Category "From The Field"

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

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering at MOMA PS1

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Isn’t Art Used To Change The World?

- - Art, From The Field

Jonathan Blaustein talks with Jörg Colberg of the blog Conscientious about using art to change the world.

Jonathan Blaustein: I wrote a long article recently about my trip to Reno, and you pulled from it a particular question and posted it on Conscientious. I thought it might be interesting to turn that back on you and start there. I have the question right here on my little note sheet.

Jörg Colberg: It doesn’t look like a fake note sheet like Jon Stewart’s, though.

JB: No, it’s real. I even have magazines here (waving them in front of the webcam.) We’re going to get into all the good stuff. Let’s start with that question, and hopefully it won’t seem ridiculous that I’m quoting myself right now.

“I’m wondering why I didn’t hear more [at the A+E conference in Reno] about how we, as artists, can use a variety of skill sets and methods to expand the reach of our work, to recruit new viewers, to communicate a message in a manner that will speak to more people without dumbing down the art in the process?”

I’m assuming the question must have been intriguing to you, because you quoted it. So what were your first thoughts on that, as a starting point?

JC: There are a lot of hooks in that quote.

JB: Sure. We can start with any little part of it. Maybe I can give a little back story. You responded to a Google+ post that I did on the Reno article, and then you and I started going back and forth briefly, before we decided to flesh it out further in this interview.

JC: I don’t know whether I have the real answer. I have my own personal answer, and that’s biased in all kinds of ways.

JB: Of course. I’ll stipulate to all of your biases, and you can stipulate to mine. How about we start there.

JC: All right. I think the first thing is, a lot of the talking that’s going on online is about artists using their skill sets for social media and promotion. That’s the first thing. There is very little talk (or maybe I’m just missing all that talk) about what you’re talking about. You know, how artists can use a variety of skill sets to expand the reach of their work. Expanding the reach of their work doesn’t seem to get beyond making sure that more people see it to potentially buy a book or buy a print. I could be mistaken, but that’s something that I’ve been rather critical of, more and more. Social media is really just about blanket promotion, because, in theory, it could be about exactly what you’re talking about. Reaching more people, and talking about the work, and what’s behind the work, and how what is behind the work has connections to all these other things that go on in non-artists’ lives.

JB: You went right to social media, and of course social media was the impetus for this talk. Perhaps the rampant self-promotion we’re seeing on the web is finally wearing people out. You agree, I agree. But the exact same infrastructure, the social media infrastructure, just brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The tool itself has already proven it’s power to do the impossible, or at least what people consider impossible.

JC: Yes and no. I think it’s disputed what the real power of social media is and how it contributed to the Arab Spring. But that aside, it’s a little like quoting the lottery winner. These are outlier events. I don’t deny that they’re true, but I think that using outlier events to prove a point is always a bit risky. Even if we stay with the Arab Spring, what brought down those regimes or what made people go to the street is not social media. It’s the willingness of those people to go out of the house and demand change.

JB: Of course.

JC: Social media alone are useless, unless… it’s the same with photography. I’m sorry if I’m hijacking this a little bit right now, but it’s this question, “Can photography change the world?” I don’t think it can, unless we learn our lessons from what it shows us, unless we decide do to something about it.

JB: That’s why I wanted to have this discussion. I’m talking about social media as an infrastructure. As an architecture that can be used, because all it is is a fancy term for the perfect information dissemination vehicle. Free, (sometimes) ubiquitous, let’s call it perfect, or certainly the best the world has ever seen. That’s where I think it starts to get interesting, when we talk about Art. You said, “Can photography change the world?”, and my article was basically written about an event where a bunch of artists were conceding that they could. And that they needed to, because Climate Change was such a dramatically horrific issue for humankind and animal kind.

I come from a background and an age where I’m trying to get over my cynicism about that idea. I feel like, coming up with Post-Modern theory in art school, there was an indoctrination against the idea that art could, or even ought to, aspire to create change. So leaving aside the bigger question of whether it can, we’re living in an age where most people don’t think they ought to try. It’s like a limited set of expectations of what our chosen calling can offer to the world. That’s where I want to start. That’s what the rallying cry was, though we’re probably not at that level where I can even call it a rallying cry. The question really is, “Why aren’t people even considering that it’s worth an attempt?”

JC: You know, I honestly don’t know. I think people make their decisions based on their personal beliefs and comfort levels. I have this idea that there’s this talk about the creative class. You’ve heard that term, right?

JB: Sure.

JC: I always thought that another name for the creative class would be the complacent class. It’s really rude, in a way, but I think it’s true. We’re so complacent about what we do. We want to change the world, and then we don’t want to do much about it. We think, “Well, if just click on ‘Like’ on Facebook for that cause, that’s going to make a big difference.” I suppose it makes a little bit of a difference, but you know, there are no consequences.

There are people who are really going out to change the world. I’m thinking of Pete Brook, who was just visiting here with his “Prison Photography on the Road.” He’s literally taking his blog to the road, staying with all these people and talking to them. He got started on Kickstarter, asking people for money, and a lot of artists donated prints so that he could give something back.

I think you can do something. Why people don’t do more? I don’t know. The situation is, I think, quite overwhelming. Every day, there is some other disaster. Some other drama going on. I guess there’s a sense of hopelessness. Of course, nobody can change all of the disasters and all the dramas, so I think you just have to pick one. But I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know why there is not more happening.

JB: To be clear, I don’t ever expect you to speak for anyone beyond yourself. In my belief as an artist, I find that ideas are often in the air. Oftentimes, you find that different people, in different parts of the world, are working on something similar without any connection. It’s our job, I think, to reach into the Zeitgeist and try to pull out these little nuggets of contemporary culture and then transform them, synthesize them.

In this week’s Newsweek, there’s an interview with Thomas Campbell, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (By Blake Gopnik) In the headline, it mentions expanding the audience and not dumbing it down. And in the New Yorker, there was another article about the Met, because they’re rolling out the new Islamic Galleries. It discussed how the Met devised a really fancy lighting installation at the edge of the gallery to entice people inside. I was surprised that this idea was reflected back at the highest institutional level, because, in a sense, we’re talking about artists on the street and the power structure as well. Clearly, the idea is out there.

We both could speculate as to why people aren’t necessarily ambitious or political in their content, oftentimes, but I would say that the bigger idea that we can talk about is, how we even consider going about enlarging the tent? What can we do to try to increase it’s power? At least here in the United States. What are you seeing, as far as artists’ attempts to reach across the divide?

JC: The problem in the US is pretty unfortunate, because the arts are pretty marginalized. I grew up in Germany, I lived there for 30 years. I don’t want to pretend that it’s the artistic paradise, because it certainly isn’t. But Art is talked about more often than here. There’s Art education in schools. All the way up to high school, I had to take classes in Art and Music. That was just something that I had to do. I didn’t have a choice. Just like German and English and Mathematics, you’d have a class on Art. I actually learned how to knit in school. That’s completely useless for me, as far as I’m concerned, but I learned it anyway.

JB: Knitting was useless for you, and Algebra was useless for me. We’re even.

JC: Art here has a different connotation. The high falutin’ people with their crazy ideas that are very different from the common man or regular folks. You have that in Germany too, but I know that a lot of people go to art galleries or to museums in Germany that would never go here. I know a lot of people are really interested in Art, and what’s going on here. I go to a diner every Saturday for breakfast, because I like to hang out at the counter. I talk a lot with people, and they are actually interested in what’s going on. The discourse about Art is just messed up. Funding for Art doesn’t exist, or is very minor. And that’s sort of at the very basic level.

One way to really make a difference, and I know it sounds naive, would be to send a letter to your Congressman saying “Why are we not funding the arts more?” Because there are jobs in the arts, obviously, but also because there is something that Art has to offer everybody. That’s the first aspect. The second aspect is maybe related. Art has such a weird standing. A lot of people don’t really like to talk about themselves as artists that change the world. It sort of has a bad feeling to it, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe the people who went to art school know there’s all this Post-Modern bullshit, so I can’t do that. I don’t think that every artist should try to change the world. It’s completely up to them. But I think every artist should really think about this. Do I want to change the world, or what do I want to do? What do I want my Art to do?

JB: I agree with you, but I don’t want this to just be, “Well no, I agree with you.” “But no, I agree with you.”

JC: That would be boring, right?

JB: Exactly. We have to get the controversy in here somewhere, or I won’t sell newspapers. Oh wait, that’s right, I’m not actually trying to sell newspapers. What I’m very curious about right now is…you’re presenting Art in a different context and a different culture, Germany. I think most art-literate folks are going to know that it’s the case. In Europe, there’s more cultural support for the arts. In the US, we acknowledge that the arts are marginalized, and that there is a heavy emphasis on Class and Status and Power within the Art world.

JC: Right.

JB: It’s a separate question to say “How do we go about changing that?”

JC: Really, that’s what it comes down to. I just watched this documentary by Robert Hughes, the art critic, called “The Mona Lisa Curse.” I don’t know whether you’ve seen it.

JB: No.

JC: You can find a version with Spanish subtitles on Youtube. He was talking about how the art world has changed, has become incredibly commercialized. And how that is affecting the way Art is being done and talked about. I think we can, as artists, (and I’m calling myself an artist), we can take that back. It’s just that easy, but of course it’s not really easy. It’s just like Pete. He went on the road, and he’s doing it. There’s nothing, in principal, that can stop us from doing that. Creating something where we interact with people, and just disseminate what we do, and talk about it more. Bringing it to people who might be interested.

JB: I suppose we’re doing it right now. Or at least, the first step. But Art has always been used in service of power and in service of information dissemination. Look at the way it was used by the Catholic Church, or by the Mayan Ruling Class. At this point, I think we could say that at it’s highest levels, maybe it’s been hijacked in service of Capitalism. You said Commercialism, but in service of the Market.

JC: It doesn’t have to be that way.

JB: Referring back to that Newsweek article, it said that the Met had something like 5.8 million viewers last year. Now, it’s probably more than this, but let’s say that 1/3 of those viewers are tourists to New York coming in on the cheap dollar. So let’s say 4 million Americans. That’s not much more than 1% of the US population right there.

JC: That should tell us something, right? The Met is kind of a special example, because it’s the artificial environment that is New York City. I read that there was some talk about where do the 1% live, and there are several zip codes in New York where many of the top 1% of the wealthiest people live.The people that go to the Met, a lot of them are actually well off, as are many people who go on vacation to New York.

I think we should be looking at museums in places like Pittsburgh, or Cleveland. Places that are more regular, or behaving more like the average American city. Let’s see how museums are faring there? Whether people go to shows? Then we should think about what we can do to bring Art to people. I think museums are great, galleries are great, but of course they are environments that are kind of artificial. I think they can be intimidating. They’re certainly making every effort to be intimidating.

JB: I agree. I don’t think that point gets made enough. American’s really don’t like to talk about Class, I have found.

JC: No.

JB: So let’s sit on that idea. Museums in Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. Or, like I speculated in that article about Reno, outside of museums entirely. Listen, I’m a huge fan of Art Museums. I was brought up in suburban New Jersey. It was Bruce Springsteen country. Unpretentious. Blue collar, or at least a Blue Collar Mentality, where you do your work and you keep it real. I was just back in New York, and I’m going to write some articles about it, but I saw this fantastic show at PS1. (Article to come…) I was in New Jersey, talking about it with some relatives of mine.

I thought they’d be interested in the exhibition, as they had some personal connections to the subject matter. I brought up the show, and I talked about PS1 and Long Island City, and they said, “How come we’ve never heard of it?” Actually, what they said was “How come no one has ever heard of this place?” Of course, I said, some people have heard of it. You have to kind of be inside the club, or in the know, to hear about these things. As I was saying that, it just seemed so absurd.

So this is where we have to start. Because once I told them what I’d seen, they were ready to get in the car and drive to Queens. What we’re talking about is, if the mechanism of communication is there, which it is, and I think that the quality of work that one could see in the United States, probably across the country, is really high. So we cycle back to enticing or alluring people to open their minds enough to experience a different kind of media. Isn’t that really what we’re talking about?

JC: To an extent. I don’t think people have to be enticed, actually. I think a lot of people are actually more interested in some of the issues we deal with than we think they are. I think the PS1 problem is a good problem. For example, I don’t know where your relatives live, if they have a local newspaper. But that’s the first problem, is if they still have a local newspaper. And if that local newspaper still has an arts writer, then that arts writer might have written about it. It’s likely that there is no local newspaper any longer, and even if there is a local newspaper, then the arts writer is long gone, because there is no money for that. So it’s no surprise that your relatives have never heard of that show because…

JB: They never even heard of the venue.

JC: Is there a local newspaper?

JB: They live in New Jersey. It’s the New York area, so their daily newspapers are the Times and the Post. But it’s not just access to information…

JC: It is access to information. That’s part of it. But we need to create a culture where Art is being talked about on a more regular basis. Not just as a special section that’s called Art. People have to start realizing that what’s in the Art section is not just abstract paintings of things that nobody understands. It’s a lot of stuff that affects our lives. I guess that’s where we start agreeing again.

JB: Right. It keeps coming back to the How? And in a sense, the Why? Of course it’s about access to information, but I think it is very difficult for people to want to talk about that attitude and air of exclusivity that derives it’s power from keeping people out.

JC: So we have to take that away.

JB: Well, we can say “How” all day long, but maybe by saying “How” we’ll get some other people to think about it. It’s interesting that I got to read about the views of the head the Metropolitan Museum of Art talking about these issues in the same week that we are. When you read this stuff, it comes with this defensive slant. Like, “Yes, it’s nice to get the attendance numbers up, but, God forbid, too many people seeing this stuff means it’s less good. Or, it has to be a blockbuster show. If you want people to come, it has to be Tim Burton, you have to show movies. I disagree. When I first encountered the World’s best Art, and I was very fortunate, before the dollar went to shit and the economy went to hell, I was able to travel to Europe, and I lived in New York. A lot of my passion for Art comes from that physical experience of standing in front of something, and having your mentality shift in realtime. I believe, like you, that if more people were introduced to that experience, without changing that experience, people would get it.

JC: It is a big question. You have to start somehow. I don’t have a magic solution. There’s all kinds of things you could imagine. What it comes down to, literally, is bringing art to people. By showing it, by talking about it. There is no reason why interesting Art should always be in big museums in big cities. You can imagine, something that I’ve always talked about but never done it, is to rent a barn from a local farmer and do an art show for two weeks. Just bring in a bunch of artists, and put up a show, with advertising and everything. People have to drive to the countryside to see it. It’s a beautiful drive out here (Western Massachusetts) anyway. You would visit art, and it would be embedded in a community that maybe doesn’t have so much access to that kind of stuff. And then after two weeks, its gone. You don’t have the overhead of keeping up a museum, and you would take art of of it’s context that it’s in right now. This high falutin’ world with a lot of pretense. With a lot of money. With a lot of expectations, and a lot of stuff. I think it’s doable.

Even the web. Just talking about Art, or making multi-media pieces about Art. I think that’s why multi-media can be good, it is because you can bring the experience of Art closer to people. As photographers, we’re lucky, because photography is an ideal medium for the web.

JB: Sure. Photography and the web changed my life. I’m living proof of how well jpegs can work. Yet that was never my goal, nor was it the optimal way for people to experience my work, when things are meant to be big. But I think you hit on it…

JC: That’s the thing. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but people are worried that that’s not the optimal way to experience their work. Of course, I hear that a lot, because I’m a blogger. People say that it doesn’t look so good on the screen. But that’s totally missing the point. If you get curious about photography, or you get curious about photo books because you see me flipping through a photo book in a crappily made video, you might go out and buy that book, right?

JB: Right.

JC: And then, suddenly, you have the book and you start looking. That’s kind of what I think I can do. Show and say let’s look at this, this might be interesting. The viewer still has to make that step: I’m going to go and see that show. Or: I’m going to buy that book. I think putting it out there, and saying this might interest you has got to be the first step. And with photography, there are books. They’re not even that expensive.

JB: Look, I’ve said this in print several times. The experience of knowing that millions of people around the planet were thinking and talking about my work, it was indescribably awesome. Brilliant. But when I know that the pictures, in my head, and on the wall are meant to be seen at 30″x40″. You can’t experience a 30″x40″ print on a white wall through the Internet. It’s not either or, here, between the Internet and the wall. It’s both.

But the idea that I want to sit with, for a minute, was that you talked about this idea of bringing Art out to the people, and I talked about it in my Reno article. Now Kickstarter is there. Maybe we’re really talking around it, but Occupy Wall Street came from a call from the media, right? Adbusters. I’m not, in any way, about to speculate that you and I chatting via Skype can have even a fraction of the impact. However, maybe it’s something as simple as saying, let’s do it. Let’s try to organize a series of ten pop up art exhibitions in interesting places in the United States, and let’s raise the 50 Grand that’s necessary, and let’s publicize the shit out of it. And let’s take Art to the people. And whether “Let’s” is you and me, or people that we know, or people who read this…maybe that is the start. Is to say, “OK. Let’s do it.”

JC: Why not, right?

JB: Well, I live in Northern New Mexico, and you can bet your ass that people would like to see photo installations and projections on the sides of cliffs. I know I would.

JC: I think it’s actually doable. You could certainly reach enough people. We’d have to plan it.

JB: Of course.

JC: You’d literally make these shows for a week or two. Maybe you could tap local arts organizations. They might be happy to help. I don’t know. But I think that something could be done. Yes.

JB: Yes.

JC: And I think that would be a good start. You do this in ten cities? Just imagine. Even five cities.

JB: Or, as you said, rural areas.

JC: It would be so amazing.

JB: Or maybe it’s both. You just never know. I’m not saying we’re going to light the spark. I’m just saying we can’t rule out the possibility. I think we hit on something.

JC: It’s just something that we have to do now.

JB: Do you want to follow up on this? Do you want to put a little elbow grease in? Or should we let other people do it?

JC: In this day and age, especially with something like this, it shouldn’t be something that one or two people are doing. You have to make sure you get 5 or 6 people together.

JB: Right.

JC: So you sort of have a collective.

JB: Let’s get Art out of the temples, and out into the cow pastures and smaller cities.

JC: I think it’s a great idea. It sounds so populist. It is a really good idea.

Susan Worsham Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: I thought you’d have an interesting take on the way photographers essentially have to have two careers: the getting it out there phase, and the making the work phase. In the last interview i did, Jesse Burke called it the “wheel of self-promotion.” He said “the wheel of self-promotion is always spinning.” I related to that. I know a lot of people relate to that. Right now, I feel like I’m trying as hard as I can to de-emphasize it and remind myself of why I do what I do. Of all the people I’ve talked to in the last few years, you seem to have your head on straight as to why you make work. So I thought maybe we could talk a bit about how you see your motivations as an artist.

Susan Worsham: Well, what you were saying about the “wheel of self-promotion?” I guess, I don’t even think about self-promotion. The contacts that I make are more based on me being me, and the people being them. It’s about natural connections, as opposed to trying to force a connection. My “By the Grace of God” series is about me going out into the world and making connections. Right now, the connections are not about making it, or getting ahead. It’s hard for me to explain.

JB: That’s OK. You said it right away. You don’t consider the “wheel of self-promotion.” You don’t care about it. I feel like of all my friends and colleagues, you’re the only one that when you say it, I believe it. That’s kind of why I wanted to talk about this. I feel like so many photographers, certainly fine art photographers, have gotten distracted by the 24/7, all encompassing noise of the Internet, and the blogosphere, and FB and Twitter. People put so much energy into the other that they lose track of the root causes of why we started making art to begin with. I thought that you might be able to share a little bit of your perspective on that.

SW: It all happened for me in a natural, one thing led to another way. At Review Santa Fe, the reason that I even went was that someone nominated me for the Santa Fe Prize, and I had to look up what that was. When someone nominates you for the Santa Fe Prize, you get to go to the portfolio review. And I’d never really heard of a portfolio review before. Someone that interviewed me recently asked me, “Are you really that naive?”

JB: Ouch.

SW: Yeah, but I wasn’t upset by it. I answered, “Yeah, in this case, with this particular subject, I am naive.” I don’t come from a publishing background, and I didn’t go to school for photography, so I’m not going to know everything that everyone knows. Frankly, none of that really matters to me. It’s the art that matters to me. But the reason that she asked if I was really that naive, to prepare for my first portfolio review, I had to google portfolio reviews to see what people brought. I saw that people were bringing what’s called “clamshell boxes,” so that was the first thing I did. I ordered myself a clamshell box. So I kind of feel like I’m just being me. And my art work is how I connect with the world, and how I get my feelings out. And that’s really mine.

JB: That’s what I wanted to talk about. I gave a lecture yesterday at UNM, in Albuquerque. At the end of class, the professor, Jim Stone, asked what advice I would give the students. I said “Don’t do this because you want to make money or get famous. It’s too hard and too degrading.” The business aspects of what we do, even when things are going well, it always feels like a crapshoot. So if that’s why you want to be a photographer, my advice was clear. “Do something else. If you want to be famous, try to get on television. Make work because you have to, because it’s a part of who you are, and if these things don’t come out as art, they come out as insanity or kicking a dog.” That’s where it comes from for me. I wouldn’t have dealt with 15 years of rejection by choice.

SW: I recently had a younger photographer email me, and say she was in my city and could we meet. So I said sure. I always feel a connection to other photographers, because we share a passion. She said, “You’re all over the place right now. How did you get that?” I said, “Gosh, I’ve been taking photographs for at least 20 years.” It’s not something that just comes all of a sudden. You make work that’s important to you, and at some point, someone is going to see it. I just don’t think about money, when I’m thinking about photography. When I leave my house, and I’m in my car, and the lighting is just amazing, and it’s hitting someone’s back yard, I freak out. I just follow that beautiful light. That’s what inspires me. It’s really simple.

JB: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this, because I know it can be tough to talk about.. As photographers, we’re primarily visual communicators. But when you’re out there shooting, do you feel like you’re actively looking for something, or you’re waiting to find something?

SW: One of the things that’s funny is that when I go up to people, and I ask if I can take their photograph, sometimes I explain that I’m doing this series called “By the Grace of God,” and it’s kind of just like this. I’m meeting you right here, this light is beautiful. It’s not like it’s a religious thing. I find myself often having to explain that I’m not a crazy nutbag religious person.

JB: (laughing) Did you say nutbag? Because I want to keep that. You better not make me cut nutbag, because that’s too good.

SW: No, no, no. Nutbag is fine.

JB: Excellent.

SW: Sometimes the title of the series helps. I actually walked into what I thought was an abandoned dilapidated church, right into a small service. I ended up standing up and talking about my project, and even got a few hallelujahs. I’m definitely a talker, but when you put me in front of a group of people I tend to freeze. And it’s funny that the first time I stood up and talked about the work was to a non photography crowd in a church service. I believe in a higher power. I am not someone who goes to church all of the time, or even reads the bible all the time. It’s more of just this feeling inside, when I’m taking photographs. It’s following what’s in my heart. Now that I’m older…… Let me give you an example. I used to be in my car, or even out walking, and see something and say, “ Wow. That’s awesome. I’d love to take a photograph of that.” And I wouldn’t stop. Now it seems like I’m listening to myself more, and I’m stopping and taking the time to follow what just made me really excited. Why extinguish that and keep on driving? Why not go ahead and turn down that road, and then usually when I do, and I take out my camera, and I meet someone, it seems like I was supposed to turn down that road and look at this beautiful thing that happened.

JB: When you say, “Why not stop?” I think it’s a great way to cycle back. I think a lot of people don’t stop because they don’t have the time to stop, or because they’re staring at their Iphone, and they don’t see it to begin with. I’m the last guy to be critical of anyone who tries to navigate the system, because certainly I have. But at the same time, within the last few months, I’ve just been pushing myself again and again to be more patient and to take more time. Through our past conversations, I feel like you’ve inspired me to reconnect to that. So…

SW: I’m going to interrupt and talk about patience for a minute. Gosh, patience? I have a lot of patience.

JB: I know. I feel like most people have a problem with it. I don’t think I’ve gotten my mind around how to be patient until very recently. I’m still learning.

SW: I’m actually still learning too. Sometimes, I have to wait a year. I often photograph one of my oldest neighbors, Margaret Daniel. All my family’s gone, and she’s my oldest neighbor from my childhood street, Bostwick Lane. She still lives at the top of it. I photograph her a lot. I’ll give you a bit of background story on her. I was in her basement, and there were all these boxes. They were labeled by the years. So I went upstairs and said, “Margaret, what are all the boxes in the basement?” And she said, “Well, honey, those are my walnuts.” It turns out that she collects walnuts as they fall from her tree, and labels them by the year they fell. It’s since been a very big part of my work with her. One day she was eating walnuts from her parents’ tree that she had brought with her. I call it a dowry of sorts. One fell, and made a tree. Now, it’s 50 or so years later, and that tree is just huge, taller than any house on Bostwick Lane. But the interesting thing about Margaret, and the funny thing is now I forget what the question was… but patience. That’s what we were getting to.

So I really wanted to photograph Margaret. I call her my Black Walnut Bride. I wanted to get photographs of her walnuts, and I had to wait, I would say two years. I said, “Margaret, tell me when the walnuts are going to come. Tell me when the walnuts are going to come.” And she was like, “Honey, the tree was barren this year. That happens every so often.” And so I didn’t get to photograph them, and I was quite upset about it. Now this year, they are plentiful, and I have had to go and help her collect them every day to where my back hurts after picking them up for hours. And we’ve made a walnut bed in her garden. Another metaphor. The woman is rich with metaphors. And she told me, “Honey, we’re going to make a walnut bed. Collect them and put them over there in the garden.” And so that’s the patience that I’ve had to learn, to wait two years for the walnuts to come. But they’re such a big part of her, and now of me.

You know, waiting is fine. You can go off and take other photographs. I don’t consider a series quite finished yet. A lot of people probably think that my “Some Fox Trail in Virginia” project is finished, but I’m going to go on and photograph Margaret, probably, until she is gone. That would be when that series would end.

JB: I didn’t realize the project was still in progress, but when I went to your website, I saw images from “Some Fox Trails” that I hadn’t seen before. When we talk about patience, I feel like everyone else is going in the other direction. There’s this pressure from the outside world that people feel to come out with the next project. To tie a bow around something. To have the book done. I feel like when we get caught up in that, it takes us away from the things that motivate us to make our best work: the quest for knowledge and the desire to improve. We need to kind move around and sit down into something, and I find that of all the people I know, you seem to understand that on an intuitive level. You’re patient with people. You listen. Certainly, I could be accused of loving to talk. But often I try to remind myself that we learn more, and we find the good stuff when we listen.

SW: Exactly. Getting back to Margaret’s walnut bed, to me, the metaphors that come every time I photograph her, the work is getting stronger, and I’m getting stronger as an artist. Just spending time with her. She’s very old, and I know she’s going to pass. I don’t know how long I have with her. The walnut bed, when I look at it, enables me to deal with death. I use a lot of metaphor in my work, and I’ve begun to see the world in metaphors. So when I go to her yard, and see that mound of earth covered in walnuts, she’s not only my Walnut Bride, but that becomes her Walnut Deathbed. In photographing her, she’s helping me come to terms with death, or deal with death, in kind of a poetic way.

My brother was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. On his first visit home, he took his life. He just wasn’t a person who could live without the use of his legs. Margaret Daniel was the last person to see him alive. She had made him his favorite, which was her homemade bread. When I was photographing her for the very first time, she told me the story of his last day. She brought him his favorite bread, and she took it up the stairs, and she buttered it for him. He kept on saying, “Margaret, can you bring me some more bread?” She said, “Susan, he finished the whole loaf.” Then my mom and Margaret went for a walk. When they came back, he had shot himself, and then died shortly thereafter. So the metaphor of that being his last supper. I don’t know if a lot of people know that’s one of the reasons why I concentrate on Margaret, because she’s the last person to see my brother alive, she’s the last of my family, since my family’s passed. It’s all getting connected for me now.

JB: I know this might sound crazy, but I went through your whole website, and the one photograph that I kept up on my screen to talk about, that I’m looking at right now, is the photograph called “Risen,” the freshly baked loaves of bread on the countertop. Of the 150 pictures on your site, that’s the picture that stuck with me. I had no idea of the backstory, and I had no idea that it was your brother’s last meal.

SW: I’m a little shocked. Not knowing the story behind it. Sometimes I think someone might think that was a boring photograph. But for me it has so much meaning.

JB: But the title…let’s sit here one more second. The title: Risen. We see the loaves of bread. And there’s this glowing light. The title has all those spiritual connotations. So between all that, it felt to me like there was really a lot more there. You have a very sharp lens on your 4×5, but there’s always a sense to me that you have a very insightful eye. To me, there was a story here, and I didn’t know what it was. I’m looking at the photograph right now.

SW: There’s always a lot more there. I’m finding out a lot about myself, through the series, and in turn, when I work on “By the Grace of God,” it allows me to get that close with other people.

JB: Whether you’re shooting in Syracuse, New York, or at home in the South, your stomping grounds, whether people are white or they’re black, time and again, no matter what class people come from, or their background, you manage to find a grace and a dignity and a respect. When I see that, that you’re depicting people with respect, then I make this mental assumption that’s how it works on the street. That you meet people, young or old, and they sense that respect, and it creates a rapport. It’s not like, “Hey, there’s a freak, let’s take their picture, and it will be freaky, and then we’ll sell that picture for $10,000.”

SW: I have a little story. I used to go play pool a lot. I met this older black gentleman. His name was Larry, and he was kind of a pool hustler. Larry would put a quarter down on the side of the table while I was playing, and tell me to aim for the coin. I would get four balls in with one shot. He was a very interesting character, and one day Parliament was playing on the jukebox.

JB: P-Funk? George Clinton?

SW: Yeah, P-Funk. So he asked if I liked that, and I said “Yeah.” He told me that he used to dance for Parliament, and they called him the Rubber Band Man. I believe there is a song about him by another band. Now I always believed Larry. He was someone that actually taught me a lot about patience, and reading people. He worked at Tysons Chicken Farm and everyday after work he would ride his bike up to play pool. And I hung out with him quite a lot. So here is this guy, working at a chicken farm in Virginia who travelled the world with George Clinton. I don’t think he even had a phone, but he told me he still had a closet full of fancy costumes. That’s life. That’s how it works. But none of my friends believed he was the Rubber Band Man. I remember once I was outside, and I was talking to Larry. A drunk guy stumbled up with a bottle in a paper bag. He was like “That’s the Rubber Band Man. Do you know who that is? That’s the Rubber Band Man. How do you get to be talking to the Rubber Band Man?”

And that’s kind of how my life works. I wasn’t taking photos at the time. There are just so many stories, and so many special people out there. Everyone has a story. What I’m coming to terms with now is the patience that you talk about. I can’t take all the pictures that I want to take.

JB: There are a million different people out there making pictures a million different ways, but we can only talk about what we know. Irrespective of the fact that you place all the value on the process and not the business aspect, fortunately the world has come to respect your work. You’ve wona book award from Blurb, you’ve had a slew of exhibitions, including the recent Lishui Photo Festival, you had an artist residency at Light Work in Syracuse, and in 2011 you were chosen as a member of the PDN 30. There seems to be a lot of mystique around that list. I was wondering if you might be able to talk about what impact, if any, it’s had on your career?

SW: I remember me and another person that got the PDN this year talked on the phone, and talked about how we weren’t sure if we were doing everything that we should be doing with that award. I think the year that you’re PDN 30 is the year that you’re supposed to use that. That’s your chance to get appointments with galleries, and do that sort of thing. You know, network more because you have that behind you. We didn’t know if we were actually doing that. Because… I don’t know…I use natural light and an old view camera. So it’s hard for me to start doing commercial work. I guess we were both feeling bad, like, “I haven’t done anything with it, what about you?” This is the time we should be doing it. For a commercial photographer, the Photo District News award is amazing, because you immediately are going to have so many people looking at your work, and maybe giving you jobs because of that. Which is wonderful. I wasn’t at the point to take any of those jobs, because again, I use a view camera and natural light. So it would take quite a while for me to develop and then scan, and give a photo shoot back to someone. I think I got Fraction Magazine because of PDN 30, though I don’t know if that came before.

JB: I wanted to talk a little bit about the South. Out of high school, I went to college at Duke in North Carolina. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how I could have spent three and a half years in Durham, North Carolina and learned, essentially, nothing about the South. I probably didn’t leave campus very often. I had hush puppies at least ten times. The sweet tea was good. But I can’t believe I squandered the opportunity. You were just included in an exhibition at the Danville Museum in Virginia as a Southern Photographer. People tend to relate to a lyricism and romanticism and sense of visual literature, when it comes to the South.There is a sense of place that is so deeply rooted in your work. It’s a place that I think a lot of people are fascinated by. Certainly since the Civil War. You probably just see yourself as Susan, but what’s your take on that?

SW: That’s the weird thing. Now, I’m beginning to see it a little. Really, when you say sense of place, a sense of home. Everything I’m doing in my work lends itself for people to say, “Oh, it’s very Southern.” But really it’s just me. Often, when I photograph a backyard that’s dripping with overgrown weeds, with an old rusted swing set, to me I immediately see that and I see it as a graveyard of my childhood. A family that lived in that house and is now gone, the children have all gone off to school. I just recently went to my childhood home, last week in fact, and noticed that the kudzu was completely overgrown. Every time I go back it was just growing more and more because the house is deserted right now. So all of the things that I am using to represent life and death and memory and past. It all happens to just lend itself. I don’t think too much about being a Southern photographer. When I do went to my artist-in-residence at Light Work, I had a few days to take my camera out where I wasn’t working on my computer. Maybe four. And the photographs that I did get, people told me, “Wow. Somehow you made Syracuse look like the South.” To me, it just means that going around with my camera to places that I wanted to photograph are the places that reminded me of home. You know?

JB: And what was it like to be included in your first major museum exhibition at home in Virginia?

SW: I’m having a very Cinderella moment. Earlier, when you talked about the Danville Museum show, when I was at Light Work, Elijah Gowin happened to be coming through just for like two hours. I had told someone that I wanted to get a wedding ring portrait of some of the first Virginia photographers whose work that I saw, and maybe Elijah Gowin also. It was a big coincidence, but I got to know him a bit.

Not too long after, I got an email from a curator at the Danville Museum in Virginia. He said “Elijah came home at Christmas time, and showed me your work.” Apparently, he really liked it. He asked me if I wanted to be in a show with Emmet Gowin and Elijah, and Jeff Whetstone, all of these photographers whose work that I knew. And it was funny because they were all academics. They all taught at Universities. So when I went to the opening, I was the waitress. So that’s the stuff that is neat in my life. I can be hanging in a museum show, with all of these important photographers, and I’m a waitress.

Susan Worsham is a Richmond, Virginia based artist. She recently exhibited her photographs in the Lishui Photo Festival in China. To see more of her work, visit www.susanworshamphotography.com.

Beside The Day-Glo Waters Of The Truckee River

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

In graduate school, I learned a valuable lesson. We never make our best work in our comfort zone. It doesn’t happen. So one of the most beneficial things we can do as artists, I believe, is to step out of what we know from time to time. Challenge ourselves to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Learn and grow whenever possible. Nobody likes to feel like an idiot, but sometimes we have to delve into the unknown to discover a new process, or perspective, or piece of core knowledge.

So with that in mind, I set off from Taos to Reno, Nevada a few weeks ago. (Yes, it was a long trip: 13 hours. Yes, there was a travel delay: 6 hours in Denver. Maybe one day I’ll live near an airport so I can stop complaining.) Why Reno, you ask? Fair question. I got a tip from a trusted advisor about the Art + Environment triennial conference that was being held at the Nevada Museum of Art. Somewhat surprisingly, the institution has come on strong in the last decade, building a concrete and glass modernist temple just down the street from all the neon nonsense. (A bit too far down a dark street for my liking, but thankfully I didn’t get jacked.) The NMA has developed a focus on Environmental Art, including a terrific collection of contemporary photography that is currently on display. (The Altered Landscape exhibition, btw, and all you Bay Area readers ought to consider a road trip.) I’m almost a year in to a new, double-secret project with a strong Environmental focus, so I decided to go to the conference to learn more about what was going on in the Eco-Art scene in 2011.

 

View west driving north

I knew nobody, and hadn’t heard of most of the speakers, but their bios were insanely impressive. Whitney Biennials, Tate Modern Solo shows, LACMA, MOMAPS1, the National Gallery of Art, MaCarthur Genius grants, that sort of thing. Basically, it was an insider art world shindig, featuring a bunch of really smart people who were far more accomplished than I. Given that I’ve had some success in the last couple of years, and teach photography at UNM-Taos, it seemed like a good time to go back to being a student. Learn from people who knew more than I do. And to get to schmooze with artists who are so successful seemed like a no-brainer.

But stepping out of your comfort zone is a funny thing. It’s kind of like wearing those awkward platform shoes to try to increase your vertical leap. You look like a doofus, you can’t feel it working, your calves burn like hell, but you tell yourself it will be worth it some day. So of course, that’s what happened. I felt like I’d fallen through a wormhole back to college at fratty Duke, ever the outsider, walking in circles trying to catch someone’s eye. Let’s be honest. The art world is famous for it’s ethos of exclusivity, and this was a perfect example. I’d grown accustomed to being able to chat people up easily, work a room, have a few laughs, sort it out. But in Reno of all places, I was a no-name nobody. I sat by myself each day, hour upon hour, listening to the lectures and checking my email. Thankfully, someone had suggested that photographer Blake Gordon, an APE reader, reach out to me the day of the conference, so we met up and had a beer each night. Good dude. Other than that, I was just some random guy, and it was a seriously unpleasant feeling, after having worked so hard to build an audience for my work. I’d watch people check out my name tag, decide I wasn’t worth talking to, and then move on, all without moving their heads or breaking stride. Ouch.

View from the hotel room

Before you tell me to quit whining, let me state right here, unequivocally, that this was one of the most helpful and beneficial feelings I’ve had in a long time. I even chatted with my wife about it in real time, savoring the potential of all that insecurity slithering through my bloodstream. Feeling a range of emotions allows us to increase our capacity for empathy, as artists, as human beings, and I knew that as crappy as I felt in the moment, that it would lead to new veins of creative energy. So that’s why I’m sharing this story. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me because I was a loser for a few days. Just the opposite, I want to encourage the process in others. We all work so hard to construct our worlds, our networks, our daily schedules, so that we feel like we know what we’re doing. So that we fool ourselves into thinking that we have just the tiniest bit of control in an anarchic world. And sometimes, it’s really important to leave it all behind and remind ourselves how little we really comprehend.

Aside from feeling like a misfit, I did learn a tremendous amount from a ridiculously intelligent group of people. The short version is that I realized that in order to push myself further, I need to raise the ambition level of my projects. Audacious, absurd ideas lead to innovation, and I came home with some crazy new concepts in my back pocket. Collaboration is also huge right now, not surprisingly, as almost everyone who spoke was working in a team-based approach: artists linking up with scientists, environmentalists, and community organizers. Public gardens, soil testing centers, sewage treatment plants, even the Bay Bridge were all discussed as venues for and subjects of contemporary art.

Oh yeah, and I should probably mention that the general consensus was that Global Warming will kill us all. The drastic and irreversible effects of Climate Change were accepted as a given, and most of the projects were therefore discussed within a context of “How Can Art Save the World?” And of course, ever the cynical Gen-X’er, this is what gave me the hardest time. There we sat, a whole basket full of educated white people, well-ensconced in our modernist glass bubble, discussing how to save the world, 1% at a time. We’ve heard quite a bit about the 1% in the last few weeks, but I couldn’t help thinking that given the scope of the problem, why was nobody talking about engaging with the wider world outside the fishbowl? It was just so surreal to be in this air conditioned, insular micro-community in the middle of downtown Reno. New York or Paris might have made it a bit easier to swallow, but Reno? The conference had blocked a suite of rooms at a huge casino on the strip, so my weekend was divided between that museum world, and the overweight, depressing, recycled air universe inhabited by the all-you-can-eat-buffet loving, red-bull-and-vodka drinking citizens of the USA.

View from the altered landscape exhibition

Can you imagine? The seedy, down-scale, brothel-ads-on-the-top-of-taxi-cab type experience outside, elitist, global art-star scene on the inside. And never the two shall meet. Really, haven’t we all had enough of a world where the best art is never meant to be seen by 99% of the world’s population? That was what I felt was lacking through the weekend of high-minded discourse. Thus far, I think it’s fair to say that if artists have had a strategy of engaging the masses, (which I doubt,) then we’d have to declare the project an abject failure. Isn’t it time, I thought, for artists and thinkers to try to embrace new tactics, at the very least, to enlarge the tent? Especially in a room full of people who were dedicated to saving the world?

Chris Jordan, an artist that I greatly admire, was on hand as a part of the photography contingent. (Along with Subhankar Banarjee and the amazing Edward Burtynsky, whom I got to meet as well.) Mr. Jordan spoke repeatedly of his feelings of grief and panic in a world of bloated, incomprehensible over-consumption. He showed photographs, which have since been released, of Elephants with their faces hacked off for ivory, corpses rotting in the middle of a Kenyan game preserve. He also projected photos of the stomachs of dead baby birds on Midway Island, piles of un-digestable, non-biodegradable plastic. He spoke of not knowing how to communicate the depths of his despair in the proper fashion. I’ll be the first to say that as a human being, I was moved by his experience. The world needs courageous men and women to witness atrocity, to witness mindless destruction, to record moments for history, to bring the story back to the rest of us. It’s vital. I get it. But as art, I wonder if images that are so literal, that communicate only misery, can really engage people and motivate action? I’m sure that most of you might disagree with me, and to be clear, I’m not criticizing Mr. Jordan, who I’m sure is a saint of a guy. I’m just wondering why I didn’t hear more about how we, as artists, can use a variety of skill sets and methods to expand the reach of our work, to recruit new viewers, to communicate a message in a manner that will speak to more people, without dumbing down the art in the process. Because if the alternative is that, you know, billions of people die in the resource wars to come, then I think it might be time for us to get off our asses and try something new.

There were a few artists, namely Fritz Haeg, Leo Villareal, and Amy Franceschini who presented projects that don’t reside in galleries or museums. Mr. Haeg is famous for planting public and private gardens as art installations. He also produced an outdoor, nature-based exhibition for the 2008 Whitney Biennial that sat out on Madison Avenue. Ms. Franceschini has done some similar work with garden installations, if you can believe it, and also built a sculpture in Italy that she literally took from town to town, actively engaging the inhabitants of small villages in Abruzzo. Mr. Villareal, a New Mexico native based in NYC, has installed LED light sculptures on the outside of BAM in Brooklyn, MOMAPSI in Queens, at Burning Man, and has a project under consideration for the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. So while there may not have been an particular dialogue on the subject of breaking out of the white cube, several of the presenters, each of whom has succeeded at the highest levels of the art world, planted seeds in my mind about how to push things further.

View from the rooftop party

Finally, it wouldn’t be a travel story to a strange, surreal gambling mini-Mecca if I didn’t share at least one anecdote about the ironic absurdity. One of the reasons I love places like this, if you can avoid getting mugged, is that you get to experience the world as if you’re on mushrooms without having to deal with the horrible taste. So on my last evening, with nothing more than a few beers in my system, I was walking back to the hotel to call it a night. The sky glowed neon pink, the waters of the Truckee river shimmered with day-glo reflections. Then, right in front of me, rolling through an intersection, I saw a tinted-down, chromed-out black Denali, windows down, big dudes hanging out the windows, hip-hop blasting. I clicked the mental shutter. Then, immediately thereafter, I looked up and saw a denim-shirt and jeans wearing, worn-brown-leather boot stomping, big-old cowboy hat having, bushy-mustache sporting, craggly-faced cowboy walk right past me. Click. Then, and I swear I’m not making this up, the very next people to walk by were two 5 foot Asian guys holding a 4 foot pink plastic bong. Click. One, two, three, all in the span of 15 seconds. Thankfully, what happens in Reno stays in Reno, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

View from the strip

I left town on a Sunday morning, with the remnants of a truly awful $15 buffet in my mouth. While I know I’ve said some unpleasant and critical things in this article, I’ll stress here that the A+E Conference was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’ve probably made more photographs and had more crazy ideas in the last couple of weeks than in the 6 months prior to the event. My mind has yet to slow down, and, thankfully, my ego has already recovered.

The Dog Days of August – NYC Visit

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I visited New York City in early August. It took me 15 1/2 hours to get there. You read that correctly. That’s enough time for a New Yorker to have a cup of coffee from the bodega, catch a cab to La Guardia, and have a dinner of dolamdes in Istanbul. Or for a San Franciscan to wake up to a nice latte, BART down to SFO, and graze on sushi in Tokyo. It’s also enough time to watch an entire season of Breaking Bad, and then cook up a small batch of meth afterwards. In other words, I live in the boonies for real. (I’m actually writing this from a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.)

So this will be the story in which I drop in on the world’s biggest media empire, (My apologies, Herr Murdoch), do a 60 Minutes walk & talk style interview with the photo world’s preeminent Kickstarter expert, and finish up with a visit to the world’s most transgressive art exhibit. If that sounds a bit like a 21st Century Jewish guy’s version of an Odyssey, it certainly felt like one to me. It all began with the aforementioned insanely long travel day from Taos to Washington Heights. (My apologies…Hudson Heights.) I started the day listening to the ravens squawk before sunrise, and ended up in my cousin’s apartment above the GW bridge. Guest rooms being a rare commodity in New York, I crashed on a trundle bed below a bunk bed shared by a four year old and his seven year old brother. No, I’m not making that up. (Big ups to Nathan and Noah Burak. Thanks, guys.)

Regardless, I slept well, and woke up on a Tuesday excited to make my first visit to the New York Times. I understand that there’s an inherent name-dropping quality to these articles, and I do hope you don’t think the less of me for it. But there I was, at 11am on a not-so-opressively-hot early August morning, standing under the big gray lady’s corporate logo, wondering how it all came to pass. (Yes, I did take a photo of myself for my parents. Yes, I do know this makes me a huge dork.) I was there to meet with James Estrin, the photojournalist and editor of the Lens Blog. We’d met earlier in the summer in Santa Fe, and after I thanked him profusely for changing my life, we got to talking about our respective educational initiatives. Mr. Estrin, along with Adriana Teresa of Visura Magazine, recently started the Envision Foundation, which sponsors digital photography programs for teen-agers in locations around the world. (China, Haiti, the Bronx, and Mexico City.) Last year, I created a similar program to work with rural youth from the mountain communities of Taos County at the local UNM branch, so we found we had a lot in common. He invited me to partner my program with his, and there you have it.

I traveled back across the country to meet with Mr. Estrin to chat about photography, and get some of the details squared away. As we agreed to meet in the Times building, I was getting a chance to peek behind a very famous curtain. Of course, given that I always seem to manufacture a mishap on these adventures, I got in the wrong elevator. Turns out, in the fancier buildings of today, some elevators only go to certain floors. Who knew? But I sorted it out without any stress, and soon arrived on the 4th floor of the recently built Renzo Piano skyscraper. First impression: it is a beautiful building. Modern, with lots of steel and glass, but there are huge swaths of red everywhere. Mr. Piano is apparently involved in the interior design as well, and insisted upon the crimson invasion. I love it. One would imagine that a contemporary newsroom would contain oceans of gray, so the enforced color was a welcome touch.

It’s funny, but I’ve been a working artist for fifteen years. My career has been a slow-build, with lots of one step forward two steps back phases. But the last year, as many of you know, has had a bit of a wormhole feeling to it, so walking around the Times was totally surreal. I was aware that they weren’t going to kick me out or anything, but I had this sense of being a kid trailing his dad at take your child to work day. I tried to hide it a bit, but also thought that since it was authentic, I might as well go with it. Mr. Estrin kindly showed me around, and I got to meet and thank Kerri MacDonald, who wrote the Lens story that continues to bounce around the world. Everywhere I went, really smart, witty people were crashing into each other in impromptu meetings, discussing photographs and the state of the world. The place was massive, with the third and fourth floors open to each other, and the sound of fingers tapping away madly on Apple keyboards reminded me of an atonal Phillip Glass symphony. A far cry from the roosters and horses and magpies to which I’m accustomed.

Meetings are meetings, so I’ll spare you any further descriptions about what we were talking about. But I did have a one-of-a-kind-photo-geek moment that I’ve got to share. At some point, Mr. Estrin, who had briefly stepped away, came thundering around a corner and motioned for me to follow. As I emerged from his office, I saw a not large man holding court a few feet away. He was unremarkable, save for the fact that he had some shiny, metallic artificial legs. Joao Silva, in the flesh. When I was 12, I met Joe Montana on an airplane on the way to Superbowl XXI. When I was 19, I met Bruce Springsteen outside a waterfront restaurant where I was working at the Jersey Shore. In both cases, I felt like a bashful fanboy, basking in the glow of grandiosity. This was no different. I’m guessing almost all of you already know, but Mr. Silva is the Times journalist who was blown up by a land mine in Afghanistan, and continued to shoot pictures from the ground, whilst his legs were ripped off his body. So the awe I felt was understandable, but of course I had nothing interesting to say to him. Really, what do you say? “Mr. Silva, it’s a pleasure to meet you. You’re an inspiration,” or something like that, right? You try not to gawk at his legs, and fail. You try to be casual about the whole thing, and fail again. It was clear that he did not want to be ogled for his disability, and his matter-of-factness only made him seem tougher. A friend reminded him to sit, as to make it easier on himself, and he ignored the entreaty. One tough dude.

That was the highlight of my Tuesday, obviously, but I did see three albino triplets riding Razr scooters outside Rockefeller Center, so it wasn’t quite the landslide victory you’d imagine. And I finished the day at an Irish Happy hour joint in Midtown where my friend Adria and I wondered aloud if the bartender had earned her boob job back in tips yet. Adria, ever the cynical New Yorker, voted no. (I believe what she actually said was, “With that face, it’s no surprise she went for the boob job,” but I wouldn’t swear to it.)

My Wednesday was spent in Washington, as was previously chronicled, and I awoke on Thursday with a plan to visit the Ryan Trecartin show at MOMAPS1, followed by Boris Mikhailov at MOMA proper. As I lounged around, slowly packing my back for a trip to Jersey later in the day, I got a call from my friend and fellow photographer Manjari Sharma. We’d made plans to get together previously, but as I hadn’t heard from her yet, I assumed she’d gotten too busy. I told her what my plan was, and by the time we’d hung up the phone, we’d agreed to go see the Alexander McQueen show at the Met instead. (It was about to close, and since has.) Ms. Sharma is among the most persuasive, persistent people I’ve come across, which I find amusing and endearing, and of course she brought me around to her way of thinking. There’s a lot to be said, in this world, for not taking no for an answer.

So off I headed, rolling my newly purchased travel bag, for the trip from Hudson Heights to the Upper East Side. A train to a train to a bus, in case you were wondering. As I crossed Fifth Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum in sight, I realized that our plan was likely to change. There must have been a thousand people lined up outside, snaking up and down the block. I’ll say this for New Yorkers, they take “culture” seriously, and I commend them for it. But my day was not playing out according to plan. Does it ever?

Expect the unexpected. It’s the perfect, oxymoronic cliché for New York. Of course it’s impossible to follow the advice, but when I lived in Brooklyn, it was a daily mantra. That, and “It’s always something.” You’re late for a big meeting? Plan on the subway car stopping in a tunnel for no reason. You forgot your umbrella one day, for the first time ever? Well, then, you know a Noreaster is imminent. Have two bucks in your pocket for slice of pizza? Well, of course that’s the day they they raise the price to $2.25. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love New York. It was a bitch for me to live there, but I love the place. I just accept that the city is an entity, like Godzilla, and she’s always in charge.

Back at the Met, I decided that since Manjari texted that she’d be late, I might as well get in line and see what the future would hold. My travel suitcase was new, and just a bit too big to fit in the overhead compartment, but looks a lot like a backpack. So there I was, rolling it two feet at a time, slowly shuffling along with everyone else, starting to get a bit excited to see a show that people were this gaga about. Moving. slowly. moving. slowly. Mind wandering. The sky looks pretty today. Why do those kebab carts always smell great and taste like crap? When’s Manjari going to get here?

After 25 minutes, I was starting to settle in. Getting comfortable with the idea that things would work out. Whammo. An authoritative, blue suit wearing, security guard type guy, who looked like an aristocratic Jason Statham, was walking down the street, towards me, and I happened to notice him. Without breaking stride, he looked at me and said, “We won’t let you in with that suitcase,” and just kept going. That was it. You can’t come in. Too bad. So sad. I was stunned. Where was I supposed to put my bag? They have a coat and bag check, so what’s the problem? My bag was too big, I suppose. I stood there a moment, and then continued to shuffle along with the line. Maybe he was bluffing, I thought. Maybe I can charm my way in.

I was deep in thought, trying to figure out a solution, when someone said, “Hey you, are you trying to cut in line? Where did you come from?” It was loud enough that it shook me from my reverie, and when I looked up, I found that some bald, tight t-shirt wearing dude was talking to me. “Excuse me?” I replied. “Are you trying to cut in line? I didn’t see you here,” he followed. “Listen, jerk,” I said, “I’ve been in this line for 25 minutes. What are you talking about?” “Ok, sorry,” he said. “Don’t take it personal. Calm down.” Just curious, but at any point in human history, has the advice “Calm down,” ever worked? So I started to mutter to myself, and then turned around to give him one more dirty look. “I said, don’t take it personal,” he shouted, and that was enough. It was clear I would not be seeing the Alexander McQueen show on that day.

So I went over to the steps to sit down and wait for Manjari. I started to laugh about the whole expect the unexpected thing, and put my head down to take some notes. Not ninety seconds later, out of nowhere, the sound of a capella, Motown music shocked me out of my thoughts. I looked up, and not five feet in front of me, at eye level, was a five piece band, belting out some great, old school stuff. Right in front of my face. And they weren’t there when I sat down. That’s why I love New York.

Manjari arrived shortly, and it took quite a bit of explaining on my part before she accepted that I would not be getting in to the Met that day. We spoke with several other guards, because as I mentioned, she’s not the type to take no for an answer. One guard even suggested that I take the bag up the street to the Guggenheim, as they might have more lax luggage restrictions. But alas, the Guggenheim is closed on Thursdays. Finally, I convinced Manjari to accompany me to MOMA, where I’d hoped to go anyway, and where we could get some food and catch up before seeing the Boris Mikhailov exhibition.

And that is where I morphed into Steve Kroft, walking and talking my way thirty blocks South, rollerbag in tow, and interviewing Ms. Sharma about her insanely successful Kickstarter project that recently met it’s funding goal. Earlier in the morning, she’d asked me to look at her Kickstarter page, in the hope that we might chat about it. I was blown away. I’ve been preaching to a friend for quite some time about the moment when photographers started to marry their creativity, 5d Mark II cameras, and ubiqutious broadband connections into the proper primordial soup for the birth of easy video. And that time has now come.

Manjari had posted a terrifically slick and approachable promotional video, speaking directly to the Kickstarter audience, explaining what she was trying to achieve as an artist, and why she needed help. You must see it. At the time, she told me it was in the process of going viral, with publicity from CNN, Wired, and NPR. It was easy to understand why. The video includes exposition, footage of Manjari at work in Mumbai, some terrific animation, and even a digital rendering of what her work will look like huge on the wall of a major museum. She discusses her heritage and spirituality candidly, and asks the audience to support her vision of making work. Not to buy the prints once they’re done, as the model has been for so long, but to actually fund the creation of the work beforehand. Of course, grants and fellowships have been around forever too, but this was definitely something new. Kickstarter has funded countless projects by now, but the video was the key difference here. It was just so well done. Ten years ago, I can’t imagine what the budget would have been for a three minute promo piece such as this.

She talked quickly, as we navigated the potholes and construction barriers, and made it clear that she was certain her project would fund. It was still early in the process, but she’d seen a $3000 jump (give or take) in just the previous day or so, as the viral sensation took off. People around the world were spanking their credit cards, through Amazon of course, because they wanted to see what these proposed photographs would look like. (And also for a small reward, depending on the funding level.) Ms. Sharma, who moved to the US for college in Columbus, Ohio, was originally from India. At present, she is trying to recreate important Hindu dieties as large scale photographs based upon live models. The process requires huge crews, and also a hefty travel budget to get back and forth to Mumbai multiple times. So she asked the digi-verse to help her raise $20,000, and I’m happy to report that she succeeded.

As I said before, the video was the key, as was her frank explanation within it. Fortunately, her husband is an illustrator, and another friend did the video editing. So she saved a ton of money on the production that way. I mentioned to her that not everyone would have that luxury, and Manjari pointed out that we all have our own networks and inherent advantages, and we have to work with what we’ve got. So if you don’t know any animators, skip the animation. But the reality is that a 5d Mark II can make as nice a video as anything else out there, and including motion and sound changes the experience of consuming media on the web. (If you don’t belive me, check out the Jörg Colberg video about the death of photography that made the rounds earlier this summer.)

Eventually, we made it to the Museum of Modern Art. While Manjari tried to talk her way into getting an artist membership, (successfully, of course,) I found myself hoping that this museum would take in my tired, weary traveler’s bones. As I approached the coat check, my heart sank at a sign outlawing luggage such as mine. But I decided to take Manjari as an inspiration, and see if I could twist some arms. I walked up to the window of a beautiful, young, smiling African-American coatcheck attendant. She looked down at my bag and frowned. Before she could say no, I begged, “Please, help. I have nowhere to stash my bag, and just walked 30 blocks from the Met because they wouldn’t let me in. Please.” With that, she smiled again. “Really,” she said, “they wouldn’t let you in at the Met?” “Really,” I assured her. ” And that was that. She empathized, bent the rules, and I was a happy man.

We had a nice lunch, but I’ll spare you the details. It’s not a food blog, after all, and I am not Tony Bourdain. (Under no circumstances will I ever eat an animal’s testicles. Ever.) But by then, after the Times, DC, and the debacle uptown, I was pretty tired. So rather than get a whole tour of the museum, I decided to save my remaining brain cells for the Boris Mikhailov show, which I was dying to see.

Let’s be clear from the start. This is probably the most transgressive, offensive group of photographs I’ve ever seen. I can imagine, now, how it must have felt the first time people saw some of Mapplethorpe’s more graphic fisting images on the wall. This collection of photographs eviscerates some of the biggest taboos I can imagine, and I loved it. I was neither offended, nor shocked, and that says a lot about the world in which we’re living. But I’ve got to assume that many people have been and will be offended by these pictures, (and whatever I write about them,) so quit reading here if you’re that type of viewer.

The photographs were made in the Ukraine in 1997-8. Just picture it. Boris Yeltsin was still in power, and was probably chugging 3 quarts of vodka a day by then. Vlad Putin was lurking, probably practicing his “I crush your head” move like that guy from Kids in the Hall. All the assets of the Communist empire were being grabbed, groped and auctioned off to the most connected Oligarchs: a tidal wave of Capitalist greed, organized crime type power, and pent up demand for Western baubles. (If you think I’m kidding, look at how Brooklyn’s favorite Oligarch, Mikhail Prokorov made his wealth. From acid wash jeans to investment banking to owning a secret resource mine in Siberia in no time.) That’s the backdrop in which these photographs were made, in a perfectly bleak little former Soviet town in winter. Seriously, do they even have summer in Russia?

As to the images, let me try to describe the premise. (As usual, I didn’t read the wall text until afterwards, but it’s pretty easy to put it together.) Mr. Mikhailov made the acquaintance and earned the trust of a group of quasi-homeless people in a certain locale. He hung around them as they did their thing, got to know their stories, one would imagine, as they navigated the local park, and whatever divey little shelter anyone could afford. And then he messed around with this sorry group of junkies, drop outs, and lunatics, doing his best to create the most ridiculously offensive poses anyone could fathom. I can’t believe he got these people to do this stuff, without offering up some crack or meth, but let’s suppose it never came to that.

The exhibition consisted of 17 photographs, somewhere in the range of 8 feet tall, pinned naked to the wall. Some were shown individually, some in groups of two, and there was one 5 image panel as well. Together, they tell the story of a group of people living in the bleakest, poorest conditions imaginable, all the while some artsy photographer dude poses them like cranked out rag dolls in a dystopian present. Fat old ladies hold up their shirts and pull down their pants, pimples asses here and there, scars abound, and black eyes too, shirts up pants down everywhere, one crazy dude wields an axe, and everywhere are ugly naked body parts that you never thought you’d want to see. And you don’t want to see it, of course. It’s not pleasant. But it is brilliant, at least in this man’s opinion.

 

What’s that old saying, in the world of the blind the one-eyed man is king? Something like that, right? Well along those lines, art made about a chaotic, miserable, nihilistic violent time, made in a chaotic, miserable, nihilistic violent place cannot be both authentic and soft cuddly beautiful, right? If it’s going to capture the essence of something terrible, it kind of has to sink down into the muck to be relevant, right? Well, if you’ve answered yes to those questions, then go see this show before it closes on September 5th. And you’ll thank me.

If you answered no, but have a strong stomach, you should probably still go see this show. You just might not like it. Is is exploitative? Absolutely. Almost perfectly so. Is it degrading? Hell yes. But how different is it than the milliions of photos of pretty naked Eastern European girls that swim around the cyberweb each day. Not to mention the countless girls from this region that are sold into sexual slavery. And that’s today. These photos were made almost 15 years ago, which in my book makes them prescient.

As I was looking, again, it was easy to see that these photos were not straight documents. The poses were often classical, which does not happen by accident. And the use of color was fantastic. Often in the form of a plastic bag placed just so. Or in the repeating theme of “red eye,” which here brings in color and the reference to the snapshot aesthetic at the same time. Amazing.

Ultimately, what I most appreciated was the gaze of the subjects into the camera. The look that they gave Mikhailov, and by extension, me, the viewer. It was clear, I thought. “What, you want my dignity? Here. Take it. I don’t need it anyway. It’s worthless to me. What, you think you can humiliate me? Impossible. It can’t be done. Because there is a sea of cold infinity at my core, and it’s stronger than your camera, or my purported government, or even the paint thinner that I huffed this morning. Fuck you.”

And that was that. I tried to look at the permanent installation show, but my mind was shot. So I reclaimed my bag from the saint of a girl downstairs, and headed out into the innocent madness of the City. Off to Penn Station, rolling along, and then a train to New Jersey, chugging along, for a nice evening with my nice relatives. Who never, not for a moment, suspected I had such twisted, horrific photographs backstroking through my brain.

Library of Congress Visit

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I visited Washington, DC earlier this month to drop off a portfolio of my photo project, “The Value of a Dolllar,” at the Library of Congress. They acquired it a couple of months ago, and due to a busy schedule and some production difficulties, (inks dry up like mad in New Mexico’s 10% humidity), I hadn’t gotten the work to them yet. As it happened, by the time I was ready to drop it off with the local Taos fedex guys, I’d already booked a short trip back to NYC for some meetings. I was planning to spend one day at the Jersey Shore with my family, playing mini-golf and ogling the hotties, but I realized that if I shifted things around, I could take the train down to DC to deliver the work in person. Good call.

I hopped on a morning Amtrak from Penn Station in early August, well-caffeinated, and watched the I-95 corridor fly by while I worked on my laptop. Lots of trees, in case you were wondering. It was a breeze of a trip, and all was well until I hopped into a cab in the warm drizzle outside DC’s Union Station. I figured all I had do was say, “Library of Congress, please,” like some character in a John Grisham flick. Maybe the cabbie’s name would be Smitty. Then, the acerbic, stogie-smoking driver, would say, “You got it, Mister. We’ll be there in a jiffy, ” and off we would go. What he said in real life was, “Which building?” I stammered, “Are you joking?,” looked around for the hidden camera, slowly realized he was serious, then fumbled around my bag for anything resembling a specific address. Awesome. Ultimately, we figured it out, but not before I ended up looking like a complete tool.

I made it to the Madison Building in time, barely, and found myself face to face with a metal detector and a sign that said PLACE ALL BELONGINGS IN THE GRAY TUB. Looking around, ever the observant photographer, I saw no grey tubs. When I asked the security guard about it, he laughed at my naiveté, and said, “We don’t have those anymore.” Oh. Right. Because America’s broke. Sure. So I hopped in an elevator to the third floor, and began the long march to the Prints and Photographs division. I’d been hauling the portfolio box, by hand, from Taos to Albuquerque to Houston to Newark to New York to DC, so by that point, I just wanted the freaking thing out of my possession. But this being a public building, and a monumentally huge one at that, the halls just kept going. And going. All that florescent lighting. Makes me sleepy just thinking about it.

Thankfully, I arrived on time, and after the gruff lady at the front desk called back to the office, I was assured they’d take the portfolio off my hands in a few minutes. I was there to meet with Verna Curtis, the curator who led the acquisition team. While waiting, I peeked around a bit, and was surprised to find that it looks and functions kind of like…a library. Big shock, right? For those of you who don’t know, the entire collection is accessible to the public. There are rules, of course, but if followed, anyone can come in and “check out” vintage or contemporary prints from the collection, for research, or the simple pleasure of looking. Unlike a museum, which puts work on the wall for the masses, or tucks it away in the archives forever, this is a totally different viewing experience. Designed to be personal. Kind of refreshing.

Ms. Curtis arrived shortly, and led me back to the Vault. I dropped the box down theatrically, glad it was no longer mine to obsess about. Of course, there was a big bucket of white gloves right there, this being an archive, so I showed her the prints, along with her colleague Carol Johnson. Afterwards, I felt a surge of relief when Ms Curtis wheeled the box away in a pushcart. Forever. Business complete, I turned to a stack of photographs on the table. Ms. Curtis, Ms. Johnson, and another colleague, Beverly Brannan, had chosen a few pieces from the collection they thought I might like to see. Very thoughtful. As we began discussing the prints, and the collection in general, I started to take a bunch of notes, and before I knew it, we were doing an impromptu interview for you, the APE audience. Perhaps they’ll make a real journalist of me yet.

Together, the three curators enlightened me about how the institution works. I was honest, and admitted that despite the honor of now being included in the collection, I was kind of ignorant as to it’s mission and function. It seemed the better course than trying to fake it with in a room full of experts. They graciously explained that the collection began as Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, which was given to Congress in 1802. (Way to go, T-Jeff.) The original building was torched by the British in the War of 1812, and a new building was erected in 1898. (Hence the Jefferson building, right across the street)

So the Library was given to Congress, which is responsible for funding, and it has a mission to serve the members of Congress as well. The ladies explained that their goal, as curators, is to identify pressing political and social issues within American culture, almost like cultural anthropologists, and then to collect artwork that reflects those issues. I’m not sure any other curatorial team has the same mandate. At first, the work represents the Zeitgeist of the present, and then it slowly seeps into history. They said that in the late 80’s/early 90’s, they collected work about AIDS, and then of course 9/11 as well. In order to acquire my project, they first had to agree that food was a subject worthy of attention. Body issues, which they described as relating to obesity, aging, youth, Anorexia and Bulimia, is another issue that is currently the focus of collection.

Ms Curtis explained that beyond the grand topic, they seek work that delivers “subject, content and execution.” They’re interested in photographs that, “are not entirely illustrative and documentary, but have artistic merit as well…where the subject is key to our time.” It was also explained that members of Congress are meant to come by to look at work to help them get a better understanding of particular issues. Which sounds pretty cool in theory. But when I mentioned that to my friend Andreas at lunch, he laughed and conjured the visual of Mitch McConnell taking a break out of his busy day to look at some… Ah-rt. I do love me some, Ah-rt. Especially them velvet Elvises. Well played, Andreas.

Back to the Vault. The curators had brought out three groups of work for me to see. The first, by an artist Robert Coppola, was a series of small-scale injket prints of tobacco farms in Connecticut that were presented in a cigar box. It was a one of a kind object, and had a poetic feel to it. We also looked at a few gorgeous gelatin silver prints by Graciela Iturbide, which were a gift from the Mexican government back in 1998. Iturbe’s prints were striking, in a high-contrast, agressive sort of way. One image, which I’d seen reproduced before, was of an Indigenous woman tearing apart an animal in a market, a knife stuck between her teeth. Another, which I really loved, depicted an Indigenous woman, seen from behind, walking alone through the low mountains of the Sonoran desert, holding a Boom Box. Awesome. Fab Five Freddy would be proud. The entire scene looked like it could have taken place three hundred years ago, save for that one fantastic temporal reference.

The curators also mentioned that they believe it’s important for the Library of Congress to be relevant in the 21st Century. Many people see it as a dusty part of history, I was told, which is not a fair assessment of the living, evolving institution. They pointed out that the LoC was the first major archive to have a Flickr page, and that countless historical images have been tagged by the populace, crowd-sourcing elements of American history. They also have the entire 170,000 FSA archive accessible online, as they started the scanning process 15 years ago. They’re currently working with a new group of photographers and writers, Facing Change, to create a contemporary version of the FSA collection.

We finished up our visit looking at a few newly-acquired prints by Jen Davis, who uses herself as a subject of self-portraiture. I’ll be as careful as a I can with my language here, as Ms. Davis is a larger woman who uses her self-portraiture as a way of looking at the aforementioned “Body Issues.” It would be condescending to call the photographs brave, but clearly we’re not used to seeing self-portraits of people who look like Ms. Davis. If I had a dollar for every 20-something cutie that takes naked pictures of herself, I’d buy lunch for everyone reading this. But of course that’s the point. Since she’s an intelligent and talented artist, Ms. Davis is capable of making images that are delicate and subtle as they plumb a variety of themes related to being big in a world obsessed with unrealistic visions of retouched beauty. (I think everyone can relate. I certainly felt self-conscious on the beach in SoCal last month next to all those bronzed, slab-shouldered surfers with hair like Farrah Fawcett. Yes, I mean the guys…)

In one photo, Ms. Davis is at the beach with some friends, well-covered, sitting on a beach towel with an attractive friend in a bikini. Uncomfortable. In another, she’s in line, her back turned, at a hamburger stand at a State Fair or carnival. Corndog, anyone? Churro? Finally, I saw a print of Ms. Davis, slightly turned away, eating a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream, like a secret, shameful midnight snack. All the prints were about 20×30, and powerful at scale. Anyone who’s read my previous articles knows I can be liberal with criticism, and prone to verbosity, but this work is hard to talk about. And given that the issues themselves are difficult to discuss in a country with an Obesity and Diabetes epidemic, I think Ms. Davis’ work succeeds on both the literal and metaphorical level. Great stuff.

From there, I took my leave, and trundled down the eternally long hallway to the exit. I stopped to give a shout out to the statue of James Madison, (What up, J-Mad? How YOU doin’?) read a few of his inspirational quotes on the wall, and then headed out into the city. I hadn’t been to this part of DC since I was a child, so it was like visiting for the first time. Lots of big white Classical buildings with ornate sculptures on top, and plenty of quotes incised on the structures as well. Some serious early 19th Century power architecture. I can see the thought process. Hey guys, let’s build a bunch of big, expensive buildings like the Greeks and Romans did, and people will know we’re a real country. Kind of like the Chinese are doing today with the Shanghai skyline. Expect now it’s the future, man.

I walked across the Mall, basically a long, narrow park with duck pond, and headed up the street to the National Gallery of Art, where I spent the rest of my day. I’ve gone on record, several times, discussing how much I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Hard as it is for me to fathom, the National Gallery is pretty close to it’s equal. And it’s free. That’s right. Free. You walk in, let the dude at the front look into your purse (or manbag), and then he says “Have a nice day.” That’s it. No money changes hands. How cool is that? Better check it out soon, as our broke-as-a-joke status as a nation will probably mean they start charging for this stuff any day now. As to the art, it’s indescribably good. (Yeah, tough adjective from a guy who’s trying to describe things.)

First thing to share: the museum is huge. Two-separate-buildings-with-an-underground-tunnel-in-between kind of huge. It’s the sort of place where you stare at the map for a few minutes, then say “Fuck it” and just wander around. So rather than trying to share my non-linear, Pacman like wanderings, I’ll just give some highlights. And there were many, as the collection of work on display here is truly remarkable. All you East Coast peoples, pay attention. Take a day and go visit. As long as your Amtrak doesn’t break down, which of course mine did on the way home, (more later) it will be an easy day, well worth it.

After spending time with some Rembrandts, because he’s the Man, I wandered into the German Renaissance section. I’ve seen a lot of art in my day, in many of the world’s best museums, but I hadn’t seen this before. The 16th Century portraits of probably-important-in-their-day German people were fantastic. I saw one, “Portrait of a Woman,” by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1522) that looked just like a Hellen Van Meene photo I’d seen at MOPA in San Diego last month. Head slightly turned, with an intense green background and strong shadow contrasting with her shocking red hair, it was so modern. Lifelike too. Accompanied by the equally creatively titled “Portrait of a Man,” it definitely gave me new perspective on the contemporary German portrait style. Many of the paintings I saw from that era, in fact, appeared to be the root of the stone-faced, unemotional, sharp and dry style made famous by Thomas Ruff. (BTW, I recently saw a Thomas Struth portrait of Gerhard Richter, also at MOPA, that was so self-serious I laughed out loud. We want the money, Lebowski.) Looking at portraits by Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein, I noted that if one simply changed out the clothing, the German sitters could be straight out of the 21st C.

Downstairs, I stumbled upon the innocuously titled “Chester Dale” Collection. Wow. I’m excited just reading that. Wait, who? Sarcasm aside, the man knew what he was buying. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better grouping of late 19th Century/Early 20th Century European Painting. Picasso, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Braque, Renoir, Modigliani, Cézanne, Matisse, Touluse-Lautrec, Corot…and more. A diptych of Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral,” from 1894 was mesmerizing, and ought to be required viewing for every photographer. The manner in which light leads to color, and color to expressionism was laid out like a cheat sheet in a pop-quiz. Obvious but enlightening. Not to mention beautiful.

Picasso, as is often the case, was the standout. I saw two paintings, “The Lovers,” and “Classical Head,” from 1923 and 1922, respectively, that were in an almost-earnest, super classical style that I’d not seen from him before. And “Two Youths,” from 1906, featured two naked boys, around 10 years old, rendered in pale pastel orange hues. It was beautiful and haunting, and made me question some of the things I wrote about Jock Sturges last year. Not that I’m a flip-flopper, heaven forbid, but I did ask myself why it was OK for Picasso to work with such subjects, but not JS.

Soon enough, in another part of the museum, I found myself in a room with a sequence of 19th Century Gilbert Stuart portraits of the First five Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison & Monroe. (Old white men, of course) Basking in their aura of power, I thought: this is their town. I’m just visiting. They lived and breathed, they created this country, and now I’m walking around, enjoying the multi-billion dollar art collection that sprung up in their name. That was one thing I enjoyed about DC, the sense that the history of the US is alive, and that the future has not yet been written. (Perhaps I’m overly optimistic on that one.) Wherever you go, you see frumpy, serious looking people in power ties and pant suits, rushing off to solve one problem or another.

After passing the underground waterfall in the tunnel between the buildings, I found myself in the Modern wing. As you can imagine, my brain was pretty well pickled by then, but I did wander through a thorough and well curated collection of late 20th Century painting and sculpture. (No photos in sight. But the Jasper Johns Target painting and Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” are dynamite.) I didn’t see a single photograph until the end of my visit, if you can believe it. A Lewis Baltz show had just closed, and there were no photographs mixed in with any of the gallery installations I saw, until I found a tiny room off in a corner that had two Friedlanders and a Robert Cumming. I went from not remembering who Cumming was to being a big fan in a couple of weeks, after seeing his work in LA too. The show was about the alphabet, like the curators were watching too much Sesame Street, but as they were the only photographs I could find, I wasn’t going to be too picky.

Nam June Paik, considered the Godfather of video art, had a video exhibition tucked away in the top floor Tower. Given that so many photographers are now nascent video artists, this is a show to see. One piece, called “Three eggs,” 1975-82, had an old school video camera trained on a white egg, then an old, low-res video monitor of the video feed of the egg in real time, and then a real egg sitting on black velvet inside the same type of monitor that had the glass popped out. Penetrating and quiet, it was the epitome of 20th C Zen. The whole room, which had 30 foot ceilings, also had multiple, manipulated versions of a video feed of a candle, flickering huge. At first I thought it was kind of boring, but as I was leaving, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a real candle, on a stand, with a video camera trained on it. I doubled back, and saw that the set up was the basis of all the images around me. Lots of visual noise, all stemming from the silent, lonely candle, slowly melting away. Genius. I asked the security guard how often they change out the candle, and he said every day. Every day, someone lights a new candle and lets it burn itself down, in front of no one’s eye but the camera. (I also asked the guard his opinion of the piece. “It’s OK for me.”)

From there, I headed out into the DC drizzle and haze, and walked back around the Capitol building to Union Station for an evening train to NYC. Thoroughly exhausted, I lined up at the gate behind some tow-headed doofus from the Huntsman campaign who wouldn’t stop chattering into his Blackberry while finger-dancing on his Ipad. Soon enough, the train departed, and I was on my way North, ready to sign up as Amtrak’s Number 1 Fan. Until the power went dead as we sat in Baltimore’s Downtown train station. Dead as in dead. As in, not working, not planning to work, figure something else out. I happened to notice, on my way South earlier in the day, that the train tracks cut right through the boarded up B-more neighborhoods so grittly depicted in “The Wire.” So close you could touch them. And they look even bleaker in real life, if you can believe it. So I was not particularly happy about being stuck in downtown Baltimore for the night. But these things have a way of working themselves out, and my train companions and soon I bum-rushed the next Acela high speed number. I even got a seat and free Wi-f, and was back in NYC in no time. I saw some great work there too, of course, but that’s another story for a different day.

LA Gallery Visit Part 2: The West Side

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha,” the parking attendant said. “Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha?,” I repeated. (Turn right at 17th Street.) “Si,” he said. I drove away, contemplating whether I ought to listen to him, or try to find the highway on my own. Given all the times I’ve shanked myself driving around LA, I decided to trust him. Good call. I found I-10 in no time, and was soon cruising West towards Culver City.

Much like Chelsea used to be a dumpy, non-descript neighborhood before the Art world gentrified it, (bringing gobs of money and Frank Gehry frosted glass buildings,) the Culver City arts district popped up in a random concrete block in the last decade, and hung on for dear life. Wedged between Venice and Washington Boulevards, right off the highway offramp, the Culver City corridor mainly consists of one long block on South La Cienega, and a few places that spread off the corners. There must be 20 galleries there by now, and it’s easy to see a lot of art in a short span of time. Normally.

I say normally, because when I visited a few weeks back, most of the neighborhood was closed for installation. Gallery after gallery had makeshift signs in the door, casually letting me know that I was not welcome while they were hanging their new shows. Not uncommon, I understand, but unfortunately, they’d all scheduled the new openings for Saturday July 16th, smack dab in the middle of the impending “Carmageddon.” I’d been warned about it weeks in advance, and actually chose to visit on that very Thursday to avoid the chaos, bloodshed, and misery that “Carmageddon” was supposed to provide. (Hell was predicted to reign down on the West Side while a stretch of the 405 was closed for construction.) So when I saw that the art dealers had collectively chosen that very weekend to re-open to the world? I was not impressed. Like, yeah, you know, we’re having an opening, and yeah, it’s cool if you come, I guess, but we really don’t care, because we don’t sell work to you at the opening anyway.

As it happened, a few galleriests managed to get their homework done a couple of days early, and were in fact, open for business. I started at Cherry and Martin, which wasn’t there last time I visited. (Like Chinatown, there’s been tremendous turnover in the last few years.) They were showing three artists together, including a few 1970’s black and white prints by the conceptualist Robert Cumming. I remembered his name, and the vague certainty he was important, from the Contemporary Photo history class I took with Tom Barrow back at UNM. FYI, that was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Prof Tom knew so many of the photographers personally that some lectures took on an almost-boozy, you had to be there vibe that was totally addictive. Like Austin Powers with better teeth. Yeah baby. Everyone was throwing crazy, groovy key parties in the darkroom, Man, huffing fixer and chasing it down with qualudes, Man. Can you dig it? (Of course, none of that is actually true, but ought to convey the feeling of sitting in the audience.)

But I digress. Back to Mr. Cumming. His photographs were terrific, and leapt off the wall. I recall three in particular. The first was a diptych of a the torso of a naked body with a leaf covering the privates, holding a flute. In the second image, all was the same, except the torso was holding hands with a woman. It made me think of those Scholastic Magazine puzzles I used to see at the doctor’s office when I was a kid. The diptych was surreal in a groovy way. Just weird enough to be awesome. Another Cumming photo had different font versions of the letter A, and also managed to strike the right balance of oddity. Finally, they displayed a photograph that was one of the best I saw all day, “Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA”. An image of a backyard alleyway that had been slightly decorated, with a deck chair and lamps posed just so, with a projection of a palm tree at the back of the composition. It was like a crime scene meets a back lot in Burbank meets Jeff Spicoli’s perfect spot to smoke a joint. I think I could have stared at it forever, as it had that parallel universe mood that is almost impossible to achieve.

Robert Cumming Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA

Kopeikin Gallery, a peripatetic LA institution, moved into one of the best spaces on the block recently. And not only was Mr. Kopeikin’s gallery open, (despite a scheduled Saturday opening,) but the man himself was arranging number pins to coordinate with the press release when I arrived. We ended up striking up a conversation, and he gave me a gracious tour of the place. I was really happy for the LA photography community, because this new gallery is an impressive place to view photos. Three pretty, interconnected rooms that grow in size: small to medium to large. I’m not saying I loved all the work, because I didn’t, but having a super-high-grade exhibition venue in the middle of a humping art scene is a good thing in and of itself.

As to the art, it was a mixed bag. The small gallery had an exhibit of Mr. Kopeikin’s personal collection of vernacular photos that he’s acquired at flea markets over the last ten years. Great. If seven year old kids can make interesting photographs nowadays, I see no reason why anonymous hobbyists fifty years ago couldn’t do the same. And they did. The group was well curated, and had a distinct 1950’s West Coast Americana vibe to it, with burger flippers, convertibles, & cowgirls. Random puffy faced white dudes, trapped in time.

The middle gallery had an exhibit by Kahn & Selesnick. The pictures consisted of digitally manipulated alien type people on Mars. Apparently, the pair had partnered with NASA, and the backdrops were in fact taken by the Mars rover. Interesting detail, but I didn’t care for the photographs. They were kind of cool, I suppose, but felt like a more highbrow version of a Michael Bay movie.

Finally, in the biggest space, there was a two-person show of work from Cuba, featuring Simone Leuck and Jeffrey Millstein, representing interiors and exteriors respectively. Ms. Leuck’s work, which is called “Cuba TV,” featured tight, detail-style images from the interiors of Cuban homes, all with a glowing television somewhere in the frame. Repeating a symbol like that can be tricky, as it can sometimes seem like a crutch, but it worked well here, creating just enough distance from straight up documentary photographs to make the group fresh. The repetition also highlighted the differences, not unlike the Warhol Soup Cans, and brought my attention to the little things that make up someone’s private space in a poor place, like plastic flowers, little dolls, and pictures on the wall. I actually saw the other day in the NY Times that Cubans are only just now being allowed to own their own homes, so all the photos I saw were of people’s attempts to personalize spaces that did not, in fact, belong to them. Strong work, overall.

Mr. Millstein is well-known for his ongoing series of images of airplanes, shot from below, in an identical Becher-style composition. So this exhibition was a departure from what I’d seen from him before, but not from what I’d seen from others. The exterior, large-scale, supersharp images of peeling paint on decrepit architecture were about as cliché as I can imagine. I don’t enjoy writing such things, because I’m actually not an asshole, despite appearances to the contrary. One photograph, which was installed by itself on a separate wall was pretty awesome, and made me wonder why Mr. Millstein hadn’t pushed himself further. It featured a building, with some people on the sidewalk in front. Up on top, there was a billboard with a succession of politicians’ faces. The portraits of the men were illustrated in black and white, and the sign said “Volveran,” which means they will return. (I guess there’s not much surprise in the electoral process.) All but one of the men had these thick, ridiculously awesome, Pancho Villa-style moustaches. It looked like a Looney Tunes mugshot, minus Yosemite Sam. Truly remarkable photograph, which went a long way towards redeeming the show.

My final stop in Culver City was at Western Projects, for a series of hand-drawn, photo-realistic portraits of thug-life-vatos and other hard-looking dudes. The LA-based artist, Patrick Lee, met the men on the street and took their photographs, on which the graphite drawings were based. In a couple of the images, the subjects, neck tats and all, were staring right into the camera, so the viewer could look right back. As most of you know, I’m sure, in real life, you probably wouldn’t want to stare directly into one of these guys eyes. (Unless you’re a fan of getting your ass kicked.) So the drawings functioned in a way that society can’t. They allowed the viewer to contemplate and objectify the subjects, but as the commodification of gang culture and poverty is a billion dollar business these days, the phenomenon becomes a part of the metaphor. And though I’m proud to be a trigger-jockey, these portraits were definitely more engaging as drawings, which I was told take three months to create. The craftsmanship, and I suppose a bit of magic, held me in front of each piece well beyond what I would have offered up to a straight photo. Especially as the faces were surrounded by the naked paper, in lieu of the neutral backdrop one would likely see in a photographic portrait.

Patrick Lee courtesy of Western Project

Done with Culver City, I hopped back on the 10, and drove a few miles West to Bergamot Station, a self-contained arts complex on the outskirts of Santa Monica. (Which is the part of town that you’d probably live in if money was no object. On the beach, postcard pretty, sun shining, that sort of thing.) I would not suggest the art is better here than in New York, because it’s not. But I owe it to you to mention that Bergamot Station is filled with purple flowers and palm trees, cool ocean breezes and eco-friendly hybrid UPS trucks. Very cush.

First stop, Berman Projects, which was technically closed for installation, but happily let me in when I said I was in town to review some shows. Nice people. They were showing a group exhibition curated by the actress Angela Featherstone, who’s one of those people you’ve never heard of, but recognize the headshot on IMDB. The photos tracked the life cycle of Woman, or so I was told, and represented a mixed-bag of quality. Catherine Opie had a cool photo of a laundry room from a married lesbian couple, and Tierney Gearon was showing a few images of naked preggos, including a dynamite photograph of two nude pregnant married ladies kissing, But the outright standout was a photograph by Gillian Laub called “Mom and Dad with Harriet the Wedding Planner, New York, 2008.” Rarely have I seen a photograph that so clearly could stand alone, without any text or the support of a complete project. (Though I’ll admit the title doesn’t hurt.) Somewhere, in the depths of my dreams, I know I’ll have nightmares of Harriet staring down at me, wickedly extracting a tooth, while she whistles “Sympathy for the Devil,” and lets loose with the throaty, smoker’s laugh she no doubt possesses. Ms. Laub, if you’re reading this, kudos.

Gillian Laub

On to Patrick Painter, for a show by Bas Jan Ader, the second artist of the day I remembered hearing about in Tom Barrow’s class. He was a strange, Scandanavian dude who disappeared at sea in 1975. Well, you don’t hear that every day. First observation was that there were probably ten photographs in a huge warehouse space with 20ft ceilings. It was the perfect contrast to the way MOCA had disrespected “The Americans,” and I made it a point to give props to the gallerina as such. The photographs hit the mark, like Robert Cumming, between outright surreality and the subtler, more Japanese, Murakami-style version. Perfectly weird and absurd, like the triptych of the artist holding a hand-saw standing in front of a band-saw, the artist sawing the hand-saw on the band-saw, then the artist holding up the sawed in half hand-saw. His other pieces, seemingly disconnected, like the artist falling from a tree like Yves Klein, and a black hooded guy on a baseball field, were also great. One can only hope he’s secretly living in Fiji, his royalties funneled through a dummy corporation in the Caymans.

Next: Frank Pictures, for my guilty pleasure of the day. Joe Aker, apparently a famous architectural photographer, had shot details of Gaudi and Gehry buildings, and printed the photos directly onto aluminum. My first thought was cheesy, but I stuck around for a few minutes, and slowly began to love these things. Most of the images were in varying and subtle shades of ochre, and they shimmered like holograms. They didn’t mean anything, per se, beyond the architect/artists’ original intent, which normally bugs me. But these things were just so beautiful, that I began to covet. Jonny want photograph. Jonny need photograph. Feed me.

Then: Joachim Brohm’s “Ohio,” at Gallery Luisotti. He’s German, despite the name, and the dry-style proved it. Like many of his colleagues, he was heavily influenced by Stephen Shore, and it showed. These photos were made in Columbus, Ohio, during the early 80’s. Much as I love real innovation, which these images lacked, they were so well-seen and made that I began to love them. It was a day of the random perfect image (Cumming, Laub) and Brohm busted one out too. A car on fire in an alleyway. Muy bien, Señor Brohm. But a few others were incredibly resonant of place and time too, like a view of a silver Gremlin from above, in an alleyway, or a handful of firemen walking into a house in red, super-short 80’s short-shorts. (Yes, I had some too.) Great use of color, great time-warp experience.

Joachim Brohm

Finally, finally, (Yes, it’s long for me too) I ended the day at Peter Fetterman, who was showing some classic, feel good favorites from Elliot Erwitt, and some classic feel-bad favorites from Sebastao Salgado. Rather than risk a Fatwa for criticizing two such-loved legends, I’ll finish up by saying that the work didn’t speak to me. Erwitt’s sweet, playful, romantic, nostalgic sensibility seemed out of time in these stressful, difficult, globalized 21st Century years. But they were made in a different era, when everything was looking up, and of course they’re great. They just didn’t move me. Same with Mr. Salgado’s work, with high-contrast black and white visions of India, Africa, and Antarctica. I wondered whether I was evil for not liking the images, but they seemed a bit too generic, like 3rd World Travel Porn, and that was that. He did have one image, super large, of an Algerian man in the foreground of some immense sand dunes that receded into the distance, and while it didn’t do it for me, I was sure that for the many photo lovers who crave the perfect “shot,” it would have been a perfect 10. El Diez, otra vez.

LA Gallery Visit Part 1: The East Side

by Jonathan Blaustein

It wouldn’t be a story about LA if I didn’t bitch about the traffic, so let’s get it done right now and move along. I was headed up Highway 5 from a vacation getaway in a cute little beach town down the coast. Off hours, no drama, until I hit the LA County line. As soon as I crossed over from Orange County (nicknamed the Orange Curtain, I now know) it was as if I drove into a pile of mud. Stop and go, snarled, miserable, bumper to bumper traffic, all the way into Los Angeles. And of course I had to pee. Badly. Really, there are so few things I hate more than being stuck on the Freeway when I have to go. And then some old-school, straight-out-of-Long Beach Snoop Dogg came on the radio while I was trapped under an overpass. I started to laugh, because sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in Hollywood cliché, and it’s just not worth fighting it.

Regardless, I clamped down as hard as I could and hopped off the 110 in downtown LA for my little tour of the East Side. (The article on the West side will follow shortly.) Let’s be clear, it’s insane to think that one can cover all of LA as a scene, so I didn’t try. I went to see as much as I could, and accepted that much would be left out. That said, I saw a lot.

I started out in Chinatown, which is home to a dozen or so galleries, mixed in among the restaurants, fish stores, and shops selling cheap crap from the Motherland. It sprang up as a home to the contemporary gallery scene a while back, and seems to have held on through the economic chaos. I was last there in 2008, and it was definitely a bleaker place now. Several galleries have gone out of business, and one spot that I’d visited in the past now had some old people playing Mah Jong inside. The homeless quotient was also way up from three years ago, which wasn’t a surprise.

I started out at Sam Lee gallery, on the edge of the neighborhood, right across the street from a highway off-ramp. Sam was showing the work of two different California photographers, mixed up around the room. The first were large scale, razor sharp images by Rebecca Sittler. Whenever possible, I like to look at work without knowing anything about it so I can read the images for all they’ve got. Ms. Sittler’s photographs were of interior scenes, tackily decorated. The first had an eye-catching textural combination of red curtains, trippy carpeting, a wall and a window drape. Another had two beds with a phone in between. There was an image of a heavy, frayed rope on carpet against an angled metal wall, a photo of a roped-off painting with a chair, and also a shiny wood railing in a fancy room.

 

Taken together, I thought I was looking at the inside of a cruise ship. They were devoid of people, and felt lonely. They spoke of an almost Love Boat, 70’s style- cruise culture, where everybody had suddenly disappeared, like the Rapture. Sure enough, I went to look at the press release, and found that Ms. Sittler’s images were made on the decommissioned RMS Queen Mary that sits in the harbor at Long Beach. (Again with the LBC) It’s impressive that she was able to communicate both the setting and the mood without any text or obvious details. Terrific work. As to why this symbol, and why now? A decommissioned behemoth who’s best days are behind it? A musty style that’s trapped in the past.? A lonely relic of the Cold War heyday? Yeah, I get it.

Adam Thorman’s images, on the other hand, were medium-scale photographs of the California Coast, shot in the detail style, from directly above. Tide pools, moss, rocks, that sort of thing. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Coast in my day, and these looked like spots around Point Lobos, or somewhere south of San Francisco. I often wonder why artists try to capture the essence of Nature, without attempting to communicate scale or sound. Zen has it’s place, but requires a depth of perception that was lacking here. Having seen the real thing, I felt like Mr. Thorman’s photos were far less impressive than the original, and not that interesting.

I walked back to Chung King road, which houses several galleries in a row. They had completely turned over since my last visit, and there were fewer spaces in business as well. I began at Charlie James, which was showing work by Carol Selter, also from California. (Now that I think about it, I’m sure that most of the work I saw that day was local.) Ms. Selter was showing a project, “Animal Stories,” that included photographs, sculpture, and video. Her images contained taxidermy animals that she had returned to nature, then photographed. Birds in particular, and also amphibious creatures trapped in little vitrines.  One image depicted a song bird, held by string up to the mouth of a flower.

Damien Hirst references aside, the photographs were compelling. The videos featured the same squirrels, turtles, and a variety of animals talking to each other, bitching about global warming in funny voices. I enjoyed the absurdity, but it didn’t really improve on the message from the photographs. Definite thumbs up, overall.

Next stop was The Box, for a collaborative exhibition by Sara Conaway and Lisa Williamson. Ms. Conaway’s photos were mixed among painting and sculpture, and had a distinctive, airy LA vibe to them. The images were minimal, color-drained photos of 3d objects like wire, cut paper, styrofoam, and cloth. Very sculptural. One exception was a photo with red cloth against an intense yellow background. It reminded me of a de-contextualized, de-politicized “Piss Christ.” I left thinking that everything would look great on a big wall in a big house owned by a big Hollywood production executive. But I’m not about to criticize them for being beautiful, especially as they didn’t look just like everything else out there.

Pepin Moore, right down the alley (Chung King Road is a pedestrian only affair) had a group show curated by LA art star Soo Kim. The exhibition was titled “US EST,” but that didn’t really inform anything. It was a melange of seemingly disconnected work, with a heavy hand from photoshop, and a definite nod to the natural world. (The Earth and sky in particular.) Hannah Whitaker had two multiple image panels in the show: one contained four phases of the moon (boring), and the other was of a white girl in a blue costume dancing with a red hula hoop. Strange, playful, and awesome. The background was all white, and looked like it was photoshopped, especially as one of the shadows seemed to be coming from the wrong direction.

Mark Wyse, another LA art star, was also included in the show. I’ve seen several of his projects before, (cars, surfers) and have also read some of his writing(dense, Yale-ish). Here, he was showing some photos of rocks, perhaps beach rocks, photographed from directly above (not terribly dissimilar from Adam Thorman’s photos up the street.) The images were dry, and razor sharp, but left me unimpressed. Especially as I supposed they were backed by some theory of other. You get a lot of that in LA… pretty photos that are described as far more than what they really are. Not to backtrack from my linear sensibility, but give you an example, the Conaway/Williamson show of pretty pictures was described in the press release as such:

“Their meanings are implicit (not explicit!), resonant (not dull!), and inspired (not locked down!) …there is an aspiratory and generative sensibility that runs throughout.)”

Oh. Thanks. Now I get it.

From there, I made another classic, LA cliché-type mistake. I decided leave the car in the lot and walk across the 110 to MOCA downtown. It didn’t look that far, and I’ve driven it before in 5 minutes or so, so I figured it would just be a quick little nothing walk. Wrong. Pounding on the pavement in my flipflops, desperate once again to pee, I couldn’t believe how dumb I was to play pedestrian. It took almost a half an hour, all told, and I had to sneak into a conservatory across from Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall just to find a bathroom (The secret? Act casually confident, and pretend you know where you’re going. Make no eye contact, under any circumstances).

Problem solved, I walked the last couple of blocks to MOCA. I had seen on FB the previous week that they had an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s entire Campbell Soup Can series, and I wasn’t about to miss it. Andy has had a huge influence on my work, and was unquestionably one of the two or three most important artists of the 20th Century. His impact has been felt across culture, and here was a chance to see his first major painting project, returned to LA where it had debuted (lent by MOMA, fueling the ever-present East Coast/West Coast rivalry).

The ladies at the ticket counter were kind enough to tell me how to get back to Chinatown by bus, but couldn’t suppress smirks at my silly walking endeavor. Advice freshly received, I headed down into the museum. On my way to see the soup cans, I passed through an exhibition of MOCA’s Pop Art collection, and ran into one of Richard Prince’s Marlboro Men photos, “Untitled (Cowboys),” 1980-84. Prince’s work has been much discussed on this blog in 2011, and I was happy to see it again firsthand. The photo was fascinating in that it had some altered texture that looked very much like the noise or rasterized effect we see all the time in digital images that have been pushed too far. To my eye, it looked current, and the blurring texture definitely looked like an alteration of the original (which we probably all now know is a key ingredient in qualifying for Fair Use).

After rounding a couple of corners, I came face to face with the Campbell Soup paintings, installed in a horizontal line, hung in chronological order of when each type of soup had been released by Campbells. Beginning with Tomato soup in 1897, running through the last released in 1962 (the year the project was exhibited in LA).

I’ll share my thoughts as best I can, but clearly this is something to see in person. One of my first observations, as I walked up and down the line, was that the paintings are not, in fact, identical. For all the notoriety that they are 32 paintings of a soup can, they’re not. Warhol was a commercial illustrator before becoming a fine artist, and he did the majority of each painting by hand. So the slight differences, like where he drew the highlight and shadow demarcations on the can lid, became obvious. And a couple of the paintings had a slightly different hue of red from the others. A function of aging or not, it broke the continuity.

I loved the ironic humor. Cheddar Cheese soup (also a sauce), Pepper Pot, (what?), Scotch Broth (a hearty soup), Beef Consommé AND Beef Bouillon, all condensed, of course. Subtle absurdity that grows as you engage the sequence.  I could just see the 1950’s Ad men sitting around drinking cocktails, trying to come up with the next hot product to entice the burgeoning suburban shopper class. The paintings are also cold and a bit alienating. It’s well known that the show was not an immediate success, and the dealer Irving Blum ended up buying the whole set for a song. I can see why. In their mechanical-ness, they really lacked any sense of emotion or viscerality, which would have been a big change from the high drama of the 1950’s Abstract Expressionist emo-fest. But of course, they meshed perfectly with Andy’s blank, emotion-suppressed personal brand. For all the talk about branding nowadays, he clearly got there first (15 minutes, anyone?).

What else? They’re brilliant. Simply brilliant. Has anyone ever really picked a better symbol to speak for so many larger issues? Campbell’s soup. How American is that? Soup was the original peasant food, just add water to whatever else is lying around. It also represents warmth, comfort, and Mom’s home cooking. “Soup is good food,” for god sakes. Then someone figured out how to mechanize the production, canning, and distribution of the thing, and the growth of the American Empire was soon to follow. Soup for everyone, the same everywhere, cheap, with a reassuring label, replete with fleurs-de-lis. Classy. And then, over the years, so many choices were offered. What better way to anticipate the mind-cleansing consumerism of the 21st Century grocery store, or Ebay for that matter?

Mechanization of culture, commodification of home, repetition of ever so slightly different but really the same objects, the mesmerizing combination of white and red (just ask Target how effective it is), the space-agey-ness of the Kennedy era. It’s all there. The paintings obviously look like advertising images, and from a distance resemble photographs. They’re phallic, and were a precursor to the Becher’s water-towers, as well as any other deadpan, ironic type of work we see from the 70’s to today. All together, they tell a story about how American Popular Culture, beginning with Pop Art, became the global monstrosity we see today.

After ten or fifteen minutes, I finally shoved off to see the rest of the museum’s offerings, weaving through a few rooms of painting and sculpture with little that jumped out. Suddenly, I found myself in a not-large room surrounded by 58 of Robert Frank’s photographs from “The Americans,” hung in two horizontal rows. They were crammed together, and I felt like I do when I try to shoe-horn myself into my jeans the week after Thanksgiving. Uncomfortable to the point of claustrophobia. I saw the Frank retrospective in 2009 at SFMOMA, and wrote about it in Fraction Magazine, so I’ll spare you a rehash of how seminal I think the work is. Here, I could not get a sense of the scope or the message. The installation was non-linear, and confusing. Really, it made me want to not look. And they were all framed the same size and way, cream colored mats with black frames. Hard to imagine that I didn’t want to bother looking at some of my favorite art of all time, but there it is.

Right around the corner, I saw ten terrific photographs by Helen Levitt, framed and hung the same way, literally jammed into a corner. Of course, across the hall, each of Mark Rothko’s paintings were given feet upon feet of breathing space. Odd. I’m the last guy to have a complex about photography’s place in the Art World, because I think those battles were fought and won years ago. At MOCA, however, the message of photography’s inferiority was emblazoned on the wall through it’s second-class installation.

So with my panties in a wedge, I climbed back to street level, hopped a Dash B bus, and headed back to find my car in Chinatown. After a couple of stale, nasty pork buns from a Chinese bakery on Broadway, I got some directions to I-10 in Spanish, and headed out to the West Side, hoping the traffic gods would smile kindly on me… they did.

Interview With Ariel Shanberg, Center for Photography at Woodstock

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Ariel Shanberg is the Executive Director of the Center for Photography at Woodstock. He curated the exhibition “Camp: Visiting Day,” that is on view at CPW through August 28, 2011.

Jonathan Blaustein: You’ve got a background in art. You received a BFA in painting from Rutgers. Go Jersey. And you’re from New Jersey as well?

Ariel Shanberg: I am.

JB: Me too. So how did you transition from painter to non-profit executive director?

AS: As a young artist graduating from Rutgers, I knew where New York City was, how to get there and find my way around. But I was much more interested in finding an environment where the arts and making art were more enmeshed with life. New York City felt like business, and I wanted to find a place that was more focused on the other aspects of art. Luck and serendipity brought me to Woodstock.

I had heard a bit about it while I was in school from a few of my professors, Martha Rosler and Diane Neumaier, who had done things with CPW. So I walked in, introduced myself, and asked how I could be involved. They said they had a internship program, and I said “That sounds great.” I was 23 at the time, and really looking to get exposed to arts administration, and what it was like to facilitate arts programming for the community.

I was really fortunate growing up, because art was a part of my daily life. Both of my parents had studied to be artists, and I was surrounded by friends of theirs who were artists as well. It was that love of art, when I got to CPW, that got me to say, “Yeah, I’ll work here for free.” And it hasn’t changed that much over the years.

JB: So you decided to move to Woodstock as an art community, and then you got the job?

AS: Exactly. I loved that it (CPW) was nestled in the daily life of Woodstock. That it wasn’t set in some arts district, or some stand-alone place that you had to drive to. You could literally get a cup of coffee, a morning paper, paper towels and groceries, and stop in and see what was on view at CPW.

JB: You know, it’s funny, it’s almost like you’re reading my to-do list. It says buy paper towels, and go see an art show. On a random Tuesday. It says so right here. (editors note: No, it doesn’t.)

AS: That access, and having art available to the general public was something that was really important to me. It wasn’t something that only people with certain degrees do, or people who have extra time. Everybody should see an exhibition at least once a week. It’s an opportunity to exercise your mind and see the world through other people’s eyes.

JB: CPW runs exhibitions, lectures, workshops, artist residencies, fellowships, and publications. A bit of everything. How does it all fit together, beyond the fact that it’s all coming out of one physical space? How did the program evolve to be so wrap-around?

AS: CPW’s founding was in response to the fact that photographers didn’t have a home in one of the country’s oldest art colonies. It was established first as the Catskills Center for Photography, so photographers would have a place to exhibit their work, foster community, and develop their own knowledge. When our founders, which included Howard Greenberg and Michael Feinberg, began the institution, they started with exhibitions and workshops. Two very basic things. One was using wall space to show work, as the first shows were Walker Evans and Russell Lee. Nice roots to begin the endeavor.

JB: The workshops went hand in hand with the exhibitions, because I would imagine the workshops would create a revenue stream that would enable you guys to keep the doors open from the beginning?

AS: That was part of it, but it was more about connecting photographers. We’re talking about 1977, when there weren’t that many photo programs in schools. Photography was still struggling for legitimacy within the art world. People were looking to take this utilitarian device that everyone had in the house, and do something more with it. The desire was to connect people who had something to offer to people who wanted to learn. That’s always been the motive and the mission of the workshop program. We want to see people develop their practice, refine their vision, and achieve their goals. Whether that be to exhibit in a gallery, to have an essay published, to refine their website, or build connections with other photographers.

Over the years, the staff and various directors have looked at who’s getting served in the field, who’s getting opportunities, who needs to be championed, and how can we help? Right off the bat, pre-Internet, the magazine, Photography Quarterly, was established to connect with audiences beyond our immediate borders. It has achieved that, and even with the Internet, the print publication serves as a lasting document archive to the ideas and the work. With some of our other programs, like the fellowship award, it was specifically designed to help artists working in Upstate and Central New York.

Our residency program ties us to the deepest roots of Woodstock as an artists colony. Even though we had a darkroom and expertise, it wasn’t something we were actively engaging. The program got started in 1999, and has allowed us to play a role in the creation of some pretty significant bodies of work by some great artists. It’s all about nurturing artists, whether it be educating them, giving them opportunity, serving as a bridge. Sometimes we need a bridge to master artists to mentor and educate us, or a bridge to audiences to connect our work to them. We also hope to be a bridge for artists to collectors, and to audiences who will become stake-holders in their own work and efforts.

JB: You mentioned that Howard Greenberg was a founder, and I noticed that some major New York gallerists were on your advisory board, like Yossi Milo, Brian Clamp, & Daniel Cooney. How does that connection to the NYC gallery world drive your programming?

AS: Dan Cooney is an alum of SUNY-New Paltz, and as a young college student, in his summers, would come up to Woodstock and attend our visiting artist lectures. Some of his best education in photography, as he shared with me, came from our lectures. Which, when you’re living in Upstate New York, you wouldn’t normally get in a small rural town of six thousand people. Which speaks to why some of those people are on our advisory board, but also where that education and bridge-building goes. Dan’s a great example. With all those people you’ve mentioned, and others, they really value CPW’s commitment to nurturing artists, particularly emerging artists. As galleries, they recognize the important role that spaces like CPW play in the role in the development of artists that they will eventually work with.

JB: How do you see the role of non-profit galleries as differing from commercial galleries, both to the artists and the art audience?

AS: We’re not commerce driven. We have a different definition of success. We’re really interested in risk-taking and providing a platform where artists can push their work and experiment. We don’t need to make sales because we’re supported by grants and foundations. I think that non-profit spaces are great places for young, emerging artists to be discovered. I have no qualms on being a step on a ladder in career development. The other thing, and this goes beyond emerging artists, but for mid-career artists too, the scholarly and curatorial investigation of artists’ work that can take place at spaces like ours. Being outside of the market-driven art world, we’re able to have conversations on and through the work of photographers, (and artists working with related media) that help contextualize their work in a larger dialogue.

JB: I noticed you guys did an exhibition from the VII agency late last year. You were showing prints that, certainly in the past, would have been considered photo-journalism. What was the audience reaction to being surrounded by that kind of suffering and tragedy?

AS: It was a great exhibition that was organized by Tufts University, and we were really honored to have it on view. The exhibition space is a remarkable environment where you can slow time down, and you can ask people, particularly with a still image, to consider the ideas or histories, and the narrative that often flash by our eyes. They can see things with a new light or perspective, as they’ve been re-contextualized outside of news information sources. The response to the show was pretty much, across-the-board in awe. For the commitment that the photographers in VII have made to telling these stories, and to the generosity of their subjects as well. There are many people in devastating situations and plight, but I think people left that exhibition feeling a little more connected. Maybe a little more responsible for the world we live in. It definitely did not leave people feeling down and depressed. I think the notion of going to a gallery just for entertainment or escape can work sometimes, but it should not define the exhibition space, or the museum-going experience. We seek to challenge and provoke our audience.

JB: One of the reasons that you and I got to chatting in Santa Fe last month was that you mentioned you were doing a show called “Camp: Visiting Day,” about the predominantly East Coast, I want to say 80’s experience, but I’m sure it’s still alive and well. I spent time, back in the day, in a sleep-away camp in Pennsylvania and one in New York. (The singer Pete Yorn was in my bunk for a couple of years.) A few weeks before we chatted in Santa Fe, I had some spare time, which is rare, and I found myself cyber-stalking my old camp bunkmates on Facebook. Not friending anybody, just finding the public photo albums, and trying to get a sense of what these goofballs looked like as 30-something dads and husbands. A lot of puffy faces, I assure you.

Truthfully, I’m not in touch with any of these people, they haven’t impacted my adult life, and yet I could recite everyone’s name in five seconds. These guys still pop up in my sub-conscious. So I found the experience pretty formative, and I was excited to hear you were curating a photo exhibition about Camp. I thought maybe you could tell us a bit about how you came to curate the show, and how it has resolved itself on the wall.

AS: Camp is not something that everybody has experienced, but it’s one of the most defining elements in our transition from young people to adults for those of us who have. It’s the first experience for people, sleep-away camp specifically, that they are away from their parents and have a certain sense of autonomy. While there’s supervision, it’s almost an unabashed indulgence in youth. Swimming, sports, arts & crafts. It’s also a place where we try out and explore our identity. There’s something about the nine months of the school year that lock us into a sense of perspective of identity that may or may not be our own. One that’s pressured by certain societal and social norms, and when people go to camp, they’re often interacting with kids who might not live in the same county or state. So there’s an opportunity to reinvent or claim for the first time who you are. With this being our summer exhibition, I wanted to celebrate that.

I’m a person who went through a number of years of sleep-away camp, they were really some of the first moments where I was able to see myself as an individual. The artists I ended up including in the exhibition really celebrate and identify the ways that we relate to camp. You have somebody like Jennifer Loeber, who photographed shortly after attending Rowe camp, which she went to in Western Massachusetts. This is a camp where literally, kids are governing themselves. They’re planning their schedule, and in a society where kids tend to be so over-programmed these days, this was an incredibly empowering experience. During their time there, they have the opportunity for them to mock normal conventions, and celebrate eccentricity and individuality.

(click images for larger version)

JB: If we had had that back in my day, with the kids in control, it would have been Guns’ n Roses on the loudspeaker all day, every day. “Welcome to the Jungle” on a total loop until everyone killed themselves. Which, in retrospect, doesn’t sound like such a good idea.

AS: We had something similar, but it lasted only 24 hours. It was called Revolution, and the oldest bunk in the camp kicked out all the staff except for the kitchen staff, because of course you can’t let the kids get hungry. By the end of it, no matter how much fun you had, you learned just what a tough job it was, and you were happy to see those counselors come back.

JB: I suspect you might have been more responsible than I. You and I know, and now the audience will know, that there are probably dozens of summer camps within a 50 mile radius of where you’re at. Has it crossed your mind to try to set up some sort of field trip where kids actually come check out the work on the wall?

AS: Originally, we had hoped that would be the case. There are some adult themes within the exhibition that make it challenging to get a blanket approval for a camp audience of teens.

JB: One of the artists, you’re referring to, his camp was purchased and turned into something very different…

AS: You are correct. Adrain Chesser, as a young boy and a Boy Scout, went to a campground in Southern Florida, and struggled at that time with being a closeted gay male. In an act of sublime surprise, he found out years later that the very same campground was purchased by a group of gay men who turned it into a gay campground. He returned, as an adult gay male, to photograph that campground. The pictures evoke the joy and freedom of camp, the game-playing and interpersonal relationships that take place. I love the work, it’s some of my favorite in the show. But when you’re bringing in a group of kids from different families and backgrounds, it’s a challenge to make sure that everybody’s going to be OK with it.

JB: You mean their parents.

AS: The younger generation is always more open to new ideas and ways of being than the parental generation. One of the things we will never do is compromise by shielding the work in an exhibition…I don’t believe in censorship, and we’ll leave it at that.

JB: It sounds like you’ve got certain elements to your programming that you do on an annual basis. You were mentioning that you’ve an annual fundraiser, and I know that every year you do a show called “Photography Now,” with a major juror. This year it was Vince Aletti, and in past years Darren Ching and Charlotte Cotton. I would imagine if you get to look at the submissions yourself, that probably gives you an interesting snapshot on what’s being done in a given year. Have you noticed any changes in tenor, style or subject matter? Are there strong themes that emerge each year, or is it just a hodgepodge?

AS: In 2010, Lesley Martin was our juror as well. What has really shifted over time, in looking over the submissions from year to year, the overall quality is getting stronger. I think that is reflective of the craftsmanship within photography, and people’s visual language is getting more refined. The other thing that’s getting stronger is the multitude of strains and genres of photography. We’re in a time where working with wet plate alternative processes is as relevant as someone who is working with the visual language of the computer age as well as somebody who is traveling through the mountains of Tora Bora. That’s what’s exciting about the time we’re in.

As far as the jurors go, based upon their own track records and perceived interests, and I want to emphasize perceived, each competition or call for entries attracts a different set of applicants. With Vince Aletti this year, one of the really remarkable things was how he was cognizant of his daily life experience impacting what he chose. As Vince professed, he’s a portrait person. Yet having been a juror for World Press Photo, and having spent ten days looking at intense, narrative, photojournalistic and documentary work, when he came back and had the DVD with all our applicants, he found himself gravitating towards a different type of work. Photographs that reflected more artistic exploration, with evidence of craft and the artist’s hand, that he wouldn’t have responded to had he not had that experience. That’s something that’s very generous of a juror to reveal. To reduce it to the simplest terms, it’s like saying “Hey, I had pancakes for breakfast, so I was attracted to things that are round.”

JB: The shoe was on the other foot, in that you were just a juror for a group exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography. What did you bring to the table?

AS: There’s a different approach in jurying a group exhibition, versus curating an exhibition, like the Camp exhibit, which was an idea that was percolating in my mind for twelve years. When it came to the HCP member’s show, I recognized this as a subset of photography I am pulling from, and wanted to find the best of the best. I was interested in putting together an exhibition for them that celebrated the great range of power that photography has as a communicative tool.

JB: I’d love to get to see it, but I have no plans to go to Houston this summer.

AS: On their website, they have at least one image for each artist, which is a nice survey of the work in the show. But I have to say that nothing beats seeing the work in person.

JB: I’ll have to check it out. We talked about what you do up in Woodstock, and there are so many programs available to photographers, but what’s the best way for someone
to get on your radar screen. How do you like people to get their work in front of you?

AS: One of the important roles of a not-for-profit space like CPW is to be as accessible as possible. That said, it’s also important to recognize that we do a lot, and when somebody approaches us, we want to know that there’s a serious level of commitment, not only to their work, but to the possibility of us working together with them. One of the things I strongly advise against is, don’t just send us an email saying, “Hey, take a look at my website.” We want someone to really take the time to introduce themselves to us. We want to them to show they’ve been thoughtful in their approach to us, because we’re going to be thoughtful in our approach to them.

JB: Sounds like a thorough, well-thought-out info packet, on the heels of some serious research into what you guys have shown and funded in the past.

AS: Always the best way. And don’t start the letter to me with Dear Ms. Shanberg.

JB: (laughing) You know we’re not going to cut that. It’s going right into the interview.

AS: I had a feeling. It’s one of the trials of having a gender-ambiguous name.

JB: How about Dear Sir or Madam? You’ve got to get a lot of those, right?

AS: That just reflects not doing the homework. All you have to do is read one of the staff member’s bio’s to see who to send things to and what their gender is.

JB: It’s funny. You and I met briefly at the PDN Expo that I chronicled for APE last year, and listening to the lectures during the event, that piece of advice was spouted
so many times. Do your homework. I came away wondering how could it be possible that so many people don’t?

AS: I’ll say this, making your photography, doing your art, is something that for a lot of people is a combination of technical skill, professional know-how, and personal dream and fantasy. Being an artist is this incredibly fantasized notion, and for a lot of people, it’s a place where they put their dreams. When you’re doing that, you tend to forget your practical business skills, or you tend not to think about bringing all the other skills you have to it. Because it’s about being “creative.” To put it in a concise term, being creative doesn’t mean not being professional.

Jonathan Blaustein Acquisitions

APE contributor Jonathan Blaustein told me about acquisitions of his work by the State of New Mexico and Library of Congress. I wanted him to write about it, because like me I’m sure many of you are curious how this whole process works. He was reluctant to write about it and be too self-congratulatory on the blog (he is paid to write for APE), so I asked him a few questions instead.

APE: Tell me what the acquisitions were?

JB: The State of New Mexico recently purchased a unique portfolio of the entire “Value of a Dollar” project for the State’s permanent Public Art collection, at market value. The Library of Congress purchased a portfolio of the project as well, from the 16×20 edition,  which will reside in its permanent archive, and be accessible to the public online and in person, I believe.  I’ll be delivering the work to them in the next month or so, so it’s not in their database yet.

APE: Can you give me a brief background on how you got into fine art photography? What was your path to get where you are now?

JB: I picked up a camera for no particular reason back in 1996. I was moving back to New Mexico from New York, and bought some black & white film before I took a solo cross country drive through the South. I was hooked immediately, and decided to go back to school to study photography at UNM, since I was a state resident, and it was cheap. The program was fine art based, and I studied with Tom Barrow and Patrick Nagatani, who were both steeped in conceptualism. So from the beginning, I used photography as a means of creative expression. After Albuquerque, I lived in San Francisco and started showing my work in local galleries and art spaces. From there, I moved back to New York to get an MFA at Pratt, which totally rocks, and then came back to New Mexico in 2005. I’ve been fortunate that we have a great collection of talent, resources and photographic institutions out here.

APE: I know nothing about acquisitions, so tell me how important they are to fine art photographers?

JB: I think most artists would like to have their work collected by museums and institutions.  It offers credibility, and the opportunity for the public to actually interact with your work.  Also, it’s tough to sell work nowadays, so public acquisitions can be a great source of income. In this case, the size of the two acquisitions was equivalent any of the biggest grants or fellowships around, so now I’ll be able to pay the bills, and catch my breath for the first time in a long while.

blausteindollar

APE: What is the process like, how do you get on someone’s radar for an acquisition? Walk me through what happened to you in these cases?

JB: Well, as I wrote last year, I attended the Review Santa Fe portfolio review in 2009 and 2010.  The first year, people really liked “The Value of a Dollar,” but nothing popped.  Last year, there seemed to be a bit more buzz around the project. I had a twenty minute review with Josh Haner, an editor for the New York Times Lens Blog, and he said he’d like to publish the work on the spot. I also had a review with Verna Curtis, a curator from the Library of Congress, who was really taken with the series.  She said she’d like to figure out a way to acquire it for the collection, but that it would take a while to sort out the logistics. So I followed her instructions as to how to stay in touch, and it played out over the course of six or seven months.

The State of New Mexico purchase came out of a great program that we have here that’s run by an organization called New Mexico Arts. Each year, they buy work from New Mexico artists through the Art in Public Places acquisition program. They put out an online call for entries, and I submitted some work. A friend who’d been funded before suggested that I email some of the staff directly to introduce myself and get some advice, so I did. As a result, the director of the program ended up on my email list.

Last fall, the New York Times followed through and published “The Value of a Dollar” on the Lens Blog. The story went viral immediately, and I had 500,000 hits to my website within a week. It was unexpected, and totally insane. I sent out an email blast about the Lens Blog publication and the viral mania, and the AIPP program manager responded to my email, saying he’d like to talk about acquiring a portfolio of the work.  It took 5 months of patient follow up, and then I got the meeting in February of this year.  We negotiated and shook hands on a deal that day, and it was all wrapped up within a couple of months.

APE: What’s next? Obviously, like with commercial and editorial photography, success begets success so how do you capitalize on this?

JB: It’s a good question. I’m hoping the momentum continues, but it’s tough out there. Like everyone else, I’d really like to get the photographs on the wall in New York.  It’s the center of the Art world, obviously, as well as the rest of the photo industry.  But lately, my primary focus has been on making new work. I’ve been busting it out in the studio since January on a follow up project so I can take advantage of the publicity, and the fact that people will probably pay attention to what comes next.  It seemed important to come up with a new idea that would be as good or better than the last, so that I don’t end being the Dollar guy like some early 80’s one hit wonder. I’d also like to establish a solid relationship with a dealer in one of the prime art markets, like New York, LA, London or Berlin.

Really, I think that many art photographers are trying to re-evaluate what success even means in 2011 (See Aline Smithson’s recent post on Lenscratch).  This photo series connected with countless people across the planet through the Internet, and the ideas have continued to resonate.  So I’m also asking myself if my goals should extend beyond the gallery and museum wall, into a more active role within the politics of food.

Cash Rules The Conceptual Art World

by Jonathan Blaustein

Conceptual Art gets a bad rap in the photo world. It’s easy to understand why. A colleague of mine in graduate
school once made an 8 ft white pedestal that she called “My ideas are above you,” and I think that about sums it up. Many photographers equate the art world with inane video installations backed by dense press releases packed with large words that bludgeon the average viewer.

I must say, I find the whole divide a bit tedious. I once had a respected photo professional comment that he liked my photographs, but had no use for them because he didn’t like conceptual photography. And look no further than the recent E-debate about the brilliant photographic-artist Thomas Demand. “Is he a photographer?” Does it even matter? For the record, I’ll call anyone who clicks the shutter a photographer. And that includes my mom, who can’t seem to figure out the auto-focus on her $100 Nikon.

The art world plays by a different set of rules, and I think that can boil photographers’ blood. Artists view everything as fair game. The rules are there are no rules. And this can often lead to sophomoric bullshit, like Vito Acconci jerking off beneath the floorboards. Or Richard Prince so blatantly ripping off some Jamaican portraits, slapping them on canvas, and marking the images up 10,000%. Then he had the gall to claim it was his right, as the source material wasn’t creative or original enough to merit copyright protection. Seriously? That’s like the school bully stealing your bologna sandwich and then taking a crap on it in front of the whole school.

Conversely, I think his thievery of Sam Abell’s Marlboro Man was pretty excellent. Those photographs, at least Prince’s, had the stones to criticize the Cigarette industry, and corporate America writ large. They critiqued America as nothing more than a facade of the Wild West propped in front of a bunch of fat cats drinking single malt scotch and lighting their cigars with dollar bills. And while I’m sure Mr. Abell was upset, and many people continue to bitch about said appropriation, let’s face it, even Don Draper figured out that dealing with Big Tobacco leads to bad karma.

Speaking of dollar bills, I’m very curious about the new show opening up at the Guggenheim Museum in New York later this month. (May 20 to November 2, to be exact). Hans-Peter Feldmann was awarded the Hugo Boss prize last year, which bestowed upon him this show, and a cash prize as well. A $100,000 cash prize to be exact. Mr. Feldmann is a German multi-media artist who sometimes uses photography. Is he a photographer? Well, he once did a photo project called “Pictures of car radios while good music was playing, ” and another called “All the clothes of a woman,” which was a series of photos about…take a guess. He also showed “100 Years,” at MOMA/PS1 a few years back,  a series of 101 photographic portraits of people, aged 8 months to 100 years.

For the Guggenheim exhibition, Mr. Feldmann is exhibiting his booty for all the world to see. 100,000 used $1 bills, pinned vertically to the wall. Boo-yah. I wish I had the time to photograph the line of ticket buyers who’ll plunk down $18 to go stare at 100 Grand. To be honest, I’d love to go  see it for myself. It’s an audacious, elegant idea, certain to offend. But it’s also so gosh-darn honest. The art world reeks of money and power. I think this sense of exclusivity is what pisses so many people off. So Mr. Feldmann is really just documenting his life, like when Nan Goldin started shooting photos of fancy, pretty people galavanting around Europe. No more, no less.

LUCEO Images And The Future Of Photojournalism

- - From The Field

Jonathan Blaustein interviews Matt Slaby co-founder of LUCEO images:

JB: I’d like to have a conversation with you about LUCEO, the co-operative that you formed a few years ago. And I know, on behalf of Rob, he would like us to talk about what people consider to be the collective model, and the role that you think its going to play in the future of photojournalism, editorial photography, and commercial photography. The goal is to see if I can get some insight for the audience, and learn some things that will be helpful to them. Maybe you could start by giving us a cursory sense of what the impetus was for you guys to get together.

MS: We started –relatively informally –in December of 2007. David Banks wrote a note to several of us, suggesting an idea that was essentially a collective model in nature, and the idea was to get together to see what we could come up with as a group to move our interest in photography forward.

JB: How did you know him?

MS: Through following his work online. I guess I’ve known him since maybe 2005 or ’06, somewhere in there.

JB: So you were aware of his work, and then he got it in his head to reach out to some people, including you.

MS: Yeah. And then, for me, it was the fourth one of these that I’d been a part of, where somebody had put out an agenda of something that they wanted to do by pooling resources to accomplish a specific goal that they set forward. The first three of these all had similar problems.

JB: Had other members of LUCEO been through other startups, like you had? Were you the only one who had been through this process?

MS: I think in any kind of formal way, yes. I think that people had been involved with different kinds of groups in the past, but just in terms of trying to move stuff forward, or groups that were trying to get things organized. I’d been invited into different formations of these. And so you have problems. You have problems of power, where you have one person that ends up doing all the work, and a lot of people that are just sort of there. You have problems of finance. How do you fund this stuff? It’s a nice idea, but how do you get people to pay in when they’re not necessarily as invested as other people. Does that make sense?

JB: Of course. I’m with you so far. Obviously, power dynamics are a fascinating function of human social interaction. I think any time you create a group of people with a common goal, anticipating problems with power dynamics is something that I imagine you thought of early on. One would imagine rules and bylaws become important quickly. Is that a safe assumption?

MS: Yes. These are some of the failings of the first three groups I was a part of. So I suggested that we all fly to a central location, because the first thing you need from people is their personal investment in the project. Whatever it is. Just taking the initiative to purchase a plane ticket, to set aside the schedule, and to go somewhere, invests people in a way that is so much different than just sending an email back and forth saying “This is a great idea, I really like it.” Because we all have the power to say that. We do it all the time. But committing to something is important.

So we all flew to one central location, we locked ourselves in for a week, and we started to outline some of these problems. We started to identify components of our ideology. We wrote out a mission statement, which is more or less driven by what all of us in the room at that time could get on the same page about. Because there are certain things that we don’t agree on, but there are certain things that we do. So you focus all that energy on the places where you have common ground. In addition to the commitment that people had showed by flying somewhere and setting the time aside. It adds to how the team gets built.

JB: It was your idea to create a structure where there was almost a buy-in. Nobody was going to get a seat at the table if they weren’t willing to bring themselves to this location. So that created a test as to how serious people were about it.

MS: I wouldn’t say that it was necessarily my idea. It was my experience of problems in the past, so it was a way we, as a group, chose to address some of those problems. To all fly somewhere and lock ourselves into a place.

JB: That part is easy to understand. I’m sure one could surmise the failures from the previous incarnations you’re talking about came from power issues. Money and power. So you guys get together and focus on the things that are important to you. I would love to hear some specifics. What did you find that you agreed upon? What was important?

MS: The first thing we needed to do was outline an ideology. What do we think is important, and how are we going to go forward. On a basic, logistical level, we needed to figure out how to divide labor. If we have six people together in one place, how do we know that everyone is doing an equal amount of work? So that one person doesn’t take all of the burden, but then everyone else gets to receive all the benefit. That leads to long-term problems. So dividing labor was an important thing.

Figuring out a system of accountability was important. One of the problems in any informal, particularly collective structure, is it’s so loose in nature that nobody is necessarily accountable to anybody else. So we had to figure out a system of accountability. We had to figure out a system of goals. The way we look at goals is both short and long-term goals. What can we accomplish right now, and then six months from now, a year from now, and then ten years from now. We look at those as being important things to keep in mind.

And the last thing we do is figure out how we evaluate that progress. When you’re working on a task, and you’re slogging through it very slowly, it’s very difficult to measure those inches that you’ve gone. Because you’re always right in the middle of it. So every six months, we take a moment at the beginning of our business meetings to look back at the last six months and say, “What did we set out as our goals? How many of those did we accomplish? What were the successes as we were working towards those goals, and what were the failures? Because the successes we can take notes on as something we want to continue in the future. But the most important part of that system is the failures, right? Being able to correct errors as you go along…to me, that’s the most critical thing. To have enough intellectual honesty and mobility to be self-critical. To look at those errors and then correct for them or build to go forward.

JB: I couldn’t agree more. I find myself saying that often. It makes sense. One can sort of piece together the fact that a group of like-minded individuals came together, both for a sense of community, and to share the costs and burdens of doing business. A lot of people would say, “OK. I get it. I can do that.” Clearly, there are many, many, many photographers out there who are contemplating trying to do what you guys have done. I think that’s a given. So we could sit here and talk about what the by-laws were, and what the structure is, and some of that is going to be proprietary information and some of it isn’t. But I think what’s more interesting, for me, is trying to get a sense of what those goals and ideologies are.

You guys click the shutter. I click the shutter. Everybody clicks the shutter. Especially now. Everybody, everybody. So if we’re back in that house in Atlanta, with pizza boxes everywhere, and testosterone, and maybe some naivete, what were you talking about? How did you want to move forward with your vision.

MS: I don’t know about the testosterone part.

JB: (laughing) Fine. No testosterone.

MS: At a basic level, one of the things that came out early on was that this is a craft that we all love to do. In talking to you, my primary vocation is as a photographer, not as a businessman just dealing in this abstract idea. I’m not selling widgets. I’m really interested in selling something that I love, and that I love to do. That was the thing that I felt most drawn to in the other people in the room at the time, and as we’ve expanded and changed as an organization, the common thread is that it’s a feeling that everyone shares. Being a photographer is not a choice. It’s not like choosing to be a CPA. It’s not like it offers some financial freedom, and so you go off and make the professional choice to be a CPA.

Photography is an imperative. So for us, what we were looking at at the time was we were looking at a market that didn’t look promising to support our relatively young careers. I think, rewinding in my head a bit, just going through a lot of the banter on all of the different channels out there, this is right at the time when a lot of newspapers were folding. And if they’re not folding, they’re folding up their photo staff. So one of the traditional entry level avenues for photographers was not looking like a viable option (if you really want to do what you love). You remember that? Maybe you don’t because you weren’t doing editorial photography at the time, right?

JB: Remember what? That everyone was pulling their hair out and going out of business? Sure. It think everyone knows that. The digital revolution has impacted creative industries across the board. Maybe we’ll touch on it right now. Maybe now’s the time to talk about it. The first couple of interviews that I did focused on the theme of fearlessness, and being willing to take risks in a time of great change and uncertainty. I know I did. I wasn’t visualizing this interview as an extension of that series, but maybe it really is. If you were to speak for your colleagues, you guys, and I know Kendrick is a woman, so forgive me if I just say guys, but the LUCEO members looked at a situation of uncertainty, and fear, and careers evaporating, and you guys decided to look for elements of opportunity. I would imagine your founding was intrinsically linked to the economic collapse, and the collapse of the industry, no?

MS: Right. I say this a lot. I worked for a guy, years ago, and I thought he was just a redneck. Horrible, horrible piece of shit of a dude. But he said something all the time that I still think is relevant. So he would say it to us in the context of someone wanting to do something that wasn’t possible at the time. For example. “I want to have lunch.” And he would say to us, (deep voice) “You know what, Slaby. You want to have lunch? Well, you can shit into one hand and wish for lunch in the other and see which fills up quickest. You know?” (laughing)

JB: (laughing) That is so good.

MS: He was such a terrible human being on so many levels. But the thing about it was, he approached things on a hyper-realisitic level. So the little gem was the one thing that I can take away from working for that guy that is applicable, sometimes, in life. And a lot of times it is applicable when things are changing in a direction that you don’t necessarily want them to. At that point, you kind of have a couple of choices. You can sit, and shit in your hand, as he said, which doesn’t do anything, or you can figure out a way to really go after the problem. In which case, you still aren’t going to have lunch, but you can figure out what your options are. Which is to work until you get lunch.

In the case of the industry, what I felt, and what other folks felt at the time, was that the industry could sit and talk about all of these things that they wanted to have happen, that they wanted to see certain things come back, and certain ways of business come back, even certain formats, right? Film. We want to see film come back 100%. But it wasn’t the reality on the ground level. So you’re left with a certain set of tools, and that’s what’s right in front of you at the time. And how you choose to approach that –that’s a business question.

This is what I meant by error correction earlier on. When we look at what our goals were, when we evaluate them, when we look at what we made mistakes on, and what we did successfully. The error correction is the important part. Because it’s how you look at those tools that are right in front of you, and correct the errors that were being made before to make something go forward. To paint a picture, that’s the reality that we had in front of us at the time.

We only had a limited amount of tools. We had a limited budget, limited access to clients and to people, we had a changing market, a changing group of clients, a changing wave of information. A lot of factors in the agency world hadn’t changed in 30 or 40 years. Technology has totally outstripped how that model worked. The example that I give all the time is that, if you’re working for an agency –and I mean a very traditional agent –somebody who has a lot of photographers underneath them, and presents them to clients.

You go back to 1970, and you’re photographing in a foreign, developing world, and you’re photographing on analog film. There’s a certain set of ground level factors that drive how that market works. It’s analog film. You can’t digitally transmit anything to anybody at that time. You take the film out of the camera, you label it, you give it to a courier, the courier goes to an airport, gets on a plane, hands it off to another courier, that courier gets on another plane and flies it over to New York, and it just keeps going, the system does, until it gets back to the agent, who prints out proofs, prints out cards, stamps his name on the back of it, it has his telephone number on it, he has to be at the desk, at the phone right there, because that’s where all of the business comes in. There’s no such thing as cell phones or Internet, and mail moves too slow. He’s supporting this gigantic overhead of all these analog pieces, in order just to get a picture from a photographer straight to the client. And so this agent has figured out this very costly system to solve that problem. The client finally calls the phone number on the back of the card that was distributed, or the agent gets on the phone and actually starts actively selling people that he knows. That’s how business is done.

JB: Right. But that business is also information dissemination. You just described what sounds like the Silk Road compared to 2011, for information dissemination. What you’re saying, is in your experience creating your co-operative, you were looking very clearly at the fact that the existing agency model for an almost comically different system to disseminate information. And therefore could not possibly be as relevant today as it was 50 years ago.

MS: It could be if it made certain changes, but there are certain things that didn’t happen. The percentage cut didn’t change. That percentage cut supports an enormous overhead. And that never changed. But certain things did, to make stuff cheaper and more efficient. And that’s best exemplified by the fact that the two of us are literally talking to each other from several hundred miles away over a video chat.

JB: No doubt.

MS: And this is free. This costs us nothing other than our Internet connection. These are tools. This is not the only tool available to people who are in business…

JB: Of course. We all love to say, “I’m a photographer. I love to photograph.” You said you guys got started as a group because you all love to photograph. But there was nothing standing in your way of taking pictures. You guys wanted to get paid for your time, and to get paid for your efforts.

MS: I actually want to interrupt you on that point. I know where you’re going with it, but I just want to correct the course a little bit. There’s nothing standing in your way of taking pictures, but for the fact that photography, unlike sketching with charcoal, is an expensive, expensive thing to do. And without that money coming in…surely there will be photographers reading this in this position, and we all know photographers who are in this position, they’re taking on enormous amounts of personal debt, enormous amounts of personal risk, just to be able to continue making those pictures. And that’s nice, and it puts the photographer in sort of the starving artist/victim role, but it doesn’t really answer the fundamental question: how does a photographer make enough money to fund significant works throughout a full, 30-year career?

Significant bodies of work happen because photographers have the opportunity to produce over long periods of time. They have a career where they refine and develop their craft, where they get to look at things critically and get to hone whatever their style and message. If you look at the cost over that period of time, you have to have some sort of revenue stream coming in. It can’t just be the credit card. It can’t just be the loan, or this idea that somewhere down the road, you’re going to be discovered and it’s going to make everything OK.

This is where several important things come together. The idea that photography is important, that we love to produce photographs, and that we want to continue working as photographers. Those are the goals. So how do you take good business practices to support that? And that’s where we take off from.

JB: OK. There are so many ways to talk about photography. I think visual communication is obviously the key element. But a lot of people love to focus on the story, and storytelling. So you’re a bunch of image maker/story tellers who want to be able to support that practice. And you decide that you want to come up with a, if not new, updated system of business practices to be able to get work and get paid for your endeavors. What were some of the decisions that you all made that are distinct from what other people are doing?

MS: One of the things that we did is we just backed off from the whole question, we just said, outside how this has been done in the past, let’s just look at business across the board. How do other people in business and other industries answer these questions. One of the things that I think was immediately apparent, and our primary focus is really marketing each others work…

JB: Through the Web. Through the Internet.

MS: Not just the Web. The Internet is just one means that we use. We have several mailers that go out each year. We have an email system of marketing that we maintain. We have our social media. Which is huge. Hugely important. Through Facebook and Twitter that reaches a particular audience. We look at our audience as broadly. For example: Who’s buying the product? Who’s a student that may move into the position where either they’re a photographer that we’re interested in, or end up in a position to hire us? Who falls into the fan category? You don’t have to just reach the person who’s purchasing from you to make an impression. So we have those avenues, which are traditional.

But then, for the last couple of years, we’ve done a gallery show, a group exhibition that’s been hugely successful. Both years, standing room only. The first year we did it with MJR collective, where we put together our photographers and their photographers in a space, and brought in different buyers and different photographers for the evening. Then we did it again this year, and we had a panel discussion ahead of time. On the panel we had Bess Greenberg, the gallerist from 25 CPW who hosted the event. We had Brian Clamp, of ClampArt, the curator for the show. James Estrin from the New York Times Lens Blog sat on the panel, and Paul Moakely of TIME Magazine sat on the panel.

In addition to getting to showcase our work, we also had this component where it was important for people who are into photography and interested in seeing where it’s headed be able to come into listen to people who were in a position to talk about it. That was in the dead of winter in New York City, and during the panel part of it, we literally had people standing out in the cold, because there was no room to come in to listen from inside. So that’s an important piece.

JB: You guys are in a position where you have, literally, not metaphorically, been anointed the future of photojournalism by, as you said, James Estrin from the New York Times. Your opinions are solicited everywhere. It seems to me that the primary reason for that is that the model that you guys are using has enabled you to work a lot. I know that most, if not all of you, are working consistently for major publications. So all of a sudden, everyone, including myself, wants to talk to you as if you have all the answers. So the idea that people would be literally pushing each other out of the way in their big, heavy coats, to me it connects right back to why we’re having this conversation. Which is: people want to figure out how to pay the bills and they think that you have the answers. I would imagine it’s a difficult position to be in…

MS: It’s not an answer though. We talk about it in our group a lot. A lot of times we run up against a problem where we want a quick solution. Where we want something to happen tomorrow. But the truth of the matter is that anything that’s important in life, whether it’s business or personal, there’s no such thing as a magic bullet that solves all of your problems. It takes work and it takes making mistakes. Again. The best answer that we have now is that we’re open to making those mistakes, and when we make them, we really work to correct them or to improve upon them. Error correction more so than a course of action.

JB: Do you think that that is common knowledge? I talked about self-awareness and self-criticality in each of the interviews that I’ve done. Yet I wonder whether other people place the same value you do on the opportunity of failure. What do you think about that?

MS: Again, I’m going to talk in big, general terms about where I think photographers have been. I think there’s been a cultural emphasis on the photographer as a lone wolf. That’s a real draw. That’s why people get into this profession is because there is this…

JB: Competitive people as well.

MS: Sure. But the photographer operates independent of everything else. They’re out there on the fringes, on the edge of whatever it is. We just deal with photography as a sub-culture, we value that.

JB: The distanced observer.

MS: Exactly. We value that. Part of the problem is that as we tip into 2012, which the UN is calling the year of the co-operative, as we tip into these more collaborative times, when we have all these tools to collaborate, it’s becoming more and more of a challenge to be that person, to really be that lone wolf, an isolated person, and still make forward steps. Because one of the things we’ve found is that by working together, by funding ourselves together, and by dividing up our tasks so that we can minimize labor, we can maximize specialization in terms of what we do. We can make bigger steps than if we’re just one person working. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go and shoot your pictures as an isolated person. It just means, in my opinion, that you have to draw the line between how you’re shooting and how you’re running your business. Keep those two things very separate. One supports the other.

JB: Historically, artists and/or creative types have a reputation for left brain thinking, and maybe not being quite as skilled or astute in business practices. It seems like, certainly in today’s market, one needs to be equally adept at both. I’m looking at you, and you’re not rolling your eyes or anything, but…

MS: I’m thinking.

JB: So where do you see people going wrong. What would you say are some of the most common misconceptions about how to handle the business aspects of having a successful photographic career?

MS: This is where it gets too judgmental, right? I don’t want to judge someone who’s been doing this for 20 or 30 years and doing it successfully, because obviously they’ve figured out something that works for them. It’s the same thing, but the place where it seems the most problematic is where the error correction stops. The assumption that doing the same thing will give you the same results in spite of the fact that the situation on the ground changed. The digital age is here. I don’t just mean digital photography. The tools that we have to reach clients and communicate with each other, how we find and close sales, it’s all here. The idea that doing the same thing we were doing in 1985 is somehow going to net the same results in 2011 is problematic. So it really is in the error correction. The ability to be self-critical.

JB: So you guys are a group of like-minded photographers, you get along, you set up a system that thusfar has been working for you. Let’s talk about everyone who is going to try to ape that model. When you and I first started talking about this interview, you were very specific about the fact that LUCEO was a co-operative and not a collective. I’m curious to see how you view the distinction, and then I’m curious to see what you think others can do to succeed without impinging upon your successful practice.

MS: This is our opinion. The idea of a collective is a loose-knit group of people that put their work in the same place. The clear objectives aren’t necessarily there. It’s a collection of material. Outside of photography, the idea of a collective seems to be hamstrung by certain things, like the idea that all voting has to be by consensus. There is no formal voting procedure.

A collective is inherently informal, and I’m sure that’s going to piss off somebody who’s reading this. Somebody else will say that they have a collective model and that what I’m saying is not the case. I’m sure that that exists. But, for us, not only do we want to put our material in the same place, but we have a central mission and a central purpose for doing that. We have a real clear procedure for how we vote and how we move forward. We have a real clear procedure for accountability. We have those internal workings that actually make us do the root of that word: co-operate. To work together to accomplish a common set of goals. That’s what a co-operative is about.

JB: And the long term goal for you guys is then clear. Each of you wants to be able to have a photographic career of multiple decades where you can learn and grow, and your vision can evolve over time. And you can be compensated as such.

MS: Specifically to support significant work of our members and significant photographic work outside of the organization. Part of what we’ve developed over the last year is a whole separate fund which addresses just that question. In addition to how we raise money for our regular budget, we also take a percentage from the commissions of all of our members, each month, and put it into a separate project fund that supports our photographers inside of the group, and also supports photographers outside of the group. Coming up, we’re going to do our second Student Project Award that will be announced at LOOK3 this year. We’ve also been dabbling in some of these crowdfunding ideas. We’re taking money out to offer a little each month, saying, “Hey, we like what you’re doing, here’s some support.”

JB: (Deep voice) Here you go, kid. Here’s $20. Don’t spend it all in one place.

MS: But there’s truth to that. You’ve got to support as you can. So we’ve figured out how to do that. We’ve got a budget for outside of the group, as well as inside. The fund is built, and then our members can apply for very specific purposes.

JB: Just to ask clearly, and maybe you were about to say this, but if we’re talking about this and you’re saying that you guys are open to funding outside projects, then you can bet that as a result of this conversation, you’re going to get emails.

MS: Go to the About tab on our website, and that’s the easiest way to find out about this program. The Student Project Award is prominently featured, but we also do a chunk of funding on a monthly basis through Flattr, and we’re discussing stepping into a third realm as well for project-based ideas. The easiest way for someone to receive direct funding for us would be to sign up for Flattr. Then send us your project through Facebook, or send us a tweet, and we can take a look at it. If it’s what we want to Flattr for that month, then we will.

JB: You’re putting your money where your mouth is.

MS: You have to. Because it truly is important to us.

JB: I’m not sure if people are aware, but you’re a lawyer. So LUCEO, as an organization, has an in-house lawyer. And I have to ask, given how expensive legal fees can be, so obviously that’s an inherent advantage for you. But if we’re talking about the people who are going to try to create similar organizations, do you think that it becomes prohibitively expensive for a group of photographers to be able to hire a lawyer on a regular basis.

MS: That’s obviously one way that we save money, but just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean that that’s where all the savings are taking place. They take place across all of the different tasks that we have. Social media, marketing, human resources, web development, these things are all costly, and they’re things that we’ve been able to divide up and keep largely in-house. We contract out for very specific things, but the project management tends to stay in house.

When it comes to what does a lawyer does, my role in the group is largely administrative –it’s the skills that I’ve picked up from law school –and the basic business sense that you get from being in law school. Doing the finances, working out how budgeting works, and administrative stuff regarding how our business gets set up. The nice thing about being in the United States right now is that we’re a society that values business and we tend to believe that business is something that shouldn’t be prohibitively costly to set up. And, generally speaking, it’s not. So it’s something that people have done for a lot longer than we’ve been alive

JB: So you’re division of labor is such, within the co-operative, that people are using their existing skill-sets and areas of expertise. Therefore, to those people who are considering trying to build something along those lines, that would be something that is important to pay attention to. Which is, how can I collect a group of people who have specific skill-sets on top of being talented photographers.

MS: Specific skill-sets are important. Also the openness and the ability to learn. One of the things that we do, if we don’t know how to do something, we’re really good at taking measures to learn how to do it ourselves. Or to learn what we need to do to minimize its cost. It lets us specialize. My workflow isn’t spread across 100 tasks a day –which, if you’re running your own solo business, that’s what it is. My tasks are really focused on a narrow set of things. The same way that Kendrick and David and Matt and Daryl and Kevin’s tasks are focused. Does that make sense?

JB: Of course. We’re talking about capitalism and business as much as we’re talking about photography, which I think is important. Specialization of skills, breaking tasks down, that’s straight out of Henry Ford. That built America. And what you guys are talking about is just that. We are a business, we are an organization, we are a corporation, essentially, of photographers that support our own work. There are costs associated with having every aspect of a business practice, and you guys splitting up the costs, splitting up the work, and creating a very strict set of rules that guide the organization.

So I appreciate that you’ve been generous with your time, and we’ve certainly covered a lot of ground in this interview. But is there something that you’d like to talk about, something that’s interesting to you, that we haven’t had the opportunity to discuss?

MS: You know, starting out with how we founded LUCEO, how we came about, is not that germane to where we are right now. Because there’s a point where we went from being an idea to something that was very real. And that happens not in December of 2007, but over the course of time.

JB: Well, I asked you a question at the start, and I’m willing to admit it was an obvious question. In a linear narrative, you start at the beginning. So let’s talk about what you want to talk about. If it’s not that interesting how you started, what’s more interesting?

MS: I think the most engaging things about what we do happen when we refine our strategy. When we understand ourselves as photographers, as people, but also as component pieces of a team. Once that’s up and running, that’s the most relevant thing we have.

JB: How you grow?

MS: Yeah.

JB: So give me an example.

MS: An example of?

JB: Of how you guys have grown and improved in the last year, or in the last six months. What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?

MS: See, now I got myself in a hole, right? Because now I’ve got big, broad questions…

JB: You did it. (laughing.) I’m good, bro. You opened yourself right up. Come on, give me the goods.

MS: (laughing.) This gets back to the idea of the magic bullet that we were talking about earlier, that the biggest misconception starting out is that everything is going to be solved in short order. The thing that was important to us is that we took our growth in tiny steps towards progress that ultimately landed us a bigger goal.

For example, take our recent gallery show. A lot of money and a lot of different components went into that show. We need the space, we need the marketing to get to the people, we need a press campaign, we need a social media campaign. On top of all this, we have a budget that we have to stick to, because we don’t have flexible capital that goes forever. We have basic stuff like printing, hanging, curation. We have another component of an exhibition catalogue. And on the night of the show, everything has to get on the wall. We need to get the curator to help design the show while we’re hanging, we need to get someone to watch the space. We need to have alcohol for the people who are there. All of these little components are important things. When I think about people trying to start an organization like this, these organizational components are the absolute most critical things out of anything that we do.

And over the years, how we’ve refined what we do and how we work together to accomplish all of that stuff. Dividing up tasks between people, giving them responsibility for different components. Each one of these people is accountable. I think that’s the most important lesson outside of just correcting our errors, has been to figure out how to get people, as heads of all these different components, accountable to the entire group to get this thing done.

JB: It makes a lot of sense. I’m going to ask you a question, and maybe we’ll call it our last question. I admit that it’s somewhat difficult, but I think that the answer, if it’s what I think it’s going to be, is important. And that is, maybe you can’t speak for everybody in LUCEO, but you personally are working for the biggest publications in the United States, at present. Time, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek. Were you working for any of those folks before you formed LUCEO?

MS: Sure.

JB: You were?

MS: I interned at US News & World Report, which my intro into the magazine world.

JB: I thought you were going to say no. I was going to tie a bow on it right there for you.

MS: That’s OK, because there’s qualifications that go with this.

JB: Of course there are qualifications. I’m talking to a lawyer. I’m parsing my words carefully.

MS: So that’s my introduction the magazine world, but the problem was not finding all these contacts and figuring out how to get jobs from them. I think that’s something that Rob said on the blog a long time ago, was that if you have a solid core of editorial clients, you can make it. So the problem was not a matter of finding a client or two where I’d work for maybe a few months. But finding four loyal clients that would keep coming back that I could keep producing for in the future. Which is more than just making a phone call. It’s more than just knowing a person from a cocktail party and then they throw you a bone every now and again. You’re now dealing with this question of business, which is how you market to those people, how you make sales to those people, and most important, how do you retain them as a client.

JB: So, my leading question aside, we can say that where you’re at right now is a direct function of the fact that you and your colleagues formed this organization, and have had the ability to tweak the process as it’s evolved. You guys are working now more than before you formed LUCEO.

MS: Positively. So what LUCEO has done for me, in terms of just numbers…my first year in business was largely funded by me. On my own, I was doing a lot of the components that LUCEO now does as a group. So I have a control year to compare stuff to. Now, I spend roughly half of what I spent on marketing in that first year. So it’s cheaper for me to market with LUCEO. I reach 10 times as many potential clients –and that’s an honest number –through LUCEO than I did on my own. And my business has grown, at minimum, 30% each year since the formation of LUCEO.

JB: Which correlates directly to the Great Recession.

MS: Right.

JB: 30% growth while everyone else was tanking. Hopefully that won’t come off in an obnoxious way, but if we’re coming to the close of our conversation, collectives, collaboratives, business practices, these are dry terms. And I feel like maybe we’ve just gotten to the root of what’s going on here. It is something that you spoke about directly. It’s about people working together, with common goals, towards a common cause. You guys like each other, you understand each other, you work well together, and you’ve built a team concept in place of the lone wolf model you discussed earlier. As such, LUCEO is enjoying success. It’s not an accident.

MS: Right. So on top of the figures and the numbers, something else nice about this group is there’s a certain moral support and ability to talk through problems that you don’t have when you’re operating on your own. Nobody in LUCEO is on a little life raft out in the middle of the ocean.

JB: It’s built-in community.

MS: Right. If I have a bid that I’m having trouble working through, then I can call on Kendrick, and she may have done the bid before, and she can talk me through how that works. And from the perspective of a photographer, having community, and feedback, and encouragement and criticism is critical. That’s something that we participate in on a regular basis. Sharing and showing work.

JB: You know, Matt, we’ve talked about a lot of things, and in a somewhat natural way, we’ve managed to get at the heart of what I was hoping for. I feel like you’ve been generous in sharing some of your insights about not only how you started, but where you are and what you’ve learned. It’s not your place to go out and say, “Hey, photographers, you all should get together and do what we did.” Nor would that maybe be in your best interest. At the same time, the core idea is that this type of collaboration and community, when built upon fundamental business practices, might well lead other photographers to be able to rebuild their income or rebuild their practice, or adapt to the current climate. I think that’s very generous of you.

MS: But it’s about outlook, too. When you’re saying it might not be wise to make those suggestions, that people form collectives or co-operatives, I don’t actually have that feeling. If I look at my own regional market, Denver, and I look at who I’m in competition with and who I’m not in competition with, I know a few things about this market. One, there’s enough work coming into Denver every day to support everybody in this city who loves photography. Two, there’s a subset of photographers that don’t love photography, that don’t love what they’re doing, and are just kind of going through the motions. So when I look at who my real competition is, it’s not the people who love what they’re doing. There’s enough work here for more than just me.

JB: I was trying to be realistic about the competitive nature of this profession. At the same time, personally, I have reached a place now where I’ve decided not to be concerned with what other people are doing. And to do my own thing, and to believe that it’s going to work out the way it has been. Maybe the big idea here, maybe the really big idea is with the fundamental shift in communication technology, which is beyond core to the way humans function, right now, that maybe we don’t need to fall back on that inherent assumption that competition is in our blood. Are are we really talking about the fact that collaboration, working together in intelligent ways, makes more sense than viewing other people as your competition?

MS: Yes. There’s an internal contradiction that can happen, and I think it’s important to navigate around it. If I say that photography is important to me, and that I love photography, that doesn’t mean that I love my own photography and nothing else. I want people who love what they do to be successful. And I want people who are producing significant pieces of work to be successful. I don’t want them to go away. This isn’t Highlander, you know? It’s not that there can be only one.

The Magnum Photographers Magical Mystery Tour

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Musicians make their money on the road, but can the same logic be applied to photographers? Sure, The Strobist and Joe McNally can give camera-company-sponsored lighting workshops out of a bus around America ($249.00 DVD set not included), but can a motley group of Magnum photographers make money out of an RV named Uncle Jackson en route from Austin, TX to Oakland, CA?

The “Postcards from America” bus tour kicks off next month with Photographers Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky, Susan Meiselas, Jim Goldberg, Christopher Anderson and writer Ginger Strand documenting their journey from May 12 to May 26, 2011. I hope they learn from Willie Nelson’s mistakes and leave the reefer behind.

Make no mistake, this is a branded, sponsored, multi-platform endeavor, meant to support the photographer’s careers and shine some 21st Century light on the Magnum brand. The story will play out in realtime via Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and an audience participation site on Flickr. Photography fans will have the opportunity to buy postcards, books, and prints online, all printed on HP printers. Ultimately, there will be a pop-up exhibition somewhere in Oaktown. The photographers aim to engage directly with their audience, and I imagine they’ll have plenty of opportunities to chat over weak coffee and sugary donuts.

It’s not unlike the Kickstarter and Emphas.is platforms that enable photography fans and lovers to directly support the work of photojournalism. Until very recently, publications would hire photographers to create content that their consumers would then buy. That still happens, but what we’re seeing now is that photographers are attempting to cut out the middle-man by “selling” the content directly to the audience (out of necessity, of course). We can call it a gift, a reward, or donation, but really it’s just commerce. All in all, it’s a good idea if the prints and books sell, and everyone has a good time. Content will be generated. Compelling images will be made.

In the Interview we recently published with Nina Berman, I discussed the fact that the boundaries between journalism and art were beginning to seem arbitrary. This venture seems to validate that idea, as the “Postcards” tour doesn’t seem that much different from Ryan McGinley cruising around the country with a bunch of clothing averse young hotties. If we saw this as a road trip by a group of artists who happened to be friends, and who planned on selling prints after the fact, it wouldn’t seem strange or newsworthy. But the fact that this tour is being done in the shadow of Magnum, an icon of American photojournalism, makes it a much bigger deal. It’s hard to imagine Henri Cartier-Bresson rambling around the American West like Clark W. Griswold, but then again, HCB isn’t trying to pay the bills in 2011.

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The Fall Chelsea Gallery Exhibits

- - From The Field

Jonathan Blaustein reports on a visit to the Chelsea art galleries during his trip to NYC.

Raise your hand if you feel comfortable going to art galleries in New York? Ok, how many of you is that? I don’t know about you, but I love the experience of engaging with art. Photographs, films, paintings, sculptures, videos, music, these are the ultimate forms of encoded information. Art communicates meaning, and we are meaning craving creatures. So I love to look at art. It’s how our history is recorded.

But I don’t love the experience of looking at art in most commercial galleries, and I know many, many people who agree with me. Why is it that such primal human desire has been co-opted by such an alienating system? I mean, the crusty pretentious person at the front desk is a cliché for a reason. All the spaces are more or less the same, no real variation on the experience. Big white space, uncomfortable silence, gallery workers who ignore you, or scowl, or give you a condescending little smile. Could this happen in any other capitalist industry? (I suppose you’ll tell me in the comment section…maybe the Bentley dealership?)

Anyway, I do wonder why such a humanistic enterprise as art making got into bed with such an elitist, de-humanizing business partner. Oh wait, no I don’t. Galleries represent the allure of a connection to money. Dealers are the middlemen between starving artists and wealthy patrons. And they offer wall space as well, which so many artists need.

Regardless, I went to Chelsea when I was in New York earlier this month with the intention of checking the pulse of the Neighborhood. I was accompanied by my colleague and friend Elizabeth Fleming, whose many witty bon mots were predominantly off the record. Unfortunately, we chose a day when many spaces were turning over shows, so we didn’t get a chance to see quite as many exhibits as we would have liked. But given that it was my last afternoon in the city, I probably couldn’t have handled much more anyway.

We began on a construction-laden part of 28th Street, West of 10th. I’m sure many people outside the art world would be surprised to know that there is anything that far West. Elizabeth and I met up outside the joint space for Foley Gallery and Sasha Wolf Gallery. The two dealers joined forces to share a rent for their galleries, but also formed an interesting multi-use venture called Exhibition Lab. Ms. Wolf was kind enough to chat us up about the Lab, which combines an photo/art curiculum with critiquing classes and lectures. Sounds like a good resource for the NYC photo community.

BartMichielsFoley Gallery was showing the work of Bart Michiels, a Belgian artist working with the landscape. The large scale color photos were bleak, wintry scenes of an empty forest and a field type place. There were burnt things here and there, and the overall sensibility tended towards the nihilistic. The project, which referenced “the Valley of the Shadow of Death”, was very reminiscent of Elger Esser. Very. Given all the great work out in the world right now, I admit I was a bit curious as to why Mr. Foley chose to show this. Ms. Wolf was showing black and white, documentary images by Paul McDonough taken in New York in the 70’s. (Which were subsequently published on the NY Times LENS blog.) The photographs shared a lot of stylistic and humor conventions with Garry Winogrand, but they did a great job of evoking Time and Place. And as a child of Jersey from the 70’s, it was a fun temporal space to revisit.

From there, Elizabeth and I peeked into Aperture, as it was in the same building. Call me crazy, which many people probably will, but I didn’t connect to the Paul Strand images from Mexico. A little to banal for my liking. But I’m sure I’m in the minority on this one. We also saw some Jock Sturges photos of nude, sexualized tween girls, literally tucked into an alcove, partially hidden from sight. Elizabeth is the mother of two young girls, and I have a young son. We both agreed that even in a world of moral relativity, these images transgressed some basic taboo, and were little more than criminality masquerading as art.

We exited the building on 27th Street, and cruised through the Robert Mann gallery on 11th Avenue on our way to 26th. Again, it was vintage, beautiful, black and white photography, and not particularly original. I’m a fan of the gallery’s program, and believe they’ve put on many, many important shows over the years. But this wasn’t one of them.

michalChelbinSo on to 26th Street, where we stopped into the Andrea Meislin Gallery to see the work of Michal Chelbin. Both Elizabeth and I had seen her earlier work, and were impressed by here odd but not off-putting sensibility. Here, Ms. Chelbin was showing photographs of tween wrestlers from Russia and the Ukraine. The prints were fairly large, color, and square. They were c-prints, which we learned by spying the thin black negative border in each image. Frankly, it was distracting. As was the fact that Ms. Chelbin did not spot tone her prints properly. The dust specks drew Elizabeth’s on-the-record-ire, as she pointed out that any professional who wants to charge high prices ought to know better. Certainly, in a Photoshop world, it reminded me how easy it is to make it right in the computer.

The photographs were entirely of boys, save one. The subject matter brought Collier Schorr to mind, as she’s worked with similar ideas. Wrong as this will sound, I noticed that the boys “packages” were rather prominent in their singlets, and hard to ignore. Having seen Sturges’ work just minutes earlier, it wasn’t hard to make the comparison. Here, a female photographer was sexualizing male children, but of course keeping the clothes on. It made me uncomfortable, as I’m sure it was meant to. But I did wonder why she felt compelled to stare.

From there, we cruised to 25th Street, but had little luck. Yossi Milo and Clampart were both closed for installation, so we had to move on to 24th Street. Gagosian was closed, soon to show Anselm Kiefer’s work. (On view now…) He’s a favorite of mine, so I was a bit disappointed. I mean, any German who can make great, subtle, profound art, not propaganda, out of the Holocaust is a giant in my book.

But my disappointment proved fleeting. Right next door, Mary Boone Gallery gave me an immediate reminder of when and why galleries can be relevant. Unlike photography, which is reproducible and shows well on the web, painting, sculpture, film and their hybrid, installation, need room to breathe. And high production costs can necessitate both a well funded collector base, and big rent for a warehouse space. But I digress…

Ms. Boone was showing “Squeeze,” the work of an artist I didn’t know, Mika Rottenberg. As great and perplexing as this exhibit was, allow me to take you through our experiences step by step. You walk through the alcove into the main gallery. It’s huge. In front of you is a self contained room/sculpture in the middle of the space. It has an window-type air conditioner sticking out the back, with a plant on top. As you walk around towards the opening, you see one sheet of 8.5″x11″ paper taped to the wall on your left, but you pay it no mind. There’s a big photograph of a stewardess type lady on the wall, holding some garbagy-god-knows-what, but you keep going because the room has an opening, which is kind of like a tunnel. The ceiling is made of cheap, dirty, industrial ceiling tile that looks like it was taken from some generic, schlubby New York office in Murray Hill that’s been there since 1941.

Rottenberg-installationThe hallway led to a video installation room. And I rarely have the patience for video art in such circumstances. Almost never. So often it’s esoteric and obnoxious. But not this time. Immediately, Elizabeth and I were sucked into this strange, loud, colorful and surreal world. There were people, somewhere far away from New York, cutting into trees in a misty forest. They appeared to be South Asian. The trees released liquid into drip spouts, which we realized was rubber. The video had jumpcuts to spare, but slowly we pieced together that there was a production process going on, with the rubber being turned into some product. But it was an assembly line as imagined by Terry Gilliam, crazy and nonsensical, with mouths spitting liquid through open wooden holes, and 4naked moist butts showing up occasionally as well.

We took a breather from the video as people streamed into the room, and after agreeing that it was totally awesome, we went back in to watch some more. In all my years looking at art, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. On return viewing, we pieced together that there was some sort of a trash cube sculpture being fashioned out of the process. After we left the video house, we again saw the large photograph on the wall. It was clear that the woman in the photo was holding the aforementioned cube, which appeared to lock some refuse in rubber and maybe resin. She was smiling. I was even more curious.

From there, the obvious path was to go look at the piece of paper taped to the wall. So we did. It was a bill from a storage company. On the inventory list, we saw the components of the cube, deconstructed. The bill stated that the item would be kept in storage at this facility: in perpetuity. FOREVER. Strange.

So as we began to piece things together, the artist made a video about the production of an object that seemed to contain the waste of consumer culture, and required the extraction of natural resources from the Third World. Said object was then photographed, and locked away from society forever. WOW. Talk about embedding ideas in objects. Not only that, but the piece-it-together-yourself nature of the exhibit forced us to think, and engaged us in a participatory way, thereby referencing ubiquitous Cyberspace.

I had the gumption to approach the bespoke suited man behind the imposing desk, who handed me a price list. Edition of six. What? I asked him about it, and he said that the photo and dvd were editioned, but the cube was too. I mentioned that it seemed that the sculpture was locked away forever, and he concurred. The artist sold a proportional share of an object that people could never possess. Sound familiar? Complex financial instruments, anyone? Brilliant.

Finally, we left the gallery, after 15 minutes or so. What a trip. That’s what galleries can offer, the chance to open a door to a unique experience. To show art that enlightens, and bring the new to a jaded audience. So while the photography galleries left me flat all day, Mary Boone did not.

wolfbuildingWe finished our day on 24th Street, looking at the Michael Wolf show at Silverstein, and Abelardo Morrell at Wolkowitz. It was hard to get juiced up after my mind was blown, but I gave it a solid effort. Mr. Wolf was showing three interrelated bodies of work, all of which reference surveillance and the lack of privacy in public space. I’d seen his city-scape images on the Internet before, but here the large prints taken of office buildings from office buildings were more poignant than on a computer screen. Scale really helped. Bigger was better.

wolfsubwayBut in another room, Mr. Wolf’s images of Japanese subway goers crushed up against the train window, taken from the platform, had the opposite effect. They were candid, visceral, and yet slightly noble. They were small prints, and the size communicated an immediacy. They were, without a doubt, the best prints I saw all day. Across the room, there was one large print from the same project, and I felt the magic was lost. Bigger was not better. (I noticed the same phenomenon with Sugimoto’s “Architecture” series at Sonnabend several years ago.) Mr. Wolf’s final group of pictures were shot from Google Street View, and were not that interesting. Just because a phenomenon is important to culture, that doesn’t mean that art about said phenomenon is important. The photos were kind of boring.

wolkowitzSo on we went to finish the day with Abelardo Morrell’s large scale, color camera obscura photographs. They were very beautiful, taken in New York and Italy. Some appeared to be made on gravel streets, which were kind of strange. But mostly they showed Mr. Morrell’s now famous process of bringing images of light inside spaces. They were well crafted, lovely to look at. But they did not engage my mind in a serious way.

So Eastward we headed, out of the Gallery Ghetto. We went not three steps when I looked down and saw the most interesting broken sidewalk, strewn-refuse street scene. I looked around to see if there was any signage about, because it looked as much like an art installation as what it really was; some garbage on the street. I know that certain galleries in the past have transformed their spaces in such ways, for real. And I’d seen a Jeff Wall photograph at the Metropolitan Museum earlier in the day that was a döppelganger for what was right in front of me. But Elizabeth and I laughed, and I decided to coin the idea as a new game. Garbage, or art installation? Try it next time you’re in the Neighborhood.

The Heavyweights – NYC Fall Blockbuster Photo Exhibits

- - From The Field

Jonathan Blaustein reports on a visit to several blockbuster photo exhibits during his trip to NYC.

crewdsonI went to see Gregory Crewdson’s show on a Friday, the day before it closed at the Gagosian Gallery on Madison Avenue. It was an imposing, New York City-gray-type-building, with an express elevator to the 6th Floor gallery. The aura of money and power was intimidating, and I couldn’t help smacking myself with the front door in full view of the slinky gallerina sitting at the front desk. Suave, I was not.

For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Crewdson is one of the foremost art-star photographers on the planet, and a professor at Yale as well. He rose to acclaim a while back for innovating the cinematic, labor-intensive-faux-reality picture style, alongside Jeff Wall and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. His most famous images are large scale, well lit moments observing people’s introspective silence, or overturned buses in the pavement, or women on the front lawn at night. The images were revolutionary, as he hired film crews, set up huge lights and directed the action to get photographs that appear “real,” but are not. The movement of which he was a part shattered the expectation of veracity in photography, and then buried the notion of “truth,” and then spit on the grave.

The new show, called “Sanctuary, ” was a departure. The photographs are more traditionally sized black and white inkjet prints. They are somewhat flat, and and lack the snap of a good gelatin silver print. But I suspect that’s intentional. The series functions as a narrative, shot on location at Cinecittá Studios in Rome, the famous Mussolini-built film lot where Fellini worked back in the day. (And Scorcese shot the flawed but greuesome “Gangs of New York” there as well. Yes, Bill the Butcher still gives me the heebiegeebies…)

Anyway, I thought it was a pretty smart move to go from cinematic photographs to photographs in a cinematic parallel universe. And that’s where this project really stands out: on the symbolic level. The show begins in a small room with two photographs in it. One on the outside of the fence, looking at the wall that delineates the studio from the outside world. The next faces the security gate, at night, a lone woman working in the guard booth. She’s the only human in the series, and a nod to Crewdson’s previous imagery.

The rest of the images navigate a tour around the abandoned studio lot. The photographs are bleak, with a beautiful decrepitude. Here a lone tree, there a Roman arch, here a puddle of water, there a solitary bedsheet on the cobblestones. There is an undeniable post-apocalyptic sensibility, and it builds as one moves from picture to picture. Occasionally, we can see a block of utilitarian apartment buildings outside the walls, but aside from one image with some Italian text, there is no specific sense of place outside the Roman ruins. And plenty of scaffolding has been left to rot. References to Lewis Baltz, Thomas Struth and the Bechers are pretty evident, but not heavy-handed. Everyone loves a good shout out.

The photographs are quiet, lonely, sad, graceful, and specifically composed. The craftsmanship is evident, which is why the subtle prints hint at aging, lending meaning to the work. (And I did learn a bit about his process, by good fortune. A Yale photography professor was lecturing in the gallery alongside one of her graduate students. Apparently, the digital images are a composite of photos shot at different focal distances to create maximum sharpness and image clarity.)

The show ends with a path to the exit gate. We approach this little world, we circumnavigate, then we leave. Mr. Crewdson has prepared a journey for his viewers, with symbols to spare. I was moved. To be fair, a few days later a smart photographer friend asked whether I’d have taken the time to delve into the work if it had been done by an “unfamous” artist. Would I have had the patience to parse the meaning? Good question. If I’d seen it in some random gallery in Chelsea, I probably would have done a glance and go. But that’s not how we engage with art. Context is important. So in the temple of Gagosian, with knowledge of Mr. Crewdson’s previous work, he had earned my patience.

FriedlanderFrom there, I walked South two blocks to the Whitney to see Lee Friedlander’s “America by Car.” At least three people went out of their way to say “Don’t miss it,” so my expectations were pretty high. I got there less than an hour before the pay-what-you-want program kicked off, but decided to pony up the cash so that I wouldn’t be crushed by the onslaught of bargain-hunting art patrons. I knew I had to report back to you, the APE audience, and thought that I owed it to you to get a clear look at the work, instead of having to bob and weave all night.

The show is great. Consider it reviewed. Now can someone get me a cup of coffee? Just kidding. But it is superb; the equivalent of getting a big bowl of wisdom soup from a master at the tail end of his artistic journey. I’m not saying Mr. Friedlander is going to kick it any day now, but he’s coming from a place of age and experience, and it shows. Cindy Sherman, he’s not.

The exhibition contains 192 square photographs; a succession of vertical diptychs. Each image in the pair was taken in a different part of the US, though there were a few from Canada thrown in for who-knows-why. My natural inclination was to compare and contrast each image, then move down the line. Two photos. Two Americas. (Sorry, John Edwards.) Red State or Blue. Republican or Democrat. Urban or Rural. This or that.

That’s how we process information when it’s presented as such. We compare and contrast. If we’re given a line, we follow it. But after 25 or so diptychs, my head began to hurt. And then I looked down the room and into the next, and thought: I’ll never make it. No one was meant to play this game 96 times. That’s not what he wants. It’s not what he’s trying to say.

So then, I stepped back. I began to look at the exhibition in it’s entirety. Each photo was shot from inside a car, some with flash, and the shapes of the windowpanes and the dash boards were interesting as visual structure, for sure. They create a uniformity of language that delivers the message well. But the message was enticing to me. America. By car. One country, not two. Mr. Friedlander did an admirable job of collecting symbols of the once-and-perhaps-again-great nation of ours. Churches and Bars, Horses and Semi-Trucks, Factories and Gas Stations, Snowmen and Skyscrapers…

I started to look at the entire vision, and it began to make sense. A few urban enclaves aside, America is a nation defined by the car. (Just ask Robert Frank.) It’s a big place, and beyond diverse. But Mr. Friedlander was presenting one vision, not two. He was profiling one country, with his requisite humor and penchant for chaotic compositions. I came away inspired. It’s easy to divide and deliniate, and of course easier to decontruct than construct. As a viewer, albiet one intent on finding something interesting to say, I felt like this was an art show wrapped around a philosophical statement. A photo exhibit that presaged Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity.” A group of new pictures that belied a well-worn attitude: Enough already. Get over it. We’re one country, whether we like it or not, so let’s find some common ground, in this case a perfect encapsulation of an American symbology, and move along. Lee Friedlander channeling Rodney King.

By Tuesday, six days into my couch surf, I was done and ready to go home. I rewarded myself by spending the day looking at art. Yes, I had to take notes to write this piece, but all that was required was to look and think. And while some might disagree, I think the best thing about New York is the vast array of brilliant, epic and historically important things to see. Especially art.

I headed to the Metropolitan Museum, which is my favorite building in the world. I had two and a half hours, which forces one to be targeted and tactical. After hitting up the Chinese wing, which always inspires, I went to see the John Baldessari retrospective. My good friend Scott B. Davis, a photographer from San Diego, saw the show at LACMA earlier this year and told me it was the best thing he’d seen in years. Scott is not given to hyperbole, unlike, say, me, so I took him seriously. And I made sure to allow a good 45 minutes, which was not enough. But one can’t have everything.

I’d seen a few original pieces by the artist in LA, and photos in books through the years. I came into the show more aware of his reputation than his brilliance. I left feeling that Mr. Baldessari was as good as Andy Warhol. There. I said it. Now Andy’s ghost will smite me where I sit.

The best I can tell you about this exhibition, beyond “Go See It,” is that Mr. Baldessari figured out how to incorporate his curiosity, humor, irreverance, and intelligence into a broad and surprisingly relevant mega-collection of great work, across a spectrum of media. Albert Brooks once said that they don’t have a special line at the bank for being ahead of your time. I doubt Mr. Baldessari is hurting, but he definitely got there before everybody else.

Encoding, interactive gaming, implied/manipulated narrative, identity, the myth of California, the culture of beauty and retouching, so many 21st Century ideas seemed embedded in work that was made in the 60’s and 70’s. The pictures were direct, but funny. Original. Profound and silly, which is an almost impossible concept to imagine, much less pull off. I’m reticent to describe some of the pieces, as they just have to be seen. (The artist singing a Sol LeWitt art manifesto? Yeah, it’s that funny.)

Art is meant to be seen. Though it’s a JPG world and we’re just living in it, sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes, you’ve got to get off the couch, or step away from the Crackberry, find half a day, and go feed your brain. I’m intentionally lacking specificity about the Baldessari show for this reason. It’s genius: the real deal. But I can’t narrate it for you. It’s not that kind of art experience. It’s not meant to be compressed by an algorithm. Just go see for yourself.

Impressions from the PDN Photo Plus Expo 2010

- - From The Field

APE field reporter Jonathan Blaustein brings us his impressions from the PDN 2010 Photo Plus Expo.

Hola. This is the first of several stories I’ll be filing for A Photo Editor about the New York Photo Scene. Rob asked me to fly in to the City to cover the PDN Expo, so that’s where I’ll begin. For those of you who haven’t read my articles in the past, let me provide the barest of backstory. I’m a Taos, NM based artist/photographer/teacher, and write about photography as well. Though I’ve dabbled in some small-time, local, commercial work in the past, I would not consider myself a working professional.

I make conceptual images, most recently a series called “The Value of a Dollar,” that was featured in The New York Times last month, and I show the prints in galleries and museums. So please read this and subsequent pieces with that in mind. I’m no critic, and don’t profess to have a working knowledge of the inner facets of the industry. I’m just a dude from Jersey with opinions who used to live in New York, and now lives in a horse pasture at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Let’s call me a Reluctant Rancher.

So with dirt in my boots, I arrived at the Javits Center bright and early last Thursday for the opening of the PDN Expo. Though I must have been there at least once as a kid, I couldn’t believe how big the place was. Before I even made it in the door, I realized that this was going to be a much bigger deal than I had imagined. (And confusing as well. The building’s designers were not fans of intuitive planning. I got lost five times before I felt any sense of direction.)

PDN was kind enough to grant me a press pass so that I could sit in on the professional seminars and share my findings with you, the APE audience. So that’s where I began, at 9: 30 am, before the Expo floor had opened. My first visit was to a grant writing seminar, moderated by David Walker of PDN that featured Yukiko Yamagata from OSI, Justine Reyes, a friend and photographer, Ellen Liberatori from NYU, and photographer Brenda Anne Kenneally. I was pretty shocked to learn that 75% of grant applicants are summarily dismissed for failing to know what they are actually applying for. Apparently, simple professionalism is in short supply. The advice that I gleaned and will now pass on: do your homework. Know what an organization funds, read the paperwork, follow the rules, do what’s asked of you, be concise, sell yourself, and get a personal contact if possible. (92% of grant recipients have had prior contact.) Help them help you. And of course, the more organized you can be, the better.

After chatting briefly with Yukiko, who was gracious enough to meet with all the people who waited for her afterwards, I met up with Justine and we grabbed a quick bite before the next speaker. (They had a tasty pasta bar. Consider me impressed.) Fed and hydrated, we headed to the Keynote Address, which was delivered by a photographer named Chase Jarvis. It was Standing Room Only, and people seemed excited by his presentation. I tried to engage, as his ideas about interactive, interdisciplinary, collaborative process were certainly au courant… but I couldn’t do it. My Gen-X snark sensor was on Orange Alert, and I couldn’t help but see Mr. Jarvis as a Hipster Tony Robbins, bouncing around the stage in his shiny converse sneakers. My apoligies. But other people seemed to like it…

photo3From there, Justine and I headed up to the Expo floor for the first of many turns about the room. What can I say? Have you been there before? If so, you’ve probably got a sense of it. I felt quite the rube, though, and was temporarily awestruck by the bells, whistles, music, Sony BMX halfpipe, and gyrating models. (Yes, Nikon had a modeling stage where a super-hot Brazilian model danced for a throng of middle-aged photographers with big cameras. And she was apparently well-paid, because when I interviewed her, she refused to bite the hand that fed her. “Just a job,” she said.)

photo4The floor must have been two football fields long and one wide, and camera and accessory companies were everywhere. Canon and Nikon were the biggest, not surprisingly, and put on lectures throughout the day that were well attended. Olympus had the next biggest booth, I believe, and smaller companies of every sort were lined up in booths around the outside. I can’t even begin to name their services. Bags, printing companies, personalized USB flash drives, book makers, book sellers, paper trimmers, backdrop makers, popcorn shrimp, fried shrimp, I mean everything. And people were browsing, and people were buying.

It seemed to function pretty well as a marketplace. I interviewed a few photographers and enthusiasts, and they each said more or less the same thing. They love to come to the Expo to take a look at the new products, touch things and play, and then they always buy a few items they need. Photographer Richard Bram needed some paper, so he relished the opportunity to look firsthand, and then buy some. From the constant glint of credit card magnetic strips I saw flashing about, I’d say that many people do the same.

At one point on our circumnavigation, Justine got a tingle in her spider sense, and two minutes later we stood in front of Aperture’s booth. A very nice lady asked us if we had heard of Aperture, and wondered if we were aware of what they did. We let her know straight away that we were artists, and therefore fans. Shockingly, it turned out that the Aperture Representative, who was actively seeking new subscribers, was none other than Michelle Dunn Marsh, the Co-Publisher. And her fellow Co-Publisher, Dana Triwush, was standing beside her engaging with Expo-goers as well. That’s right. Aperture didn’t send interns. They brought out the big guns.

Luckily, in my capacity as APE correspondent, I was able to get an interview with Ms. Marsh, and she, Justine and I had a great conversation for 20 minutes. She was thoughtful and exceedingly smart, and shared the perspective that as artists, if we want to get a book published, which so many of us do, then we need to buy more books. Much as we want people to support our careers by buying prints or hiring us, she pointed out that publishers need support too. Especially non-profit publishers. Community was a buzzword for the day, and the week for that matter, but it was interesting to hear Ms. Marsh suggest that the community needs to support publishers to keep them healthy. I’m always open to a good idea, so I renewed my subscription on the spot. (I signed my name on an IPad with my index finger…it felt a little naughty, like eating cake for breakfast.)

She also made an interesting comparison between photography at the dawn of the super-DSLR, and the graphic design industry when the first Macintosh computers came to market. Technology shook that industry to the core as well, yet 20 years later, design is as important as ever, and professionals are doing just fine. So fear not, everything will sort itself out eventually.

Feeling like a good pretend-journalist for getting the scoop from Aperture, I headed back downstairs to the seminars to hear consultant Mary Virginia Swanson and publisher Darius Himes talk about their new book, Publish Your Photography Book. The presentation tracked the structure of the book, which is due out in February, and was as thorough as you can imagine. The two experts basically put their heads together and spent eight years amassing all the specific knowledge and information a photographer might need to get a book conceived, created, and marketed. (Most important: understand how your audience can be expanded beyond the photo world.) I’m not sure why we’re all so obsessed with having a book of our work. Posterity, I suppose. Something to outlast us, to collect dust when we’ve become dust. But everyone does seem to want one, myself included, and Ms. Swanson and Mr. Himes have created the ultimate resource to Get-R-Done. A Must Buy for 2011.

I bounced upstairs once again to meet photographer Chris Cappoziello, a friend from LOOKbetween, for a quick coffee, and to do one more lap around the insanity. I kept stepping in and out of the Expo to get a sense of the vibe. It was hopping, no doubt. Based upon the consumption I witnessed, we’re probably closer to the end of the economic drama than the beginning. And there were people at every booth, the sole exception I saw all day was a dude representing an upcoming photo festival in China. He had no one to talk to. Go figure.

The last lecture I attended was a fascinating panel talk about the future of magazine publishing moderated by the aforementioned Michelle Dunn Marsh of Aperture. She was joined by Sacha Lecca, photo editor at Rolling Stone, Whitney Johnson, picture editor at the New Yorker, Lisa Kereszi, an artist and editorial photographer who shoots for The New Yorker, and Gregg Hano, the VP Group Publisher of Bonnier Tech Group, which publishes American Photo and Popular Photography, among other magazines. Each presenter gave a 10 minute mini-lecture, and then they did a group discussion.

Tired as I was at the time, though properly caffeinated, I have to say they were a really interesting group. I learned a lot, and was engaged the entire two hours. Hard to believe. What can I share? Once again, I heard “Do your homework” again and again. Can there really be that many photographers out there who don’t get it? The editors stressed… know the content of the magazine you’re approaching, be polite, know people’s names, and get some human contact whenever possible. So there’s that. But I also learned, much as many people darkly suspect, no one gets a job from a bulk email. Pretty much never. So if you want to get your work seen, do the heavy lifting of networking and pavement pounding. And be honest with yourself about where your work will and won’t fit.

I also heard the word IPad at least 300 times in two hours. IPad IPad IPad… IPad. Steve Jobs appears to have come to the rescue of the publication industry, because the panel seemed to belive that the tablet device was perfect for delivering content, and more of it. (ie., 6 photos on the IPad to supplement 1 in paper, complete with a link to video.) It can generate income, and complement a paper edition as well. The also discussed the fact that websites are seen by a certain audience as valid an incarnation of the brand as the paper copy. (ie, younger readers.) There was definitely a sense that wraparound marketing is here to stay, and will help build up the viability of these companies so they can hire more photographers. Workshops, contests, Fashion Photo Fantasy Camps, events, higher subscription fees, IPad apps, and of course, paper copies, all converging into one businessmodel stew. As Mr. Hano said, “Right now I would consider any way to monetize anything.”

When the panel wrapped, after nine hours of listening, learning, talking and zigzagging around the Javits Center, I headed back out into the city proper. I stopped by a couple of exceedingly crowded openings in Chelsea, which was kind of like being packed into a subway car with a bunch of obnoxious rich people, so I couldn’t see the art. From there, I went to a Review Santa Fe Alumni party in the Meat Packing district, which was very cool, and then headed home with sore feet and a tired brain. (Subway drama ensued… I’ll spare you, but there were a lot of rats involved.)

photo2I hit the PDN bash the following night with my friend Cori Chandler-Pepelnjak, after stopping by the Blurb/Hey Hot Shot party at a Pop-up store in Soho. (Picture white leather sofas, white shag carpet, and red wine. Lots of books, 22 year old kids, free beer, and pretty much everyone seemed to agree that Blurb is doing a great job at the moment.) But back to the Bash, which was held on the Intrepid aircraft carrier on the Hudson River. When Cori and I arrived, we followed the crowd and ended up on the top deck, with airplanes in the foreground and the NYC skyline to the East. Insane Photo Op. But of course then we felt like idiots when we couldn’t find the actual party. (Downstairs, duh.)

Inside, I got to catch up with Andrew Owen and Jenna Pirog, who run the LOOK3 photo fesitval, and put on the LOOKbetween event in Virginia that I chronicled for APE back in June. They were fired up for LOOK3 this June, and I was grateful for the opportunity to thank them in person for their hospitality. Since Summer, I’ve really kept up the friendships that I made over the beer and bonfires, and I know that was their intent. The reality is that curating conversation is a skill, or perhaps an art, and Andrew and Jenna did a killer job bringing people together.

I sifted through the crowd of Industry types for a while, and then decided to call it a night. It was the kind of event where everybody seemed to know everybody, and I didn’t. So at that point, far too beat to really work the room, I headed off into the Megalopolis. Really, I can’t imagine a more dense experience, as far as information gathering goes. Between the Expo floor, the seminars, and even the portfolio reviews, PDN really offers photographers a chance to absorb a year’s worth of knowledge in a few days. I’m still sorting things out a week later, and feel rather fortunate that I had the chance to attend.

5 Questions For Fraction Magazine’s David Bram

- - From The Field

Jonathan Blaustein, our man in the field, caught up with Photographer David Bram: editor, publisher and co-founder of fraction magazine ; recipient of the 2010 Griffin Museum Rising Star award; and a curator of exhibitions for several commercial galleries and non-profit photo spaces.

Jonathan: Do you think that more people look at photographs on a screen than on paper, and if so, does it change the way people think about photography?

David: I look at almost everything on a computer screen, so if that is an indication, then I would think that photographs are mostly viewed on a computer of some sort at this point. I’m not sure how many laptops are sold each year, but over 8 million iPads have been sold since April 2010 and nearly everyone has a cellphone that can make pictures as well. I think what has changed most about peoples’ perception of photography is that everyone has a camera, which then makes them think they’re a photographer. The computer age and the internet revolution, has taken the tangibleness out photography, we used to handle film, load cameras, handle negatives, handle paper, etc. I think this is the biggest change.

Jonathan: Fraction offers photographers a great deal of exposure in exchange for publishing their images for free. As online media begins to develop sustainable income streams, do you see a future where you are able to pay for publishing rights?

David: I am not paying the artists that are showcased because there isn’t any real money generated from it. Like most websites, money can be made with advertising and if you have the proper content there’s an audience for the advertisers, but for now, I do not see paying for content. And, I am not sure I will ever have to. As a photographer, I would love to be paid for having my work on someone’s website, but it’s not realistic at this point in time. Fraction is not an online gallery that aims to sell work and make money. Fraction merely introduces the artist’s work to the Fraction audience, free of charge.

Jonathan: Between portfolio reviews, internet research, and Fraction submissions, I would imagine you see thousands of photo projects a year. Are there any subjects that you feel have been done to death and you wish would just go away?

David: I’m not sure anything needs to go away because every artist, hopefully, has their own way of seeing the world. Also, I’m not sure it’s fair for me to say what needs to go away. I am finding that photography subjects are cyclical in nature, and who knows what everyone will love next week. There’s a difference between poorly executed work and tired subject matter.

Jonathan: Fraction is based in Albuquerque, and I’m based in Taos. You and I know that northern New Mexico has a lively and broad photographic community. Why do you think photographers are drawn here?

David: I think artists come to NM because of the weather and the light. Everything in New Mexico is dramatic, from the way the weather moves across the landscape to the politics. For me, the best time of year to photograph in NM is October and November. The air is cool and the light is amazing, especially in the hour before sunset. For photographers, there is a great sense of history as a number of great photographers have come through here at some point in time; Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Paul Caponigro, Paul Strand, Lee Friedlander and Laura Gilpin, as well as a long list of contemporary, well established photographers who call New Mexico home.

Jonathan: It seems like we’re entering an age where the traditional boundaries that existed between artists, curators, dealers, editors and publishers are coming down. I can think of dozens of people who are doing more than one thing. Do you think this has any serious implications for the photography industry?

David: It just means that some of us are more busy than others. I’ve been busy working with Fraction, doing portfolios reviews, the occasional talk, and yes, I am trying to make new work as well. I think this can only help the industry since some of us know how hard it is to make a living making photographs. I think technology has made things easier as well. Email gets us in the door a little faster and our own personal websites let the dealers and publishers see what we’re up to a whole lot easier then sending around books or portfolio boxes.