Posts by: Jonathan Blaustein

Asger Carlsen Interview

Last Spring, I got to catch up with Asger Carlsen, the Danish artist behind the amazing 2010 book, “Wrong,” and the forthcoming Mörel project “Hester.”

Jonathan Blaustein: Why did you decide to move from Denmark to New York?

Asger Carlsen: I was working as a commercial photographer, and signed up with an agent here. They gave me a work permit, so I decided to try it out for a year. It seemed like a good idea at the time. This is five years ago.

JB: Is it the same agent you’re working with now?

AC: Yes, Casey in New York City. I signed up with them 7 years ago and that’s how I came to move to the states. The jobs we did in the beginning where more straight up assignments, but now it’s more based on my artwork ideas with a very strong post production concept to it. I even had one client in in london asking me if they had to provide the image material or if I did the photography part, so in away i’m more “material director” then a photographer. The challenge is to communicate that to the market.

Do You do commercial jobs?

JB: No, I don’t do that anymore. But everything I did was local, out here in the boonies. My skills were never such that I could have done commercial work in a major market.

AC: There is obviously great income potential to be made from the commercial industry- but ultimately I feel more related to the Art Scene and the sensitive forms of art.

JB: Yes, we all need to pay the bills.

AC: Yeah, but even maybe I’ll find something else. Teaching could be an idea, or something that could keep my creative side happy.

JB: Listen, I’ve been teaching for seven years, and the grass is always greener.

AC: Let’s say I want to spend 50% of my time doing Art, (if I could do art full-time I would do it) I could pretty much do anything. Teaching would be interesting, although the money is probably not as good.

JB: No. But it’s deep work, depending on who you’re working with. I want to start with a big question. I don’t know how much time you spend surfing the web, but I feel like there’s an idea that we hear a lot, so much so that it’s almost accepted: Every picture has already been made. Every photograph has already been shot. Every idea has already been done.

I think a lot of people believe that. I don’t. I strive to innovate, myself, but I think that anyone who looks at your book “Wrong” can’t believe that anymore.

How do you feel about innovation, and finding an original vision, as opposed to doing what everyone else is doing?

AC: It’s definitely the challenge. Like you, I’ve heard it many times before. Every picture has been taken.

When I started the project, the first couple of images, they were so different from my aesthetic, the direction that I was heading, so I didn’t show anyone the images for a whole year.

I don’t want to say that this is the newest work, and it’s so different from any other artwork you have seen. But that was the most important thing for me. The reason why I did continue that style, although I found it was not my aesthetic. It was important to me because it was new, compared to any other direction I had headed before.

So in away the innovation won over whatever problems I had with my new discovery. I also found out by working this new approach
The core of my work comes out of arrival materials or props I build in my studio. For my latest project all the materials is very short photo sessions with models done mostly in my studio.

All these photos becomes a pile of materials that I can work with in my studio. That new approach allowed me to be a hundred percent creative in my studio. Because I didn’t have to run out and find that one special picture to capture. Because I’m now mostly driven by ideas around that martial and in away it become my everyday knowledge.

JB: You say it was very different from your aesthetic, but you made it. What aesthetic of your own were you contradicting?

AC: You know, the way that you work as a photographer is that you pick a style, and then you continue down that road, and you try to stay consistent, because that’s the way you become known for a style, or get work, or become a good photographer. You can copy that style over and over.

I had a very straight style, more inspired by what they do in Germany. The Gursky, kind-of-landscapey photography.

JB: Does that loom over the Danish scene?

AC: You know, ten years ago, that was the photography that people were looking at.

JB: True.

AC: You know, large-scale formats, landscapes, Thomas Struth & Thomas Ruff, all those people. I’m sure you were inspired by those too.

JB: Sure. You were doing that work, showing it to the world, and then, in your little computer room, you were hiding away, working on your mad projects.

AC: I was almost embarrassed by the first two images. I didn’t show them to anyone. In the end, I thought it was more important to create these new things. Maybe they were not pretty images.

JB: No. They’re not pretty.

AC: They’re not photographic beauties, which was the aesthetic for that time. You were supposed to do really detailed landscapes. You would find this perfect viewpoint where you put up your tripod, and took these images.

JB: And I read in another interview that you were a crime scene photographer?

AC: People sometimes get that confused. I was a crime scene photographer, but that was when I was out of high school. So I was 17, and then did that for ten years.

JB: Who did you work for? A police department?

AC: Newspapers. I was a full-on newspaper photographer. I started out as an intern, and saw how it was done. Then I bought a police scanner, and would respond to the calls. Car accidents and stuff. Eventually, I did photograph a bit for the police.

JB: You’ll have to forgive me a bit here. My wife is a therapist, and my mother-in-law is a therapist, and now, being an interviewer, I’ve kind of morphed into this guy who tries to read the tea leaves. It sounds to me like there was a lot of darkness going on in your job, and in your head, and all of a sudden, it popped up out of the shadows, into this style that became “Wrong.”

AC: Certainly, there is an understanding of how those crime scene scenarios could look like. The work certainly represents my time as a newspaper photographer.

You can dig into that. You can see how I was standing in front of a car accident, photographing it. It’s just different objects.

JB: Did you photograph in Black and White for the newspapers?

AC: Yeah, it was all in Black and White. It sounds so long ago. This was the early 90s, and there was no scanners or anything, so everything was Black and White. The newspaper that I was working for, when I first started out, could only print color on the weekends.

JB: When I first saw “Wrong,” which I reviewed for photo-eye, I went to the whole sci-fi thing. They’re so techno-futuristic. William Gibson. Paul Verhoeven. I think I dropped “Total Recall” in the book review I did about it.

AC: Yeah.

JB: At the same time, it’s almost like Weegee meets William Gibson. Old school, Black and White man on the scene aesthetic meets techno-futurism. A pretty original mashup.

While you’re not saying it outright, it becomes easier to see what the steps were that led you to an innovative breakthrough.

AC: For me back and white is very sculptural and that helps then become more like objects, which is part of my ambition about the work…. I have a lot of interns here, and when you talk about Black and White images, and the way they were printed, and the way you technically shot them, because you could only do certain things in a darkroom. They just don’t have a clue what I’m talking about. Do you know what I mean? The work is done that way because I understand that sense, and that quality.

JB: I have some students, and we were looking at some work last week that was really super-digi. Over-saturated, hyper-real, hopped up, textured and degraded. I talked about that, and these are younger students, and they couldn’t see it. That archive that we have in our head, of the cinematic and celluloid look, they don’t have that baseline. Their baseline is digital reality.

They can’t tell the difference between the super-saturated color look on the screen, and what you see when you walk out your door. Their brains are just different now.

AC: They are different. Do you think they understand my work differently than you understand it?

JB: Sure. I would think they have to. I showed “Wrong” to students last year, and they ate it up. Ate it up. I’m curious to see what happens when this generation of students, who has only grown up in the digi-verse, when they’re mature enough as artists to make shit that we can’t even imagine.

AC: I’m sure in ten or twenty years, the files being produced by these random Canon cameras, that’s going to be a style that people will try to copy again.

JB: The sci-fi reference in “Wrong” are so strong, and I don’t even consider myself a sci-fi geek. What did you read or see that ended up percolating into your work.

AC: I was inspired by painters, different art movements and all these obvious classical references. There’s a certain awkwardness in the work, and maybe that’s my attempt to try to fit into a photography style. Part of the reason why I became a photographer is that there was a certain loneliness in it, a searching for something. I think the work is a bit about that as well.

Trying to find my spot. Maybe I am a dark person? (Thinks about it.) I am a dark person.

JB: You certainly have it in there.

AC: I felt like an outsider when I grew up, for sure. There are certain things I’m good at, and photography is one of them. But I was not a success in school, not a success in many things, but there was this one thing I could do.

JB: So you were an artsy kid?

AC: Yeah. Maybe I said in an interview that it was my attempt to try to belong somewhere. I would say that there is some subconscious influence to the work as. That could refer to who i am and what live i lived.

JB: That sounds like something someone would say in an interview.

AC: (laughing) I’m still saying that.

JB: It’s funny, but the question was about sci-fi culture, and you didn’t really address that…

AC: Of course, I find Star Wars and stuff like that, Total Recall and Blade Runner, I find that stuff amazing, aesthetically. They’re not totally 100% perfect, but they have something else. Of course, I’m inspired by this Universe that can lead you somewhere, but is not an entirely precise realty.

JB: They do say that Science Fiction, historically, was like an Allegorical playing field. By stepping out of reality, it allowed certain authors and filmmakers to comment on a cultural moment in a way that was abstract enough to give cover to talk about real things. If we were going to say that about you, then the work casts a scathing eye on genetic modification, and the slippery slope towards cloning. The photos make it seem so real.

And yet, using the wooden legs, and bringing in the low-tech, was just badass. Do you talk about contemporary culture, when you talk about the work, or do you try to let the pictures speak for themselves. What’s your take on that?

AC: In general, I try to let them speak for themselves. People often have different interpretations of the same images. But I’m trying to be cultural commentator. If anything I’m trying to remove it from looking like contemporary. But there is a certain openness in the stories and maybe should be to explain.

JB: Ambiguity is crucial. We want to have enough information in our pictures that people really get where we’re coming from, but not so much that everything is tied up with a bow on it.

Do you have an artist statement for “Wrong?” Do you find yourself having to talk about it and write about it? That’s another buzz-worthy topic. A lot of photographers are caught in between this desire people have for us to be able to write and explain everything, as opposed to being simply visual communicators.

AC: Yes I don’t have to talk a lot about the work informs of interviews etc. I think a lot of creativity comes from a place there is hard to realize. I personally don’t always have the need to over read about why an artist made the choice of work that he did. Do you know this application Instagram?

JB: I do.

AC: Do you use it?

JB: I don’t.

AC: I use it a lot, and I think it’s an amazing application, because it’s just images. People can leave small comments, but it’s just pure images. Pure visual observations. I find that really interesting. I don’t want to hear the information about how the picture was captured, or the ideas behind it. That’s just how I am.

JB: I don’t use it, because I don’t have an Iphone. Instagram seems a little superfluous with my janky little LG phone. I’m glad you made that leap. Unexpected. But if we’re going to leap, why don’t we leap to the new work.

You have a new book coming out with Mörel Books called “Hester.”

AC: That is correct.

JB: This is your second book with them. Was it always your goal to have your work presented in book form?

AC: I have no plans, for better or worse. It just happened. This “Wrong” project, I just did if for myself. I didn’t have any hopes that it would be a book, or an exhibition, or anything else. I just did it without thinking that I could have a reaction to anything or anyone.

Then Aron Mörel of Mörel Books emailed me and asked me if I wanted to do a book with him. It took off from there. Kind of unexpected. I think Kanye West blogged about it, and I had massive emails and hits on my website.

JB: So are you down with the champagne lifestyle now? Are you partying with Kanye and Jay-Z?

AC: No. I live a pretty normal life.

JB: How will “Hester” fit alongside “Wrong?” Are they companion publications? How did you go about planning the second book?

AC: They’re definitely linked. The new work is more sculptural. In my artist statement, I say it could be a photograph of a sculpture, more than real photographs.

JB: Are you carving foam in all these images? Certainly in “Wrong,” there are all these creations. Are you making things with your hands, in your studio, and then over-laying it? Or is everything coming out of the computer?

AC: All the weird shit is coming out of the computer. Except for “Wrong.” Where I built all the props myself.

JB: You did.

AC: Wood, foam, meat, metal. They’re hanging here in my studio. I built them in my kitchen in my Chinatown apartment.

JB: What happened when people came over?

AC: My apartment was crazy at that time. All the walls were covered with references, and props that I built.

JB: It sounds like it was a pretty organic extension of who you are and what you care about.

AC: Yes. It was a turning point where I left my old routines as a photographer and started something I was not quit sure of at the time. like I couldn’t hold it up against anything. It just felt important for me.

JB: That’s a part of the philosophy. It has to be personal, and it has to be important, and it has to be authentic to us. One place where people do get caught up in being derivative is they’re making their work based upon what they’re seeing in the outside world. People they want to be like. They’re more reacting than creating.

AC: Yeah, I hear that all the time from my interns. They’re talking about this photographer, and that photographer. Two days later, they show me an image that they almost copied.

I just did this work because it felt right for me. It was the ultimate way of expressing myself, telling the world who I was, and what I found interesting or funny. I wanted to use photography in a way that it wasn’t used before or at least make the attempt.

I didn’t want to become Ryan McGinley, or someone.

JB: But both he and you have both photographed Tim Barber, so you do have that connection.

AC: Yeah, and we both live In Chinatown

JB: I had no idea.

AC: But the point I’m trying to make is that I wasn’t trying to be someone, or care about that stuff. It was just a piece of work that I wanted to do, and I had a lot of fun doing it.

JB: It comes through. Experimentation and risk-taking are ultimately what lead people to innovate. You can’t know what it’s going to look like before it’s done, in the beginning. You have to feel your way towards things that you don’t know how to do.

But I want to shift gears for a second. There’s something I want to give you a hard time about. You live in New York. You’re used to it.

AC: Give it to me.

JB: Some of the most striking images in “Wrong” depict nude women. Naked people. Your publisher, Aron, even told me, when I pointed it out, that one of the nudes is the best selling image.

In “Hester,” it’s all naked women, fused together with you. Is that right?

AC: Yes a pile of images of different models collected (photographed) over time. Including images of my own body like muscles, and my bone structure. For me its just process of gathering martial.

JB: It’s Frankenstein Art. But I also saw something on your agent’s website where you did another series for “S” Magazine where you did a whole set of manipulated nudes. Boobs on butts. That sort of thing.

AC: Right.

JB: So here’s what I want to know. I saw on Twitter last week, where the Guggenheim was doing some Twitter promotion about the John Chamberlin exhibition. One tweet said something like “Chamberlin said his work was not about America’s car culture.” And my response was “Bullshit.” An artist can say whatever they want, but ultimately, if they’re good at what they do, the communication comes from the work itself.

AC: Sure. I also think that abstract expressions doesn’t need a concert reference. Other then maybe subtle gestures.

JB: So, you’ve been photographing a lot of naked women. But in one of the interviews I read with you, I have a quote where you said, “I have no desire to photograph naked girls.”

AC: I have no desire. That’s true.

JB: And yet you do it?

AC: And yet I do it. I can defend it.

JB: Cool. I was hoping to get you defend the statement. Especially as some of the women, at least before they were genetically modified, seemed to be young and attractive.

AC: Some of them were very young and attractive. I have no desire to photograph pornography, or naked women. No desire at all. Except for project I did called homemade that gives very strong associations to porn. But in fact most of the props I used was totally unrelated to a sexual realty. Like an empty illusion.

JB: OK.

AC: my intentions was to create something timeless that wasn’t interrupted by contemporary culture. So, the choice of not having any clotting seamed necessary. Like more as seamless and sculptural statement.

JB: But you’re also keeping it within the continuum of Art History. People have been drawing, painting sculpting the nude body forever. Is that a part of it for you, to make it a Post-Post-Modern, Post-Punk version of Classicism?

AC: Yes it could be be post post modern, hester has strong sculptors ideas and i guess I’m trying to prove that there is no difference from a sculptor working in clay and shaping his sculpture from me working on my digitizer. I think if you work with photography in a way where you build forms and shapes in the traditions of art history I could be perceived as sculptural art. I know a print is still a flat surface, but my hope is that it will gain a value as an object.

JB: I have to think about that.

AC: It’s just different materials. It’s just because photography belongs to a certain idea, and there are certain people doing it. I think that doesn’t have to be true anymore.

JB: In every interview I’ve done, give or take, we always end up coming back to this idea of the words we use to describe what we do, whether it’s journalism vs art, or documentary vs art, or sculpture vs photography. It’s almost like people get so caught up in the language used to describe the objects that it detracts from people looking at an object and just taking what’s there.

AC: But isn’t that the problem with photography, still. Do you think? If you take it into the Art World, photography is still considered something on the low end, compared to someone who is doing drawing or painting.

JB: The biases do persist.

AC: Maybe people are getting over it. But then, I have been talking to a few high end photo galleries, and they all seemed very interested, and in the end, they all come back to me and said they don’t think they can sell their work to their photo clients because it’s too far away from photography history. The idea is not consistent with what you would expect photography to be like.

JB: This Spring, I was in Houston for this big photo festival, FotoFest, and I had at least five people ask me whether I thought my work should be in an art gallery instead of a photo gallery.

But this idea that photo dealers can only sell work if it’s attractive and conservative, and the further out it gets, the more it has to be consigned to into the Art World. It doesn’t seem very representative of today.

AC: Well, I know a huge gallery in London, which I won’t name. They represent big, famous, established photographers. I think it has to do with money. A lot of what they do, where they make money, is vintage photography.

They’re afraid if they bring in something like this, they’ll scare away their clients. That is the feedback I’m getting.

JB: Do you take that as a compliment?

AC: Yes, but it’s also a little sad.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Chris Killip

by Jonathan Blaustein

Your Dad works in the ship yards. Your brother too. And your Dad’s brother, for good measure. There’s no such thing as the Internet. It’s cold often, and gray more often still. School is there just to carry you over until it’s time to get a job at the ship yard too.

Life is dreary. You get that job, when the time is right, and after work one day you like the look of the lass at the end of the bar. You offer to light her cigarette, thinking you’re suave, till you notice the guy to her left. He’s already struck the match, and they both laugh. Fairly confident of yourself, you tip your fisherman’s cap, nod, and turn back to watch the football match on the screen above. She’ll marry you yet.

I know you’re none of these things. More likely, you’re reading this over morning coffee. Or during a quick break from color correction. Or perhaps before you hit the Metro on the way to a shoot.

But if you were me, and spent some time over the last few days with “arbeit/work,” the new monograph by Chris Killip, you’d probably get where I’m coming from. The book was released by Steidl and Edition Folkwang, in conjunction with an exhibition of the artist’s work. And it’s one moody piece of business.

As you might have gathered from my momentary hallucination, I like the book. Not surprising. At some point, and I’m not sure when, I morphed into an Anglophile. (That’s not true. I do know when. It was the second time my wife made me watch the Colin Firth/ Jennifer Ehle version of “Pride and Prejudice.” That Mr. Darcy is so dreamy.)

Where was I? The book. It’s divided into sections, each focusing on a segment of one of Mr. Killip’s interlocking projects. They were shot predominantly in the North of England, in the 70’s and 80’s. Evocative stuff, this.

The photographs are entirely in Black and White, and feature a gruff textural sensibility that matches the cultural landscape. Graffiti, coal mounds, drifting garbage, massive waves crashing here and there. Excuse me whilst I grab a sweater.

I loved the woman hanging out her door, a massive tanker ship just outside her field of view. And the father, downtrodden and hot, holding his daughter on his lap, wedged into a corner of the sidewalk. Punks having a laugh, neck tattoos and beer cans, fishermen and grandmas. Another favorite: a suit-wearing old dude, along with his lady, lounging on a blanket, surrounded by trash.

Bottom Line: Terrific B&W images of UK bleak beauty

To purchase “arbeit/work” 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 – Mitch Epstein

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m sitting in my library. Diaper packs are stacked around me. Pink blankies peak at me from disparate piles. They mock my attempt to focus. “Enjoy it while you can, Fool,” they say. “Your precious quiet is about to DIE. This is our turf now, Fool. Move along.” Damn pink blankies. Who knew they could be so cruel?

Yes, as I shared with you a few months ago, my daughter’s arrival is now imminent. Any minute now. I sit, and wait. Which leaves a lot of time to think. I channeled much of the anxiety into a fruitless search for a new camera, but really, I was just hiding from the truth. (Big Ups to Rich Andres at Fotocare.) Change is coming. And few things cause more fear in humans than the Unknown.

Understandably, then, change has been on my mind. Beyond the obvious, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to grow as an artist. Thankfully, at 38, I’ve finally managed to have a bit of success. But my ego is healthy enough to admit that I have far to go, if greatness is my goal. We all have our own ambitions, true, but I’m not one to accept that my best work is behind me. Better to jump off the Gorge Bridge and be done with it. (RIP Tony Scott. That “True Romance” face off between Chris Walken and Dennis Hopper was a cinema classic.)

Given the scope of my ruminations, I was fortunate to get my hands on “State of the Union,” a new book by Mitch Epstein. It was published by Hatje Canitz, in conjunction with an exhibition of the artist’s work in Bonn. And, it is unique in all the books I’ve reviewed thusfar.

The oversized hardcover features several essays, and an insightful interview with the artist that alone makes the book a worthy purchase. It is impeccably produced; basically divided into two sets of plates. The first features a set of photos made in the 70’s and 80’s: very obvious temporal references. The photographs are big, each spilling from the right page to the left, and they are terrific. Talk about implied narrative.

Whether we see a man sleeping on a cot, next to a car, in the shadow of the former Twin Towers, or a pack of ladies scrambling to pick something up off of a Madison Avenue sidewalk. (A contact lens? A buffalo nickel?) Snake handlers, snow-cone-eaters, and children chilling in a pack-and-play while their dad pulls in fish off of a nameless pier. All are lovely, all draw you in, and force questions: What is going on here? What are they looking at? Where was this taken? How big is this freaking country?

The photographs are terrific, but definitely fit beside Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, and William Eggleston. They were contemporaries, and it shows. Each has a slightly different personality, which emerges in the work, but the similarites outweigh the differences. Here, section 1 gives us a glimpse of the best young Mr. Epstein could offer.

Then, a big jump. Bam. The next set of plates time travels to the 21st Century, each a sample of Mr. Epstein’s recent opus, American Power. Immediately, the style shifts. We get to see Mr. Epstein’s vision at a more mature stage, and his growth separates him from his other famous peers.

These photos were obviously taken with an 8×10 camera, which the text confirms. They are as sharp as a Hattori Honzu sword. Details shine, compositions are more formal. They are excellent images, and the plates are better than many of the prints I’ve seen at portfolio reviews. If you love Mr. Epstein’s work, but are not in a place to buy an editioned print, the quality here is reason number 2 to buy this book.

I loved seeing this before/after mashup. The new photographs, look at the energy industry, and the aftermath of Hurricaine Katrina. Smoke billows from a power plant, a security guard stares through binoculars in the ravaged New Orleans Museum of Art, a newer hurricaine swirls on a projection screen, just outside the 2008 Republican Convention in Minnesota. There are more, but I don’t think it’s necessary to list them all.

So there you have it. This book is worth purchasing for a variety of reasons: the interview, the print quailty, and the potential inspiration it offers. And rest assured, I’ll continue writing these reviews even after my life gets turned upside down. I’ll just have to find a new favorite spot in which to do it. C’est la vie.

Bottom Line: Amazing production, unique in its dual vision

To purchase “State of the Union” 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.

 

New York Summer Visit 2012 – Part 2

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s both easy, and impossible to get lost in the Met. Easy, because the building is both rambling and enormous; impossible, because you’re never really lost. There’s always something fascinating to look at, and the off-the-beaten path stuff is often the best. (I once found a little room, recreated as Frank Lloyd Wright designed it. Haven’t seen it since.)

That said, after we left the Islamic galleries, we traipsed across the entire Museum to forage for food. Fifteen minutes later, standing in a line, waiting to pay a lot of money for not-very-interesting-sounding grub, we had a change of heart. Back, through the halls we trudged, back the way we came, back to the second floor to see some photographs. (As promised.)

The first photo exhibition, culled from the permanent collection, was called “Spies in the House of Art.” The series of images and videos was meant to offer inside access to the inner workings of the exhibition industry. The show was replete with big names, like Francesca Woodman, Candida Hofer, Louise Lawler, Thomas Struth, Diane Arbus, and Sophie Calle. Impressive lineup.

Alas, it was mostly boring. Some of the images were really good, to be sure, but ultimately, I was convinced that what happens in the front of the house is much preferred to the offices and vaults. There’s a reason they keep that stuff hidden: it’s not that interesting.

Up the hall we walked, towards another photo-only exhibit: “Naked Before The Camera.” Did that grab my attention? You bet it did. Finally, a show worthy of my snark and curiosity. I’ve been on a bit lately, in the book reviews, about the incessant use of boobs to sell photo books. Yes, they’re nice to look at. But when inserted by men, as so often happens, the repetitive pattern tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Exploitation needs a better reason, IMHO.

This exhibit was probably the most provocative I’ve seen at the Met. The two rooms of photographs, almost all Black and White, were engaging. Swarms of photo heroes and heroines were on display. There was a run by Larry Clark, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus that got my attention. Some brilliant images by Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Brassai that were all vibrating on the wall, packed with latent energy.

Lots of amazing photographs. True. And enough variation in style and history to make one look harder at the human shape. But that was not what left me shaking my head.

Iván and I stood before a photograph by an artist of whom neither of us had heard: Jim Jager. The photo was called “Sharkey, 1980.” Within the rectangle stood an African-American man, against a studio backdrop, naked, holding a long wooden staff in one hand. His manhood was large, befitting the stereotypes we’ve all heard before. The implied reference was Africa, though the wall text insisted the image was made in Chicago, one among many.

Apparently, the photographer made soft-core porn images on a regular basis. They were not deemed “Art” at the time, any more than the series of harlot photos by the now famous EJ Bellocq. They were just meant to get people off.

The photograph was shockingly racist. So racist that Ivan and I kept looking at each other, then the back to the photo, then to each other, raising eyebrows and blowing air slowly through our mouths. Wow. So. Very. Racist.

I turned to my friend, “Should this be here?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know.”

“Is the picture really that racist, or are we racist for assuming it’s racist?”

“I don’t know.”

“I mean, if it was a white guy, or if the penis wasn’t so huge, would we be offended?”

“I don’t know. I’m really not sure,” replied the massively opinionated, incredibly intelligent man to my right. “I just don’t know.”

I still don’t know. The layers of meaning, the depth of the references to Slavery and all things unholy, were inescapable. Should that be on the wall, among the masters of photography? Should an institution shy away from such provocations? Should it be censored, in a world in which lynching photos are hung, and vestiges of death and destruction? (Yes, no, no.) But still, I was terribly uncomfortable.

The rest of the show was tamer, until I headed for the door. There was an image of some naked Zulu girls from 1892-93. Pure trappings of colonialism. “Hey, look a the naked savages. They’re someone’s property now, so you don’t have to feel shameful.”

Together with the earlier image, they re-enforced a slimy feeling within me, one that was surprisingly lacking when I looked at all those breasts, penises, and vaginas. That was easy. Racism is hard. By including the sub-theme in the exhibit, however, the curators took a brave stand. Racism is a part of humanity, they decreed/implied, and it’s best to look at it directly. Too often, it’s left for the shadows.

One more mention, before I move on. The final image, or at least the last I noticed, was by Nadar. It was a full-on hermaphrodite photograph. The genetalia were front and center, the rest of the body faded into a shallow depth of field. The year: 1860. The effect: timeless. I shuddered, and then walked out the door. Like I said, this show ought to be controversial. If it’s still up, go see for yourself.

From there, we hiked back across Central Park, as I promised Iván some great pizza on Amsterdam Avenue. We waited out the rain, hoped the temperature would drop, watched some of a Euro Cup match, and munched on great food. (Ceasar’s Palace Pizza, Amsterdam between 83rd and 84th St.) It was a short walk to the subway from there, and we were downtown bound, to hit up a few shows in Chelsea.

Henceforth, I won’t do it that way again. The Uptown museums are about history, risk-taking and brilliance. Visions from the past, and visions that confound our expectations of the present. Clearly, not all the work on the wall is brilliant. Not possible. But the ambitions are always grand. Dream big, and you might make it.

In Chelsea, though, it’s a marketplace. Nothing more, nothing less. Yes, the salesmen are dignified, though they won’t pay you any mind. They’re worried about the big fish that drop mad cash via email. Fair enough.

I don’t begrudge them anything, despite some of my past criticism. Capitalism marches on, and the businesses are there to sell Art. If they didn’t have to be open to the public, perhaps the doors would lock forever. But they do. And we go.

There’s often, if not always, great work to be seen. But it’s lost in the noise of mediocrity. My brain morphed from idealistic and humanistic to jaded and angry, and all it took was a train ride South. So much work was so seemingly tied to who knows who, or who’s profile is big enough to demand a solo show. Or at least that’s how I felt in the moment. Like I said, jaded.

In fairness, it was Summer, which we all know is not the time to see the showstopper exhibitions. And, having spent the better part of an hour sweating in Central Park, I didn’t have enough time to hit up 20 or 30 galleries, which would have increased my chances of seeing something transcendent. Alas.

As it was, we met my friend Jaime at Matthew Marks, to see the new Thomas Demand exhibit. Arriving early, we checked into a few spaces right there on 22nd St, and both were shaking our heads as we opened the door to the cavernous space. (One of several that Marks has in the neighborhood. He’s one of a handful of “Super-dealers” that drive the scene.)

I’ll say straight out, Mr. Demand is one of my favorite artists. I’ve long been enamored of his super-intricate, hand-made, illusionistic creations. They look “real” but are not. What is “real” anyway? Is paper real? Surely it is. But when people think they’re seeing a composite desk, or a ceramic bathtub, then paper and cardboard are relegated to “fake.”

There were three photographs on the wall, and a video in the larger back room. (They reconfigure the space for each show, I believe.) As much as I love the artist, I’d say the show was workmanlike, at best. When there are only three images to behold, they best be brilliant.

The money shot was called “Control Room.” It depicted what looked like the bridge of some Space Ship, or the nerve center of a Government bunker, deep underground. Hidden under Colorado Springs, no doubt.

The panels of the ceiling hung down, however, and there were no humans to be seen. It was empty. Haunted. One could not escape the feeling that the image was meant to represent a dim view of the future, when we were gone, but our organized infrastructure remained. Empty, yes, but don’t forget the organized part. (The artist is German, after all.)

The other two images were far less dramatic. One, a storeroom filled with art, the other, a room service cart in a generic hotel room. Often, there are stories associated with Mr. Demand’s scenes, stories not accessible by the title or image. The background floats along by word of mouth. Which is to say, if there were reasons for these photos, they escaped me.

Jaime was entranced with the lighting techniques in the food cart photo. He deconstructed the way the light enhanced certain shapes, and softened others. It was not something I would have noticed. Another great reminder how subjective was our venture, judging and deciding. One man’s love of implied narrative is another man’s fascination with light.

Speaking of implied narrative, as there was no image-history at our fingertips, I guessed, “Maybe it was one of Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard’s last meals? Before he was put down for his failure to protect the big boss?” Quickly, Jaime retorted, “No, they don’t eat pork.” I looked again, and there, among the fake paper food, was a piece of fake proscuitto. Well seen, Jaime.

The video returned to the Space Ship theme, as a room swayed above, on the screen. The commissary of some lost Enterprise, sloshing back and forth, back and forth. All the furniture would slide one way across the room, and then back again. Jaime noted that nothing was ever damaged, though. Odd, yes, cool, sure, but I wondered if it pushed the artist’s ideas any further along?

And that was why I ultimately left disappointed. Mr. Demand has been making work in this style for a very, very long time. Will he shift? Will it end? I don’t know. Should he? Can an artist mine the same territory, over and over and over again, and never get bored? Will the work improve forever, or get stale, like that hunk of ciabatta you forgot about, that guards the back of your refrigerator?

Of course, I don’t know. When I shot my current project in my studio, I knew some would say it looked a lot like “The Value of a Dollar,” as they share the same locale. But I wanted to build on my ideas, and thought it was silly to change my studio around just because some would have me do so. A table is a table, after all.

But, never would I ever shoot only that way, forever. It would not cross my mind, to never, ever change. Yes, making a new way in the world can be scary, and failure is more than possible. So I suppose that means that, in my opinion, it’s time for Mr. Demand to move on. Freshen things up.

Will he? Who knows? I can tell you one thing though. If he does, it won’t be because of anything I’ve said. When we make Art, we’re ultimately our own boss. If we choose to slave to the market, so be it. He can laugh all the way to his secret bank account in the Caymans. Who am I to criticize?

New York Summer Visit 2012 – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Wait a second,” I said. “I know that building.”

“Yes, it does look familiar,” Iván replied.

“Right. From Central Park West.”

“Central Park West?” His eyebrows shot up, quickly. “Ah, I see.”

The humidity clung to our damp shirts, formerly respectable. Our moods tumbled. Quickly. We just realized we’d gotten lost in Central Park, and had walked South for fifteen minutes, rather than East. Which meant thirty more minutes of schlepping in the heat over rocks and towers and ponds and asphalt.

I suppose it was understandable. We hadn’t seen each other in four years. We were excited. Gregarious. Gesticulating.
And we’d chosen to walk from the bus stop on 86th St, rather than take the bus that awaited. (A mistake I ought never have made. You always take the air-conditioned route in Sweat Season.)

I was raring to chat, because I’d seen something shocking, yet ordinary the night before, and couldn’t wait to hear what Iván thought about it. My uncle had showed me some videos on the computer. A distant relative’s girlfriend, a self-styled vocalist, had made a series of singing videos.

I admit, she’s very attractive, in a conventional way. Using her webcam, in low-cut underwear, she’d sway as she sang, staring right into the camera in her bedroom. Unfortunately, she was really bad at singing. (And not the good kind of bad.) Off key, pitchy, call it what you will. I laughed so hard I fell off the couch. For real. All the while, I felt very bad about myself. Ashamed.

In one song, I can’t remember which, she even similated sex, hopping up and down on an imaginary lover. My first thought was, this has to be a joke, right? But my Uncle swore no. Second thought: poor thing. She has no idea.

It was all just so…personal. Stuff like that should be for your friends. No cameras. Just messing around while you’re hanging out. Having a laugh. It’s not meant for strangers. How have we all gotten so mixed up about reality?

The whole thing just seemed so perfectly symbolic of these difficult-to-quantify times. There she was, using the web to overshare, horribly, all the while thinking it was the ticket to stardom. Not ironically. (Too bad. That might have caught on. Though I suppose nobody remembers William Hung.)

We hear that the unemployment numbers for Generation Y, (or the Millenials,) are off the charts. 50% higher the the national average. And how many of these 20-somethings have moved back in with their parents? An astonishing amount, by any reasonable measure. To top it off, these kids now owe so much money for their student loans, that they’ll be working it off until they’re 50. But there are no jobs to work off the debt. It’s criminal.

They think that Flickr or Youtube or Twitter or Instagram will make them wealthy and famous, so they can continue to live in the lifestyle to which their parents have made them accustomed. (Formerly known as the American Dream.) Which is to say, this is likely to be the first generation of Americans who have a “lesser” lifestyle than the one before. (Or did Generation X beat them to that distinction, as my wife pointed out?) Furthermore, is that such a bad thing? The concept of infinite wealth is seriously outmoded.

And that’s where I left off, when I realized we were going the wrong way.

It took forever to traverse the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but eventually we succeeded. After swiping the plastic in the lobby, (you can pay what you choose,) we darted to the bathroom, where I had to use three paper towels to get the sweat off, and then still dunked my whole head in the sink. Classy. (Sir, we’ll have to ask you to leave now.)

Thank goodness we had to use the bathroom. Had we not, I’d never have seen the oldest painted portraits I’ve encountered. They were encaustic, wax on limewood, from Egypt. Mummy portraits, from 130-150AD. Men peaked out under coal ringlets of hair, with big haunting eyes, and razor cut cheekbones. Wow. So Old. So beautiful. (As we photographers know, it’s always about the expression in the eyes.)

Iván and I were there for a reason, though: to visit the newly redone Islamic Galleries. I’d read that they were brilliant, (Peter Schjeldahl claimed himself a different person upon departure,) and wanted to see for myself.

Tucked through the Mesopotamian wing, we walked in, thinking at the outset that it lacked bombast. No book store, no lady offering you headsets. And so far in the back. But nothing in this Museum is ordinary, so my expectations were high. (Alas, I was not. Work is work.)

It’s built like one long, rectangular loop. We entered to the right, which I’d recommend, but only if you want to have the experience thusly. There were many beautiful objects to be seen, carved wood and sculpted clay jumping out, and color as well. Beautiful blues.

I was drawn, immediately, to a wine glass. So ordinary a concept. Here, it was a 1200 year old, blue-green piece of glory from Syria or Iraq. I had a daydream. I was a bearded, black-haired merchant. It was warm out. I munched dates, and slurped cool wine from this beautiful, blue-green waterglass. Sounds nice.

We continued through, and of course I had my favorites. But soon I found myself saying, “What’s with the hype? It’s nice and all, but not worth dying over.” Then, not 10 seconds later, we walked into a room to our right, the Koç Gallery. Boom.

The ceiling was wood, sculpted and dominant. I wrote in my notes that it was “somewhat indescribable.” (And yet I try.) Spanish, from the 16th Century. (They don’t scrimp at the Met.) Under its eye, the walls were covered with huge carpets. 20, 30 feet high. One seemed to be 40 feet for sure.

We sat. And stared. And, as much as we both like to talk, we were quiet. It felt like five minutes. Who’s to say?

There were other treasures, yes, but this was the room to see. We passed some Chinese-Style porcelain plates, blue on white. Lovely. But not from China. They were Persian, from the 16th Century.

That’s when it hit me. Globalization is not new. Idea transmission, global commerce, interconnectedness, these are not new happenings, and their attendant problems not new either. Empires rise and Fall, but power endures. Our predilection to violence remains, as does our desire to trade things we have too much of for things we crave. Or, as Iván put it, “What we call Globalization is really when Globalization was completed. Nothing left to Globalize anymore.”

And looking at the Art, one could never believe the Iranians as savage as our Talking Heads might have us believe. Not slightly. They laugh at Chumps like Saddam Hussein and George W. (Though nobody messed with Saddam as badly as the South Park guys. Beyond twisted.)

And that’s why I go to museums. And why I love to write about it afterwards. (Remembering memories make the memories stronger, I recently read.) I go, because I never know what new thoughts I’ll have, what colors I’ll see, what gods will be there to worship. I go, because I want to improve as an artist, and the only way to get better is to see new things, made by better artists than I am.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, in which I go look at some actual photographs.

This Week In Photography Books – Uta Barth

by Jonathan Blaustein

Just now, not three minutes ago, I saw a hummingbird. Clomping down my dirt road in flip-flops, I was lost in thought. The first few paragraphs of this column were dancing through my brain; synapses firing, mentally banging on my keyboard. A hundred yards from my computer, and already I could hear the rhythmic song of plastic on plastic.

Then, I saw the whizzing wings out of the corner of my eye, hovering above the most beautiful orange/red wildflower. I stopped dead, turned my head towards the little creature, and watched. Of course, you can’t see the wings move. Everyone knows that. But the blur is hypnotic.

Suddenly, I could hear a magpie squawking. Then, two different bird calls joined the chorus. Next, the sound of the Rio Hondo behind me, whoosh, whoosh, gurgle, gurgle. A symphonic moment, all thanks to Nature.

Of course, the sounds were there all along. I just didn’t hear them, as I was too busy listening to the voices in my head. Ironically, I was planning to write about the intersection of Nature and religion. I had it all worked out.

Then, I saw the hummingbird, and everything disappeared. I was left with only my immediate surroundings. My mind cleared, and I felt much better than I had the moment before. Now, I’m writing a different column than I would have otherwise.

If you were trite, you might say I had my “Moment of Zen.” (Thank you, Jon Stewart.) To all the urbanites out there, I’ll tell you this: I know it sounds cliché. Mountain guy writes about hanging out with the birds, while your background noise consists of honking horns, cursing neighbors, ice cream trucks, and jackhammers working on the roads. (I think they were hammering on Canal St. the entire time I lived in NYC.)

Or, maybe you’ll think something else. “Wow, that sounds amazing. I wish I could live in such a pretty place.” I tell you, we have problems here just like everyone else. Violence and poverty and addiction and wildfires. And you can’t get a decent slice of pizza to save your life, even if you have mad cash like Mikhail Prokhorov.

With respect to the idea of Zen, though, I think it’s worth taking a step further. Art communicates information. (For once, I state the obvious.) Information is a general term: it can mean ideas, of course, but also emotional energy. We’ve been through this before.

Most of time, we tend to focus on the Art that shakes us: dynamic, baroque evocations of Environmental disaster, sexual trafficking, or death. Things like that. Everyone’s always talking about whether Art can change the world, or how images of War are so important for our general body of knowledge. All true.

But how often do we talk about Art that will simply change your mood? Is there value in a photograph, if it only slows you down, soothes your mind, and hijacks your brainwaves away from anxiety or fear or exhaustion, if even for moment?

Minimalism and abstraction have been around for a long time. (The former was popular in China 800 years ago, and the latter evolved in painting a Century ago.) Personally, I tend to prefer my minimalism Sculptural, in the Donald Judd or Carl Andre style. Minimalist photography is not normally my thing.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see Uta Barth’s new book, “to draw with light,” recently published by Blind Spot. Slowly tease the simple hardcover out of its matching slip-cover, and the world’s noise begins to melt into the background.

The volume is broken down into three sections, each displaying a very narrow range of imagery. The first, my favorite, connects to the title. Curvilinear, wave-like forms of white light are depicted on luminescent, white curtains. Again. And again.

One person’s seductive beauty is another person’s “boring as hell,” but hear me out. One minute, I was stressed out about having to write this column, not sure I had the proper creativity-juice-cocktail today. The next moment, my mind was still. I felt better.

The photos are unquestionably beautiful, and simple, lacking any over-arching socio-political message. If you asked the artist, she might not discuss the Zen qualities, the hint of Buddhism. Or perhaps she might. It doesn’t matter.

The other two sections are similar. The second depicts white light on white studio cabinets. The final returns to the curtains, this time interjecting solarized images with the normal ones. Not my style, as I’ve seen a few too many student-cell phone-solarizations to find the tactic worthy of such a major artist. Little matter. I’ve had my few minutes of peace for the day, and have emerged thankful.

Bottom Line: Beautiful and simple, which ought to be enough

To purchase “to draw with light” 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 – Kehinde Wiley

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To purchase “Kehinde Wiley” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Christian Patterson

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Fantastic book, worth the hype

To purchase “Redheaded Peckerwood” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Tod Papageorge

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To purchase “Opera Citta” visit photo-eye

 

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – JH Engström

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Boozy in Brussels

To purchase “La Résidence” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Brian Ulrich

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To purchase “Is This Place Great Or What” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Olivia Arthur

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: A fascinating inside view into a hidden society

To purchase “Jeddah Diary” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

Impressions from FotoFest

- - Art, Portfolio

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Bernhard Fuchs

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Beautiful and bleak

To purchase “Farms,” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Leon Borensztein

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line: A time capsule, for good and bad

To purchase “American Portraits 1979-89″ visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

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

- - Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Pieter Hugo

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line: Fantastic. A keeper.

To purchase “This Must Be the Place” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Viviane Sassen

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line: Cool book, reading required

To purchase “Parasomnia” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

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