Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

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.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Donald Weber

- - Photo Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

My father reads this column each week. He enjoys it, though he’d probably read even if he found it boring. He’s proud, sure, but he says that he learns things about me and my life that he wouldn’t otherwise know. I suppose that’s a solid, 21st Century definition of irony, as the two of us live in the same town.

He mentioned the other day that he likes the style I’ve slowly adopted. A few paragraphs that initially seem random, or perhaps self-absorbed, then a sexy segue, and finally an actual review of an actual book. My first thought was to burn the house down, if my tropes were so obvious, but he advocated for stability. People, he felt, appreciate the mix of repetition and renewal. Perhaps that’s true.

But I don’t mention my father simply to conduct one more meta-riff on the absurdity of writing about myself and photo-books at the same time. He’s in a tough spot right now, my old man, currently battling the triple-whammy of tooth infection, shredded-knee, and ruined back. He can’t have surgery on the knee until the infection clears, and then needs an operation on his back, but not until the knee heals. He’s gritting his teeth (Sorry, horrible pun,) and dealing the best he can. Not-quite-stoic-suffering runs in the family, a genetic chain back to ever-miserable relatives in the ghettos of Eastern Europe.

Humans, incredibly resilient, have adapted different solutions to the problem of terminal misery. Heaven. Meade. Weed. Video Games. All share the common denominator of distraction. Look at the pretty red cloth, Mr. Bull, and ignore the sword heading right into your neck. Whatever the coping strategy, people keep pro-creating, and suffering persists.

Donald Weber seems to know a thing or two about suffering, and its lack of inherent nobility. People eat shit everywhere, every day, and do the best they can to aid in its digestion. With dignity. When possible. His new book, “Interrogations,” was just released by Schilt Publishing in Amsterdam. Pop it out of its intentionally generic cardboard shell, and its pink cover will surprise you immediately. As does its calender-like vertical orientation. (And its “poor”, or at least “not-slick” publication quality. Proletarian sensibilities and all.)

The photographs inside, along with a truly well-written essay by Larry Frolick, (In the Epilogue) were made in Russia and the Ukraine earlier in the decade. After a slew of establishment photos in the Prologue, bleak snow, junkyard dogs and the like, the main meal consists of a series of photographs of sad, terrified, and forlorn men and women in generic rooms. Given the title, they seem to be reliving or recounting tales of beatings, bitch-slaps and bedlam. One imagines the emotions to be real, regenerated upon reflection. But I suppose it’s never totally explained. Not necessary. Point taken.

I’ve reviewed several books already, and one MOMA exhibition, detailing life in former Iron Curtain. I think I even mentioned, last time, that it seemed to be one seriously ubiquitous subject, of late. No matter. Whether it’s mindless horror movies at the Mega-plex, dramatic dragon paintings in a British Museum (more on that later), or bleakly violent Eastern European photo-books, people will always, always be fascinated by the dark.

Bottom Line: Creatively made, striking publication

To purchase Interrogations visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Submissions are not accepted.

This Week In Photography Books – Deborah Luster

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s 4 something in the morning, and I ought to be asleep right now. Instead, I’m staring at a computer screen. (Insert pathetic attempt at humor here.) Why? I’m shaking the last vestiges of a nasty case of jet lag. Such a small, almost elegant term. What it really means is, you feel like your liver and stomach are doing battle for supremacy of your viscera. Your head hurts, it’s hard to complete a sentence, and you see a little man out of the corner of your eye who’s never actually there. (OK, I made that last part up.)

The human body was not designed for Inter-Continental air travel. Don’t bother arguing the point. It used to take someone like me a week to horse it down to Albuquerque, and now I can make it in a couple of hours. Technology has fundamentally changed the way our bodies interact with time, and mine still clings to GMT, for some odd reason.

So here I am, watching words miraculously appear in front of me, one at a time, as they march from my mind to you, our most excellent Global readership. Now that I have your attention, and have admitted that my half-mad ravings ought to be understood within a particular context, we might as well talk about a book, no?

As you’ll soon find out, I was in London last week, eating, drinking, and seeing lots of fantastic things. All to report back to you, in a series of upcoming features. Stay tuned. One thing I can say, straightaway, is that weight of history there is palpable, as is the awareness of all those people who’ve previously trod the ground on which you stand. As photographers, we’ve all visited old cities before, or battlefields, or former nuclear test sites. Places sanctified by blood. We accept that a spot of ground can radiate emotion well after some dark moment occurred in the past.

Deborah Luster researched and visited a series of such places for her new book, “Tooth For An Eye,” published in 2011 by Twin Palms. Except her collection of locales would otherwise have been anonymous, spots where people were murdered across the city of New Orleans. Such a grim concept, mashed together in such a beautiful volume. Like I said last week, I like to be surprised.

This book is over-sized yet slim, the front and back cover mirror images of luminous birds on wires, white on gray. Lovely. As to the grayscale theme, it continues inside. Each double-page spread contains a sheet of text on the left, and a circular, black and white photographic image on the right. The text, hand-written on a sort-of-bureaucratic-looking-form, details the victim, and the manner in which they were killed. The photos depict the location.

Would we care about the photographs without knowing the tragic back-story? I ask the question only to debunk it, because it really doesn’t matter. We do know what happened, and that’s the point. A great book has a story to tell, whether delivered by words, pictures, or both. But yes, the photographs are poignant enough that they’d hold attention regardless. As to the circular shape, well, I might always see the world through that prism if the last thing I saw was the barrel of a gun. (Yes, that’s a bit of a metaphorical stretch, but then again, it’s 4 something in the morning.)

I’m not big on rankings, but this might just be the best book I’ve reviewed yet. The photographs are powerful, the artist is staring down the macabre, and not blinking. As an object, you want to pick it up again and again, seduced by it’s desire to memorialize people who far to often fade away as if they were never here. And those birds on those wires, glowing on the cover, re-appear as the last photo in the book. Brian Christopher Smith, age 22, killed on July 14, 2009. He was found face up, and died of multiple gunshot wounds. That is all.

Bottom Line: Brilliant book, enough said

To purchase “Tooth For An Eye” 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 – José Pedro Cortes

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was all set to review Josef Koudelka’s re-issued “Gypsies” this week. Big name artist, spanking new monograph from Aperture. It seemed like the natural thing to do. I try to balance looking at famous photographers and newcomers, but this was a slam dunk. Write it, email it, move along.

But I didn’t like the book that much. I’m sure many of you would, as it’s filled with extremely well-made, grainy black and white photographs. Of Gypsies. It was totally expected, and that was what bothered me. If I had envisioned the series in my head before opening the damn thing, it wouldn’t have deviated much from what was printed on the page.

We’ve all seen strings of photographs that depict poverty, disease, and general misery. So. Many. Times. Before. We just tune out. Or at least I do. Additionally, I hadn’t realized before I opened the book that it was a re-issue. So in fact, it had actually been seen before. (Of course, the photos are great, and must have been fresh when they were originally released. But I’m reviewing books here, not kowtowing to history.)

Disappointed, I reached back into my shrinking stack of books. (Time for another re-up at photo-eye.) I came across a yellow and black, almost metallic hard-cover from José Pedro Cortes, recently released by Pierre Von Kliest editions in Portugal. If you think that I just reviewed another book by a dude with three names, from the same publisher, you’d be right. I did. Two weeks ago.

But once I opened this book, I was totally caught off guard. Challenged, confused, and just generally off-put at such an eccentric collection of images. (But in a good way.) First, the premise: The photographer lived in Tel Aviv, met four US born women who moved Israel to join the military at 18. After they finished their service, they stayed on. Super-specific and yet totally random. Intriguing, and (obviously) not a subject I’d seen before.

Then, inside, it was even odder. The first photograph was of a woman, from behind, in her bra and panties, looking out a over a balcony. Slightly referential of an early Dali painting, but also not what I was expecting at all. So this was going to be one more book selling sex?

Not quite. The images of the four women, in their underclothes or partially nude, were interspersed with detail and landscape shots of the city. Big flash, flattened out images, alongside ones shot with natural light. Old cars and porticos and clothing shops and puddles of water. Some color, some B&W. Over-grown palm trees and chain-link fences. A rumpled tarp that resembled a body bag.

None of it made any sense at all, as the book is non-linear and non-location specific. Then back to the undressed ladies, whom, while attractive, were far from what we typically see in a book reeking of sexual energy.

I’m not quite sure what this artist was on about. And that’s why I like it. I don’t want a photo-book to tell me a story I already know, nor do I want to be lulled to sleep with a derivative vision. What’s the point? But this book, “Things Here and Things Still to Come,” got inside my head. It made me think about why humans are so obsessed with looking at pictures of naked people?

Pornography is one of the most lucrative and perhaps destructive industries around, and yet it really isn’t discussed that often, relative to it’s cultural ubiquity. Not that this book is pornographic, but making naked pictures look so discomfiting and awkward, including pimples and cellulite, it’s not what we’re used to seeing. It was almost meta-gratuitous, like Tarrantino meets Porkys.

So let’s just say now that I’m not a silent partner in Pierre Von Kliest editions. I don’t even know who these people are. But they seem to be putting out photo books that depict contemporary life in a messy way. And nothing about the human condition in the 21st C is clean and simple. So at least they’re keeping it real.

Bottom line: Weird, potentially offensive book that made me think

To purchase “Things Here And Things Still To Come” visit Photo-Eye

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

Kurt Tong Interview

- - Photographers

Jonathan Blaustein interviews photographer Kurt Tong.

JB: You and I met, as I have with several people I’ve interviewed, at Review Santa Fe in 2009. I don’t think we’ve seen each other or spoken since. I’ve got to give a shout out to that class of ’09. This is right off the top of my head, but you came out of there. Susan Worsham. Jesse Burke. LaToya Ruby Frasier. Emily Shur. Ben Lowy. Susan Burnstine. (I know I’m forgetting another handful. Apologies.)

KT: It’s been fun. I’ve kept in touch with a few people from that Review as well. They’re all doing well. Kind of crazy.

JB: You went there a young guy, just trying to get his work out into the world. And in the ensuing three years you’ve evolved into a photographer with an International exhibition record, you’re represented by Jen Bekman, one of the biggest galleries in New York, you had a book published by Keher Verlag. It seems like it all came together for you in a relatively short period of time.

KT: Before Santa Fe, I had this plan to shoot a project, “In Case it Rains in Heaven,” which is the one that got published and exhibited a lot. I’d done the leg work in the two years leading up to Santa Fe. Doing the reviews. Meeting the curators. So I had my network ready. I went back to Hong Kong and shot the project, and I was able to show it to a lot of people in a very short period of time. From there it snowballed.

JB: So this was really a 5 year process for you.

KT: Yes. If I’d shot that project in 2007, before I started doing the circuit, it wouldn’t have exploded so quickly. It’s because I’d just put my foot through the door.

JB: We all have so many different things going on at the same time, it can make it difficult to give our best effort in any one avenue. You’re living back and forth between London and Hong Kong. So that must resonate with you, the struggle to be our best self.

KT: I have been working hard. Pre-2009, I was shooting a lot of events and weddings. Then that project came out, and people started taking notice. I planned an 18 month stint in HK with my family to work a different project that’s due to come out soon.

JB: What’s it called?

KT: “The Queen, the Chairman and I.” But, with what you were saying, trying to do everything at once? I didn’t. I made the decision that I would concentrate on the fine art, I didn’t do any events jobs or weddings. The benefit of that is showing. Within the last 18 months, I’ve got signed up by 3 commercial galleries, including the Photographers’ Gallery in London. I’ve had a book published, and have been working on a lot of shows. That’s a full-time job.

I think wedding photography is a full-time job. I had a wedding that I shot a year ago. A year later, the couple is still hassling me to get the album right, or get some new orders. So I had to give that up to concentrate 100% of my time on my personal work. Which involves a lot of social networking, and turning up at festivals, making book dummies.

I think that’s paid off. But at the same time, a lot of that work doesn’t pay. Which is what I’ve been struggling with.

JB: You chose to stop working for pay so you could pour all of your energy into something that wasn’t actually paying your bills. And you’ve got kids, right?

KT: In college, people hint at it, but they don’t tell you how it works. But did you see, sometime last year, Aline Smithson did a blog post about the cost of success?

JB: Yeah, I saw that. Is that what you’re dealing with now, trying to figure out how to afford to show your work around the world?

KT: Absolutely. I gave myself 2 years to shoot a new project, and really try to see if living off print sales alone could work. People tell me it doesn’t work, and I found out the hard way. I’ve been doing OK with the sales, but as Aline’s blog post suggests, every show comes with printing and framing costs, without any guarantee that you can even make your money back.

JB: It sounds like you saved up some money and saw it as a phase where you put in the time and energy now for long-term results. And now you’re two years into it, and it’s starting to hurt a little bit. Is that it?

KT: Yeah, in a sense, I’m kind of running out of money. I’d been living on print sales until August or September, and that’s when the financial markets started going a bit bad again. It is reflected. Once the stock market dropped, the print sales stopped. You realize that Art is such a luxury commodity.

JB: It’s perfect that you brought that up, because you have a solo show up right now at the Jen Bekman gallery in New York, as we speak. You came up through the ranks of the Hey Hot Shot competition. You were chosen as their Ne Plus Ultra one year. And when people think of Jen Bekman, they often think of 20×200. $10 to the artist for each 8X10 print. How does that work? You talk about surviving on print sales, but you can’t survive on $10 a pop.

KT: When I talk about print sales, I’m talking mostly about the galleries representing me. Jen Bekman has only 2 of my prints on 20×200 (2 more were launched with the exhibition). It’s only those two prints sold through her that are from $10 a pop. My other prints sell for considerably more. They range from $600 to $6000.

I think a lot of people have issues with Jen Bekman’s model, 20×200, bringing the cheap prints into the market so people don’t buy the expensive prints. But I’ve got to say, at the end of the month, they’re the only ones who guarantee me a check every month. Whether it’s $200 or $2000, they never fail to sell something. Whereas my other galleries often go through 3 or 4 month dry patches.

JB: So the fact that there are 2 images out there for very little cost is not having any adverse effect upon the higher market value of what you do?

KT: No.

JB: People are going to want to hear that. It’s a controversial subject, and you can only speak for yourself. But I have talked with Joseph Holmes about it in the past, who also works with them, and he’s been very positive about how the 20×200 program works too.

KT: I think it’s important what work is put onto 20×200. Obviously, they have a very strict curatorial process. They pick the best work, so as a photographer, with all the publicity it gets, it’s tempting to give them your best shots. But it’s important to put some of your best work aside.

JB: And what was the opening of the exhibition like for you?

KT: It was exciting. I had the best experience ever, last year, when I had my first museum show. That kind of spoiled me, but I had a fantastic time in NY.

In reality, I think there is a difference between having a show in New York and a show in Europe. It’s the buzz afterwards. In London, if you have a show, and you don’t manage to get the newspaper or the bloggers down at the opening, they stop talking about it, and the show just fizzles out. But in New York, a lot of people didn’t come to the opening, but since I left, it’s kept going. I think it’s a much more vibrant scene of online art critics, in New York, I find.

JB: I want to switch gears a bit. I know that you were raised in both Hong Kong and England. In one of the statements on your website, you referred to yourself an others as “Us Honkeys.”

KT: I did.

JB: So with the rise of the Internet and more affordable air travel, national boundaries seem to mean less than they used to. You’re a living embodiment of the mashup of East and West. A global citizen type. What’s your take on that?

KT: It’s funny you said that. I lived in Hong Kong until I was 13, then I went to boarding school in England, and stayed here and married here. Throughout my twenties, I saw myself as a citizen of the world. I spent a lot of time in India, and Eastern Europe. So I thought wherever I was, I was home.

It wasn’t until my daughter was born that I started feeling Chinese again. Once you become a father, you want to be prepared when your children ask you about their identity. So that’s when my work completely changed. Up until then, I wanted to travel the world, so all my projects were done out and about. Since the kids, all my work has been shot in England, Hong Kong or China. Really, I was trying to find my own identity, in a way.

JB: Do you speak any of the Chinese dialects?

KT: I do. My mother tongue is actually Cantonese. The last two years I’ve been learning Mandarin, for a couple of reasons. A., because I wanted to, and a lot of my work is shot in China.

JB: B., because you saw the writing on the wall.

KT: (laughing.) Exactly. I want a gallery in Beijing.

JB: No doubt. You’re talking about surviving on print sales. You’re no dummy. You’ve got to go where the money is.

KT: It’s interesting, actually, because a lot of the big galleries are opening branches in Hong Kong, precisely for that reason. White Cube, Gagosian. It’s definitely where the money is.

JB: Can you talk a bit about the differences between mainland China and Hong Kong?

KT: It’s hard for me to say. When I go to China, I don’t face the same scrutiny as a Westerner would. Because I don’t enter on a passport, I enter on a Hong Kong residency card. I can almost infiltrate.

JB: And unlike me, you’re not a gringo with a goatee, so you can perhaps blend in a little easier.

KT: I have no secret police following me, I don’t think. I certainly know of photographers who’ve done work in Tibet, and their room gets ransacked. But I never had that problem. Certainly, in Hong Kong, there’s lot more freedom. No doubt about it. You can openly criticize the government, which you can’t do in China.

JB: Is that something that people expect to continue?

KT: China still needs Hong Kong. Companies and now galleries like to open in Hong Kong, because things are done more legitimately. Money and Banks. There’s none of the corruption. So China needs to keep Hong Kong a certain way, but they also want Hong Kong to rely on them. A lot of the businesses and hotels and tourist industry relies purely on the Chinese tourists. So if China wanted to stop Hong Kong, they could just stop tourism. They can definitely control Hong Kong in certain ways.

JB: Do you think you’ll stay in London, or move back to Hong Kong?

KT: We’re thinking of moving back to Hong Kong, actually. It would be good for my children to learn Mandarin. And I get more work done from there, in terms of making contacts and pushing my projects, living in Hong Kong as opposed to living in England.

JB: Why do you think that is? Because China’s hot right now?

KT: No. When you’re here in England, you might know a curator, be acquainted, but they have lots to do. When I try to show my new work, I keep getting pushed further down the diary. But when I email from Hong Kong and say I’ll be in town for a couple of weeks, I tend to get the meetings. It works a lot better.
At them moment, in London, I’m struggling to meet people I know well because they’re so busy.

JB: Sometimes, we imagine that you have to be in the biggest of big markets. One of the reasons I left New York, (other than the fact that it was kicking my ass,) was that I started nosing around Chelsea, really paying attention to the CV’s in the exhibitions, and and I noticed that at least half the artists that had representation were not living in New York. They were in random and far-flung places.

It resonated with me, because I always felt like I was swimming upstream in the Big Apple. I knew if I came back to Taos, living in the mountains with the fresh air, that it was more likely that I’d make the most of myself.

KT: Living in London, my friends often get sucked into going to openings, meeting the same people. As you know, lots of photographers like to talk about themselves…

JB: Oh my goodness.

KT: So you come away from the openings completely depressed. I won’t name names, but one of my friends is a photo-journalist, and she’s so jealous of a few of the female photo-journalists that are doing well at the moment. Every time we go to an opening, they’re there, showing off, and she becomes very depressed. I’ve got to ground her a bit, and say, “If you really look at the CV, they’re not doing that well. They’re having a nice run, but you’re doing just as well.” It’s hard to distance yourself from that if you live in a city and see people every Thursday at an opening.

JB: That was what happened to me. I got really insecure, and I think that competitiveness can be incredibly destructive to one’s creativity. I’m trying to learn not to judge myself by others’ success. I want to judge myself by how hard I’m working, whether I’m growing and getting better. Learning how to avoid the problems that in the past would have tripped me up. It’s easier to say that than to do it.

KT: Very few people are living off their art. But living in a city, going to artist talks, you get the impression that they are. I think it’s important to know that’s not the case.

JB: You’re ticking all the boxes on what would be considered success, and yet you’re dealing with the same problems as all Global Middle Class citizens. How can I make enough to support my kids? How can I keep it together? Acclaim is still not equated with material success for most artists who are not already super-established.

KT: Absolutely. I went Paris Photo recently, and it is the same 8 or 10 photographers who are dominating the whole scene. It’s almost like they’re eating the main meal, and there’s another 200 photographers eating the scraps around it. And I’m not even eating the scraps.

This Week In Photography Books – António Júlio Duarte

by Jonathan Blaustein

Addiction is nasty, and the house always wins. Put those together, and it makes for a cunning and helpless transfer of wealth. Whether it’s street dealers taking ten spots off of twitching junkies, sports arenas charging $9 for a warm Budweiser, or casinos absorbing cash from the repetitive slashing of one-armed bandits, it matters little. As I said, the house always wins.

Gambling is the addiction that I understand least. I’ve been blessed with good genes, as addiction does not seem to run in my family. Given how much beer I drank as an 18 year old in college, ever proud of my ability to double-fist Schaeffers, I’d have been an alcoholic years ago under different circumstances. Drinking and drugs, though, at least I get. The alteration of brain chemistry can be a heap of fun, and, until the hangovers descend in your late 20’s, the lack of accountability makes it easy to overdo it. Or do it, then overdo it, then do it some more.

But gambling…it’s never made sense. I’m told that the thrill of victory must overwhelm the fear of losing your dollars. But really, how much fun can it be? A lot, obviously, or Vegas would never have risen from the sun-baked Nevada Earth.

Apparently, Vegas is no longer the biggest gambling den around, having been displaced at some point by the Former-Portuguese-Colony/Island Macau. If you’ve never heard of Macau, no drama, as it’s a pretty small place off the South Coast of China. There’s the keyword right there. China. As the swirling-cash-toilet-bowl of choice for the world’s rising economy, just imagine how much money must be rolling around down there. Better yet, you don’t have to imagine. Just look at “White Noise,” a new book by António Júlio Duarte, recently published by Pierre von Kleist editions.(Subtitled “Sleepless Nights-Casinos-Macau.”)

Now, I’ve already tipped my hand several times that I love weird/odd imagery, and sci-fi infused imagery all the more. I must be easily seduced by shiny, flash-driven, gleaming photographs, so that’s one of my tells right there. I’ll spare you one more Murakami/Parallel Universe reference, but man do I have a soft spot for that style.

This book has it in spades. There are no people, the use of flash dominates, and boy do these photographs shine. Crystal chandeliers, gold-leaf encrusted sculptures, porcelain goddesses, mirrored-disco balls, metallic drapes, it’s all in there. Even more disturbing, elephant tusks standing at attention, Michael Jackson’s white glove resting on velvet, and cash money circulating through a vacuum-tube like something Bob Barker would dance to if he were dosed with LSD.

The casinos pictured here really do resemble spaceships. It’s not just that I’ve got Star Trek on the brain, (or better yet, Wall-E.) It’s definitely supposed to look like that. You can almost hear the imperceptible whir of the air-con systems, breath the recycled cigarette fumes, drain dry a watered-down vodka, and feel the vibration of all those machines and gaming tables sucking up money like a big, fat bong-hit.

So let’s have a moment of silence for all the poor suckers who bet it all on black, and lost. Homes gone, cars re-possessed, lovers left, it’s a sad tale. A sucker’s bet, you might say, thinking that anyone but the BIG MONEY comes out ahead. But then again, this is just a book review, and “White Noise” is a just a book.

Bottom Line: Shiny, gleaming, flash-driven casino awesomeness

To purchase White Noise visit Photo-Eye.

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

This Week In Photography Books – Irina Ruppert

by Jonathan Blaustein

In service of radical honesty, let me state for the record that I’m exhausted. Practically brain dead at the moment. In a couple of the interviews I conducted in 2011, I talked about the reality of the photographer’s 21st Century hustle. We all have two or three jobs, cobbling things together to make a go of it. We do it out of passion, desire and necessity. But sometimes, speaking for myself at least, it leaves one drained of creativity juice, like a de-sanguinated chicken.

Speaking of bloodless poultry, I spotted one on page two of the new book “Rodina,” by Irina Ruppert, recently released by Pepperoni Books in Germany. (Sorry, it was a rooster.) We’re always hearing some version of the conversation about how everything’s been photographed, all the good ideas taken, nothing new under the sun. As one who strives to innovate, I like to dispute that train of thought whenever possible. But there is also a ton of value in a story well-told, a vision perfectly executed, a narrative jaunt in an exotic place, rendered through the eyes of a stranger. “Rodina” is such a story.

Eastern Europe & Northwest Asia seem to have become hot subjects in the last few years. Some photographers have been attracted to the darkest of sides, human trafficking. Others to the kitch-tastic combination of fabulous oil wealth and fabulously bad taste. Others still are seduced by the “trapped in time” aspect of one of the world’s last “undiscovered” frontiers. Regardless, I’ve seen a lot of work made in that part of the world. Some stands out, some fades into the deeper recesses of my memory in an instant.

This book makes the cut, and I enjoy writing about it after highlighting work by so many heavyweights in the last month. I’ve never heard of Irina Ruppert before, and I couldn’t care less. That’s one of the true secrets of a great photo book: if it all comes together, the fame and/or reputation of the maker is of little significance.

The cloth-bound, tan hard-cover book lacks any text on the outside, and has a small piece of fabric embroidered onto the front. It’s a touch that speaks to the hand-made and the intimate, and indeed, it is a small and lovely little ride on the inside. The first photo shows an old Bulgarian Airlines airplane sitting on the grass in front of an apartment building. Consider me intrigued.

Photo two was mentioned above, and of course, I’m always interested in work that shows us what we don’t want to see.
A skinned cow head on the wall, chicken foot in a bowl of soup, and a goat standing on the road round out the symbolic theme. I love it. Woven in between, we see images of rolling fields, purple kitchens, hanging laundry, sidelong glances, and an old dead woman decked out in a coffin/horse cart. Throw in a fisherman rowing away from a random set of explosions in the water, and you had me at “Hello.” Really cool book.

Truth be told, (once again) I never thought of myself as a photo-book lover before I started writing this column. A photography lover, yes, but the books I could take or leave. That was then. Now, having had the privilege of scoping out all the new releases for a half-year, I feel differently. A book is an object, and the image edit a rhythmic narrative. It all needs to coalesce just so for me to really love the object, even if I never hear from the artist again. So for all the talk of shrink wrap, collectors’ markets and art stars, it’s good to remember that a great photo-book can come from anyone, and that it needs to be held and appreciated.
Bottom Line: A great book from a little-known artist

To Purchase Rodina visit Photo-Eye.

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

Roadtrip to Marfa – Part 2

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

There’s nothing quite so sad as a bunch of fancy coffee addicts, also hungry, twitching down the highway 80 miles for a fix. But when your alternative is the gas station in Van Horn, Texas, you do what you must. That being said, the drive towards salvation was most definitely precarious. First, it was David complaining that there’s no room for Credence on a Texas road trip. (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain”) Sacrilege.

Then, I made the (apparently) equally egregious mistake of calling dibs on some photographic subject matter I found, thereby guaranteeing that my buddies would come out, shutters blazing. (It was a forlorn piece of a frozen Santa suit by the side of the road, across from a pecan farm.) According to my friends, there’s no such thing as dibs on a photo safari. My mistake.

Eventually, we made it to Marfa. Out came the Iphones, desperate for a recommendation. Of course, this not being the most meticulously planned trip, most of the restaurants in town were closed. Seems Marfa’s business class has figured out that their jet-set-clientele all leave town sometimes, together, off to better weather, so in response, the shops in town just close, without warning, whenever they like. Seems fair.

But enough about that. We found a nice little cafe run by a sweet Swiss woman, and collapsed into our seats. (She also sold small batch, $14 chocolate bars. Telling detail.) Yes, the coffee was good. Yes, the fruit smoothie made me feel better. Yes, I did feel pangs of guilt for having become so dreadfully bougie at some point in the last ten years.

The four of us choked down the last few bites of our identical baguette sandwiches, as we had a 10 am appointment at the Chinati Foundation for a tour of the facilities. Perhaps this might be the right moment to explain what a “Chinati Foundation” is, and why it was important enough for us to drive straight into the mouth of hell to see it. (For those of you who know the backstory, feel free to skip down a paragraph.)

Without me reciting details like a well-informed, unpaid docent, (Thanks, Mike Bianco) I’ll cut to the chase. At some point in his youth, the soon-to-be-famous Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd passed through Marfa. There was a small military base there, just some barracks really, and he was smitten. Later, the base would be used as a lightly guarded holding facility for German Officer POW’s captured in WWII. Still later, Judd would return, buy up most of the town, and begin installing his work as he saw fit. Then, institutional money came in to support his vision. (Hence the Judd and Chinati Foundations.) Finally, as you might expect, hordes of moneyed followers descended, thereby making Marfa, officially, the strangest place I’ve been in the United States. (Take that, Scottsdale.)

So now you’re caught up. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that I heard the Director of the Chinati Foundation speak in Reno last Fall, and he said there would be a special exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s new photo sculptures on display. I figured that seeing what an acclaimed photo master had cooked up in his lab was enough of a reason to schedule the trip. After all, we all love ourselves some Sugimoto, don’t we?

We arrived a few minutes late, as it was difficult to find the place through the barrage of broken down little shotgun houses. I can’t stress enough how “rustic” are the outskirts of this little town. When you know how many billions of dollars are driving down the street at any given moment, it’s just impossible to connect those two realities. In fact, now that I’m home and have thought about it a bit, perhaps our nightmare of a visit to Van Horn was a blessing. It enabled the four of us to stay grounded, remembering vividly how the other half lives. It’s hard to get freaked out by a few art world snobs when you’ve still got the stench of human desperation in your nostrils.

Ah, the Art you say? How is it possible that I’ve made it this deep into my ramblings without discussing it yet? Shameful. The work on display at the CF was world class. We began our tour in a hangar building, where some Judd furniture was on display. Rows of concrete on the floor were interspersed with rows of perfectly raked gravel. Without thinking, I started walking on the gravel, messing it up with each step, and then turned to watch everyone else walking gingerly on the concrete lines. (Does that tell you everything you need to know about me?) Watching the light forms falling through the windows on the concrete, listening to the creaks of the old building, it was a terrific twenty minutes.

From there, we walked on, past a Richard Long spiral sculpture of volcanic rock from Iceland. The artificial nature of said nature was not super-powerful, set against the tall grass and waving trees of the sunny South Texas morning. On we walked, and soon enough we’d reached one of two humungous hangar-type-buildings. Together, they housed one of Judd’s most famous works: 100 aluminum cubes, each mostly identical but slightly different than the others. The buildings were brick, with still more concrete and glass. (None of the tour allowed photography, unfortunately, but I did sneak one image later on.)

At first, I was surprisingly disappointed. I was expecting to feel exalted, like the best Museum experiences, where you can feel your cells re-arranging in real time. When our emotions are engaged, along with our minds, the best viewing experiences fill us with an almost spiritual joy at encountering the best that humanity can muster. That didn’t happen here. Instead, I found myself pressing my face against the window, looking out at the rectangular concrete sculptures in the golden Winter grass. Yes, I felt like the kid trapped in detention, staring at all his friends having fun outside at recess. So strange.

Then, I accepted that this was not an installation that spoke to my soul, but perhaps it might seriously engage my mind. Whenever I hear people describe Art as having left them cold, it bugs me a bit. As much as I love warmth, there’s definitely a place in the world for it’s opposite. Cold ought not to be, automatically, a pejorative term.

But it’s an appropriate term here. Cold, clinical, precise, mechanical, repetitive, exact, mathematic. Rows and rows of shiny boxes, standing at attention. Ever so similar, just slightly different. Almost like soldiers. Or more specifically, German Soldiers. In World War II. Gleaming officers, stepping out of gleaming Panzer tanks, the finest German engineering could produce. Yes, that’s when the lightbulb went off. It all made sense.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll never know if this is what Judd was thinking. But those POW’s used to be in these hangars, and now they’ve been replaced by the sculptures. Not only that, but they even kept some painted instructions on the wall, in German, that said “Better to use your head than lose your head.” So lets not assume it’s that big of a stretch. Once that idea popped into my head, my appreciation for the work flowered. Call me crazy, if you like, but when I mentioned my theory to the guys, they all nodded and agreed that it made sense.

From there, we hit one more installation, which was my favorite of the day. Created by the Russian Artist, Ilya Kabakov, one of the barracks had been transformed into a faux, abandoned, Russian primary school. Yes, it was a bit precious, (you had to avoid stepping on some of the perfectly arranged dirt) but the vibe and attention to detail were astonishing. It felt so real, with little odds and ends everywhere, here a school book, there a photograph, here a chemistry beaker, there a set of boxing gloves. My most enjoyable impression, again requiring a bit of imagination, was that we were actually in a parallel Universe, one in which the Soviets had won the cold war back in the 50’s. They colonized the US, and then abandoned the more useless parts, like this stretch of nowhere Texas.

We soon headed back to town for lunch, and a visit to a warehouse that featured John Chamberlin sculptures. (Fantastic.) As we were leaving, I couldn’t resist the urge to scribble “JB wuz here, bitches” on the side of a beige-colored power box. I’ve never done graffiti before, yet the compulsion was overwhelming. I think I’m sharing it here, not to present myself as a rapscallion, but rather to point out that among a certain class or caste, (here, Art world snobs) the crush of formality can create a counter-reaction. You think I’m an outsider? Here, I’ll show you. I’ll leave a mark on your special art place. So there.

As I said, the Chamberlin car sculptures were amazing, and a must if you do make your way to Marfa. After lunch, we returned for the second part of the tour. The Dan Flavin light sculptures were cool, but seemed out of place outside of Manhattan. One barracks had remnants of Art made by soldiers past, and was pretty cool. Finally, brain-dead, we begged off the tour and snuck into the Sugimoto installation. (We joined a private tour, at $300 a pop, given by the COO, who was terrifically nice and gracious.)

As much as I like Sugimoto’s work, these things were not worth driving 600 miles to see. Two rooms had two rows of 12 sculptures, each identical to the naked eye. Basically, they’re pyramids of optical glass, with a photo embedded in the orb part of the sculpture. Each image is strikingly similar, one of Sugimoto’s ocean horizon photos, printed on film, to be see-through. Carefully examining one, I loved the way the light and image itself changed depending on where I stood, or moved my head. Two inches to the left, and the image would disappear. Clever, and Zen to be sure. But we all seemed to question why there were some many, as 24 didn’t really improve upon on one, or perhaps two or three.

Finally, we went into town to find some beer, and grab a quick look at Marfa Ballroom, a famous local gallery. When I try to talk about how much this version of the art world revolves around money, power, and private planes, it’s helpful to share this anecdote. I noticed the sign with the staff list, and noted one of the founder’s names. Later that night, at dinner, someone mentioned that said person had just inherited a half a billion dollars. It was said casually. That is all.

In fairness to Marfa Ballroom, they did have some pretty cool work on display in the group exhibition “AutoBody”. Two cars sat outside, locked in a super-slow motion crash that had been pre-ordained. The photographer/artist Liz Cohen was showing a car sculpture that she’d created, which was awesome, and some photographs, which were not. (You decide: In the photos, she was dressed up as a Latina pin-up girl, like you’d see in Lowrider magazine. They were so dry, it was not an engaging spoof. But given her physical attributes, it’s certain that the work will sell. Craven or brilliant?) The gallery was also showing a four channel video installation, “North of South West of East,” by Meredith Danluck, which was so good that all four of us sat and watched for 5 or 10 minutes.

We drove back to the Chinati Foundation, one more time, for a late afternoon stroll out into the prairie, to see the army of concrete sculptures that I’d been ogling all day. Once again, my quest for the transcendent fell short, mostly because I was talking to my friends the whole time. But, if you’re a fan of Minimalism, this work is tough to top. Exquisitely beautiful, seemingly permanent, they mesh so well with the blue sky and the yellow ground. They’re grouped into mini-installations, in a line a Kilometer long. So it’s experiential. You walk, you think, you avoid the snake-holes. Magnificent. Perfect, really. And then you think, how long will these things last? 500 years? A thousand? Regardless, they’ll be here, watching over a slice of Texas, when we’re all gone.

The boys and I had dinner, went to bed, and left the next morning. The drive North was fun, as work, (at least my work,) was done. We passed back through Van Horn, which was much less scary in the light of day, but still as depressing. At a quick pee stop, at the Wendys/Truck Stop/Only-Store-In-Town, we were completely surprised. Walking in, the place was overrun by teenagers. Dozens and dozens. Barely room to move. One student stood out, a flamingly gay little blonde kid, wearing a Swiss-style ski hat on the top of his head. It was so obvious, he was so out there, that my heart broke a little.

The four of us shook our heads, amazed at how hard life must be for the boy, stuck in a backwater like Van Horn, surrounded by a sea of desert and homophobia. And in that moment, I remembered why I love road trips so much. You get out of your life, you reconnect with the enormity of this country, and you never, truly never, know what you’ll see next.

Roadtrip to Marfa – Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Much later in the day, David and I stopped off at a tiny little rest stop off I-25, just South of Socorro. A brown sign, made for tourists, announced we were on the famed Camino Real, also known as the Jornada del Muerto. The journey of death. Finally, it all made sense.

I knew it would be a dangerous day hours earlier. Descending out of Taos and into the canyon, where the highway hugs the Rio Grande for twenty miles or so, I pulled out to pass a line of cars. It’s something I do all the time. As I finally got a clear look down the hill, a horse-trailer was backing up traffic ten cars ahead. I tried to merge back, but there was nowhere to go. (In the exact spot where a family died a few years ago.)

Desperately, I jammed the gas and barely wedged myself in just beyond the nose of a semi-truck hauling pressurized chemicals. Releasing a pent up breath, seconds later, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see the truck swerving, barely keeping it together. Not 30 minutes into my trip, and I almost ignited a firestorm of misery. Classy.

Twenty minutes later, traffic came to a stand still. Lights were flashing, sirens screaming. Not good. As I inched along, off to my right, another semi-truck had launched off the road into the rocks along the river. Hard to see how the driver could have survived. Never seen that before. Bad omen.

From there, I herky-jerked my way down past Santa Fe. Cops were everywhere, brainless drivers the norm. It was so odd, so disconcerting, that I mentioned it to the Native American woman behind the counter as I paid for my breakfast burrito at the Casino/Gas Station/Rest Stop just north of Albuquerque. (Casino Hollywood on the San Felipe Reservation, BTW.) She nodded, implacably, and said, “Yeah, one of those days. You never can tell.”

So by the time the brown sign reminded me that the Camino Real is not for the faint of heart, I was practically relieved. At least I wasn’t imagining things. One needs to keep one’s wits when heading down to the borderlands, a world populated with smugglers, junkies, truckers and dropouts. (Now that I think about it, I suppose it’s not that different from where I live.)

Why a road trip? Well, that’s an easy answer. David and I were headed South to Las Cruces, where we intended to meet up with our friends Ken and Scott. After a pit stop of a studio visit with photographer David Taylor, (the king of La Frontera) we ditched one car, piled into Ken’s Prius, and continued on towards Marfa, Texas, Art Mecca. So there’s the why. I rallied a few buddies to take a big Texas road trip, to go see some great art and write about it for you, the APE audience. Nobody died, nobody even got hurt, so in the end, it was worth it. But drama-free? Not likely.

My three friends are all photographers, and also accomplished in other aspects of the field. (An editor/publisher, a professor, & and a museum executive.) Each of us drowns daily in a sea of email, commitments, and plans. So for once, we relished the opportunity to wing it. No hotels were booked. No Yelp reviews were solicited. No idea where we were going to spend the night. Romantic? Not exactly.

When you’re 21, you don’t mind sleeping anywhere. Road Trips are just an excuse to drink way too much Mountain Dew (which lacks any other purpose), smoke too much weed, and take pictures of absolutely everything. Think about it. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, every single fence-post seems profound. “Look man, it’s a cactus, just oozing cactus-ness. Just one more shot, OK?”

On this trip, however, I was the youngest at 37. Creaky backs and coffee-snobbery are the norm in this demo, and the idea of just stopping “wherever” for the night doesn’t work as well as it did a decade or two ago. (Though Ken did bring along some coffee-crack in a creamer cup called Stok. Look into it…)

David Taylor, desert expert, mentioned there was a town a ways North of Marfa called Van Horn. He assured us there was nothing else around for miles, so we default set that as a destination for the night. Hopped up on shitty burgers and vitamin water, the four of us drove. And drove. Mountains in the reflected moonlight are a sight to behold, but very difficult to photograph from a moving car. So they’ll exist in my memory only. (Close your eyes, and maybe you can imagine it. Charcoal gray, texture, jagged lines pushing up from the ground, no other light around.)

By the time we got to Van Horn, it was almost 11 at night. (Damn you, time change.) The decent-looking motels were the first into town, and surprise, were all booked. So there we were, sitting in the the car at a gas station, doors opened for fresh air, and that’s when the Iphones came out. Seriously? If you don’t want to TripAdvisor that crap three weeks ahead of time, what’s the point of doing it near midnight, thirty yards from the nearest hotel? We pounded the pavement for a bit, checking in at the certainly haunted Hotel El Capitan, before finally settling on a Days Inn adjacent to the off-ramp. I was confident, which was a mistake.

In these long articles, I try to keep it breezy, keep it funny, and keep moving along. But we’re what, ten paragraphs in and I haven’t even gotten to the Art yet? It’s not like this is the New Yorker, and I’m aware that you don’t have unlimited time to stare at your screen. This time, though, I have to slow down. We’ll get to the art, and the insane mashup of billionares slumming with South Texas poor folk. We’ll get there. But what my friends and I witnessed that night, in Van Horn, is worth conjuring for a couple more minutes.

We walked into the Days Inn lobby, David and I, ready to book a room. Immediately to our right, recumbent on a sofa with a TV behind it, we saw a young woman. At first glance, she looked 25, and attractive. Dark hair, nice figure. As she swooped around us to the front counter, though, we got a better look. Not a day over 20, and more likely less than that.

She would have been beautiful, and probably was until a few years before. But now? With the discoloration under her eyes, she was like a cancer-ridden raccoon, and the expression peering out was dead. Not defiant dead, like the junkies in a Mikhailov photograph, but dead in a soul-sucking, depressive way that makes you touch your wallet and lock the car door. Meth, most likely, though I suppose it could have been crack. Whatever the culprit, this girl was gone.

She handed over the key cards, and ushered us on our way. I wanted to cry. We got to the rooms, and David rushed right to the bed to see just how crappy this place was. He found…blood stains on the bed. For real. That’s the kind of detail that a better writer than I would make up, but there it was. Real blood. Perfect. As my room’s door was broken, we had to re-engage our meth-head princess, which was one more encounter than I ever wanted in my life. Her reaction, if you can believe it, was to throw the new bedding at a co-worker, and scream, “Blood stains? I don’t get paid enough for that shit.” She stormed off, never to be seen again.

Her colleague, a nice enough guy, was from India, and rocked a thick accent. At that point, you reach the “I’ll believe anything phase,” so I only grinned. Scott, who’d been to India a few times in the last couple of years, was fascinated, and chatted with the guy for a few minutes. I was shocked that he was shocked. It is America after all.

We drove around the town a bit, stopping here and there to take photographs. Once we returned to the motel, we stalked around the parking lot like quivering hunters, never straying out of eyesight of each other. Lest you think we were scaredy-cats, I’ll state that between the four of us, we’ve traveled the world, and lived in many a metropolitan city. This place was just that disturbing. Why?

Because we’d entered that part of America not often seen by Coastal Elites, or fancy-boy artists such as ourselves. The kind of place where, behind each Motel door, someone’s shooting up. Someone else is getting smacked around. And door number three has 32 Mexicans huddled together, chained, while their minder watches “Dancing With the Stars.” Tomorrow, they’ll climb back in the van for the trip to Chicago, or Raleigh, if they’re lucky.

We woke, the next morning, very glad to see the daylight. (And the Prius, for that matter. At least we had four walls to protect us, but the Prius was a sitting duck.) I surmised that there was probably not a plate of vegetables in the entire town, and my comrades concurred. So we piled back into our little Japanese rolling box, found the highway, and drove South to Marfa, where fancy coffee and fresh fruit, doubtless, awaited us.

This Week In Photography Books – Robert Adams

by Jonathan Blaustein

For all the controversial, opinionated, and edgy things I’ve written in the last couple of years, I think I’m about to put it all to shame. Here, now, I’m writing my first ever “book not reviewed.” Huh? What does that even mean?

By way of explanation, I should say that I’ve been sitting on a pristine, unopened copy of the new Robert Adams trilogy “The Place We Live,” recently released by Yale University Press. Much as it is akin to career suicide to criticize, let alone mention the Yale Photo Mafia, I’m committed to the path of honesty. Rob encouraged me to speak my truth, and here it goes.

I love Robert Adams’ best work. It’s transcendent. I even drove 700 miles to see the prints on the wall in the reconstructed “New Topographics” exhibition in 2010. Leaving the gorgeous galleries, I announced Adams’ work to be the best, and my three cohorts disagreed. (They voted for Baltz. Who’s now a Facebook friend of mine. What is the world coming to?) Anyway, I think Mr. Adams’ Colorado landscape images from the 1970’s are as important as any group of photographs we have.

The best images manage to walk the line between cerebral and emotional, subjective and objective, wistful and angry, optimistic and pessimistic. One can truly sense the presence of a man, standing on a spot of earth, perusing patiently through glass. And of course, anyone who grew up in a suburb, and then watched the subsequent residents slowly absorb the nature they craved…the work hits home. It was as prescient as it was picturesque.

So why have I been unable to cut the seal on these three books, sitting on my stack for two months now? That’s the question I’m asking myself, now, watching the ravens float through the sky in front of the purple, snow-covered mountains. For some reason, my inability to puncture the plastic seems more interesting here than the books would inevitably be. I feel a bit like Cameron guarding his Dad’s Ferrari. Best not to even touch it.

First of all, there’s the cost, I suppose. $250. For collectors only. Then, there’s the sense of grandiosity. Three books at once? From an artist who’s already had so many books published through the years? Thirdly, there’s the fact that I’ve already been scooped by Alec Soth and Fraction Magazine, both of whom published Mr. Adams’ work in the last month. Finally, I must admit that the sense of rebellion at not opening them is just too great for me to overcome.

That’s why I’m going with the “not review” here. Then, photo-eye can sell them to someone who will cherish them forever. Just like I cherish the memory of that art exhibition in Tucson. I’m certain the books would be great, so let’s not assume that I’m being critical here, I’m just going with the moment.

The reality is, this package in front of me is just too precious. It’s intimidating, like the Torah that I had to carry during my Bar Mitzvah in 1987. There I was, in the midst of becoming a man, rocking the hair gel, and all I could think about was what would happen to me if I dropped that f-cking gilded scroll. I think you have to fast for 40 days if it hits the ground, but I could be wrong. The Hebrew School training is finally starting to wear off.

Maybe I’m just afraid to write anything negative about one of the photography world’s true gods. I saw a small exhibition of his work at the Nevada Art Museum in the Fall, and felt like everything after 1990 was just not up to snuff. So if I don’t open the books, I won’t see the failures, and then I won’t have to write about them.

Or maybe I just like the idea of doing the absolutely unexpected, and not opening the books on general principle? (Like I don’t root for Tom Brady on GP. He’s just a pretty robot.) Regardless, I suppose this is a first for “This Week in Photography Books.” Come back next week, and I promise to talk about the images inside a book, instead of just the box. And if I wake up with a horse head in my bed on Saturday, I suppose that will confirm that the YPM is alive and well. Any contributions, in memoriam of my career, can be sent to the World Food Programme, courtesy of the UN.

Bottom Line: I chickened out of opening the damn thing, but it’s probably awesome

To Purchase The Place We Live visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

This Week In Photography Books – Léonie Hampton

by Jonathan Blaustein

For some time now, I’ve wanted to write about why Art matters. On the heels of the high-minded and perhaps overly serious interview I conducted with Jörg Colberg, it’s been on my mind. It’s one thing to exclaim “The World Needs More Art,” and quite another to explain why.

As I’ve repeated endlessly and perhaps obnoxiously, I went to art school in New York. And throughout the entire process, I came to believe that Art can be anything. Photographs, paintings, food, music, objects, dance, ideas: it’s all on the table. The intention is what matters. If you declare something to be art, then it is. From there, of course, the difficult job is to determine what the “Art” means, and if it’s any good or not. Clearly, this is a subjective process. Ultimately, what’s seen as “great” or “the best” varies pretty widely, depending on the audience.

Some work ends up in the Met or the Louvre, some on the walls of a small café, and much of it never leaves the home of it’s creator. So the next question is, why do people do it? Ed Burtynsky said he felt making things to be a part of his DNA, and I’ve heard that many times before. Most artists, myself included, make things because they must. In my own case, if I don’t have the time and/or energy to work on creative output, my personality changes… for the worse. (I turn into a cranky bitch, if you must know.)

And that’s where we start to get into the real reason why people create. Because, after all, Art-making is really just about the exercise of creativity. All kids do it, and then it’s socialized out of most everyone. We random rebels and infidels are left to color and draw as adults, with our goatees and over-inflated egos. Right?

Not exactly. I don’t advertise it, but I’ve been teaching at-risk high school students for almost seven years. My students come from very difficult families and situations. Some are involved in gang activity and drug dealing. Others have become pregnant during the term. It’s a tough but smart group of kids. I learn every week, and have to be flexible to make it work. But work it does, and here’s why.

The secret is that making Art, creating things, is a transformative process. The act of creation takes certain elements of our psyche, energy, if you will, and morphs it out of our heads and into the real world. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be alchemized. The reason why Art works so well in therapy is that it allows for negative energy and/or trauma to be cleared out of our heads, and turned into something productive, without having to speak about things literally. Pictures can communicate energy without words, and in so doing, can tell stories that would be otherwise stuck in the murky world of the subconscious. The act of creation is akin to shining light on our shadows, (Jung again) and it enables the creator the opportunity to move on. Catharsis.

I’ve struggled with whether to write this, as I’m aware that to many it will seem like New Age nonsense from a Taos hippie. I get it. But at the same time, I’ve gone all in, as it were, discussing Art each and every week, so I thought it was only appropriate to explain why. Before I discovered photography, I was an up-tight, insecure, very lost little Jersey boy. Then, once I found a method to channel my anxiety and angst into something tangible, everything fell into place. (And now I feed food scraps to the coyotes.)

Speaking of shadows, in my stack of books this week, I found “In the Shadow of Things,” a new book by Léonie Hampton, published in Rome by Contrasto Books. (It was funded through The F Award for documentary photography.) It seems the perfect example of what I’m trying so earnestly to explicate. The long, rambling photographic narrative is difficult to pin down, but within a the first few images, we know this is a family. Of hoarders, perhaps? But definitely a family, and something is awry.

Throughout the photo section of the book, I never quite sorted out what the deal was. But I didn’t mind, as the pictures were so good. Enchanting, really. Very well made, and in that terrific style where everything seems important, and it’s all done with the proper mood. A woman in a red dress flies through the air into a pile of clothes. (Yves Klein, in bizzaro world.) Varicose veins above slippers, feathers in a young boy’s hair, crumpled toilet paper, ice on a frozen swimming pool, freshly cut wet hair on a bare shoulder.

Finally, in the end, I turned to the text at the back. I knew enough to enjoy the book, to relish the ambiguity, to push towards the answer, and ultimately to realize it didn’t matter. I could love the photographs, and feel the artist’s emotional tenor, without knowing why. That’s why art matters. Because it represents a world without clear answers. Which is the world in which we live.

The text, dense and long, presents a transcript of interviews between the artist and her family. Primarily her mother, the odd woman featured in so many of the photographs. She’s got OCD, and I suppose we’d call her mentally ill. The entire book, seen in this context, is a document of the artist’s family life. One can imagine why Ms. Hampton felt compelled to push into the misery of insanity. It’s her environment, and perhaps her genetic inheritance. But all that confusion makes sense, when seen photographically, and I’m willing to speculate that the artist understands her life a little better, having undertaken the endeavor.

It’s well established that not everyone agrees with me, nor should they. I’m aware that when I make these grand pronouncements, offer myself as an expert on the ineffable, that it can come across as arrogant. I’m willing to take that risk. But from here on in, let’s not have any confusion about what Art is. It’s anything. It’s most often made, but can sometimes be found. And I’d encourage us all to make as much as we can. Because even if it’s bad, just one more photo of a rusted old truck, there’s still value in the effort.
Botom Line: Illness, wonderfully rendered

To Purchase In the Shadow of Things visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase. Please support Photo-Eye if you find this feature useful.

This Week In Photography Books – Friedlander

- - Photo Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

The sun has yet to rise on the first Monday of the year. It’s ten degrees outside, and I’m sitting on a green pull-out couch in my gray cotton boxers. I’m also wearing a fifteen-year-old brown flannel shirt, unbuttoned. My hair, washed before bed, is standing in six directions, like the drummer in a band that you’ve never heard of. Like Lee Friedlander.

I feel naughty just for writing about how silly I look right now. None of us wakes up like someone in a TV Show. Seriously, have you ever noticed that people always kiss each other with morning breath in the movies? Please. So here I am, just rolled out of bed, and the very, very last thing that I would do is take a picture of myself. No, scratch that. The very last thing I would do is to show a photo of myself, looking as I do now, to anyone. No, wrong again. The very, very, very last thing I would do is to publish said photograph in a book. Yes, that’s the last thing I would do.

So it’s a good thing that Lee Friedlander is a braver man than I. Or crazier? Edgier? What’s the right word? (Other than better, which is too obvious.) I’ve written about the man before. Twice in fact. Last time was for a book of previously unreleased images of some cars in Detroit in the Sixties. Nice book, but mostly interesting because no one had seen the particular photos before.

Today, I’m here to talk about “Lee Friedlander: In the Picture. Self-Portraits 1958-2011,” which was recently published by Yale University Press. I’m pretty uncomfortable with the fact that Yale Press now co-exists in an article with a description of my underwear. It’s quite possible I’ll live to regret it. So why would I do such a thing? Because I’m writing about an artist who was far more fearless than that. Let’s call it a tribute review. Next thing you know, I’ll put on tight jeans and bandana, round up some friends, and start shimmying on stage to “Dancin’ in the Dark.” No. More likely it would be “Blinded by the Light.” Great song.

Ah, the book, you say? It’s black and thick, but not too large. The cover text colors, blue and florescent magenta, are jarring, but less so than the diptych of self portraits by Mr. Friedlander, which seem to bookend the temporal range covered inside. Rarely do I discuss things such as font color, but the inside of the flap is a day-glo lime, so clearly they were trying to make a statement right off the bat. With color. In a book of black and white images. Nice. Slowly flipping the pages, and the second photo in the book shows Mr. Friedlander, shirtless, in Taos, New Mexico, 1958. Thereby giving a little context to my half-clothed ravings. (It’s all good, bro. Clothes are for squares, man.)

OK, enough about me. The narrative is linear, the kids are born towards the beginning, and the woman I can only presume to be Mr. Friedlander’s wife looks like a be-speckled beatnik betty. Right away, the shadow comes in as a stand-in for the artist. Straight out of Jung, yo. Deep. But not quite so deep as the artist’s penetrating gaze and fantastic use of neck-fat. So unflattering, so brilliant. Really, it’s a lesson that jumps off the page here. Take more risks. Be less afraid. Push yourself. Take chances.

Last week, in the fabled comment section, a fierce debate arose over whether readers have the right to complain about my choices of things that I like. Others claimed that negative criticism is undervalued in the world of photography and art. I beg to differ. The entire critique process is based upon the concept of criticism, only it’s taught that one ought to respect others, and choose one’s words wisely. It’s best to balance a negative critique with a dose of positivity, and to use language that does not denigrate. But at the core level, the critique is about awakening deeper levels of self-awareness, so that we know, in our hearts, when a photo is not good enough. Or when we need to try harder. Or when we’re simply too derivative. So be negative all you like. But how about having the guts to turn that critical eye upon yourself? Like Lee Friedlander.

Back to the book. I swear I didn’t choose this week’s selection as a counterpoint to last week’s article, but now that I’m looking at it closely, the connection is clear. Growth. Change. The passage of time. It’s all here. A very well-made group of photographs, along with some insider references that people will love.(Robert Frank, Nick Nixon…) Most of the most recent images definitely lack the spark of the earliest pictures, but then again, no one listens to the Rolling Stone’s last album. I’d say I’m not surprised, but I saw Mr. Friedlander’s show at the Whitney in 2010, so I know he hasn’t lost it.

After the celebrity section, which at least has a few laughs, you arrive at the inevitable conclusion. The doctor’s office. The tubes. The glazed eyes. The chest scar. Heart Surgery? Probably. Does it matter? Time gets us all in the end, and it’s rarely pretty. But this book, and the artist’s career by extension, are two lessons in the value of investigation and examination, of ourselves as well as the outside world.

Bottom Line: Profound

To Purchase Lee Friedlander: In the Picture visit Photo-Eye.

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

The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Time is like an apathetic teenager. We see it as linear, because it’s easier for our brains that way. But many of us know it’s relative. That information does us little good, though, when we’re late to work, and Grandma in the car in front of us is savoring every last second. At twenty miles an hour.

The only thing to match the monotony of the march of time is the certainty of change. The second law of thermodynamics and all. We like to think we stay the same, remain true to ourselves, but it’s just an illusion, no more real than a flogborgibbit. Change is the normal state of things, far more natural than a charge of flip-flopping, but the very epithet tells you all you need to know about most people’s view of the inevitable.

I’ve come to accept and even relish change, myself. I enjoy the opportunity to work on my faults, to modify my behavior, whether it be evolution or revolution. I’ve had it both ways, massive epiphanies that alter my soul in a day, or a slow, daily slide into sloth and misery. (Freshman year at Duke, it took only months for a skinny, mostly well-adjusted goody-goody to metamorphose into a fat, drunken ball of insecurities who…well, we’ll save that one for another time.)

Change is a function of time, and time is the bedrock of our chosen medium, photography. Light is the more popular sibling, as time is far more challenging to manipulate. It’s difficult for photography to match video when it comes to processing duration, but difficult, as we’ve often seen, does not mean impossible.

It’s probably not surprising that I’d bloviate on this subject, what with the end of the year upon us. I’m either the most philosophical blogger in the world, or it’s biggest jackass, and I suppose we’ll each have our own opinion on the subject. But I have seen a lot of photographs this year, and written about most of what I’ve seen. New York, twice, LA, Washington DC; not a bad lineup. Ironically, for two years running, I haven’t been able to shoehorn some of my favorite work into an article. Despite the thousands of words, there just wasn’t room in the narrative thread for great photographs, by the same photographer, in both 2010 and 2011: Rineke Dijkstra.

So here at APE, we’ll now christen a new feature, “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Rolls off the tongue nicely. Here we go.

Last year, it was at the Met, in a fantastic curated show that included a copy of Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.” Somehow, I ended up writing only about John Baldessari, and Ms. Dijkstra’s incredible series about a young refugee girl got left on the cutting room floor.

This year, I saw her work at the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), on a sunny summer San Diego sojourn. (I was always a sucker for alliteration in school. Easy way to score points with the teacher.) Back in July, I snuck down from my beach abode in North County to visit an exhibition of the Bank of America permanent collection, curated by MOPA’s Executive Director, Debra Klochko. (And in case you were wondering, B of A did not cover the admission cost, thereby missing out on a relatively inexpensive way to burnish their horrible public image.)

On a very big wall, right behind the admission desk, was a seven image photo series, installed sequentially, by the aforementioned famous Dutch artist. Each featured a handsome young Frenchman named Olivier Silva, who was about to embark on a stint in the French Foreign Legion. (Insert random French joke here.) The framed prints, all largish, were exhibited in a temporal sequence that transpired between 2000-3, during Mr. Silva’s military service.

In the first image, we see a skinny, innocent looking 17 year old, (give or take) with a full head of hair. Unquestionably, his eyes say, “Oh shit. I’m not so sure about this.” In the next, from the same day in 2000, he’s just had his head shaved, and has got the camo outfit on. His look says, “True, I’m not sure about this, but I suppose I’ll give it a shot.”

Number 3 is from a few months later, still in France. Now he’s got the face paint, is rocking the shaved head thing, and he’s trying to be tough. Definitely seems sad. And on to the next. Here, Olivier is in pristine dress, but still looks like he misses his Maman. By now, his face has filled out a bit. Same month, about to ship out.

The fifth photograph, almost a year and a half later, and now we’re in Corsica. (Chasing Mafiosi?) Homeboy is wearing the most ridiculous Foreign Legion cap, like something out of a Peter Sellers movie. Squinting into the sun, his shoulders are fuller, and he has the vibe that he could have killed someone by now, but probably hasn’t. The burgundy epaulettes are just too much. Finally, a bit of humor.

Next to last, and the guy looks like an action hero. You start to wonder, did Ms. Dijkstra know it all along, that the skinny kid had the movie star looks right beneath the surface? It’s the first time you think about her, as the first five were so natural, and the expressions so believable. By the way, he’s in Djibouti. (Between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries that don’t like each other very much.) And that last bit of farm-boy is still there. Barely.

For the last photo, Olivier Silva is looking directly into the camera, his drab marine colored T-shirt offering more about his character than his dead, militarized eyes. Inscrutable. He’s been thoroughly socialized through the system, they’ve made a good soldier out of the boy. Ready to kill, if necessary. It’s July of 2003, three years after the process began.

And then it’s over. And you begin to think, those expressions, the clues I read to deduce Silva’s character, they’re something the photographer has created. They’re a window into a linear, stop-motion jaunt into some random guy’s history, sure. It happened. But the series toys with the notion of the document, and with my immediate faith that what I was seeing was real, beyond the interpersonal connection between the young Frenchman and the artist, Ms. Dijkstra. Tremendous stuff.

I didn’t end up writing about it this Summer, because I skipped San Diego for the bustle of the Megalopolis up the coast. So there you have it. “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Happy New Year.

Remembering at MOMA PS1

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I awoke to the bleating ring of the landline, ruining a perfectly good dream. Lacking coordination, I smacked at the phone, glancing at the clock as I pulled the handset to my ear. It was 6:30 in the morning, Pacific Standard Time. Too early for good news. On the other end of the line, my mother started yelling at me. She was crazed, like a fanatic speaking in tongues. “We’re under attack. We’re under attack. The towers are gone. The towers are gone.”

“Mom,” I replied, “calm the fuck down. I can’t understand what you’re saying. There are no aliens. We’re not under attack. And it’s really not funny.”

“Oh, Jonathan, it’s so horrible. We’re under attack by terrorists. They flew airplanes into the twin towers, and they’re not there anymore. They’re just gone. The Pentagon too,” She finished. “Turn on the television. You’ll see.” So I did.

I would have been there, like so many people reading this, but I almost chopped my thumb off while opening a can of tomatoes. (Lots of blood.) The incident, or accident, occurred just after I was accepted into Pratt, in early 2001. The recovery was such that I deferred a year, planning to move to New York in July of 2002 instead. So if not for the jagged edge of a Muir Glen tomato can, I would have been living in Brooklyn during the tragedy. But I wasn’t. My girlfriend and I were living in San Francisco instead, 3000 miles away, and only heard about the thing after the fact. Kind of the opposite of having been there.

It’s ten years later, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that people like round numbers. (This from the dollar guy.) The memorial services are done. The names of the victims were read. Candles were lit; Tears absorbed into shoulders and hair. And of course, the anniversary exhibitions are up on the wall. It so happened that I was in New York in the end of October, and had the chance to see the September 11 show at MoMAPS1 in Long Island City, Queens, just across the river.

I might have neglected to mention that the particular New Jersey suburb in which I was raised was just a few miles down the road from Atlantic Highlands, the tallest point on the East Coast (At a meager 300 feet or so.) We had hills in my town as well, and were close enough to the bay to see the Twin Towers presiding over the city across the water.

My family rarely went into New York, it being the dicey late 70’s and early 80’s, and I was a bit of a wimp about the whole thing, truth be told. But those towers… I saw them at least three times a week. Two big, phallic, shiny symbols of the wealth and power of Wall Street, New York City, and by extension, the United States. They dominated. And now they’re not there.

The skyline has seemed imbalanced to me ever since, the midtown skyscrapers taunting Wall Street, perhaps enticing a Napoleon complex that begat the Great Recession. And, really, what has changed? We take our shoes off at the airport. We color code our fear like stripes on a lollipop. Fanatical loonies tried to blow up airplanes with bombs in their shoes, underpants, and even a printer cartridge. But so far we’ve been lucky.

We have a bi-racial President now. That’s big news. And geeks run much of the known world. (Seriously. Mark Zuckerberg gets laid on a regular basis. Enough said.) We went to war, twice, and are thoroughly in hock to the Chinese. All because we had to have those two wars, and some tax breaks to boot. Not a lot of value out of those purchases, if you ask me.

Now it’s nearly 2012, and so we might ask, with all the 9/11 hullaballoo, “Why an art show?” Why go to the trouble to collect items from around the world, paint the walls, pack and unpack the shipping boxes, spend a fortune on Fedex, re-write press releases until your carpal tunnel gives you a migraine, just to invite some people in once the lights are on, to look at some photographs, videos, paintings, sculptures, and drawings?

Why indeed? I suppose, as I describe the work I saw that day, the answer will become evident. One would hope.

Lets’ be honest: these articles always seem to run long. I’m aware of that. Perhaps I have a hard time expressing myself in few words. Who knows? In case you don’t feel like reading to the end, let me break it down succinctly. If you live anywhere near New York, you ought to go see this show. How’s that for brevity? Just go. Swipe your Metrocard, drop the $10 at the front entrance, and go inside.

The exhibition begins on the second floor of the former school building, and the wall card announces that almost none of the work was made in response to the September 11 attacks. Much of it was even made before the event. I was curious, and a tad dubious, to tell the truth. If the work was decontextualized, then clearly the curator’s POV would dominate the show. The entire exhibition would be one giant installation by Peter Eleey, the curator in charge. Pretty ambitious.

Normally, in these reviews, this would be the point where I meticulously detail each and every thing I saw. But I don’t want to do that. It seems forced, as I sit here at my kitchen table, 2000 miles and six weeks removed from the actual experience. There was a surreal poetry and magic to my time in the September 11 exhibition, and I’d rather try to recreate a fragment of it. I can conjure the best of that day in my mind, easily, so let’s start there.

One of the first pieces to slam me in the belly was a pair of framed, 4 foot square bulletin boards affixed to the wall, replete with pin holes, staples and paper scraps. (“Nothing prevents anything,” -07-09, by Harold Mendez.) Each sat on the wall on opposite sides of an entry way, like lions guarding the gate. Bulletin boards? If I saw them in a gallery in Chelsea, I’d probably giggle, and shake my head at how far people will go to be the first to call something art. But here, in this context, they felt empty, vacant, purposeless, forgotten, as if they were hanging in an Elementary School during Summer session. I thought about the kids who started that Summer, in 2001, with Dads and Moms, and then, shortly after Labor Day, they were gone.

Normally, we see work like this in quiet. People in galleries and museums are more silent than a tennis audience. Here, though, in this very room, there was music piped in. A grand, emotional, film score, by the great John Williams. (Yeah, the guy who did Star Wars.) A wall card explained that the music was the theme from the forgettable Mel Gibson crap-fest, “The Patriot.” (Which was apparently then appropriated by Barrack Obama during his 2008 victory speech.) So. Ironic. That. My. Head. Almost. Exploded. All the same, the emotional music definitely made the viewing experience more poignant.

What else? In the middle of the room, there was a nearly 20 foot long sculpture on the floor, made of ash. Long and narrow, the material was configured into the undulating form of a lunar-scape, with faux mountains and valleys seen from above. Astonishing. It looked a little like a 3D, gray-scale version of one of Motherwell’s Spanish Elegy Paintings. But it gets better. A look at the wall text explained that the ash sculpture, by Roger Hiorns, “Untitled 2008,” was actually an atomized passenger aircraft engine. Ash, the dominant symbol of that horrible day, here literally made out of a plane engine. That’s about as good as it gets.

Except that it was just a part of a larger whole, the gestalt of the entire gallery. The ash led the viewer, like a psychedelic arrow, straight up to a George Segal sculpture called “Woman on a Park Bench.” A lady sits, eternally, white patina over bronze, on a black bench. Waiting. The sculpture has been placed before a vaulted archway, and is backlit, like a knave in a Gothic Cathedral. It’s not hard to see her as a symbol of a grieving widow, immobilized by sorrow. Forever.

And in case you weren’t paying perfect attention, all of the above is simply one gallery in a much larger exhibition. I can’t think of a more touching tribute, and yet it was the work of the curator, as much as the aggregate artists. If you don’t believe me, just look up George Segal on Wikipedia. He died in 2000.

I enjoyed seeing a painting by Maureen Gallace, a drawing by Mark Lombardi, and a photograph by Thomas Demand. All good, for sure. But the next great thing was a worn, black suitcase on the floor, sitting in the corner of another gallery. It reminded me of the room of shoes at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. Those little, human details that bring Geo-Political horror down to the human level. Seeing the suitcase, we can imagine it belonging to some random guy who never made it back to Penn Station with his claim ticket. Or sitting on a sidewalk somewhere, after having been blown out an open window.

It was a piece of found sculpture by Lara Favaretto. The object was part of an ongoing, obtuse project where she buys one suitcase a year at a flea market, locks it, and then never opens it. Just the sort of boring conceptual project that gets far too much attention, but in this context, it was brilliant.

Diane Arbus, perennially popular, was represented on the wall with “Blowing Newspaper at a Crossroads, NYC, 1956.” The photo was dark, fuzzy, abstracted and a bit menacing. One I’d not seen before. Here, it spoke of the itinerant trash roaming the empty streets in the aftermath, hours after everyone still standing had gone home.

In a similar vein, a room otherwise full of black and white images and objects contained a dash of color, courtesy of William Eggleston: “Untitled (Glass in Airplane, 1965-74). A single plastic cup of Coke sits on a lowered tray table, backlit by gleaming light streaming in through the window. Anywhere else, it reminds of a stained glass window. Pretty. Contextualized, it puts you in the first person position of someone sitting on one of the planes, quaking at the thought of the crazy dudes holding box-cutters in the cockpit. What a horrible fucking way to die.

Elsewhere in that gallery, the walls were covered by a collection of B&W photos by John Pilson, from the series “Interregna” from 1998-2000. Mr. Pilson apparently worked for an investment bank in Lower Manhattan, across the street from the WTC, and made documents of the office experience in the late evening and early morning hours when no one was around. They were literal, and well-made, but in the show, one thought immediately of the empty offices, abandoned while people streamed screaming down the stairwells in the moments after impact.

To finish it off, a white pedestal sits in the middle of the room, with a glass vitrine on top. Inside, “Snapshots from Baghdad,” from 2007, by Roman Ondak: A matte black disposable camera with undeveloped, exposed film. All black, it looked a bit like a gun, just another way to shoot. Undeveloped, it spoke of unfulfilled potential. Baghdad, it reminded of the War rounded up like a posse in the victims’ names. And that was not the only Iraq reference in the house.

From there, I wandered upstairs, towards an abandoned looking section of the Museum. I ran across a man, coming in the opposite direction, who snickered, “It’s nothing but empty rooms. You might like it more than some of the art.” Classy. I pushed on anyway, and found that he was right. Empty rooms only. Early stage installation in progress. The galleries were the same as the ones below, but they lacked the life, the light, and the energy of a finished exhibition. A small moment, I gained even more appreciation for how much work it takes to make the trains run on time.

From there, I descended a few flights of stairs into the basement. As this was once a functioning school, the basement contains the innards of the structure. It’s cold, and feels like the opposite of every gleaming Art Museum you’ve ever visited. It also contains, for now, one of the single most powerful art installations I’ve ever experienced. No. Exaggeration. Necessary.

The boiler room is where it’s at. Down a few short rickety stairs, you enter the physical-plant-nerve-center of the former public school. It’s dirty, cold, and cave-like. Creepy doesn’t quite do it justice. In the far corner, I saw some speakers, a chain hanging from the ceiling, and a place to sit down. So I did.

The speakers were blasting some random, ambient sounds; unfamiliar and disturbing. I sat there, waiting, thinking, and then all of a sudden, I saw the flash of a shadow. My neck swiveled, and my liver almost imploded. No lie. Frightening. But I stayed. A minute or so later, there was a clanking, crashing sound, and another shadow flash. Bang. The hanging chain started to sway, so I knew that I hadn’t imagined it. Slowly, I realized that I was sitting in a simulacrum of a dungeon. Abu Ghraib? Some nameless CIA black-site hole-in-the-ground in Afghanistan? Does it matter?

The experience was real, and confusing. Then, I looked up at the ceiling and saw skylights onto the street level. The room sits below the sidewalk, and whenever a Queens resident or visiting passerby walked over me, I heard the crash. When they walked only near the skylight, shadow no sound. Are. You. Kidding. Me.

After a few minutes of simulated torture, I walked back up the stairs, and looked for the wall text explaining the music. (If you could call it that.) Stephen Vitiello, the artist, once had a studio given to him through a residency program. In the World Trade Center. 91st Floor. He recorded the sound of the building swaying in the wind during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

I’m running out of exclamations here to describe my overtaxed brain, upon reading that information. The swaying, creaking, buildings, no longer in existence, providing the backdrop for a simulated torture chamber, representing a major war that was launched because the buildings were destroyed by terrorists from another country. Well played, Peter Eleey. Well played.

After that, emotionally drained, I spent the better part of a half an hour trying to get permission to take the one photo I’m including here. They’re beyond strict about prohibiting photography, so you really will have to go see this for yourself. Then I walked through the freezing Queens rain, and dropped down underground again to grab the subway. The train’s recording, with each stop, reminded me that it was a World Trade Center-bound E train. As if I could forget.