided to block it all out, every last syllable, until the proper time.

Several months later, I was living in San Francisco, and my girlfriend (now wife) was leaving town for a few days. Jackpot. I rented the movie, unplugged the phone, shut all the curtains, and pressed play around 10 pm. So. Scary…So. Very. Very. Scary. Please. Make. It. Stop.

I’ll never know if I’d have been as terrified if I’d heard what the movie was really about. (Lots of implied evil, lots of scary trees, lots of shrieking.) Sometimes, hype can kill art’s spark. Give people too much context going in, and the element of surprise is lost.

Just last year, I noticed a similar phenomenon with Christian Patterson’s book “Redheaded Peckerwood.” One day, I’d never heard of the dude. Then, his name was everywhere. (“OMG. U Must C This Book.”) Somehow, I never saw a copy, and never read one of the many, many reviews. So I decided to wait.

Then, in March, I found myself sitting in the lovely, bright offices of MACK, the book’s publisher. Poppy, the super-nice media contact, handed me a copy, with several other sets of eyes peeking too. “Here,” she said, “have a look.” The first page was scanned, hand-written text. No way I could read it with her staring at me like that. I flipped a page, looked up, and saw her eyes watching me watch the book. No good. “Forget it, Poppy,” I said. “I’ve waited this long, knowing nothing, so I’ll just wait for the impending Second Edition, and give it my proper attention.”

And here we are.

I grew up in New Jersey, which is Springsteen country. He wrote “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a mile from my house, and his imprint was everywhere. The first time I met him, I asked him to play “Blinded by the Light” at an upcoming concert. (He passed.) His music was everywhere too: unavoidable. I can recite the first few lines of many a song, from memory, including “Nebraska.” Which was inspired by the killing spree wrought by Charles Starkweater, and Caril Ann Fugate, his teen-aged lover and partner.

As was “Badlands,” the excellent Terrence Malick film. (Damn, Martin Sheen rocked that jeans jacket. You go, dude.) As was, as you might have guessed, “Redheaded Peckerwood.” Sex and violence and the thrill of the chase. Not hard to figure out why this story keeps metastasizing through different narrative forms.

So, now that I kept a perfect media blackout, what do I think? It’s a pretty terrific book. Worth the hype. Buy it, tuck it away, and it will probably be worth more than you paid for it. Why?

Because Mr. Patterson and his pals at MACK have created an object that does justice to the book format. Words, photos, graphics and more. Do you remember the interview where Michael Mack said a book ought to be an original expression of an artist’s vision? They’ve accomplished it here.

The book opens with some handwritten context by Fugate, as I’d previously mentioned, and then a map to provide the necessary geo-tag. After that, it’s a straight myriad of photographic styles. Historical imagery, studio shots, landscapes, color images, black and white, more text, some paper inserts that reference the racism and politics of the 50′s, and a few random images of boobs thrown in. (Boobs sell Books.℠) The narrative is non-linear and ambigiuous enough that most of the photos can be appreciated on merit, while still giving a sense of time, place, and emotion.

I do love the emotional quality of the images. This is not a happy story. The two kill Caril’s 2 year old baby sister, for goodness sake. As you turn the pages, even when you’re staring at a dry and not-terribly-on-message image, you still feel the icy sadness, the eerie emptiness, the morbid curiosity of the rubber-necker.

This edition closes with a mauve, stapled insert that matches the lining of the book. It contains two essays that explain in words what Mr Patterson communicates very well through imagery. I started to read them, (and they are good,) but then I stopped. They didn’t tell me anything I needed to know, at least nothing that wasn’t implied by this terrific book.

What’s the lesson for the rest of us? Mix it up. Both in the creation of a project, and in the editing of the book. Simple, repetitive through lines are boring, and, perhaps, passé. Do your homework. And don’t shy away from those grand, dramatic meta-narratives, the kinds that can’t be extinguished by the ravages of time.

Bottom Line: Fantastic book, worth the hype

To purchase “Redheaded Peckerwood” 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 – Tod Papageorge

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve always wondered what would happen if I ran into a week where I had nothing to say. If you read my interview with Rob, published Tuesday, you’ll know a bit more about why I’m so fried. Endless deadlines, heading back to Christmas, when I digested the biggest of all: our daughter is coming at the end of August. No extensions possible.

The last time I was this burnt, I made a joke about a de-sanguinated chicken. (I was pretty proud of that one.) Today, I doubt I could drain the blood from a stink bug. And then the house would smell.

I hope you’ll forgive my wallowing, but I just don’t have it in me to be witty or profound this week. It’s hot, my kid is complaining in the next room, and I just want to teleport to the Costa Brava and drown my exhaustion in a pitcher of sangria. A bowl of garlic clams would be nice too.

Before the crash, Americans would head in herds across the Atlantic to Europe each Summer. I’m sure there are still a few people who can afford the airfare, (not including expense accounts,) but I don’t know any of them. My memories of living La Dolce Vita seem like a something out of a Woody Allen movie. Charming, but off.

In 2012, most of us only jet to the Continent if someone else is footing the bill. It’s like a game of musical chairs; if you’re still standing when all the Kickstarter funding has been disbursed, you’re S.O.L.

You’ll have to trust that I don’t plan these things, but we’re going back down a similar road as last week: the Artist Residence. I love it when themes come together. It makes it seem like I have more forethought than I actually do.

Tod Papageorge is a photographer, and also the head of the photo program at the Yale School of Art. Yes, the same folks I accused of running a photo mafia. It’s true I speculated that they might off me for shedding light on the Skull and Bones nature of the operation. Fortunately, their assassins haven’t hit the mark just yet.

Of course, I’m kidding. It’s hard not to respect an institution that consistently promotes sustained excellence. But as to Mr. Papageorge, he was fortunate to have his stay in Rome covered by the American Academy. Artist Residences are a hot topic, mostly because the allure of lounging on someone else’s dime is rather strong.

The artist lived in the Rome for a time in 2010, and “Opera Citta”, published by punctum, is the result. I’m not going to say this is a brilliant book, because it’s not. It’s very well-made, with the block of images released from the spine. They open out in a continuous fold, which is a very enjoyable way to experience the pictures. The paper is durable, so you don’t have to fret about ruining your purchase.

What I like best about this one, beyond the high-class production value, is that you can tell Mr. Papageorge really grooved on his time in Rome. It’s a vibrant place, one that has to meld together locals with multi-millennia roots, hordes of tourists that occupy each Summer, and newly integrated immigrants, who are changing the demographic of the country. It’s a magnificent city, but also a bit of a theme-park. (I’m not the first to posit that the Earth’s post-card mega-cities now belong as much to the world as to their local residents. Seriously, how many of you actually live in Manhattan?)

The book captures the cultural mashup very well. The images are not dramatic, in the conventional sense, but belie an insightful curiosity, and subtlety of vision: The fidgeting gestures of a group of nattily-dressed businessmen cavorting in a piazza. The light of grace on a old woman’s face as she catches her breath on the sidewalk. The glean of sweat on a tatooed shoulder at the beach in Ostia. The calm of a little girl sleeping in her father’s arms at Termini Station. Lovely stuff.

Bottom Line: Very cool book, if you don’t mind Euro-envy

To purchase “Opera Citta” 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 – JH Engström

by Jonathan Blaustein

Journalists tell stories. They relay facts. (As much as anyone can agree on the definition of a fact in 2012.) Photojournalists, by extension, tell stories through pictures; they visually encode reality. This happened to that person, and it happened there. Bombings, oil spills, butter-eating contests, all are detailed in a matter-of-fact way.

Artists, by contrast, are trained to make it all about themselves. My vision, my opinions, my composition, my color palette. This is what I think, symbolized in pictures. If you like it, cool. If not, that’s fine too. (Well, that’s the ideal. The reality is probably more like this: “You don’t like my work? I hate you. You’re a bourgeois homophobe. Die.”)

Anyway, I’m musing because I spent the past weekend meeting with photographers and checking out portfolios in Santa Fe. Everyone wants to talk about audience and context these days. If I edit this way, I can can blow them up big and hang them on the wall. A different selection will be more appropriate for the magazine editors, and another still if I want to get commercial clients. Welcome back to the 21st Century Hustle.

I’m not sure how I feel about these developments, but they’re probably here to stay. Fewer employers + many more people searching for work = everybody jostling to stand out. My take is that it makes a personalized vision, with the self-awareness to bend that vision at times, all the more important. How much can I learn about a person through their photographs? Code, if you will.

This week’s book does it very well: “La Résidence,” by JH Engström, published by journal. I had a whole intro today about how I got stuck in Brussels for a few days on my honeymoon, but decided to save it for another time. We’ll stick to Mr. Engström’s anecdotes today. Mine will have to wait.

Here’s what you can learn about Mr. Engström from looking at this book. He got invited to do an Artist Residence in Brussels, and it required visits in 2003 and 2006. That much is explained in the intro. Come, Mr. Engström, visit our fair city, relax and find yourself, then make pictures that reflect your time here. Sounds pretty straightforward.

Look at the book, and you’ll quickly surmise that Mr. Engström was, (I don’t know about is,) likely a lonely alcoholic who quickly adapted to his new surroundings by seeking out the company of the coordination-challenged, “I love you, man”-type, 2 am bar crowds that are so easy to find everywhere. Everyone is your friend when they’ve had enough to drink. (Unless they want to shank you.)

As we turn page to page, we see a succession of haggard-looking Belgian sorts, smoking cigarettes, and trying not to fall off the bar stool. We also see lots of banal, artsy-type visions of random detritus and architectural randomness. They look like the photos you’d take if you had to take photos for a couple of months to justify your stipend, but didn’t really connect to any underlying elements of the culture. (Beyond the aforementioned bar culture, which is transnational.)

What takes the book further, though, is Mr. Engström’s inclusion of text. Poems, musings, and even a starkly honest paragraph about his relationship with his father. Some observations are obvious, others smart, but all make you feel like the artist is letting you into his head. The book becomes far more experiential for their inclusion. (Sample: “These pictures may be an account of my failure to depict photographically a place I didn’t go to for private reasons.”)

Additionally, most of the photos are only accessed by folding the pages out to triple-spreads. It’s laborious and a bit time-consuming, especially as you don’t want bend or ruin the pages when you refold. But the additional seconds enhance the banal-style photography; you feel the photographer’s boredom that this book reflects. (And some of the portrait spreads are amazing.)

I doubt all of you would enjoy this book. It might piss you off. But it’s a terrific example of an artist downloading his thoughts and personality into a bunch of pages, bound and wrapped in linen.

Bottom Line: Boozy in Brussels

To purchase “La Résidence” 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 – Brian Ulrich

by Jonathan Blaustein

I feel bad for kids today. Teen-agers in particular. There is no privacy anymore. No secrets. It’s impossible to grow through one’s awkward moments out of the camera’s gaze. If I had to worry about my worst habits and styles living forever in a Facebook post, I’d probably move to Plum Village and become a monk.

Am I exaggerating? Not really. You see, I grew up in the 80′s, that famous decade now fetishized daily in the mainstream media. (Have you seen the trailer for that new Tom Cruise movie? Yes, people, we have a new definition of irony. The king of the 80′s, who actually managed to get it right back then, parodying the entire farce in a fake rocker outfit. Please.)

Back then, I actually sported a mullet and braces at the same time. Yes, photographic evidence exists, but I suspect my parents will set a high price. My style was so bad, I wore a day-glo ski jacket for two years. My first earring hole got infected, so I went back to the mall to have it punched again. That’s right, the mall.

Was there ever a more American invention than the shopping mall? I believe it sprung to life in Houston, which makes sense to me now that I’ve visited. Who wants to try on the new Tommy Hilfiger button-down when you’re covered in a sheen of humidity-induced sweat? Not me. Not anyone. So the air-conditioned, sequestered, shopping-only zone was born.

The mall used to be the coolest thing in the world. (Again, this is a world that approved of rat tails and shoulder pads.) My parents would drop me off for a few hours, and my friends and I would search out others of our own kind: with our own two eyes. Clearly, that youth-mating-ritual is obsolete. (OMG, u r @ the fuud kort? B rite ther.)

And what of malls? Do they still reign? Not exactly. I’m sure the Beverly Center in LA still has its swagger, and I’ve never seen the Mall of America, so I’ll reserve judgment there. But in general, I think the safe answer is no. They’re an anachronism, like the myth of American Exceptionalism.

In fact, I think Brian Ulrich’s “Dead Mall” photos are some of the most compelling documents of 21st C America that we have. Furthermore, I’ll go ahead and say that his “Dark Store” Circuit City photographs are the enduring images from the Great Recession. (The crumbled KFC sign picture is up there too.)
Seriously, what could say more about the fallacy of endless consumption than those eerie, empty boxes, glowing from within? Yes, the stores are vacant and worthless, but let’s keep that electricity running. (Pictures can indeed communicate better than words, sometimes.)

The images turn up at the end of “Is This Place Great Or What,” Mr. Ulrich’s new monograph, recently published by Aperture and the Cleveland Museum of Art. The book is blue, which seems a bit random, and opens with historical images of a bygone American era, which seems odder still. At the very least, it sets the scene.

The book covers Mr. Ulrich’s “Copia” series, which has taken up the last decade or so of his life, broken down into convenient sections: Retail, Thrift, and Dark Stores. Each investigates a different facet of America’s ubiquitous consumer culture. It’s the first book I’ve reviewed, I believe, where you can see the artist’s clear improvement as you turn the pages.

The initial series, from early in the last decade, depicts life inside the world of consumption, before the bubble burst. People push shopping carts through Costco, Target and Home Depot. We see crucifixes, big screen TVs, guns, and spilt milk. All smart, but slightly obvious symbols. The pictures feel grabbed, and a little naughty. The compositions are well done, but also a bit arbitrary. Good work, for sure, but it feels like he was just beginning to sort out his vision.

Next comes “Thrift,” which shows more of how the other half lives. There are some real gems here, true keepers. The room full of useless computers, the racks of empty plastic hangers, the barren garage with an asymmetrical Britney Spears poster. Sharply observed, and definitely more visceral than the first section. Mr. Ulrich was starting to hit his groove.

Finally, we come to “Dark Stores,” the project that rightfully made the artist’s career. Powerful stuff, this. The global economy almost broke completely during the creation of “Copia,” and it shows. Desolate parking lots, empty stores, and the sorriest looking abandoned Toys-R-Us I ever did see. These photos are as well crafted as they are well seen. The symbols resonate, the eye dances around the rectangle, and the physical impact of the disillusionment is palpable. These photographs will endure.

Bottom Line: An artist’s evolution, with some brilliant images

To purchase “Is This Place Great Or What” 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 – Olivia Arthur

by Jonathan Blaustein

“You can’t kill an idea,” said the great Sherlock Holmes. (As played by Benedict Cumberbatch.) How true. It’s the reason behind censorship, gulags, and Ministries of Propaganda. It’s also the reason that information has become one of the world’s most prized commodities.

Stories are ideas, as well as information. They’re the core methodology through which human knowledge was disseminated before writing. Early humans had stories, and, of course, pictures. It’s always been thus, and unlikely to change.

That’s why we, as photographers, have spread to all the globe’s corners, looking for stories. Personally, I’m not sure why people get so enraptured by tales they’ve heard and seen many times before. (Though that is how children learn: through repetition. Ask any parent who’s seen Madagascar 42 times.) Furthermore, some would believe there are only a few meta-narratives that keep repeating in an endless loop.

I think that’s why Stacy Kranitz kicked up such a shit-storm with that CNN debacle a few weeks ago. Like it or not, whatever her reasons, she delivered images that re-enforced what people already thought, and had seen before. We’re all familiar with depictions of Appalachia, seen through the white shroud of a KKK douchebag. Been there. (Jörg Colberg had a nice reaction to this as well.)

No offense to Ms. Kranitz, of course, but I’m more interested in seeing things I haven’t seen before. (Yes, I know, I’m repeating myself. But not everyone reads the column each week. Forgive me.) When I choose a book to write about, you can be assured that I found it fresh. I look at a lot of books, and many are good, but lack the proper spark for my curiosity. Others, like Olivia Arthur’s new volume, “Jeddah Diary,” published by Fishbar, give me a perspective I’d not encountered.

Ms. Arthur spent time in Saudi Arabia, hanging out with several bubble cultures of women. I’ll spare you any sort of Western proselytizing on why the subjugation of women’s rights in the Muslim world is any of my business. Some would dismiss anything I said as the mark of Cultural Imperialism. (If you doubt that, just ask Pieter Hugo, who defended himself from such attacks in our comment section a few weeks ago.)

Where was I? Right. Ms. Arthur’s book. It’s powerful, personal, and innovative: a difficult combination to conjure. She uses text well, introducing the photos with a bit of backstory, and then including blurbs opposite the pictures as well. I must say, that’s the path I think I’ll take if I’m able to publish a book of my own work. Words and pictures, not one or the other.

But this is a photo blog, so let me at least give the images their due. We see women covered by black abayas, sitting in kitchens and on sofas. But we also see seductive glimpses of flesh, legs in particular, that riff on the supposed reasoning behind the big “cover up” phenomenon. Remove the temptation. Kill the serpent.

Ms. Arthur’s most interesting formal invention, though, is the way she chooses to obscure the faces of women who need the protection. She makes a print, then blasts it with light, and rephotographs it. The scattered glare mars any facial recognition, while imparting a metaphorical discomfort to the viewer. Really smart, and also visually compelling.

The book also delves into hypocrisy, that most human of conditions. The subjects in the book apparently find loopholes through with to party and booty shake, via private beaches and estates. Apparently, it’s OK to show off your belly-button-ring on holiday in Lebanon, but not in the comfort of one’s own home if there are any men around. Typical.

Bottom Line: A fascinating inside view into a hidden society

To purchase “Jeddah Diary” 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.

Impressions from FotoFest

- - Art, Portfolio

by Jonathan Blaustein

My feature articles run long. Have you noticed? If it’s not a book review, you can count on me to get verbose and intricate. Conversely, I also love to rebel. So let this be the first brief feature piece, a quick recap of my time at FotoFest (Session 3) this past March.

I suppose I could start with my objectives: to meet with and show work to international curators, and also to get to know some of the curators and collectors in the Houston scene. Unlike my previous visits to Review Santa Fe, this time I was not out to make friends. Just to take care of business. (And I assumed I’d get to hang out with a few interesting photographers as well.)

The trip was a breeze, less than 2 hours on a plane from ABQ direct to Houston Hobby, the Southwest Airlines hub. It’s far closer to downtown than George Bush/IAH, and very efficient, so I’d recommend you use it if you can. It’s an easy-but-not-cheap cab trip to the Downtown Doubletree, where the FotoFest is held. I was told by some colleagues that it’s best to stay there, if possible, and I’d concur.

Upon arrival, I spotted Kurt Tong and Dana Popa in the lobby, both in from London, departing from Session 2. After a quick hello to them, I looked down, and my suitcase…was…gone. Rather than freaking out, like I might have in the past, I sprinted outside and rummaged through the back of the first cab I saw. There is was. So let that be a FotoFest lesson for you: keep your eyes on your business.

How can I condense four solid days of 24 meetings, both official and otherwise? It was exactly what I was hoping for, and perfectly run. Efficient, friendly people in charge, with co-chairs Fred Baldwin and Wendy Watriss offering warm greetings at the first evening’s cocktail party. These people have it down. Clocks are set to FotoFest time, so you always know when your next review will run. Extra reviews are called out, and despite the first-come-first serve notion, I never saw it be anything but smooth.

The reviewers hailed from all over the world, and so did the photographers. (As an example, I met with reviewers from England, Germany, Sweden, Japan, Korea & Argentina.) I was impressed to walk by tables of people and not hear English. FotoFest is also not juried, so the quality of the work ranged pretty heavily. I saw some things that were amateur, to be blunt, but so what? Those people were there for their own reasons, and seemed to be having fun.

Houston is a cool place, too. That’s one thing that caught me off guard. Here in New Mexico, we often have a bad opinion of Texans, though we tend to see more folks from around the Dallas area anyway. But Houston people were down-to-Earth, and the place had a distinctly Southern Vibe. Not a lot of TX accents either, which seemed strange.

Downtown, where FotoFest is located, is a big, wealthy grid. Buildings are like mini-cities, with built-in food courts, malls, and air conditioned skyways between them. I totally want to go back and see how many city-blocks I could cover by abusing those things. (Sorry, off-topic.)

I said I’d be brief, right? I was able to meet some wonderful people from the Houston museum, non-profit gallery, and collector scene. Kind, interesting professionals who work with one another to keep their community lively. Judging from the water features running along the gleaming Light rail tracks, and the ridiculous number of super-extra-double-shiny-skyscrapers, it’s not hard to figure out that there’s a lot of “funding” in this town.

From what I saw, Houston supports the arts, and the arts are happy in Houston. I was able to visit the Menil collection, which is free, and brilliant, but not the MFAH or the Houston Center for Photography. Both are thriving institutions, and it seems like there’s a long list of other museums in town too. (According to the plaque in the airport, at least.) I went on a brief gallery bus-tour via FotoFest, but didn’t see enough to get a sense that the galleries are equally hopping.

I’m not going to name drop my reviewers this time, but I will say that the people I met were professional, smart, honest and curious. (No attitude.) Very few of them had seen the portfolio I had with me, despite the fact that it has been around for a few years. My new work, debuting this week, wasn’t quite ready, so I didn’t bring it. I purposely wiped it off the Ipad, so I wouldn’t cave to pressure and show un-finished work. Plus, the impending project seemed to offer me a great reason/chance to follow up.

I think I got a lot of value out of the FotoFest experience, even though it does cost a fair amount. Lots and lots of conversations with people from other places. New connections, new opportunities, and untaxed beer. Highlights included an evening stroll through the streets with a few friends, and mugs of cold cheap Modelo Especial at an outdoor restaurant on a balmy night. And, of course, the Monday evening party, hosted by HCP at Cadillac Bar, a Texas Honkey-tonk, replete with a dancing Mexican Elvis not-quite-impersonator-house band.

Who do I think would benefit from going to the biennial event? To start, anyone who can afford it as a cost-of-doing-business. I don’t mean to harp on the expense, but we do have a broad audience here at APE. I don’t think FotoFest is realistic for most student photographers.

Beyond that, photographers who have a solid project and want to get it front of a bevy of global decision-makers, all in a brief period of time. Or perhaps others who don’t have a strong community, and want to get insightful feedback on some less- developed-work. I wouldn’t do that myself, I don’t think, but could see that being worthwhile for some. Given the well-oiled grind of a four-day-event, I’d definitely suggest that people be on top of their game

This Week In Photography Books – Bernhard Fuchs

by Jonathan Blaustein

Waiting for the sunshine.
Waiting for the sunshine.
Tired of the gray days.
Tired of the gray days.
Oh, but it ain’t comin’,
it ain’t comin’, Soon.
No, it ain’t comin’,
it ain’t comin’, Soon.

The above text is not actually an old blues song. I swear. It’s an ironic little ditty my wife and I invented while living in Brooklyn. The winters wore me down in an onslaught of gray. Yes, I was Vitamin D deprived, so eventually, we moved.

Here in Northern New Mexico, we get something like 330 days of sunshine a year. No lie. And the depth of our blue skies gives a primal satisfaction to humans and animals alike. (Well, I’m guessing about the animals. I can’t actually speak to them, despite rumors to the contrary.)

The thing about all that sunshine: it’s addictive. Like photography itself, which derives from light, the volume and quality of light become an addiction. (Try saying that five times fast.) I don’t know how people live without it in Portland, as even a few days of gray will start to get me down. Like now.

It felt like Summer in April this year, (Big Ups to Climate Change) but the last four days here have been cold and wet and gray. Bone-cold. Bleak. Monotonous. So I’m feeling depressed. Forgive me.

Given that I can’t do anything to make the sun burst through the clouds, I thought I might as well sink into the moment. Revel in despair. Oh, the misery.

As I sifted through my book pile, though, I came across “Farms,” by Bernhard Fuchs, recently published by Koenig Books in London. What’s that, you say? A book about farms? What’s so depressing about that?

Well, these farms were photographed in the sad, desaturated light of Fuchs’ adopted home of Germany. Not a drop of real color to be found in this one. (Well, beyond a touch of green grass, that is.) We see barns, of course, and hay piles, leafless trees, and a pitchfork that has seen better days.

The book is the metaphorical equivalent of rubber-necking at a car crash. Nasty, on the surface, but impossible to look away. I don’t know why people take pleasure in the anti-aesthetic, (myself included,) but they most surely do.

The photographs are well-made, as is the book itself. It’s wrapped in substantial-feeling canvas, which matches the palate of the images within. So much melancholy. So much ennui. Yet strangely beautiful. Quiet. Lonely. Dignified.

I see images like this here on the farm all the time. (In real life.) But I don’t point my camera at them. I’m too busy waiting for the good weather to come back. So let’s consider this the book review where I bitched and moaned a bit, and gave you the opportunity to say, “Hey, Blaustein, get over yourself. Summer will be here soon. I promise.”

As to the book, which ought to be more of a focus of my musings, it’s really good. I recommend it. But only if you have the mental fortitude to pick it up, revel in its sad light, and then put it back on the shelf. Better to go outside and take a walk after all.

Bottom Line: Beautiful and bleak

To purchase “Farms,” 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 – Leon Borensztein

by Jonathan Blaustein

I re-watched “Taxi Driver” the other day. My god, was New York a hell-hole back in the 70′s. Seriously. It’s no surprise Travis Bickle went bonkers. (But that happy ending…I smell studio meddling. Marty must have known he had the chops to go mainstream.)

Have you seen it? Or what about “My Dinner with Andre?” Some great mise-en-scene there as well. Brings you right back to that time. I was safely ensconced in a nearby suburb, so that crazy, graffiti-covered era offers me a touch of nostalgia, instead of a belly full of fear. Watching those films recharges my memories, which is one of the great benefits of Art. (A nod to Bruce Davidson’s 2011 “Subway” show at Aperture seems appropriate here as well.)

I mentioned the other day, in a short article, that Art is like time travel. I meant it in the sense that as artists, we embed ourselves in our work, and if the work survives, so do we. But a much more obvious example is the way a photograph locks light in time. We all do it every day, and most often take it for granted. Stopping time, and letting a fraction of a second age at a different rate. Now with digital files, one wonders whether a reproduction will age at all?

This aspect of manipulating time, I think it’s what ultimately hooks us as photographers. Wander back to the first time you saw a contact sheet of your first set of negatives. Magic, right? Not just that it actually worked, (which is now a lost sensation for many in a digital world,) but that it brought you back to a place where you had been. And a time that, in all other ways, no longer existed. Addictive.

That’s why Instagram and its ilk are taking over the world. It’s a compulsion over which people have little control. Because a camera can bank our memories much better than our brains can. Or more accurately, at least. Iphone photos are to photography what McDonalds is to hamburgers. Hopped up, cheap and tasty. Not that I’m complaining. Unlike some bloggers, I couldn’t care less.

I’m far more interested in the underlying desires. How we save our memories. How we crave to be remembered. How we desperately want to leave a mark. How we care so much what our relatives and friends think of us, even in a reproduction.

Speaking of family memories, I ran across a fantastic new book at photo-eye the other week. It’s called “American Portraits 1979-89″, by Leon Borensztein, recently published by Nazraeli Press. Oddly enough, the artist’s name doesn’t appear on the cover or the spine. I’d never heard of him before, and perhaps that’s part of the point. From the beginning, this book is about the pictures, far more than the picture maker.

In fact, you have to dive into the essay at the back, by Sandra Philips of SFMOMA, just to get a bit of the history of the project. Todd Hido got the book up and running, so implies the editor’s credit, and the artist was tight with Larry Sultan as well, so implies the benediction. But as to what the hell is going on in the pictures? You’ve got to figure it out for yourself, or read.

So I’ll make it easy on you. Mr. Borensztein, Polish by birth, somehow ended up a traveling portrait photographer in California, and the West. (Back in the aforementioned time period, naturally.) He went around to people’s homes, and at one point to conventions as well, and made memories for paying customers. Apparently, he shot a lot, and must have made a conventional image or two at some point, just to keep his job. But everything we see in the book is fresh and wild and crazy. Probably not the prints that the clients ordered.

The plates are all in black and white, and the backdrops are visible in many of the images. People are not smiling, and sometimes don’t engage the camera. These are, to a person, anonymous, average Americans, long before such Americans thought it necessary to live in a McMansion on credit. (And we saw how well that worked out.)

Some are noble, some are funny, many are surreal, and a few downright disturbing. (How did he get the guy with the Nazi tat to pose with his shirt off? And the dude who looks like the Kramer impostor from Seinfeld, dressed in Native American garb? Priceless.)

This will not be one of the reviews in which I give away all the best secrets. Though I will make a few extra snaps below, just so you can get the vibe, Man. Arbus, Bill Owens, Disfarmer, that’s the mood of the pictures. They’re powerful, and somehow manage to respect the subjects, while also slightly mocking at the same time. It’s a tough balance, and I expect that some of you might find too much of the latter. I though it was just right.

Bottom line: A time capsule, for good and bad

To purchase “American Portraits 1979-89″ 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.

 

You Don’t Always ‘Get’ Art, But We Still Need More Of It

- - Art

Editors Note: I reached out to APE correspondant Jonathan Blaustein after seeing an old VICE article titled “I’m Sick Of Pretending: I Don’t ‘Get’ Art” making the rounds on social media. Here’s his reaction:

Rob asked me to respond to Glen Coco’s article, making the rounds 05.02 in VICE, trashing last year’s Tracey Emin retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London. I’m sure it’s because he knows I’m not afraid to speak my mind, but it could also be that I just raved about the current slate of exhibitions presented there. It’s certainly a juicy bit of text, and has gotten a lot of people talking about Art, which is hard to do.

Mr. Coco, beyond pointedly hating the show, basically suggested that perhaps he doesn’t get Art. His credentials and opinion imply otherwise, but let’s take him at face value. What he doesn’t get about Art is not why people make it, or why they like to look at it, but rather why nobody ever has the stones to call bullshit. (Other than him, I imagine.)

I’m very, very fortunate that I’ve been able to see so many brilliant paintings, sculptures and photographs over the years. My travels have taken me to many of the World’s best museums, and I lived in major cities on both American coasts. If I haven’t said this enough, forgive me, but there are few experiences more joyous and educational than standing in front of a piece of brilliant Art. Particularly, but not necessarily, when the maker is already dead.

Art is like time travel, which is why people continue to make it, and have since we were standing upright. I figured this out while living in New York, and visiting the Metropolitan Museum on a regular basis. Take Rembrandt, for instance. Four hundred years or so ago, he made some paintings. True. But he also imbued those objects with his psychic energy. It’s in there still. When you feel your guts get all churny while standing in front of one of his self-portraits, you’re responding to the man himself. Like I said, time travel.

What, you might reasonably ask, does that have to do with Mr. Coco’s article? Well, everything. What he’s criticizing is Art the commodity. The word is out, in 2012, that the high art world exists to please the very, very rich. They’re the ones that buy super-expensive contemporary art, naturally, and they don’t like to lose money. Ever.

Brilliantly, they’ve figured out a way how to avoid it: never let the price of a work of Art, once it’s famous, go down. Ever. If that sounds a bit like a Ponzi scheme, perhaps it is. If no one ever admits that art is crap, or that a famous artist has long since lost the touch, then prices can’t and don’t fall. The same group of people trade objects, each helping prop up the market for his or her buddies. If that sounds a bit like an unregulated commodities market, that’s because it is.

And what is the result? Perhaps a world in which most people feel mystified, condescended to, and generally offended by much of what is considered “hot” or “special.” The idealistic notion that the best of what we make is meant to be preserved, left to future generations to sort out what life was like back then, (Now), is left to angry bloggers and Jed Perl to bitch about. Because normal people don’t care one bit. They’re too busy playing video games, or watching football, or buying lottery tickets.

I believe we need more Art, not less. More people out there making cool shit, pushing their brains sideways, and hopefully eliciting interesting questions from the people who look at it. More public support for the Arts will lead to more monkeys typing away, which of course will lead to a more intelligent society. Make it so.

This Week In Photography Books – Pieter Hugo

by Jonathan Blaustein

When I was a teen-ager, my family used to go to the Taos Pueblo each Christmas Eve. Some years, it was below zero, but so what. We braved the cold and wind, and marched along with countless other Taos gringos, to see the yearly celebration. Seriously dramatic, I assure you.

How so? The Pueblo is set at the base of Taos Mountain, and the event takes place just as the sun goes down, bathing the peak in deep shades of purple. As the sky darkens, they light bonfires, built as towers, that can reach 30 feet into the sky. The smoke begins to cloud your vision, which adds to the surreality.

Suddenly, you hear the chants of the Pueblo residents, who emerge, without notice, walking slowly in a chain. At the center sits an effigy of the Virgin Mary, stock still on one of those shoulder carriers that they must have used in Ancient Egypt. The chanting, the fires and the smoke are punctuated by rifle shots. Bang. Bang. Cracking across the evening sky. As a youngster, I’d always wonder what would happen if a bullet descended back into the crowd, but I’m sure it’s never happened.

Like I said, it’s dramatic. I went each year for a decade or so, then stopped cold. Suddenly, it seemed too cliché. Too Post-Colonial. Hey, look at the strange red people. Watch them dance. Like poking a monkey with a stick. Or so I thought.

Now, I’m beginning to wonder. On the heels of last week’s review of the Viviane Sassen book, I got to talking with my friend Melanie at photo-eye. I told her that my first impression was something like, “Are you kidding me?” Really, how many photographers need to point their camera at the poor brown people. We get it. Enough.

The essay eventually won me over, and of course the pictures are edgy and well done. But Melanie didn’t have the same disdain for the process, nor do many, so I began to wonder. Am I the only one with this bias? And furthermore, is the bias valid?

I ask, because, in Taos, you’re not from here unless you were born here. A lot of places are like that. So is Post-Modern theory, ironically. It was branded in any good student’s subconscious that what you have to say is inherently limited by your gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. Rebutting the vision of many a wandering shutterbug, it imposed upon a generation of artists the notion that you ought to stick to what you know. (For example, if I ever met Chuck D, I probably wouldn’t smack his palm and exclaim, “Power to the people, my brother.” You dig?)

So now I’ve begun to wonder if it isn’t time to challenge that notion entirely. Maybe artists ought not to be limited to their continent, or class, or sexual orientation? Maybe photographers keep going to the Third World because of an insatiable human curiosity to learn about different things, and tell unfamiliar stories? Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the pictures are distinctive, and, in some way, new?

And what of Africa? Maybe the fascination stems from the fact that it’s the homeland to all humans? And its wild creatures dominate our dreams and deep fears, despite the probable urbanity of our surroundings. (Yes, I did get scared by a tiger at the Denver zoo. The bullet-proof glass did little to quell the shivers creeping up my neck. Big, scary monster. Run, dammit, run.)

With that in mind, I thought it might be healthy to head back to Africa again this week. Now, Pieter Hugo was born in South Africa, so of course my argument is already weakened. He’s from there, so his opinion matters more, according to my original line of thinking. But let’s just judge the book and photos, and then see what we think. OK?

His new book, “This Must Be the Place,” also published by Prestel, is one of the best I’ve seen since I started this column. Given that I made you read all the above, I thought I’d cut to the chase. It’s amazing. If you like his work at all, this is one to buy. Why?

To begin with, unlike last week’s book, this volume needs no introduction. No backstory necessary. (If you’re looking for some on the “Parasomnia” book, photo-eye posted a more in-depth review.) In Hugo’s book, each set of pictures is titled by image, project, place and date. It’s not hard to piece things together, especially as all the images come in groups. It gives a nice bit of context, and allows the photographs to suck you in. (FYI, I continue to assert that if an artist does not include certain information, then they don’t care that we know it.)

The first set of portraits, from South Africa, establish straight away that Mr. Hugo, like the folks at the Taos Pueblo, has a flair for the dramatic. (Not news to anyone who saw that photo of a big Naked African guy wearing a Darth Vader mask.) They are shot close up against a neutral background, not unlike Thomas Ruff, but these reek of emotion. Intense stares, albino Africans, and a blind guy with silver eyes.

Then, a set of portraits of judges from Botswana, all decked out in the garb of the British realm. Next, we’re on to portraits of dead people, wrapped in burial shrouds. Also from South Africa. No, Mr. Hugo is not shying away from the legacy that brought lots of gun-toting white people to Africa’s shores.

On to boy scouts, shirtless taxi washers, and wild honey collectors from Ghana. All well-made, but they’re just place holders for what comes next. A chilling look at the “Vestiges of Genocide” from Rwanda. Lime-covered shrieking skeletons, and bones rotting in the dust. Brilliant.

The next photo, after that run, is of a pile of rotting tomatoes on the ground, from 2006. If you read last week, you know that I wondered what Ms. Sassen was on about with her version of rotting tomatoes on the ground. Now we know. It was a shout out. Pretty cool.

The book continues on longer than I can. So let’s condense. The “Nollywood” work, which drew so much praise and criticism a couple of years ago, shines in the context of this book. (And no, Vader is not included.) The guys hanging out with Baboons and Hyenas are fascinating. (From “The Hyena & Other Men”) For all the reasons I listed above. Primal fear and our insatiable thirst for visions of the “Other.” It doesn’t get more “Other” than people who pal around with Hyenas and Baboons, IMHO.

In the end, Mr. Hugo has the guts to expose his own world, along with the others. His relatives: naked and pregnant, topless after a breast reduction operation, and his little daughter, standing in the middle of the road, pushing a pink stroller, vulnerable to any car or bus that screams around the bend just behind her. (The last picture, of course.)

This book made me rethink my own experiences. It made me question bed-rock assumptions. It even made me re-write history a bit. (I saw a show of his last Fall at Yossi Milo, and thought the work boring. Perhaps I was impatient.) Unlike many of you, I was unaware that Mr. Hugo is a genuinely important artist, walking among us. There’s a lot we can learn from a great book. This is one of them.

Bottom Line: Fantastic. A keeper.

To purchase “This Must Be the Place” 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 – Viviane Sassen

by Jonathan Blaustein

Sometimes, I like to watch the grass grow. It’s pointless, I know. Impossible. Still, I enjoy it. Sitting still. Listening to the quiet. Learning patience.

Perhaps some are born with more patience than others. If that’s the case, I was at the back of the line. It’s been a slow process, (not ironically,) but I’m finally getting the hang of things. Like a good Zen koan, it’s not a lesson to be learned quickly.

Earlier today, I found myself picking through the remnants of my book pile. Yes, it’s time for a re-up at photo-eye. I’m headed there tomorrow, but that doesn’t help me today. So I decided to take another look at a few books that I’d previously dismissed. Maybe if I just take a bit more time, my opinion might change?

The first couple were still boring, so no dice. Then I came to Viviane Sassen’s “Parasomnia,” recently published by Prestel in Germany. I’d already picked this one up, (and put it down) twice, so I was not optimistic. But hey, you never know. (Plus, I think she was included in MOMA’s “New Photography 2011,” and those guys are never wrong, right?)

The first couple of passes were hard for me, because this is one more project where someone from the First world goes to visit the poverty of the Third. Been there. Done that. And the narrative is non-linear, if one could call it a narrative at all.

This time, though, I slowed down, and realized that the book opens with a short story by Moses Isegawa. Normally, I breeze right past stuff like that. (Don’t you?) But today, practicing my patience, I started to read. It’s about eleven pages or so, nothing too time-consuming, but thoroughly engrossing, and 100% necessary. The story follows a teen-aged boy as he wakes up to another morning of hardship in Uganda, 2011. Dreamy and poignant, it sets the tone for the pictures to follow.

But I’m not sure that “sets the tone” is the right way to put it. This book needs the story. It gives us a time, a place, a backstory, and a vibe. The photos to follow need to be seen in the context of a desperately poor place, racked with violence and natural disasters. The streets smell like urine, kids sit on the side of the dirt roads with their willies hanging out, beer halls rage music all night, jerry cans filled with water must be carried long distances, and opportunities are tragically scarce. People die. People disappear. Heat waves radiate up off the asphalt, such as there is.

You have to read the story to understand Ms. Sassen’s vision. That makes the book a collaboration. Which is interesting. Most essays are throwaways, added to help the publisher feel more comfortable about the possibility of some ROI. Honestly, I’ve heard enough about the importance of bagging a big name to write an essay that no one will read.

And what of the pictures? Are they less good for needing Mr. Isegawa’s context? Not sure I can answer that question. I need to think on that a while. But I’m not here to judge her artistic cannon, fortunately, just a book. And I’m glad Ms. Sassen was wise enough to begin her book as she did. (And that I was forced to be patient enough to appreciate it.)

The photographs range from portraits to still lives to obviously staged situations. Each type of image repeats, thereby moving solidly into the symbolic. Young African men and women, staring at the camera, intently. Caucasian people, hiding from the stark sun with towels and leaves over their eyes. Flowering trees to prove that life goes on, and burnt stumps to remind us that it doesn’t.

Vegetables left to rot on the ground. Tomatoes and corn. Why would that happen in a place with hungry people? Too many pesticides? Was the owner taken away by government agents, his/her possessions dropped behind? We see a freshly-dug grave, several shrines, and a red plastic bag hovering above a concrete tomb.

There are no guns, no machetes, no blood. But we do see a young man in a red shirt sitting in a blue chair that has been tipped onto the ground. And another photo, this one from the cover, of a body floating in the river, face down. Dead? You can’t tell.

I’ve said the in past that I don’t Google to get a better understanding of a book. If I’m supposed to know something, I expect it to be there for me to parse. But in this case, I did look up the word “Parasomnia,” just to be sure. It describes certain sleep disorders, from night terrors to sleep-walking, that afflict people who don’t sleep well enough. It leads to delirium, I suppose. But it also fits perfectly with the surreal but familiar feeling of this book. Not a bad title, given what lies within.

Bottom line: Cool book, reading required

To purchase “Parasomnia” 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 – William Eggleston

by Jonathan Blaustein

Surely you’ve heard of Jeremy Lin? (The Knicks Harvard-educated, Asian-American point guard.) A better question might be, have you heard of him lately? Probably not. He might well be the world’s first viral athlete, rocketing from obscurity to planetary ubiquity within days. But an information-addicted global populace is in constant need of a new fix, so Mr. Lin has been relegated back to the bench. That’s how it is: today it’s Mitt Romney’s face on an Etch-a-sketch; tomorrow Barack Obama’s ears on an elephant.

Speaking of viral phenomena, you must have seen that article recently published in LPV magazine, called “10 Photographers You Should Ignore.” It went everywhere, almost immediately. Not surprising, as saying “Ignore Stephen Shore” is as inherently controversial as “Occupy Wall Street.” Guaranteed to get people talking.

The tweet might have gotten mad publicity, but the article was actually rather tame. The authors’ thesis was that photographers, (particularly younger photographers,) face a danger to their creativity when they push hero worship too far. Great work depends upon a fresh vision; a unique perspective. The more closely photographers emulate the greats, the more likely they’ll end up with derivative nonsense. It’s an important point, but the article would likely have drawn yawns, if titled “10 photographers that you should be careful not to be influenced by too much.”

Co-incidentally, a few hours before I saw that article, I took a look at a portfolio by a young Southern photographer at FotoFest. Almost immediately, I was repulsed by the shocking quality of a couple of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore knock-offs. Wow, were these pictures derivative. By the fourth or fifth photo, the artist’s own vision started to emerge, and by the end, I thought the project was really good. The artist had a keen eye for color, and a formal sensibility that was contemporary. But I couldn’t shake the those first few photos, like a great tiramisu at an inconsistent restaurant doesn’t quite get rid of the taste of that over-salted chicken.

Never one to mince words, I advised the photographer to get those first few images out of my sight. Burn them, I said. Off with their heads. There’s no reason in the world to show a copy of someone else’s work, when the original images that follow are compelling. Skunk scent is hard to wash off.

And what of these heroes? We need to carve our our own respective niches, but it’s vitally important to go back and re-visit the best work, again and again. Get close enough to the fire to warm up, but not so close as to singe your eyebrows.

Let’s tempt the fire gods, shall we? How about William Eggleston’s new primary colored trilogy “Chromes,” recently published by Steidl. When I refused to open Robert Adams’ triple-book-offering earlier this year, a couple of readers requested that I take a look at the Eggleston project. Why not?

Straight off, I can contrast it with the Adams’ publication, in that the slip cover is printed with shadowbox letters, in yellow and orange. Where RA’s work was cool and unapproachable, this is warm and inviting. Then, a quick look at the spines shows us yellow, red and blue. Whimsical and fun.

On to book one, and there’s little introductory text. Only a mention of the editors, nothing more. So it’s to be all about the pictures, is it? OK then.

We begin. A man asleep (the artist?,) cropped bare feet on a dirt road, another dirt road vanishing to nowhere, religious references, a dead, old black man in a shiny, satin coffin. On to a long-haired hippie, an abandoned shack, and then another black man, this time with a cigarette in his mouth, hands on a blue electric guitar. (Is he playing the blues?)

Cars, trucks, houses, and lots of late-afternoon light. Yes, this book takes us to the South, back in the day. And it does so with style. I suppose we’ll never know what it must have been like to see color images like this, for the first time? (At least those of us not around back then.) But while they may no longer seem revolutionary, they are absolutely exceptional.

Soon, we see an image with a sign that says “Mission Orange,” which is followed by six photographs containing the color orange. Witty editing, beautiful pictures. (A Wonder bread sign, a political ad for a Sheriff, a long freight train…) Then, six photos featuring grayish-white, and six that feature green. Are you paying attention? Apparently, Mr. Eggleston and his co-editors were.

Seeing so many of these pictures together, I can understand why it’s hard for photographers to lay off of this style. It’s so lyrical, so Romantic, so American. Of course, Mr. Eggleston owes a debt of gratitude to Walker Evans and Robert Frank, both of whom he references quite a bit. But still, try to take photos like this in 2012, and only one name will pop up. (Sorry, two. Mr. Shore has his denizens as well.)

Shall I go on? Book one ends with a diptych of a sleeping young child, in bed, across the spine from a photo of a light-up Halloween pumpkin and owl combo looming in a window. Spooky. A hint of things to come in Book two? (There’s also a brief essay dating these photos to 1969-74)

The red volume opens with the same witty tone. We see another run of images, this time grouped by signage. Cigarettes, Drug Store, Dixie Burgers, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Ice Cream and Gasoline. Thank you, good night. Wait, there’s still more?

Another Dixie flag, this time in neon. Then, perfect purple light surrounding another gas station, this time Arco. (I remember the first time I saw light like that, during a Tornado storm in Nebraska. This picture brings it back so quickly.)

Are there surprises? Well, we do have two portraits of men who look like hustlers or gigolos. (And one of them is juxtaposed against an image of Tom Jones and Elvis atop a juke box.) Yes, Mr. Eggleston has a sense of humor.

The rest of the volume holds true to form, though there are far more portraits than there were in the yellow book. Terrific portraits. It ends with a pimply-faced guy, drinking Coke on a pool table, in front of a sign that says “Refreshments.” Is that a cue for a bathroom break? Seriously, how many people would look at all three books in a row, in one sitting?.

Book three is blue, and the cover presents a photo of the inside of someone’s freezer. So this is the cold book, then? I’m obviously not sure yet, but this volume opens with another run. Again, signage. A flower shop, free steak knifes at a gas station, a bank, a row of toy dispensers, a pie shop, a drive-in movie theatre, a burger joint and a pinball machine. The 20th Century seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

As to the earlier question, is it cold? Kind of. We see the first few images with flash, and a recurring palette of blue, green, and a green-ish yellow. There’s also a photo of the artist, naked on a couch, with a gun-rack above his head. Followed closely by a bearded, drunk-looking guy, naked, in a green bathtub. Yes, I’d say that’s cold. As in, “That’s cold, brother, cold. Can you dig it?”

Any more surprises? Page 74 has a portrait of a guy who I’d swear is a young Lee Friedlander. Were they friends? (Followed, two pages later, by a photo of a drawing of Charles Manson. Let’s hope it’s not a reference to young Lee.) And it ends with a companion image to the portrait of the man that opens up Volume One. At the beginning, his eyes were closed, in bed. Here, they’re open, staring right at the camera.

Yes, that was a lot to digest. Shall I simplify? This is one fantastic collection of photographs. Really, it marks the vision of a master, a genius artist. For those of you obsessed with Mr. Eggleston, this is one to own. (I’m kind of sad that I have to give it back.) And for those of you who sometimes worry that you’re ripping off his style, check this trilogy out. Look at it like I did, all at once, and you’ll never again wonder, right before you click the shutter, whether the picture is yours or his. Because his vision will forever be burned into your brain.

Bottom Line: A Masterpiece, plain and simple

To purchase “Chromes” 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 – Claudine Doury

- - Photo Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Henceforth, I’ll be the guy that announced his wife’s pregnancy in a book review. There’s no way around it. That’s me now. I’m that guy.

And what of it? It means I’ve decided to share details about my life with you, our readership. Why would I do such a thing? Is it to ensure that these articles are interesting enough to hold your attention? Sure.

Or maybe it’s because the more you know about me, the more perspective you’ll have on my opinions? That’s true too. Because I really am just a guy sitting in his library, (soon to be nursery,) surrounded by photo-books, banging out the content each week. So the way I see it, the more you know about my taste and decision-making, the more capably you’ll decide when I’m wrong. (Or full of shit.)

So now you know that I’m going to have a daughter at the end of Summer. I already have a son, and a brother, who also has two sons. What do I now about raising a girl? Not much.

On the plus side, as an artist, I get to discuss my feelings. Heck, I get to be aware that I have feelings, which is more than I can say for many an American male. But yes, I have plenty of feminine characteristics to balance out the testosterone. Just last night, I had a chat about emotions with my Mom. Sure, I made her cry, but it was the good kind.

But as to rearing a little baby girl from scratch? I haven’t got a clue. I was weaned on sports, smacking my brother around, and slogging through the stream in the backyard. I’ve never played with dolls, (action figures are different,) and like many a man, have long harbored deep fears about what it will be like when my daughter’s first boyfriend (or girlfriend) shows up at the door with a smirk on his/her face. It’s a common fear, and one I’m looking forward to meeting head on.

But really, what am I in for? Where should I turn for a glimpse of what the future holds? How about a photo-book? (Yes, I’m sure you saw that coming this time.) In particular, let’s take a look at “Sasha,” by Claudine Doury, recently released by Le Caillou Bleu. (With an essay by my good friend Melanie McWhorter.)

I think someone made a comment about “Haiiro,” something about judging a book by its cover. Well, you can do that here as well. On a beautiful block of green fabric sits a black silhouette of a bird. Smallish, it might be a finch, or something like that. (Lacking details, as it’s black, we can’t tell.) But it sure is pretty. Open up and the inside of the cover is mauve, which is like a cross between pink and lavender. Again, pretty. (And it goes so well with the green.)

Flipping towards the photographs, which ought to be more important, we see a succession of images featuring a girl, whom we can only presume to be Sasha. She’s a late adolescent, maybe 12 or 13, if I had to guess, and is joined by a friend or two in many of the images. And what do they do? Play dead, imagine things, frolic in the mud, cavort covered with weeds, conjure spells cast with burning witch-ly sticks. In short, they live in imaginary worlds, no different from boys, in theory.

I suppose it’s a feminine version of what I did with my buddies back in the day, and what my son does now. In pre-school, we fought over who got to be Superman, and co-ordinated our Underroos. By Kindergarten, the teacher made us take turns pretending to be Luke Skywalker. On the playground, it was an endless blur of kickball games that always seemed to end in tears. (Yes, mine. I was a sensitive lad.)

No, really, back to the book. The photographs are well made, with a somber earth tone palette, and a healthy dash of mystery. Like when Sasha walks on water. (Thank you, Photoshop.) When the girls are running in mud, they made me think Ana Mendieta and her Earth art. Buried under the tall green grass up to her neck, eyes averted, Sasha plays dead. She’s always up to something, whether staring at leeches, presenting a blonde pony tail in a box, petting the bird from the cover, or pretending to suffocate while covered in a plastic sheet.

Is this my future? I don’t know. None of us do. But as I always say, I like to be surprised by a good photo-book, to learn new things, to witness fresh perspectives. “Sasha” did this for me; helped me visualize the unknown, which is the scariest thing of all. Will it do the same for you?

Bottom line: Lovely book, filled with pretend magic

To purchase Sasha 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.

 

London Art Visit – Part 2

by Jonathan Blaustein

Where were we? Right. London. I loved it. How’s that for succinct? Now you don’t have to read any further. (Just kidding.) It’s a fantastic city, one of the great spots on Earth. And of course, England and the United States have a “special relationship”, (as if I could make such a thing up) so there was lots to talk about.

My good friend Hugo, the deviser of the Art tour we began yesterday, moved from New York to London in 2007. He endured the Bush years, but missed all of Obama’s term. So he was incredulous when I told him that nobody talks about George W. Bush anymore. (From omnipotent to irrelevant in 4 short years.) Can you imagine? In Hugo’s mind, all that passion about W. was locked in time, and delivering the news of his obsolescence brought calcified shock to Hugo’s eyes. But I digress.

We left off on Friday, after visits to the British Museum and National Gallery of Art. My brain was tired, but we soldiered on. Our tea spot of the day was a cafe and bakery on the top floor of the Comme des Garçon store near Saville Row. The green tea and bacon-egg-tart were equally smashing. Our waitress was American, and dropped the word “bangin’” on us as if it drew gasps of pleasure from a more typically British crowd.

Then, on to some galleries up the street, right next to that famous fashion spot for bespoke suits. The first, Hauser & Wirth, had two separate galleries. One was lacking, and the other had some super-large, super-subtle paintings by the Dutch artist Michael Raedecker. They were panels, striated in pale pink, gray-silver, and green: Houses on a hill, chandeliers, and window curtains the symbolic motifs. Nice houses. Serene. Like on a hilltop outside LA. Easy living. (Sounds nice.)

The paintings were really, really beautiful. In the gallery, with its huge ceilings, white walls, concrete floors, insanely large square footage, nice ladies behind the counter…Pretty special.

Around the corner and up a short elevator ride, we went to see a Sarah Lucas exhibit at Sadie Coles. The woman working there, again friendly, was wearing this wicked Victorian-collar-meets-well fitting-short-dress, in black. It was seemingly on trend, as one of the ladies at MACK wore something similar that morning, in blue. (Not that we’re here to talk about fashion.)

The show was insane for three reasons. One, there was a video by the artist’s boyfriend (of course), in which he was playing with himself dramatically, while wearing fake boobs. And homeboy was selling it. It was so offensive it was hard to look away, so I didn’t. I watched for a solid two minutes, and make of that what you will.

Two, the artist, Sarah Lucas, had a piece in another room of a raw chicken hanging off of a hanger with cooked eggs. (The chicken has to be changed when it starts to smell.) Three, was a large-mural photograph, printed right on the wall, of a giant T-shirt, with just the middle of the nipples worn out on each side. I asked if it was editioned, and I was told yes. Ed. of 5. “Made to measure.” And I’m not making that up. That’s exactly what she said. Right next to Saville Row.

That night, I had dinner with a motley crew of global photographers at a Turkish restaurant in North London. We set the whole thing up in an online Facebook chat, if you can believe it, and I walked from Hugo’s place down the road. En route, I saw a road called Ennis, and some clever bloke had painted on a P at the front. Then, he claimed his credit: “Cletus wuz ‘ere, ’12.” Nicely done, Cletus. Nicely done.

Sitting down at Petek, ravenous, I started scarfing olives until I could catch my breath. And with whom was I to dine? Ben was British, Hin an Australian of Chinese descent, Dana from Romania, Liz another Brit, and Maja from Sweden. They all loved living in London, were working on totally disparate projects, (Romanian youth identity, Occupy St. Pauls, following the entirety of the Rio Grande River…), and seemed fulfilled in their careers. Wait, that’s so boring. No controversy? Sorry, not that night.

Saturday took us to the Burough Market, near the London Bridge tube stop, where we shopped for some of the most fantastic products I’ve seen. There was a dinner planned for that night, and we wandered the stands looking for inspiration. We ended up going the Italian route, as these were things that don’t exist in New Mexico. Mozzarella di Bufala, Grana Fiorentina, bresaola, rocket (arugula), fragrant lemon, tortolloni di cingale (wild boar,) and fresh garlic shoots to top it off. Our dessert of hazelnut, chocolate and coconut gelato was purchased the night before. Like I said, Hugo doesn’t mess around.

Art wise, we went to the Hayward Gallery, another public space, right up the way. (Though we did scarf down a Syrian Schwarma at the outdoor food market just below the entrance. Delicious.) This gallery does cost money to enter, and it’s a part of the massive, partly-Brutalist Southbank Centre on the edge of the Thames. Very beautiful spot. (Have I said that already? Are you sensing a theme?)

Two British artists, like Sarah Lucas a part of the famed YBAs, were paired together, Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley. Each, on its own, would have been a brilliant experience. Together, they were good enough that I deemed myself (incorrectly) done viewing Art for the rest of the trip.

We went into the Deller exhibit first, as it was on the ground floor. Both men work in multiple media, including a fair dash of photography, and utilize humor, wit and pathos. Straight off, we entered a room filled with Music posters and random photos, cramped and not exactly special. Next, a fake bathroom with a real toilet, as an installation, with people queued up to enter. OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Next, a huge wall mural, painted in dark gray, that said I Heart Melancholy. But the heart was an emoticon. Which I don’t know how to type properly.

Then, a photo print on mirrored stainless steel, a hanging video of dancing weirdos, a functioning restaurant in the middle of the gallery space, a couple of super-well-done photo series, a newspaper and reading lounge, an exhibit of professional wrestling capes, a whole section called “My Failures,” where he shows projects that never happened, and finally, miraculously, a 3D video, in a dark room filled with strangers, of 10 million bats emerging from a cave in Texas. Try reading that sentence again ten times, and you might understand how I felt coming out of the bat cave. I normally get headaches from 3D glasses, and this was no exception. But it was worth it.

I soldiered upstairs to see David Shrigley’s exhibition, from whence my memories are more fuzzy. Mr. Shrigley’s work was even funnier and odder, or perhaps just equally so. The first thing you see is a melted foam fisherman in hip boots. No, sorry, before that was of course the headless fabric ostrich. Then, a photo of a red sign on green grass that said “Imagine this green red.” A grocery list on an actual tombstone. A series of line drawings, animated, as black on white music videos. And, of course, a stuffed Jack Russell terrier in a vitrine holding a picket sign that said “I’m dead.” Just one more? On a wall pedestal, a 1 ft tall brass bell, next to it a sign saying “Not to be rung again until Jesus returns.”

That was one dense paragraph. And I didn’t even cover 1/4 of the show. You get the point. Clever stuff. Witty, smart, creative, and powerful in person too. Together, this was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time, alongside “September 11″, which was a Bizarro version. (Tragic/Comic)

Spent, I said I was done. I told Hugo, “No more. No more. Have mercy.” Even one more espresso/lemon tart pit-stop, and a walk along the Thames, didn’t clear my head enough. (Sample surreality: a three-piece Gypsy jam band, an African guy playing the saxaphone, and an Afghan man selling fake peacock feathers: all within 90 seconds on the Thames.) But then we found ourselves, mere steps from the tube stop, standing right outside the beautiful, Gothic, Southwark Chapel.

I. Could. Not. Help. Myself. So we went in.

Huge, vaulted ceilings, dark and imposing, it was irresistible. We slowly walked towards the crucifix ahead, and it glimmered. What? We got closer, and it was clearly metal. Just as I spied a route to get us closer, the deepest, darkest, scariest-sounding,two-story-high organ began to play, directly above my head. So, so, so frightening. Hugo said, “Remember, these were the guys who invented Halloween.”

I shook off the sound, and walked around that corner and up to the statue. A metal screaming Jesus, pierced by countless spears. That’s right, screaming. “Die Harder,” by David Mach of the Royal Academy. Recent, contemporary Art, displayed in a Gothic Cathedral. Not a merciful god, this.

Next, the very next minute, no lie, with the organ thumping in the background, and the scary Jesus sculpture shimmering behind me, Hugo tapped me on the shoulder, and there, a cat padded down the hall towards us. Then he skulked by, and disappeared. (This is not a work of fiction.) Have you had enough?

That night was a beautiful dinner party for my birthday, so the next day required a late start. (Especially as it featured the only real rain I saw all trip.) Hugo’s loft has got a partly glass roof, so we squirmed off much of the ensuing hangover by drinking crazy-special tea from China, and watching the gray clouds move across the sky. I said, “No more art. I can’t do it. Please, don’t make me.”

Eventually hunger, if nothing else, drove us across London, in the Porsche, in the rain. On to the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the other Crown Jewels of London. (Really, it was straight to the coffee shop.) We sat in the Victoria Room, which was suitably decorated, and ate currant scones with jam and clotted cream. We drank Lapsang Souchong tea, which is smoked. I’d heard of it before, but did not believe such things existed in actual realty. (Ever the economist, I assumed it was like a widget, a fictional product that doesn’t exist.)

What did I see, that you’d want to know about, that you could even possibly remember, after reading both of these articles? How about a golden kimono made of cannibal spider silk? One million spiders, to be exact. Or a stone tiger urinal from 6th Century China? Or, crazier still, a plaster replica of Trajan’s column from Rome, to scale, at 38 meters high and 3.8 meters wide. For you Americans, that’s 125 feet tall. (Imagine the roof on this place.)

Then, cruel twist of fate, the last gallery we visited housed the permanent photography collection. (The second to last show was the Cecil Beaton portraits of the Queen, which is not free, and totally, I repeat, totally, worth skipping.) As for the final act, let’s just list the names, shall we? Amazing examples all: Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Muybridge, EJ Bellocq, Atget, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Frank, Friedlander, Ed Rushca, and El Lissitzky. Just. One. Room.

At that point, the Museum was about to close, so they chased us out. Hugo and I stopped for sea urchin at a secret-sushi spot, and then drove home, exhausted. I caught a plane the next morning.

What else is there to say? London is fantastic. You should go there. That is all.

London Art Visit – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

I first met Hugo in graduate school. Day one, I believe. It took me a few months to discern that he was well born. The type that neither brags nor name drops. From London originally, he was raised in Upper Manhattan, and attended the right sort of schools. (We used to laugh at the visual of a little 5 year old in short pants, tossing his British accent amidst the swarms of rabid New Yorkers.)

We stayed close in school, taking the same photography classes, and graduated together. Other than the random visit to the Soho House, lounging in the roof-top pool, high above the Meatpacking District, he acted no differently than any other graduate student. When I moved back to Taos, he came and visited twice, tearing up the slopes with his Swiss-style-skiing. (All hips. Pretty to look at, but you wouldn’t really want to take it into bumpy trees.)

And then, nothing. Our relationship devolved into monthly two sentence emails, as he made it plain that the next visit was on me. He moved back to London, the economy fell apart, and the chances of me scrounging up the cash for an Intercontinental plane ticket were only slightly larger than Rick Santorum becoming President.

Relationships, like plants, need water. Email, Facebook, Twitter, they all work for basic relationship maintenance, but friends need to see each other from time to time. Or things die. So when I finally got to visit London last month (to report on the Art scene for our faithful APE readers,) I had an extra-special-double-secret reason to go.

Emerging from the plane, my first time in the UK, I thought it no different from any other jetway. It calmed my nerves after the long trip. As soon as I set foot in passport control, it was clear that I wasn’t in America anymore. The line snaked along under purple lighting and exposed silver duct-work, and my fellow travelers hailed, rather obviously, from Afghanistan, Mongolia & Southeast Asia. I waited my turn, passed through the booth, and was off.

As a resident of America’s car culture, there are few things as pleasurable as emerging from a foreign airport and hopping on a train in the basement. The type that whisks (or crawls) you into the heart of town, for little cost. (As opposed to the $35 taxi ride I recently took on the way back to Houston Hobby.) Luckily, Hugo lived just a few blocks off the Picadilly Line, the very same train I grabbed at Heathrow.

Just over an hour later, I knocked at Hugo’s door, in the shadow of the gorgeous Emirates Stadium in North London. (Yes, I follow Arsenal. Predictable, no?) Hugo answered the call, dressed impeccably in the kind of gentleman’s pajamas that only make sense in certain circumstances. (Very sharp, but I don’t think I could pull them off on the farm.) He said, “Great to see you again, Old Chap.” Game on.

It couldn’t have been more than two minutes before I had a perfect Lavazza espresso in my hands, chased by some beautiful Italian mineral water. I barely exaggerate when I say that for the next 96 hours, while awake, there was always some brain-chemistry-enhancing-substance in my hands: coffee, tea, water, wine, gin, champagne, or a hand-rolled cigarette. I normally don’t smoke, but to properly battle jet-lag, that mashup of adrenaline, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and H20 works very well. (Until the crash, of course. But you don’t want to hear about that.)

Why all the fuss about Hugo, and his regal understanding of hospitality? Because I was there to see Art, and he was my guide. For the first time since I wandered the streets of Rome, trailing my freshly-taught younger brother, I let someone else do the planning. Hugo knows me very well, and understands my taste in Art, among other things. So I allowed him to pick our spots, as well as the order in which we saw them. Perhaps he was an over-qualified tour guide, but you are the beneficiaries, so I thought a bit of backstory was appropriate.

All this was on a Thursday morning. The tour started that afternoon, after we visited with a curator friend of his. She was lovely, but I’ll respect everyone’s privacy for once, and not drop her name. (I didn’t know she was important at the time anyway.) The three of us hopped into Hugo’s 1983 black Porsche, replete with whale-tail and silly cherry-colored-checkered seats. It was a flashback to the 80′s, yes, but served like a better version of an ironic mustache. So cheesy it was cool. So nerdish it was smooth.

We ate lunch in the East End, apparently trendy, and then hit a few galleries so that I could earn my keep. We saw 150 year old paper negatives at Daniel Blau, which only served to highlight the importance of talent and vision. Several pieces, by Gustave de Beaucorps, jumped off the wall, and the rest didn’t. Even the power of age didn’t lift a pedestrian image above its merit. Though I did feel that in a digital age, it was far more difficult to connect to the passage of time. As everything can now be faked, it sometimes disempowers the real thing.

Another highlight was Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro. Countless huge paintings hung on the wall, the Pop palette mixed up with an interesting, Eastern-tinged symbol set. Hard to believe so much work was available to view, as the artist was having a concurrent show at Tate Modern. (Which I then felt less of a need to see.) We also went to a public gallery called Parasol Unit, where there were some terrific Richard Long pieces on the wall. White China clay hand prints on black paper, marching from one corner of the composition to another. Beautiful and elegant. (Like London?)

Whipping through the streets, shortly thereafter, Hugo pulled to the side of the road by a tube station, and ejected me out with little notice. I was already trending late for my aforementioned meeting with Aron Mörel, and there was no time to waste. I was tardy, in the end, but only because I couldn’t sort which direction was which back on street level. And my fellow pedestrians were no help at all. (Not surprisingly, the only times I felt lost and out of place in this brilliant city were when I was alone, and trying to find my way.)

When it happened Friday morning, not 300 yards from the MACK headquarters, I got a great piece of advice from a local. Staring helplessly at a map, certain that Denmark St was practically within reach, I asked a nice man which way was North. That was all the help I needed to orient myself. He laughed. “There’s no such thing as North, South, East and West in London,” he said. “My wife’s American, so I can see why you’d make that mistake. She was the same.” Then he directed me the wrong way. (By accident, of course.)

It wasn’t until that afternoon, deep into Hugo’s perfect Friday Art tour, that I understood what the gent meant. We ambled from one plaza to another, or one alleyway, or one narrow lane. Here in Taos, I can see for 100 miles, no lie. But in London, “Here” was never more than a couple hundred yards in any direction. We’d not yet made it to the Thames, so every turn we took just landed us back into a serpentine block of beautiful buildings, not so different than the last. It made mid-town New York’s grid look positively German. What it lacked in perspective, though, it more than made up for in charm. (Seriously, though. How do they keep London so clean?)

The first stop on our tour was the British Museum, to see the King’s Gallery. I haven’t googled it to fact-check, but Hugo said it was the world’s first public Art museum. And by public, I mean free. None of the public museum and galleries in town charge a fee, unless you’re seeing a special exhibition. We sauntered in, without even a bag check, and the place was teeming with people. Think about it. In NYC, at $25 a ticket, a family of four has to shell out $100 to experience the best art. And that’s per museum. Here: Free. Brilliant.

The King’s Gallery looked like a huge library in a castle somewhere in the country, with an open second story covered with books. There was far too much to see to take it all in, so as a viewer, one gravitates to whatever pulls you. Like shopping in the Mega-mart. You might not need any laundry detergent, but of course you have to have some pickles. I was delighted there, and all trip for that matter, to see things I’d never seen before.

What did I love? Some greenish-patina colored Centurion helmets. Amazing. I guessed Roman, and was not too far off. They were Etruscan, so I was 500 years too late. There were also some glazed relief tiles from Buckinghamshire, made in the 13th or 14th Century. A crucifixion piece looked like a mashup of Tim Burton and Monty Python, gruesome and yet witty. And, of course, very old.

I saw 13th Century French enamel cups that looked like Hobbit houses from the Shire, or Trullo homes from Basilicata. The colors, blue yellow red and gold seduced me, all these years later. (Which was a theme of the day, ancient color alive and vibrant. Makes me rethink the idea of archival pigment inks.) Then, an Ice-Age-Hand-Axe found inside a Roman elephant in 43 AD. Yes, you read that right. It’s since been dated to 400,000 years ago. (I suppose it’s better not to ask how it was found inside an elephant. Perhaps Donald Trump Jr. was responsible.)

Next, a colossal foot, on a pedestal, from Ancient Greece. It reeked of totemic power, like it was crushing down on your throat. Then, a gravestone, in Arabic, from 1032 AD. (Rest in peace, Ali, son of Ahmad.) On to Persian glazed tiles, a Marble Dog Vishnu from Rajasthan, and the most beautiful Chinese porcelain Bodhisattvas I’ve ever seen. Yes, this was all in one gallery in one museum. And, to be clear, I only saw 5% of what was on display in the King’s Gallery. So much human genius, so little time.

Out we went, into another gallery, and I found myself facing icons from the Aztec Empire. Back on familiar terrain, or so I thought, we walked up to a double-headed turquoise snake sculpture, with sharp, dangerous teeth. (Real? Maybe.) Named Nahautl, it was as powerful and scary an object as I’ve seen. I could almost smell the blood in the air, singed as the hearts burned in vats on top of the temples.

On through the Americas, we ended up back where I began. Bending down, I saw a beautiful piece of pottery, from Diego Romero. (Born 1969.) It was from the Cochiti Pueblo, in-between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Can you believe it? I couldn’t, so I yelled out “Big Ups to Cochiti Pueblo,” and then exclaimed that I might be the only person in London at the time who knew exactly where it was. (Big dam, little lake.) Was I ridiculous? I don’t know, as my fellow museum-goers were too polite to mock me.

Back into the street, we needed a coffee. (Remember, always have some narcotic substance in your bloodstream at all times.) Write this one down. 1.5 blocks from the entrance to the British Museum, there’s a great little spot called the Camera Cafe. Lenses, cameras, espresso, and Chicken Chow Mein, all in one spot. The man making coffee even gave us a free cookie, as we’d only bought one for the two of us, and he thought we’d made a mistake. A must for visiting photographers and Londoners alike.

On to the National Gallery of Art, also free. Hugo led us straight to the Florentine Renaissance paintings, to see Paolo Uccello, in particular, with whom I wasn’t familiar. A huge piece, “The Battle of San Romano,” was a revelation of color and early perspective, which was still working itself out. As such, the background battlers, in the upper corner, looked like something out of a contemporary video game: rendered to keep the eye moving along, but far from the important bits. Uccello also had a dragon painting, from 1470, which made me feel like I was really in England. (Despite its Florentine origins.) It was beautiful, and tame compared to what I saw next. (After some brilliant Fra Angelico pieces, that is.)

We headed for the Dutch galleries, as I always love to see some new Rembrandts when possible. They were there, but less special than what I’ve seen before. So, as I spun, unimpressed, I was shocked by what I faced. Cornelius van Haarlem, in 1588, painted an image of a dragon eating some dude’s face. Mid-chew. Grotesque, gory, and gifted, it stopped me cold.

I looked until I couldn’t look anymore. How have I never seen such a thing before? Nearby, El Greco’s “Christ driving the Traders from the Temple,” stood up to it, though, and wiped the face blood from my RAM.

Yes, it’s time to compare our brains to a computer. We only have so much buffer space, before things don’t stick. They just push each out of the way, and hope to be good enough, or lucky enough, to write to the hard drive of our deep consciousness. That’s why I’m typing this article a full month after I arrived home.

Travel, and art, make our brain work so hard that it’s impossible to know what’s important in the moment. I can’t even remember what most of the buildings looked like, as each new nook of the city pushed out my memory of the one before. So on that note, having already dropped 2300 words on your head, let’s pause for a respite. This London tale will be continued tomorrow.

This Week In Photography Books – Rineke Dijkstra

by Jonathan Blaustein

Who can remember the days of December? Not me. 2012 has been a blur, and I dispute the fact that it’s 1/4 over. (Can’t possibly be true.) It’s all been covered with film, for me, like the skin on a bowl of old chocolate pudding.

Why? That’s easy. As soon as you read this sentence, I’ll be the first lunatic to ever announce his wife’s pregnancy in a book review. It’s a girl, in case you were wondering. Due late Summer, we found out on Christmas Day. How’s that for symbolism?

So now, if you like, you can go back and read all the 2012 columns, looking for hints of latent madness. (The kind that comes from having a vomitorious wife, on top of an energetic 4 year old.) Me, me, me. It’s always about me in these reviews. How about her? Well, Jessie is my best friend, and it was horrible to watch her suffer for our daughter. But now she’s got the glow, and I have a few more months before I succumb to sleep-deprived misery. (Of the temporary variety, thankfully.)

Where were we? Right. December. Not so long ago, I wrote a column about a suite of images I saw at MOPA: the best photos I saw in 2011 that I hadn’t already written about yet. By Rineke Dijkstra. (Not to be confused with Lenny Dijkstra, who’s rotting in prison at the moment.) The column created quite a stir, though I still don’t know why. Apparently, Ms. Dijkstra’s dry style rubs some photographers the wrong way, as her subtle use of color and emotion lacks potency for those accustomed to dead children in redundant photographic pablum.

Now it’s April, and wouldn’t you know it, but Ms. Dijkstra has a nice new monograph out, published by SFMOMA and the Guggenheim Museum. A beautiful byproduct of her career retrospective, bouncing between the two venues. Does the imprimatur of two such esteemed institutions mean that you must now like her work and buy her book? Of course not. But if you know anything about me by now, (beyond my preference for cotton boxers, my father’s health, and the sex of my unborn child,) you know that I had to review this book. Even though we already talked about the artist back when the sun descended before 5pm, and everyone was cold and dour.

Come Spring, we focus on cleaning, renewal. New year, new possibilities. New births. My daughter will be a water dragon, according to the Chinese calendar. My son was a golden pig, which is meant to be auspicious, and that’s worked out pretty well. But a water dragon? I suppose I’ll have to hold on tight.

And for those of you who love Ms. Dijkstra’s work, or have yet to unpack its austere mystery, that’s what it’s all about. Possibility. Change. Growth. Adaptation. And the ineffable. (Which, if it was meant to be obvious, would go by another name.) That’s what becomes clear, at least, when you go through this book page by page.

Children by the sea, each standing in the same position. Minimize the variables, and the differences are all we have left to ponder. A young girl on the street in Odessa in 1993. Where is she going with that sunhat and leather valise. A boy, the next day, in the same place, holding two dolls. What gives? We’ll never know.

Women, naked, holding their newborns, right after birth. The scars reveal who had a Caesarian. Then, Tia, in Amsterdam, three weeks after giving birth, and then 5 months later. Look at the hint of change. Better hair, no circles under her eyes, she looks human in the second image, and slightly sad in the first. (Yes, I know that train is coming, and it has my name on it.)

On to the bullfighters, sure, then Almerisa, a young girl seeking Asylum in the Netherlands in 1994. (The project to which I alluded in the December article, as I saw several images at the Met in 2010.) Ms. Dijkstra carries this one through, and we watch the girl grow, in photographic stages, up through 2008, when she has her own child in the picture. We begin with a scared Bosnian girl, tiny, and end with an acculturated mother. Along the way, we get to see her legs grow, first hanging off the chair, then touching the ground. We see girlhood go by, and exhaustion set in. All the while, she’s sitting on a chair. Minimizing variables.

The book goes on to show some video stills, which of course don’t translate well in book format. I wonder, why do people keep trying? Then, soldiers being militarized, including our friend Olivier Silva. I’ll spare you the photos this time, so as not to arouse the vile anger of some of our less-than-polite readers.

Is it a great book? A work of art, as those London publishers would have us crave? Probably not. A bit too straightforward, and the cardboard cover could certainly be better. But it does give a fair accounting of a great artist. The plates are super-well-printed, and her ideas come through. So if you’re a fan, this would be a good book to have. If not, buy something else.

Bottom Line: Solid monograph from an important artist

To purchase A Retrospective 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 – Javier Arcenillas

- - Photo Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Let’s be honest: last week’s column was long. The week after I agreed not to mess with the format, I went and added 10 paragraphs to your reading load. Forgive me. (Even my Dad had to read it in two stages.) I thought it was worth it, as the chance to hear from such talented publishers was too good to pass up. But this week, allow me to rectify the situation. We’ll keep it short, just to maintain the balance. Book review only. No rambling personal narrative. (Until next week.)

When I visited New York last Fall, I saw some posters strewn around Williamsburg. Intense and more than a little scary, they advertised a project called “Sicarios,” which was showing somewhere in Brooklyn, I believe. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it means Hitman in Spanish. (Or Assassin, if you prefer.) There are a lot of them running around Mexico and Central America, as the skill-set is in high demand.

So when the book ended up in my pile, (by Javier Arcenillas, published by FotoEvidence in Brooklyn,) I was relieved and disturbed at the same time. While I would normally drop into a story about the dangers I faced traveling in Guatemala back in ’99, I won’t go there today. Got to honor the promise above. But the photos in this book offer a stark, black and white vision of the red bloody mess going on down there at present.

Is this book for everyone? No. Definitely not. It’s a collection of gruesome, troubling and poignantly tragic photographs. They’re expertly rendered, and may or may not lead to any sort of social change. But they do, for certain, bring humanity to what is, for many, an abstract Geo-Political problem. The US can swing it’s military dick around the Middle East all it wants, but that doesn’t make the drama to our South any less real, or horrifying.

It was only two weeks ago that we collectively meditated on the concept of suffering with Donald Weber’s new book “Interrogations.” He left much up to the imagination, which was what lent a talismanic power to the publication. “Sicarios” does not. Which is why it’s not for everyone. But for those of you who hunger to stare down the ugly “truth”, this book might offer a sumptuous repast.

Dead bodies, naked streetwalkers, scowling psychopaths, blood trails down the side of a car door, young kids strolling through their perilous reality without a second thought, women crying in hand-me-down American T-shirts (West Virginia- No Lifeguard At The Gene Pool,) barbed wire-topped prison walls, cowboy hats, machine guns, machetes, crucifixes…it’s all there. Does this sound like fun? I sure hope not.

But, if you’ve read any or all of my previous columns, you’ll know that I don’t believe Art must always be pretty. Quite the opposite. Dave Chapelle once did a skit on his show called “When Keepin’ It Real Goes Wrong.” This book pretty much nails the concept. A cycle of violence, once kicked off, is hard to stop, no matter where in the world you live. Some places, as Malcolm Gladwell has mused, have it worse than others. Cultures of revenge and blood lust. Guatemala is such a place.

So let’s end this now, shall we. After all, I guaranteed you a short piece. This book is worthy of your attention. Mr. Arcenillas is laying out the gory bits for all to see. It’s up to you if you feel like looking. I won’t judge you either way.

Bottom Line: Super-hard-core book, not for the faint of heart

To purchase “Sicarios” 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.