Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books – Hiroshi Sugimoto and Mark Rothko

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last week, I wrote about the Holocaust. It’s a hard one to follow, even for someone like me, who rarely lacks an opinion. (Are you kidding me? That salsa was way too bland. What kind of a person serves coffee that bitter? How many times are you going to tweet about your upcoming exhibition?)

As I was saying, given how much I like to control the flow of my week-to-week ramblings, writing about the worst event of the 20th Century leaves me in a bit of a pickle. Do I go right back to the heavy stuff, and risk ruining your weekend? Or do I trot out something light and fluffy, the photo book equivalent of a cuddly, stuffed bunny?

How about neither? Given that the Roman Vishniac article might bring a reasonable person to question the existence of a higher power, how about we contemplate the counter-argument? When we think of the sublime, we relish feeling small. We delight in the reminder that powers greater than we can comprehend make planets dance around stars, and waves crash on every shore. Right?

Hiroshi Sugimoto and Mark Rothko are two seemingly unrelated artists, one living, one dead. One guy photographs, the other was a painter. (How’s that for brilliant exposition? Tell us more, Blaustein.) I can’t pretend that there is more to the book I’m about to mention, because there isn’t. “Rothko/Sugimoto,” a new book published by Pace London, doesn’t seem to have ambitions beyond putting the two famous men’s work together in one volume.

Here’s a Rothko, and then, here’s a Sugimoto. And then here’s another Rothko, and here’s another Sugimoto. The pattern is not that hard to discern. As you turn the pages, you’ll find yourself guessing, rather successfully, what will come next. (Unless you’re really, really bad at prognostication. In which case, I’d love to play you in Rock/Paper/Scissors.)

Am I mailing it in today? I’m not sure. Is that allowed on a hot summer day? Are you going to call the Blogger Police? Will they suspend my Hotmail account for a couple of days as a punishment? All kidding aside, today, I just wanted to give you some beautiful, meaningful photos to contemplate. Mission accomplished. (How many George W. references is that this year?)

Bottom Line: Ham-fisted premise, great pictures

To Purchase “Rothko/Sugimoto” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Antonio M. Xoubanova

by Jonathan Blaustein

The flavor molecules remain on my tongue. Even now, as I swirl the red muscle around my mouth, I can taste the delicious bitterness. The coffee is a fresh memory, but I can feel the nascent flow of caffeine through my body. The battle, uphill all the way, is still to be fought. Can. It. Will. Me. To. Productivity?

Not that it matters much, but I gave up coffee for six months. “Addiction,” I said, “be gone.” I was cocky about it, too. After making it through a trip to Europe, (with the attendant jet lag,) having still not succumbed to the power of Joe, I was sure I’d conquered the beast. “My willpower is legendary,” I shouted. “They will write Epic poems about me, and the time I slew the liquid, brown dragon. Hear my tale and sing my praises.”

How did it happen? How did my weakness slowly emerge from hiding, and end up slitting the throat of my discipline? What was the impetus? A fair maiden, of course. She seduced me. “A few sips can’t hurt,” she said. “It will help you lift your tired bones out of bed.” (It did.) “What’s the harm in a few sips,” she asked?

I was re-hooked immediately. Now, with a hand-me-down espresso maker sitting on the kitchen counter, I feel like a rat in a lab. Touch the button, little rat, and you can have yourself a treat. Ignore the little shock of pain, though. It’s only temporary.

Yes, my addiction never left. It was merely biding its time, lounging in a cave somewhere, deep in my psyche. Thank goodness it only has a taste for coffee, and not heroin. (That would be bad.) No, it merely lingered, sure that its dark prowess would prevail, eventually.

My little monster is kind-of-like the fictional phantasms at the heart of “Casa de Campo,” a new book by Antonio M. Xoubanova, recently released by MACK. (Seriously, though, does the M. really make a difference here? Are there other Antonio Xoubanovas out there we need to know about? Just curious.)

I won’t lie to you. I tore through nine books this morning before I settled on this one. My brain is mush, (hence the double-double espresso before 7am,) and I didn’t feel much like reading. All the books I grabbed had massive essays or reading commitments, and I wasn’t up for it. (These are photo books, for goodness sake. Just give me one where I can look at some pictures. OK?)

I would probably have reviewed this one eventually anyway, as MACK often makes books worth discussing. But “Casa de Campo” jumped the queue, thanks to its decided lack of text. There is a short, excellent piece to read at the end, but it only contextualizes the experience after-the-fact.

And what would that experience be? A long set of pictures, in which circular images are mixed with traditional rectangles. What of? The photos appear to be made in some sort of urban park. Portraits are interwoven with mysterious sculptural suggestions, like a hole dug beneath a bench, or a circle made of dots of spray paint, or a memorial affixed to a tree.

There are rabbits and birds, a dude peeing against a tree, a Christmas tree that may as well be an art installation, and an Earth mound that looks suspiciously like a grave. I’m not sure what you’ll think, but I kept turning the pages for more. (Always the sign of a good book.) Hippies frolic, Tai Chi ensues, and what’s with the guy in the bathrobe?

The story at the back tells of mysterious, translucent inhabitants of the park, which used to be hunting grounds for the Spanish Royal family. Are we talking about ghosts? Or, as the story suggests, are they dark parts of Madrileño souls, which have detached from their hosts to hide out behind trees or under rocks? Is this literal? Does it matter?

We all have hidden parts of our psyches. It’s straight out of Jung, but I’ll spare you the psychobabble. Whether or not my coffee addiction took corporeal form, at some point, deep in the recesses of my mind, I’m sure it would have been comfortable in the Casa de Campo. Should I beat it back again, there is a hole in the dirt out there somewhere. It will make itself at home, and wait until it can ascend again, above ground.

Bottom line: Mysterious, interesting pictures, fantastic backstory

To Purchase “Casa de Campo” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Gerry Johansson

by Jonathan Blaustein

They say nothing is certain but death and taxes. (Whoever ever they are, that is.) To that short list, I’d add another constant: change.

Take people, for instance. Each day we live, we’re that much closer to dying. But age begets wisdom, so it’s not all bad. (And growth is possible too.) Though we admittedly live in a youth-obsessed culture, I’d like to think I’m getting better at what I do. It would be sad to peak too early.

Take this column, for instance. It began as a weekly synopsis of three books, a simple paragraph for each. We included a few photos taken from the photo-eye website. (No muss, no fuss.) Within a few months, though, I found myself enthralled by a special book, and the format with which you’re currently engaged was born. Gerry Johansson made a photo book so good, I just tore off into the unknown, making connections and speculations with equal fury.

A year and a half has gone by. I keep writing, and you keep reading. But things change, no matter what. As of yesterday, I’ve begun to write about photography for the New York Times, as a freelance contributor to the Lens Blog. We shall see, indeed, if I can write without the crutch of the first person perspective.

As of next month, you may come to read on Fridays and find the this column no longer there. In its place, you may find I’m presenting an interview with a photographer or a curator, or perhaps an exhibition review. The weekly flow will have been interrupted. Plus ça change…

We can follow the trajectory from Gerry Johansson shooting some pictures in Pontiac, Michigan to me writing for the New York Times. Everything’s connected, say the Buddhists, and history ties many things together.

Take Mr. Johansson’s new book, “Hattfabriken/Luckenwalde,” for instance. It opens with a set of square, black and white photographs. (As do each of his books, most likely.) The Swedish photographer is one of the most capable working today, I’d venture, and these pictures grabbed me immediately. We see a cool looking building, with prominently designed architecture. What is it? Where?

As we turn the pages, we begin to notice that the photographer seems to be circling the building, as the perspective shifts slightly, picture to picture. It’s the rare artist who’s able to make the viewer feel his or her presence, standing somewhere in the world. Here, that sense was palpable. It raised my curiosity. Even more so when he finally entered the building, and it was wrecked and abandoned.

From there, as we continue to flip, we find an essay written in Swedish. And then one in German. As I don’t read either language, I continued on through the narrative. There were two paintings presented, mirror images of the same building in the photographs, with a Swastika added in for good measure. (That I’m discussing Swastika art for the second time in three weeks is an odd coincidence worth mentioning.)

In the subsequent English version of the essay, we learn that the paintings were made by Dick Bengtsson, a prominent Swedish postal worker-turned-artist. The building was a Hat and Cap Factory, in East Germany, designed by Erich Mendelsohn, a Jew. The architect ultimately fled Germany in the Nazi purge, and ended up helping the Allies plan bombing raids against his home country during the War. How much of this history influenced Bengtsson, and Johansson by extension? We can only speculate.

Flipping onward, we see a series of photographs of Luckenwalde, the city in which the factory resides. The pictures are so, so good. I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone work a square composition like this since Robert Adams. And the light and tonal qualities are brilliant as well. Wow.

Except, now that I think about it, we’re not given the name of the city yet, which is only referenced once in the previous essay anyway. So the tension slowly builds. Where is this place we’re peeking in on. And why?

The pictures are followed by a brief statement that names the city, and gives a bit of background on its socialist history. (So then we can piece it together.) A beautiful factory was built in an East German city that was Socialist before becoming Nazi, German before becoming East German, and then German again. The building, in the city, was designed by a Jewish German, who was welcome in Germany, before he wasn’t. And then he helped ruin his former country, which was busy attempting to annihilate his entire race.

A Swedish artist found a photo of the building, and made some paintings of it, which included Swastikas. He may or may not have known the entire complicated history. Then, in the 21st Century, another Swedish artist, this time a photographer, goes to visit the hulking ruin, and makes his own work on the subject. Are you still with me?

Like I said at the beginning: change is as constant as death. I’ll still be here each week, exploring and discovering along with you, going forward, but we might not discuss a book each time. Regardless, I feel a bit of a connection to Mr. Johansson, who’s work has helped inspire me to grow as a writer, and a person. Perhaps we’ll wrangle him for an interview, and we’ll publish it on a Friday, in place of this very column. Time will tell.

Bottom line: Brilliant book. Intricate too.

To Purchase “Hattfabriken/Luckenwalde” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Mike Brodie

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve always loved “East of Eden.” Such a brilliant book. My brother and I didn’t get along well, for years, so the novel just made sense to me. I’d never before read anything that resonated on the personal, intellectual and spiritual level. That Steinbeck, man. What a genius.

It’s not the opus most people think of, though, when the great man’s name comes up. Like Walker Evans and the Great Depression, when most hear Steinbeck, they go right to “The Grapes of Wrath.” Dust covers everything. People roam and wander. Desperation wafts thickly. “Okie” is an epithet. And Tom Joad is a character that sticks.

Hell, even Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen mined his well-worn talent, (perhaps for the last time,) when he wrote “The Ghost of Tom Joad” back in ’95. If ever there were a story that sells in America, it’s the wandering vagrant, riding the rails. (Hey Acorn, you got any spare strips a duct tape? Got me ‘nother hole in mah overalls. Landed funny comin’ off that goddamn train.)

Much as I love to tie these reviews back to my own life, today, I’ve got nothing. Sure, I’ve been around, but always from the comfort of a car, bus, plane, or passenger train. I’m just an average, everyday civilian.

As opposed to Mike Brodie, whose project “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” recently exhibited at Yossi Milo in New York, and was released earlier this year as a beautifully produced book, by Twin Palms. No, this dude has seen his fair share of disemboweled varmints, festering sores, and never-washed hair. And he seems to be spry, if the pictures are to be believed. (Fence jumping in the opening picture? Great way to kick off the narrative.)

Mr. Brodie spent a few years hopping freight trains, and hanging out with the kind of kids who would emerge from a test-tube birth, if the parents were Ryan McGinley, Nan Goldin, and the aforementioned Californian, John Steinbeck. (What? You can’t have three parents? Says who?) They’d be glamorous, if they weren’t so dirty. They’d be normal, if they weren’t so misunderstood. They’d be happy, if they weren’t so damaged.

These photographs have gone everywhere, (as have the protagonists,) and it’s not hard to understand why. Looking at this book gives you a window into an unseemly world that you wouldn’t otherwise get to see. (Though the Sean Penn film from a few years back with the *Spoiler Alert* super-sad ending did a fair job, I suppose.) It’s the equivalent of US Weekly for the intelligentsia: see how the other half lives; we dare you to put it down.

I love to be surprised, but I don’t know if that happened here. It felt more voyeuristic than truly insightful; more entertaining than informative. But looking at the situation facing members of the artist’s generation, (he’s 27,) maybe this is just the most perfect set of “peoplesymbols” anyone’s come out with yet? It’s a bit cynical, but keeps it real at the same time. Sounds pretty GenY to me.

There are lots of photos looking down, which works very well, and the overall color palette is gorgeous: muted when need be, ugly when appropriate, and glowing at just the right moments. At a time when everyone is talking about Punk, because of the Met’s Fashion exhibition, this book gives us a sense of what the movement’s descendants might look like in 2013.

Basically, this is the ultimate project for now. It’s guaranteed to get people’s attention, well-crafted enough to hold it, yet not brilliant enough to force people to think too hard. It’s easy to tell yourself: boy, I’m glad I didn’t end up like that. But then you think, if I had, I’d be the one sitting on the gold mine photo project.

Is it worth it if you have to poop on toilets hooked up to vacuum cleaners, and change the dressing on your best bud Tray’s ass wound? I don’t know. But it’s too late for you anyway. This merry band of misfit roaming rebels has been photographed already. Find your own subculture.

Bottom Line: Excellent book, super-trendy project

To Purchase “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Walker Evans

by Jonathan Blaustein

Have you ever been to Walmart? It’s a fair question. If you live in a major American city, or elsewhere in the world, you might not have had the experience. (Spoiler alert: you’re not missing much.)

I avoid Walmart whenever possible. Sometimes, though, I have no choice. Here in the sticks, if you need something specific, immediately, you might have to succumb to the unctuous undertow. I try to find an alternative if I can, because I’m so tired of being “Walmarted.” Yes, my wife and I use the noun as a verb.

To be “Walmarted” means to go into the store looking for a particular, inexpensive item which, invariably, they’re out of. Then, as you try to navigate the chunky aisles, in which things are sometimes moved around to confuse, you end up grabbing other goods; stuffing your basket with unnecessary trinkets made in China. Finally, you find yourself in a long, slow queue, wasting time. After five minutes of waiting, you realize you aren’t actually buying the thing you came in for. Fed up, you put down your basket, and walk out of the store.

Classy.

If I were asked, by some time-traveling Americans from the future, to codify the signs of our collective decline, Walmart would be a pretty good place to start. It has its defenders, who focus on its ability to deliver low-cost goods, but the Arkansas-based mega-conglomerate has many sins for which to repent. Chief among them, the corporation has done much to hollow out America’s once-thriving Middle-Class. (Look here, and let me distract you with super-cheap garbage that will break in a few weeks time, while I run your Mom-and-Pop establishments out of business.)

Yes, Walmart would be my answer, if queried by these imaginary Americans from the future. What if, however, they asked me to show them what America looked like in the past? Perhaps they were curious about depictions of the United States the last time we were mired in a period of deep stagnation?

“You want a sense of what things were like during the Great Depression, future people? That’s easy,” I’d say. “No worries. Here’s a copy of the 75th Anniversary edition of ‘American Photographs,’ by Walker Evans, recently re-issued by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Have a seat, take a look,” I’d say. “By the way, do you guys have flying cars yet? Because that would be righteous, future dudes.”

This book needs no actual introduction, so I fabricated one, as I’m wont to do. It’s just that good. Clinical, poetic, formal, intelligent, political photographs line up for your perusal. All you have to do is turn the page, and stare.

While I rarely mention price, this book is not expensive, so it belongs in any good collection. (Hint, hint. Buy it.) It begs repeated viewing, as the details are so compelling. Even photos you’ve seen before feel fresh and modern, like the “Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife,” from 1936. Another, “Interior Detail, West Virginia Coal Miner’s House,” from 1935, is another I’d seen before. This time, though, the humor of the situation jumped out at me. Who on Earth would use those cheesy adverts to decorate a living room? This guy, apparently.

Structurally, the book is broken down into two sections. The first deals with people and signage, predominantly, and the latter focuses on American Architecture. Both are stellar, and show Mr. Evans’ range. There is a sequence of structures in Part 2, a few ramshackle churches, interspersed with a Greek-Style stone facade, that indubitably influenced the Becher style, decades later. Brilliant.

Finally, I must give a shout out to the incredibly-well-written and somehow timely essay by Lincoln Kirstein, which follows the plates. (From the original publication in 1938.) It’s the rare bit of intellectual prose that holds one’s attention with its severe intelligence, and I found myself shocked by the contemporary relevance. (“A batch of younger photographers, usually their dark-room assistants, is always just around the corner, ready to do the new jobs for less cash. Just as with automobiles, the style-turnover is rapid and the old dogs can’t seem to learn new tricks.”)

Two closing statements, by the curator Sarah Hermanson Meister, give a clue as to how much work goes into re-producing a book like this. She also offers us an inside look at how seriously those MoMA folks take their jobs. Obsession and attention to detail are a given, I suppose.

Those of you who pay attention might just have realized that I foreshadowed this review in last week’s column. I, too, take my work seriously, even if that only means keeping it fresh from time to time. This book, by a master, as promised, is one to own. No questions asked.

Bottom Line: A re-issued masterpiece. Buy it.

To Purchase “American Photographs” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

This Week In Photography Books – Asger Carlsen

by Jonathan Blaustein

Remember Dolly? That sheep some weird scientists cloned nearly twenty years ago? Everybody thought it was the beginning of the end: man ripping the power of creation from the the cold dead hands of the gods. (After having stolen the power of mass destruction a few decades earlier. What’s left? I guess we still can’t telepathically communicate with dolphins, like Aquaman.)

Now most of us live in the future, without realizing it. Change, when it comes, can be as swift as a Tsunami, blinding us to its impact. Just the other day, in an airport in Newark, NJ, I noticed that every person I surveyed was tapping away at a little screen, oblivious to the reality surrounding them. The physical world is boring, I suppose.

What’s that you say? Tell us something we don’t know, Blaustein? I’ll allow the above observation is not Earth-shaking. We all know we’ve been sucked into the Matrix. But how often do people even notice? Short of teleportation and flying cars, the 21st Century is as freaky as it was imagined to be: robot warriors rain bombs down on hapless shepherds, human ears sprout from lab rats, bionic limbs sprint down the race track, and the President of the United States is a dead ringer for Spock.

Speaking of teleportation, I was lamenting the lack of its existence the other day, wishing I could just beam my family to the Mayan Riviera. Wouldn’t that be nice, I speculated? It’s empty this time of year. My five-year-old son, growing sharper by the day, pointed out that if teleportation indeed existed, then the beaches would be mobbed all the time. Damn. Can’t even bitch about imaginary inventions without someone bursting my bubble.

Where was I? Right. We’re living in the future, but haven’t truly grasped that yet. What might it take to shake us from our ignorance? Who might wrench our necks from beneath the white sandy beaches, which abut the clear blue water? (Sorry, dreaming about the Caribbean again.)

How about our good friend Asger Carlsen? Remember him? We published an interview early last Fall, where he discussed his imminent book release, “Hester.” (Published by the excellent Mörel Books in London.) Leave it to Mr. Carlsen to conjure wicked visions of our techno-present, thereby shaking us from our drunken slumber.

“Hester” comes wrapped in a beautiful, classy bit of fabric. It’s a hard-cover, unlike most of the Mörel offerings I’ve yet seen. Open up, and the inside cover is a velvety bit of purple paper. Again, classy. (Purple evokes royalty, no?) Flip one page further, and we’re treated to the only bit of text in the whole book, save the thank you page: Hester, Chinatown, NYC. We’ll remember from the interview that the artist’s studio is in Chinatown, maybe on Hester Street? Not much to go on.

The lush beginnings lull us into a false sense of security, just as our media addiction assuages our collective fear of big-picture thinking. (The 24-hour news cycle and our social media obsession keep our eyes off of contemplating anything of substance. I had to escape urban reality, moving to a horse pasture in the Rocky Mountains, for goodness sake, just to have any chance at staring skyward.)

Out of high-end beginnings, “Hester” devolves into a dark, dystopian tale, shrouded in banality. Right away, we see a naked torso, vagina looming above some seriously big feet. Where the breasts should be, we see only said torso tapering into skinny arms, with no hands. Just some almost-flippers instead. The setting is neutral: wood floors and a white wall. Like an art gallery?

Turn the pages, and the next two plates feature a blob of dark-skinned flesh, with a hand-ended arm and a foot-ended leg planted firmly on the concrete ground. A ladder leans against a wall, in the first, again suggesting the gallery vibe, maybe in the middle of an installation. Are these laboratory-created flesh sculptures? Damien Hirst’s animal-art version 9.0?

The grotesque, almost goblin-like renderings, courtesy of Photoshop, continue in an unending chain of bad taste. (Which married good taste, and had shockingly-of-the-moment babies.) Horrible, brilliant babies. I’d want to vomit if I weren’t so enchanted by the awesomeness of this project.

Just when it starts to get a bit old, there comes a photo of a thinner blob, skeletal, jutting vertically on a narrow table, like a skin-lamp. So the speculation ends. These things are really meant as art-piece-props, there to reflect back to us the futuristic insanity in which we live, where secret labs come up with all sorts of unthinkable nonsense we pretend isn’t really happening.

One of these days, I’ll write a column that doesn’t blatantly attempt to raise your ire, or mess with your head. Maybe I’ll show you a well-made book by an old master, and the lead-in will be witty but harmless. Look over here, I’ll say, because everything is going to be all right. Maybe that day will come. Maybe even next week? But I’ll tell you one thing: Asger Carlsen will be crouching in the shadows anyway, thinking up something twisted, no matter how pretty the flowers look today.

Bottom Line: Wicked, twisted, prophetic, excellent book

To Purchase Hester visit Photo-Eye

 

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Arthur Grace

by Jonathan Blaustein

A friend of mine ran the Boston Marathon last week. I only found out yesterday. She was six blocks from the finish line when the bombs exploded. Her daughter and parents were just a block from the carnage. What is that? A hundred yards from the jaws of Fate?

She told me almost as an afterthought, as we sat, chatting, on a blue velvet couch in Santa Fe. She lacked clear marks of psychological trauma, which was disconcerting. Is it possible to live through something like that and emerge healthy? I don’t know.

But the odd thing was it didn’t take long for us to both express our secret shame at feeling sympathy for 19-year-old Dzhokar Tsarnaev. We each admitted we’d thought how lonely and horrible he must have felt, alone, bleeding from the neck, waiting to die in someone else’s pleasure boat. Are we crazy?

My friend, a mother, suggested that as parents, we’re hardwired to feel for the trauma of someone’s suffering child. Perhaps that’s true. (My intestines ache just thinking about the murdered and maimed last week, especially the kids.) But I feel like it might also mark a different phase in America’s development, young as we are as a nation. I doubt there was a soul in this country who wouldn’t have pissed on the ashes of Mohammed Atta’s incinerated corpse, if given the chance. (What an -sshole that guy was.) But, twelve years later, perhaps we’re weary of the black and white politics of the War on Terror?

This would probably be a good moment to say that, like everyone, I deplore the actions of the terrorist brothers. What a pointless sh-tstorm they created. But, unlike 9/11, this event seemed slapdash; not entirely thought through. (Here, I have to link to the brilliant Onion piece that riffs on that phenomenon.)

The whole thing just felt more American; more of its time. One brother wanted to be an Olympic boxer, failed, and then seethed under the chronic underemployment that has befallen his generation. (And I can’t imagine it was easy to be a Muslim immigrant in famously-white Boston, either.)

The other: younger, more impressionable, was a well-liked wrestler, and was meant to be more assimilated. But his older brother, whom he must have idolized, led him down a hateful and horribly-destructive path. Then, in what might have been the ultimate act of last-minute revenge, or a conscious attempt to save him from police clutches, Dzhokar ran his brother over with a stolen German SUV. (Cain and Abel much?)

Where is this all headed? These guys are a figment of our collective consciousness. Car chases and shootouts with the police straight out of a Bruce Willis movie? Surfing the Internet, in spare hours, geeking out on arcane information? Bullshitting with a neighbor about religion at the local pizza joint? Lashing out at “America” for no real reason at all, just to let loose accumulated rage?

This is a country founded upon violence. Our radical DNA surfaces from time to time, and our addiction to firearms will unlikely abate. Ever. Aren’t we all wondering where these guys got their guns, and if even a terrorist attack will slow down the NRA anti-background-check juggernaut?

What else emerged from the gore last week? Strength of community and spirit. Resilience. Generosity. Determination. And a city that was shut down tight just to catch the bad guys. (Like it or not, we’re a nation of, and by Hollywood.)

It’s a huge country, America, and our cities, towns and rural outposts are so far-flung that we’ve had only myth and common language to keep the experiment together. Personally, I love the place. It’s hard to put into words, but photographs often do justice to this disparate reality.

Photographs, like the ones I saw in “America 101,” a monograph by the aptly named Arthur Grace, published late last year by Fall Line Press. The photographer has been a long-time photo-journalist, working for the biggest media outlets, but I’d not heard of him before. (Honestly, these are some of my favorite types of book-experiences: when I get to discover someone that has been out there making great work all along.)

The collection of images is entirely black and white, and spans the better part of four decades. It opens, pre-essay, with a photograph of police securing a school bus route in 1976, in…you guessed it…Boston, MA. There were many places in the US that reacted poorly to enforced integration, but this book, coincidentally, focuses on the scene in Boston, back in the day.

The narrative is non-linear, the pathos balanced with humor, and the range of people and cultural experiences is as vast as the Great Plains in Winter. The use of repeating symbols is a highlight, in particular the depiction of guns, and references to violence.

The real magic here comes in runs. The book develops momentum, like a good football game, and then inevitably loses steam, only to come back strong again. The first group that caught my attention is as follows: a diptych of Vermont hunters from 1976, followed by another diptych of violent protests in South Boston in 1974, a scene of carnival goers shooting fake guns at water balloons, a man pointing a rifle at a live raccoon at his feet, a couple of Hispanic taxidermists holding a stuffed cougar head in Albuquerque, circa 1986, John Wayne riding with soldiers in a tank in Cambridge, MA in 1974, and, finally, a group of pretend dead historical soldiers, lying in a field for a Revolutionary War re-enactment in Charlestown, MA, 1975. (Got that? If not, just read it again. Brilliant sequencing.)

There are several odes to Boston’s racial strife in the 70’s, but the book is not exclusively glum or intense, by any means. There are farmers and beauty queens, Evil Kenevil jumping vans on a high school football field, Al Gore looking like a robot in 1988, Jimmy Carter splayed out on an car roof in Ohio like a buxom model in Low Rider Magazine, and a young boxer, looking pensive, in Oahu, 1983. (I wonder if his dreams were ever fulfilled?)

The second suite of pictures that I can’t not share is sports related, that other American and Bostonian obsession. It starts with the Westminster Dog show in 1991, moves to what may be the best sports photo I’ve ever seen, in which a Cincinnati Reds outfielder is frozen in a mid-air catch, looking more than a little like a Black Jesus, followed by a no-neck, tatted-out arm wrestler in Kansas, circa 2004, and then a monstrous Texan corn-dog-eating contestant stuffing his face in Dallas, 2003. (Ah, the Bush years. So much less complicated. The government was totally incompetent, and the terrorists were perfectly unsympathetic.)

I could describe more of the photos here, many more, but then you’d stop reading. Most people would rather look at a picture than read a description of it. (Understandable.) So I’d recommend you consider buying this book, if you’d like to be reminded of the wonder and complex magnificence of the American experiment. Mr. Grace has done a terrific job, and I commend him.

Lastly, I’d like to end by stating the obvious. I have no ambivalence as to the evil of what the Tsarnaev brothers did last week. I have hugged my children more tightly since I returned from NYC the day of the bombing, and recommend you do the same. Cliché or not, we never know what awaits when we step out the front door each day. My thoughts and prayers go out to the innocent victims, their families, and all the citizens of Boston.

Bottom Line: Powerful views of America, over time

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Torbjørn Rødland

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was a wee bit angsty last week, I must admit. Trapped in an existential crisis of my own making, I freely rhapsodized about the meaning of it all. Quelle surprise.

I don’t want to imply, though, that everything in life is or should be earnest. We’re all doing the best we can, using our creative outlets to bring attention to deserving stories, release our pent-up mental tension, or allow joy into our lives. Art is process more than product.

Just yesterday, though, I realized that the string of books I chose to highlight recently was misery-laden. This space is well-utilized, I believe, if you come to read each week, and learn something about the world through the visions of talented image makers. But the human experience is not limited to death, chaos and violence.

Frankly, when we focus exclusively on the negative, we do ourselves a disservice. In a week like this, when terror again shook the United States, and an even bigger explosion battles for headlines, it would be easy to stick to the program; talk about what’s wrong out there. But since when have I opted for easy?

Humor is often misunderstood, seen as a less-than-intellectual response to external stimuli. Fart jokes are great, don’t get me wrong, but they give the impression that laughing is an LCD response. (If I were flatulent right now, and you were here to see it, would you laugh? Honestly?)

Many a great mind has come to realize that embracing the absurdity of our little dance with existence is the way to go. (As my Aussie friend Pappy used to say, “If you don’t laugh, you cry, JB.”) And I don’t feel like crying anymore. (Especially about my own lack of value to the human race. One week of whining is enough.)

So I was happy to pick up “Vanilla Partner,” by Torbjørn Rødland, published last year by MACK. I hated this book the first two times I flipped through the pages. I was in my austere, goatee-stroking mode, and just didn’t get it. Had I actually owned the copy, I might have hurled it against the wall, crunching its spine, while I shrieked like a coyote with its foot in a trap. But, as we’ve learned previously, sometimes you have to give art a little breathing space, and keep an open mind.

Today, desperate to leave my leaden spirit in an ash pile, I opened the book again, and nearly giggled in faux horror at the audacity. (It’s not LOL funny. More the “Oh no you didn’t” type of vibe.) The series of images within only makes sense if you lighten up. Octopi and sausages wrap around appendages. Bodies are contorted in uncomfortable positions. People are covered in paint, or writing, or plastic wrap.

Their faces are stoic through the silliness, like Thomas Ruff subjects who’ve been caught in a clown’s bad dream. (Though the picture of the smiling, breast-feeding mother is a keeper. Breastfeeding women don’t smile. Trust me.) The juxtaposition of levity and melancholy is fantastic; a solid metaphor for the dualistic nature of nature.

There are boobs, for sure, (Boobs Sell Books℠), but the nudity fits the overall mood. One guy has his penis hanging out while being body painted, and by the time I got to the girl’s butt with a rectal thermometer sticking out, my appreciation for the irreverence was complete. (This is certainly the kind of book that won’t make sense to everyone.)

Have you ever vomited on yourself, and blamed someone else? Or been drawn on while passed-out-wasted? (Some grown-up-frat-boys marked up my brother during his bachelor party, for heaven’s sake.) It’s the perfect symbol for the ridiculous-but-necessary side of our psyche. If that’s not enough for you, how about a child’s head covered with spaghetti sauce, or a girl with a woolen condom sticking out of her mouth?

I expect this book might offend many, if not most people. It’s ironic in such a dry way that you can miss it, as I did the first few times I leafed through. But really, when people die every day, severed limbs leaking blood on the sidewalk, and there’s no sense to the killing, sometimes, it’s a natural response to just say f-ck it, and spray someone with chocolate sauce.

Bottom Line: Edgy use of irony and humor, not for everyone

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Melissa Catanese

by Jonathan Blaustein

I might be having a mid-life crisis. I’m not entirely sure, as I’ve never had one before. Since turning thirty-nine last month, and then bending my mind in Amsterdam, I’ve begun to question the value of my contribution to the human race. Difficult stuff, but not that original, I suppose.

I’ve always thought that making art was a valiant way to transform the chaos of the inner workings of one’s mind into positive catharsis. And of course, art is ultimately the way we judge culture, from the future looking back. Basically, it’s a noble and high-class profession, despite the poor pay and surfeit of insecurity.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that I’ve taken the last year off from teaching. (I look forward to picking it up again in the Fall.) Working with kids has always helped remind me of the power of supporting creativity. Art offers teen-agers (and the rest of us,) an outlet for their emotions, one that can improve self-esteem as well.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been wondering (aloud) in this space what we can do to make art matter more to the general public. Again and again, I’ve pondered the issue. But in my introspective, MLC mental space, I’ve begun to wonder if it’s not appropriate to pull a JFK. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong question all along. Maybe the real question is, what can we do to make the general public matter more to art?

The last few weeks, I wrote about books that really dove into murky, dark problems in 21st Century society. The Mexican Drug War, the incarceration epidemic in the US, and then an uplifting tale of conquering addiction in Canada. (How’s that for a North American Trifecta. Boo-yah.) So I can’t exactly say that no one out there is doing the good work. I just feel like these projects should have a greater impact on society than they do.

Now that the boundaries between art and journalism have come down, maybe it’s time that the motivations mixed up a bit as well. Artists could use a bit more of the photo-journalistic sense of mission and responsibility to the public, and perhaps the PJ’s could use a tad more of artists’ facility with innovation and risk-taking in the creative process.

Personally, I feel a bit caught in between. My burgeoning MLC is forcing me to ask some hard questions about what I ought to focus on, and whether I need to prioritize other people’s needs before my own. Lacking that, art can often end up as just a cool diversion. We’ve all seen countless examples of pictures on the wall of major institutions, or in beautifully printed books, and said, “So what?”

“Dive Dark, Dream Slow,” by Melissa Catanese, published by The Ice Plant in LA, is just such a project. I’m not certain, but I’d bet that Ms. Catanese is trendy at the moment. The book has that vibe. (Of course I could be wrong, but you know I don’t google this stuff. It’s all about reacting to the info provided.)

The black and white images contained within are cool. They appear to be historical, and have the feel of archived material. (Which the end notes corroborate: from the collection of Peter J. Cohen. Along with a quote from Camus, of course.) People are diving into dark waters, ladies are lounging on the beach, or in the tall grass, explosions pop up in the ocean. That sort of thing.

Of course, there are a few pictures of boobs, (Boobs Sell Books℠)
the moon, waves crashing against rocks, waterfalls, a man in a tribal mask. You get the picture. (I hope.)

I don’t mean to be sarcastic about this. It is a cool book, and I spent a few minutes trying to figure it all out, before I gave up. Because it doesn’t mean anything. I doubt it’s even supposed to. Sure, the artist might say she was mining an archive, trying to present a metaphor for the way we mine our subconscious as artists. Or maybe the book is meant to represent the process of psychotherapy, wherein we “dive” into abstract dreams, dissecting, seeking deeper meaning. (Of course, with the Camus reference, it might just be a meditation on existentialism.)

Really, it doesn’t matter. As Roger Ballen mentioned in our recent interview, so much of contemporary art turns people off because it doesn’t ask real questions, tackle actual problems, or attempt to represent anything other than the whims of spoiled rich kids. (I’m paraphrasing. I don’t think he mentioned rich kids, but did speak of preferring Disney movies to most of what he sees.)

In a world of near-infinite photographic images, the rules have obviously changed. Getty pays photographers in decimal points, Instagram images are on the cover of the NY Times, and we’re all out there, struggling, trying to figure out how to create value out of what we do. It’s harder to make a living at our collective passion than ever before, and I’m not sure that’s going to change.

So I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t time for us to reach out the wider world a bit more, as they don’t seem to be coming to us. Everyone is a photographer now, that’s a given. People have fallen in love with our way of expressing ourselves, which paradoxically makes us smaller fish in an a bigger ocean. Something’s got to change, and I’m suggesting it might be us.

Because books like this one will not bring the masses around to a sense of art’s importance. Maybe I’m wrong to want that? Maybe a collection of smart-looking photos, bound together well, should be enough for me. I just not sure anymore.

Bottom line: Cool book, but is it enough to just be cool?

To Purchase “Dive Dark, Dream Slow” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Tony Fouhse

by Jonathan Blaustein

I picked up a nasty virus in Mexico the other day. No, not the Montezuma’s-revenge-type-thing. I’ve had that one before, though. Nasty business. Over the course of a twenty-six hour bus ride from Juarez to Mazatlan, I brazenly ate food from filthy roadside taco stands. The flies were buzzing around the fetid meat, which had obviously been sitting in the sun for hours.

Why would I do such a thing? I had a strong stomach and a small brain. I can handle it, I assumed. Over the course of a miserable four-day illness, I remember thinking how some lessons have to be learned the hard way. They say youth is wasted on the young, but really, if we don’t learn from our mistakes, what’s the point of it all?

Now, though, I’m struggling with an evil sore throat that feels like I’ve got an acorn back there. Every time I swallow, it’s like I’m rubbing sandpaper over my swollen squirrel’s treat. As it’s a virus, there was no tidy anti-biotic to quickly squash the little bugger. Instead, I’m hopped up on doctor prescribed percoset. (So if my ramblings are slightly less coherent today, please forgive.)

I paid for my poor choice of taco selection, but only for a few days. The suffering was brief, and the ramifications of my decision-making were not life-altering. Thank goodness. Because other youthful mistakes can be deadly. The alcohol-fueled cockiness that leads to drunk driving. The pent-up testosterone-rage that leads to violence. The foolish sense of immortality that allows for the first taste of forbidden addictions.

Honestly, I never want this column to be too dour. Sometimes, I like to write about light and fluffy things, but I’m at the mercy of the book-stack. I reach into the pile, and respond to the quality of other artists’ visions. (So if you crave a book on Easter eggs this week, I’ll disappoint.) But if you’re looking to see how an artist deals with one of the most serious social problems of our times, then today’s book certainly belongs beside Mr. Rochkind and Ms. Emdur’s offerings. (The two previous columns.)

“Live Through This”, published by STRAYLIGHT Press, is packaged smartly. I faced a plastic sleeve, sealed with a carefully placed sticker. Open it up, and there is a cardboard cover, secured with a single rubber band. There is no artist name, or any info beyond the title. I was intrigued. The first blank page features only the pencil signature by the artist, Tony Fouhse. Turn again, and you get a small story about Stephanie, and how she should have died, to make what follows a better story. What?

I’ll cut to the chase, and give you the crux of the narrative, as you don’t actually have the ability to slowly parse it out, page by page. (Unless you buy the book, which I would recommend.) Apparently, Mr. Fouhse was photographing heroin and crack junkies in Ottawa, and asked the young Stephanie MacDonald if he could take her picture. It’s the first portrait in the book, and she has a stunned-but-vacant look in her eye, a pock-marked face, and a staggering Eat Me tattoo just above her lady parts.

Thus began a relationship in which the artist offered to help Ms. MacDonald get clean. He intervened in her life, setting up a rehab stint, and stood by her when she had brain surgery, due to a dirty needle. The pictures throughout the book are accompanied by Stephanie’s own diaristic text, replete with bad spelling. (Who am I to criticize? I have typos almost every week.)

The pictures are certainly difficult to look at, but unlike those Meth-head billboards they have up some places, (I mean you, Colorado,) these images are not just meant to scare. They’re intimate and caring, while also representing a vision of reality that we don’t want to see, but should. Powerful stuff.

While I’m pretty sure Hollywood has not yet relocated to Canada, despite Vancouver’s sterling reputation for filmmaking, this book does have a happy ending. Stephanie cleans up, and even spent some time living with Mr. Fouhse and his wife. There is a cool little insert in the back that includes Stephanie’s entire narrative, the results of a drug test properly passed, and a signed portrait of her, post-addiction, with clear skin.

Drugs are a problem that will not go away. Despite being illegal, outlawed, the demand never dies. At present, the people reaping the rewards are often armed thugs, gangs of killers. So people push for legalization, which will bring tax benefits, and shift the profits elsewhere. Who will make the money instead? I’m not sure that’s been addressed.

But like David Simon demonstrated in his provocative “Hamsterdam” scenario in “The Wire,” even legalization will not tie a pretty pink bow on this intractable problem. People will succumb to addiction, do horrible things, and then die lonely deaths, either way. I had a cousin who went that way, despite seeming to have everything to live for. Demons often win in the end.

This book is a beautiful counterpoint to the misery, and a valuable lesson to us all. I know journalists are often in a position of having to tell the story, rather than intervene. That’s just the way it is. But here is a case where someone’s creative practice and generous heart made a difference in a young girl’s life. One less corpse to be discovered, and hauled off to the morgue.

Bottom Line: Difficult photographs of young woman’s climb out of addiction

To Purchase “Live Through This” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Alyse Emdur

by Jonathan Blaustein

The following anecdote is hypothetical. I am in no way claiming it to be true; only instructive. These things do happen, though. And mistakes can be costly.

I was in Amsterdam the other week. Such a great city. There are things there, certain things, that are legal. Things that might be illegal elsewhere. The great state of Colorado has also legalized some of the things to which I refer, but in the United States, Federal law still considers such things verboten.

I enjoyed the opportunity to sample the legal wares in Amsterdam. It’s fun. But I would never, ever take any of those things away from Amsterdam. Like on an airplane. Never, ever would I be that stupid. Leaving town at Schiphol, my friend and I actually saw a poor sap who thought he could get away with it. Bad news. I’m smarter than that.

It was so cold in Holland that I had on every piece of clothing I’d brought. Three sweaters, topped by a down vest, and then a leather jacket. Always, the leather encased my body like a cow-ish second skin, futily trying to keep out the wind. The jacket’s zipper got stuck on our last day in town, trapping the layers below. I only managed to fix it minutes before going through security, flustered. I flew back to London, and then left the next day for the United States.

So imagine my surprise when I reached into my vest pocket on the tube towards Heathrow, and found a tiny bag of something that would be considered illegal in the UK. It was in my possession the entire time, and I was blissfully unaware. (Again, this never happened.) But if it had happened, can you imagine what I might have been thinking?

I closed my eyes, and saw it clearly. The arrest in the airport. The lightbulb dangling from the ceiling above me as I was harangued in Dutch, asking why I would be so foolish. Then, the trial and sentencing. Ultimately, I’d end up in jail.

People like me don’t go to jail. I’m educated, middle-class, from a good family. I don’t even know anyone who is incarcerated. (Which is statistically unlikely, as there are nearly 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, as I hinted at in last week’s column.) But not me. It couldn’t happen to me. Right?

As my “fictitious” example proves, though, stupid mistakes happen. As I leaned against the train wall, I thought about how it would feel to not see my wife and children again. How would I tell them I’d been so careless, and was now trapped in a cell, unable to support them, or give them kisses and hugs? What would my wife say? How old would my baby daughter be before I saw her again? My pulse raced, and I came very close to crying. Which would have been a weird thing to do in public, but no one was paying attention to me anyway.

Fortunately, even in this “farcical” anecdote, I got away with my “crime.” Nobody knew what I had done, and whatever evidence was left, after I had munched a bit, ended up in an airport garbage bin. I might have watched a janitor empty the receptacle, just in case. The evidence, were we to call it that, would now be buried beneath hundreds of tons of English trash.

I was lucky. (Again, never happened.) But many people aren’t. Our jails are overcrowded, with so many victims burned in the wreckage of our mindless Drug War. As many prisons are privatized, there is a financial incentive to keep them that way. Some folks have gotten behind this issue with all their might, like fellow blogger Pete Brook, but I’m just visiting for the day.

Artists have also given to the cause. I’m thinking here of Alyse Emdur, the photographer and writer behind the amazing book “Prison Landscapes,” published by Four Corners Books in… you guessed it…London. I had no idea what lay beneath the plastic when I unwrapped this one, and what a surprise it was; among the smartest and most creatively powerful books I’ve come across in some time.

Ms. Emdur’s brother spent time in a New Jersey prison when she was a youth, so she’s lived with the reality of incarceration’s impact. (As opposed to my bourgeois fantasies.) She knew that in prison, all photographs are taken against painted backdrops- no realistic details allowed. (I only know of such photographic stylings from Jersey Bar Mitzvahs, not lockups.)

The book opens with an excellent description of the project, through which Ms. Emdur, via a pseudonym, became pen pals with inmates around the US, and had them send her photos of themselves, set against a number of paintings. They’d be absurd if they weren’t so poignant. Rarely is art this earnest, while still being gripping.

The book includes letters written by prisoners, including some that were were scanned, to show the penmanship. (Do we still use that word?) There are also photos that Ms. Emdur has taken of the backdrops in prisons, and the use of an artist’s good camera and formal composition makes a fantastic complement to the personal photos of hulking or average looking men, and gussied-up or plain-looking women.

There is also an interview at the end with a prison painter who did the cover image, taken from the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pennsylvania. If I can convince someone to let me keep this book, I will forever use the interview as inspiration to my students in the future. You want to know why art matters? Prisoner Darrell Van Mastrigt will tell you. (That name sounds Dutch. You know I love to bring these articles back around.)

If you’re a thinking person who has curiosity about the world, you should consider buying this book. It is the perfect example of photography showing us what we would not otherwise be able to see. I have no idea how many of these people committed heinous crimes, and “deserve” to be where they are. Whatever they’ve done, they’re people with families and friends. Their plight helps us realize that things are always more complicated than we’d like to think.

Bottom line: Brilliantly constructed book with an ambitious agenda

To Purchase “Prison Landscapes” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – David Rochkind

by Jonathan Blaustein

All we are saying, is give peace a chance. It’s a great chant, and a catchy tune. A little ironic too, as John Lennon seemed to be such a combative guy. (According to the documentary I saw last year.) Sure, it would be nice to give peace a chance, but I’d also love it if my fingernails tasted like white truffles.

I’m a pretty mellow guy, myself, far from the drunken lout that once smashed a dude’s head into a stone wall during a fight at Duke. I ended up on the ground, punching up, but told myself it was a draw. I can still hear the frat boys screaming for us to beat the shit out of each other. (Classy.)

I realize that I end up talking about violence a lot in this column, which is strange, given how little of it I see. I’m fortunate to live in a quiet place, in a country with a functioning legal system. (Of course, we have an incarceration rate that ought to give Barack Obama an ulcer, but he’s got enough problems, so I’ll leave him alone.)

Back in the early Fall, we brought you a gripping interview with Alejandro Cartagena, who spoke of the realities of living on the front lines of Mexico’s Drug War. I heard him speak the words, and then spent hours transcribing them, and still it was just an abstraction to me. I hope to never know what it’s like from personal experience, living with that degree of fear.

Fast forward six months, and everyone’s talking about Mexico’s impending economic miracle: a terrific growth rate, and a new President who’s more focused on busting monopolies than cartels. (Though I must admit, it does take some guts to go after Carlos Slim.) Alejandro and I discussed the possibility of misdirection, as there were signs that President Peña Nieto would leave the Narcos alone to import guns from, and export drugs to my blessed United States.

So the Drug War has been pushed off the headlines, and it seems as if the death toll is finally on the wane. In a piece about Mexico that I recently read in the Financial Times, the Drug War wasn’t even mentioned until the last paragraph of a very, very long article. Yesterday’s news, apparently. Making money is more appealing than digging up corpses best left to rot.

But I’m not the Financial Times. Hell, I’m not sure I’m even a real journalist. We’ll buck the trend, therefore, and take a look at “Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War,” a book by David Rochkind, published by Dewi Lewis in 2012. Here is your warning: this is not for the weak of will or stomach. Mr. Rochkind is a brave man, and he put himself at significant personal risk to bring back these photographs.

Truth be told, I met David at Review Santa Fe in 2010. I saw an early edit in person, and we’ve kept up since. That makes this the first book review I’ve done in which I was able to see a project evolve and improve. There are many photographs in the book I haven’t seen before, and the breath of the narrative has grown organically, and well. In a perfect world, photographic projects should get better over time, and a book ought to be the best-case-scenario. It is here.

This book was really put together with care. The size of the photos vary, with gorgeous full-bleed double-spreads popping up in just the right spots, and scale shifts keeping the viewer engaged. At one point, I did a double-take at the pairing of Evangelical parishioners in fervent prayer, across the page from a junkie mother shooting up. Escape, meet escape.

The use of color and tension is very strong, and enables the pages to turn, despite the graphic and tragic subject matter. Love, of family and God, even makes a brief appearance now and again. Thank goodness. It balances against visions of the dead, the dying, and the victims trapped in a loop of poverty and violence.

Mexico is an amazing country, with lovely people who deserve better. Obviously, we’re all hoping this phase of its history ends soon, and that the future is bright. It is possible. Let’s not forget, the Aztec founders of Mexico City were among the most bloodthirsty psychopaths who’ve ever lived. Fortunately, people persevere.

Bottom Line: Incredible photographs of a story most would rather forget

To Purchase “Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Charles Harbutt

by Jonathan Blaustein

I got home rather late last night. The trip back from London took 22 hours, all told. I was lucky to avoid jet lag while in Europe, but at the moment it’s difficult to remember how to type. My brain is working slowly, like a magpie building a nest, one broken twig at a time.

So I hope you’ll forgive me if this column is on the short side today. Last week in Europe was brilliantly surreal, and I look forward to breaking it down in a series of articles examining the exhibitions and festivals I saw, and the many conversations in which I took part. Lots of coming and going: planes, trains, trams, buses, shuttles, subways, taxicabs, and rambles.

As photographers, we all love to travel. No news there. Visiting new places, with eyes keenly focused, is difficult to beat. Pay attention, and you really don’t know what comes next. For example, my travel mates yesterday included a Mexican vascular surgeon living in Germany, an English planetary scientist en route to a NASA conference in Houston, and a Cameroonian businessman seeking funding opportunities in Santa Fe.

But my travel tales are yet to come. Fortunately, escape, synchronicity, hope, and the joy of discovery are all themes depicted in “departures and arrivals,” a new book by Charles Harbutt, published by Damiani. If you’re desk-or-studio bound at the moment, this one ought to deliver a jolt of the travel buzz.

Mr. Harbutt is a fellow Jersey boy, and has spent much of his life traveling about. He was a journalist, and one time president of Magnum, so I’m guessing some of you might know the pictures. Black and white, and mostly grainy, they’re really excellent.

From the opening highway double-spread driving through New Mexico, a route I cruised just twelve hours ago, through Europe, Mexico, and beyond, the vibe is positive, and the compositions excellent. I was particularly impressed by his use of scale, as he’s always finding ways to frame small and large together to enhance the sense of mystery.

I could go into greater detail, but this a book of photographs that speak for themselves. I will now allow them to do just that. Enjoy.

Bottom Line: Excellent B&W photos from a life of exploration

To Purchase “departures and arrivals” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Daniel Naudé

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was walking near my house the other day. Looking down at the wet dirt before me, I saw a curious pile of reddish goop. Bear poop, I wondered? Too early in the season. Coyote vomit? Possible. Or maybe it was just something the dogs threw up.

I live in a place of wild nature. The creatures are out there, and many emerge at night. It can lead the mind into curious diversions. Earlier this Winter, for example, a somewhat-paranoid neighbor reminded me that there were mountain lions about. “Be careful,” she warned me, “and keep your eyes out.” (My five-year-old son was with me. I was scared witless, but he thought it was cool.)

The next week, as I tugged his fluorescent-orange sled across the frozen field to grandma’s house, we saw an enormous set of tracks on the fluffy fresh snow. They were big enough to give us pause, so we stopped to contemplate. “Dad,” he said, “is that… a cougar track?” Stress chemicals dropped in my blood. Fear sweat began to form on my well-buffeted skin. “I’m not sure, buddy,” I replied, “I’m just not sure.”

Trust me, there’s a big difference between knowing something is out there, and seeing the evidence for yourself. Within a few minutes, we had convinced ourselves what we’d seen. Speculation gave way to certitude, and then the gossip spread. Before long, that same neighbor called us up, seeking confirmation. Were we sure?

In the end, it was nothing but a big dog’s paw print. Mountain lions have retractable claws, and the dogs don’t. Crisis averted. Our imaginations had sped off into the distance, like a white-tailed deer running from a pack of wild dogs.

Speaking of wild dogs, I got a look at a new book this week, “Animal Farm,” by Daniel Naudé, recently published by Prestel. Cool photographs, I must say, and the book is very well-produced. If it were me, though, I’d have skipped the Orwellian title and the didactic explanations in the opening artist’s essay. The pictures are good enough on their own.

The narrative focuses on one of the artist’s main projects, photographing feral dogs in the South African wilderness. Big, majestic creatures, these. Most look like a cross between a bull mastiff and a greyhound. There are many portraits of the beasts spread throughout the narrative, and often they look the photographer in the eye, communicating gravitas.

The book follows Mr. Naudé’s expanding explorations, focusing on the relationship between animals, and the people who raise them. (In several parts of South Africa.) We see an enormous bull on a beach, a man riding an ostrich, the extruding feet of a calf being born, another man holding a clawless otter, a different bull urinating on the green grass, and goats and zebras and donkeys. (Oh my.)

The compositions are formal, the light well-rendered, and the captions give just the information required. No more. No less.

It might seem hard-to-believe, for some of you, that I manage to find things to write about each week. (I’m not that interesting, after all.) But the real pleasure of this job is that I get to rejuvenate my curiosity, at regular intervals. The joy comes when I see photographs I’ve never seen before: rectangular or square bits of new information. This book delivered. Enough said.

Bottom Line: Very cool photos of animals, and the people who love/eat them

To Purchase “Animal Farm” Visit Photo Eye

This Week In Photography Books – Hans-Peter Feldmann

by Jonathan Blaustein

Yesterday was a good day. I paid a visit to the high school in Taos where I used to teach. I’m working with a couple of my former students, helping them participate in the New York Times Lens Blog project that solicits visions of 21st Century America, seen through the eyes of high school photo students. It’s open to all who meet those rather broad qualifications, so be sure to spread the word. Needless to say, the kids’ excitement was infectious.

In addition, for the first time in my career, a museum curator offered me prime exhibition space, with the opportunity to do whatever I want. Immediately, I mentioned that I have a finished project, framed, and ready to go. “We can slap it right onto the wall,” I said. That’s right, my first thought was to go the easiest, cheapest route. I even referred to the artwork as “inventory.” How creative.

Her face fell. It was subtle, but I noticed. Her eyes lost a shade of their sparkling blue luster. “We could do that…” she said, her voice trailing off at the end. “Really, though, you should take some time to think about it.” She went on to explain that this was my chance to pull off my dream exhibition, the coolest thing I could come up with. Open your mind, she implied.

It’s harder than it sounds. As a nearly 39 year old artist, you’d think I’d have had a better vision of what said dream installation might be. Instead, I first reverted to the safety of what I already knew. It’s scary to contemplate that one’s ideas might not be as grand as previously imagined.

Fortunately, the final good thing that happened yesterday snuck up on me like a black-clad ninja in pink, padded socks. I reached into my book pile, and came up with an innocuous looking hard cover book called “Katalog/Catalogue.” It didn’t seem remarkable in any way, and then I looked at the artist’s name: Hans-Peter Feldmann.

Given that there are probably five people in the world who’ve read all of my APE articles, (including Rob, my Dad, and me,) I’ll give you a quick refresher. Back in 2011, I wrote a short piece about an upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, by the aforementioned artist. He had won the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize, and, for the accompanying show, had chosen to exhibit the actual money, in the form of 100,000 one dollar bills. It was the epitome of a clever, conceptual hook, and I was sad not to see the results in person. (We get some installation shots in the book, thankfully.)

On the heels of my compare/contrast series looking at the way photography is exhibited in Art versus Photo World contexts, the timing couldn’t have been better. Now we get to revisit the classic “artist who uses a camera” versus “photographer” argument. Or maybe not.

I’ve learned that “conceptual” can be a bad word in the Photo World. Just last month, I was encouraged by a museum director not to even breath the term, if I wanted to have my work considered by the institution. Many times now, I’ve heard people confidently state that they don’t like any “conceptual” work at all. No matter what.

Why is that? I’d speculate that “conceptual” is code for the type of off-putting, intellectually narcissistic clap-trap that people see in Art Fairs run by condescending gallerinas who relish the opportunity to ignore. The exclusivity of the Art World makes almost everyone feel like a peon, and work that smacks of the “Art” vibe can bear the brunt of the understandable resentment. Especially as so many “concepts” described in art-speaky press releases are nowhere to be found in the objects themselves.

Which is why this book was so timely for me to see yesterday, and why I’m thrilled to share it with you today. I’ve written a lot lately about stereotypes, and this is one more to break. Yes, there’s a lot of crappy, pretentious Art out there. Just as there are millions upon millions of photographs that lack any imagination whatsoever. (You know it’s true.)

But occasionally, far too rarely, we get a glimpse into the mind of someone who is doing it for the right reasons. Someone who has figured out how to unshackle his/her creativity, and mine the brain for all sorts of crazy, witty and poignant material. This book provides just such an opportunity.

It was produced in conjunction Koenig Books, and the Serpentine Gallery in London, a public space that sits atop the Art World hierarchy. We can all bitch about the Gagosians of the world, and the dominance of hedge fund/petro dollars, but not today. Serpentine is open to the public seven days a week, and free. Its Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes, Hans Ulrich Obrist, is among the most respected curators in the world.

There was an exhibition of Mr. Feldmann’s work there last year, and the book project reflects the survey nature of such a show, and the irreverence of the artist’s canon. It also contains some fascinating interviews with the artist, one conducted by Mr. Obrist, in which one’s depleted fount of idealism can easily be restored. Terrific, thoughtful stuff.

Mr. Feldmann has worked directly with photography for years, in a variety of ways. Some projects track small changes and movements over time: a woman opening the shutters of a window, a barge floating along a river, a seagull coasting through the sky. There are many other series included, like “Views from hotel room windows,” “All the clothes of a woman,” and “Car radios while good music is playing.” Some will find them witty and original, others dry and typological, I suppose. More random still, we see pictures of the contents of women’s handbags that the artist purchased, sight unseen. Or the photograph of Walker Evans’ bathroom sink, unchanged after his death.

There are paintings and sculptures, readymades, and appropriated imagery. One favorite was the series of old paintings that the artist purchased, and then altered, adding clown noses to stuffy portraits, or overpainting people with crossed eyes. We learn that he took ten years off from exhibiting his work, to get a break from the Art scene, and also ran a business selling thimbles. Yes, you read that correctly. Thimbles. There is more craziness than I can describe, so I’ll stop.

I spent another half hour with the book just this morning, and look forward to taking it for another spin. Already, I have some cool ideas for what to do with my blank-canvas-museum space. Even better, I’m no longer afraid to sit with the uncertainty. Opening one’s mind can be difficult work, indeed.

If you read this column each week, you’ll know that I often vacillate between being entertaining and preachy. Sometimes, I even do both in the same week. But I hope the photographers out there will accept the following advice in the spirit in which it’s intended: pick up a paint brush, a piece of charcoal, a video camera, a chisel, a pen, or a computer. If you try to do new things with your creativity, things that are certain to result in failure at first, you will get better at everything else that you do.

Bottom Line: A primer in creativity, taught by a Master

To purchase “Katalog/Catalogue” visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Pieter Hugo

by Jonathan Blaustein

Hello, Controversy. Como estas? We haven’t had a chance to catch up lately. How have you been? Keeping busy, I’m sure.

I’m well, thanks. I made it to Texas and back without getting hassled by the fuzz. It hasn’t been as cold here recently, so I don’t have anything to complain about. I’ve been trying to push the envelope as a writer, but some weeks I just don’t have it in me.

But what about you? I was thinking it might be fun to invite you into the column again this week. Sometimes, it’s tricky to predict your next visit. Like that RJ Shaughnessy dustup. Who knew people would get so worked up because I kinda-liked a book about pretty LA teenagers self-published by a commercial photographer?

Other times, though, it’s not hard to guess. Take Pieter Hugo, for instance. That guy courts you like a horny hedge funder sniffing around an ovulating supermodel. You and Mr. Hugo have dinner together every week, right?

Yes, Pieter Hugo is guaranteed to get people talking. But so is the idea of plagiarism. (Or copying.) Do people actually do that? Ideas are in the air, and everyone’s afraid of getting ripped off. Personally, I’ve never had the stones to ask that guy who did “The Poverty Line” if he saw my work before making his. Too unseemly. What? I just called him out? Shit.

But what about Mr. Hugo? Let’s deflect it back. His new book, “There’s A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends,” is compelling and taut, like everything he does. Super-well-made. It consists of photographs of his friends, made in color and then converted in the computer. He manipulated the channels to make the portraits reflect the damage done to skin by UV rays.

Which is almost exactly the same project done by Cara Phillips a few years back. (To be clear, she used actual UV photography, and he digitally altered. She photographed with eyes closed; he with eyes open.) What happened here? Who made the work first? Did he know of her project? (Or she of his?) If so, did he decide to proceed because it was his right to make whatever he wants to make?

Or is this just another instance of two people having a similar idea around the same time, and then coming to market separately? I’ve seen it before. At Review Santa Fe in ’09, Emily Shur showed me photos of cell phone towers masquerading as trees. The next month, I saw the same idea, done by a German photographer, published in Aperture. Did she abandon the project, knowing she was beat to the punch? I don’t know.

But the book, you say? Well, Controversy, it’s a good one. Super sharp, weird portraits. This guy is a pro, and really knows how to make a picture. The images definitely reference old school photography, like new school wet-plate-collodion. (That filter has to exist somewhere, right?) And some of the subjects’ eyes are totally possessed, referencing back to his Nollywood pictures. The dirty-ish faces also make me think of miners, which in South Africa is an apt reference.

But what about the Elephant in the room? Since these were photographed in Africa, ought we not mention the unmentionable? Mr. Hugo, as you know best, Controversy, is often lambasted for being a white guy who photographs black people, sometimes in unflattering ways. So I can’t omit the fact that in some of these pictures, it appears as if he’s painted his friends in blackface. (If I didn’t say it, someone else would have.)

Of course, I like this book. And I like the pictures. They’re raw and experimental and powerful. Did he cop the idea off of someone else? I don’t know. Am I accusing him? Definitely not.

But in the Internet age, it’s easier to steal or be influenced by ideas than ever before. We’re all inundated all the time. It’s often hard to know when you saw something, forgot it, and then it popped back up in your head later on. Nobody remembers every page they breezed through, or every status update they liked.

Take my Texas Roundup article series, for example. Did I steal the name from that recent photo event, the Texas Photo Roundup? Of course not. Had I ever visited their website? Yeah, a few months ago. Did I remember it when I came up with the name? No. Do I feel bad about it? A little. My apologies.

Bottom Line: Terrific photographs of a project you might have seen before

To Purchase “There’s A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Viviane Sassen

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m addicted to Project Runway. There, I said it. Since the beginning, I’ve been beguiled by the tangential relation to the fashion world. So close, and yet so far.

To make matters worse, a few years ago, my wife began subscribing to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Which means I can now recognize Michael Kors style from Burberry. And as to the models? It’s pathetic that I can name drop Karlie Kloss, Lara Stone, Karmen Pedaru, and more. My good friend Melanie mocked when I correctly recognized Karen Elson in a photo she shared on FB.

The industry may be leagues away from my little horse pasture, but the fantasy and feast of consumerism still make sense. This is America, after all. Selling fancy clothes is not that much different than selling beer. Like everything else, it’s all about the Benjamins.

Lately, the worlds of art and fashion seem closer than ever before. Exhibitions laud both, and the upper class consumers that buy one luxury good often buy the other. What has that got to do with us?

Well, I just had a look at Viviane Sassen’s new book “Roxane.” (It took me three glances to realize it was spelled non-traditionally. Thereby depriving me of any jokes about putting on the Red Light.)

The book is cool, no doubt. And it doesn’t really make any sense, in a narrative sort of way. Which is not a problem to me. It just adds to the off-putting vibe that so many fashion mags court anyway. Feel bad about yourself for being too fat or poor, and then buy this Hermes scarf to feel better. (Ah, capitalism.)

The awkward poses are straight off the runway, as are the clothes and the strange-but-hot heroine. Throw in the natural landscape locations, and the obligatory Paris reference, and you’re good to go. Sarcasm aside, though, I do like the photographs very much.
The poses are sculptural, and the mood is almost surreal.

Ms. Sassen is in demand these days, from MoMA to the fashion houses. And the last-page-thank-you notes, which name drop Celine, Nina Ricci, Maison Martin Margiela and a few others, leave no doubt about that. No Marchesa, though. Pity. A few pictures of Georgina Chapman would have definitely put the book over the top.

Bottom Line: Fashiony photos of fashion as art

To Purchase Roxane Visit Photo-Eye

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

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

 

This Week In Photography Books – Nicolai Howalt

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

It was snowing. Lightly. The roads were not yet covered. Entirely. There was a slight sheen on the asphalt, blanketing the black ice like a grandmother’s knitted afghan. (Big ups, Grandma Ruth, wherever you are.)

I was driving East towards the mountains. My skis were in the back, my mind on the foot of fresh powder waiting to be shredded. I didn’t have my cellphone, which was rare. It was waiting for me on the seat of a little Mazda in the Taos Ski Valley parking lot.

My intended companions were two enormous Germans, so big they were nicknamed Triple G. The Gentle German Giants. One was 6’5″, the other 6’8″ and bald. As a 5’7″ Jewish guy, we were guaranteed to make a ridiculous triumvirate, dashing down the slopes.

There was no one on the Rim Road, so named because it sits above a sheer cliff that drops precipitously down to the Valdez valley, several hundred feet below. This being New Mexico, where things don’t always work right, the road actually narrows to one lane in two places. Sketchy.

I motored along in my Volkswagen Passat station-wagon. I bought it used, from a dead lady, as we planned to have our first child. It’s all about the airbags. The car started to break down the week after the check cleared. Thousands, I poured into the piece of shit. The week before, I cursed the vehicle out loud, screaming, begging the gods to take it from me.

Be careful what you wish for.

I saw the Waste Management garbage truck before he saw me. Enormous. He was chugging out of a dirt road, now slick, perpendicular to the Rim Road before me. With all of his mass, I knew he couldn’t stop in time.

He slammed on the brakes, and skidded into my lane, not 30 yards ahead. I was now, unfortunately, completely cut off. Time slowed down. For real. I had two choices. Take the hit, or jerk the wheel left, whereupon I might plunge down the cliff to my death. Awesome.

Without thinking, I took the hit, and smashed nose first into monstrous steel beast. The crunch was sickening, the smoke almost instantaneous. Thank goodness, I’d bought new tires five days earlier. The airbag deployed, as promised.

Garbage truck, snowy mountain road, edge of a cliff. A recipe for disaster. Somehow, I walked away unhurt. The other driver refused to look me in the eye, or admit his faults. Asshole. He waited, silently, for his corporate honcho to arrive and speak on his behalf. Fortunately, his silence prevented him from lying to the State Policeman, who wrote up the report as I described it.
Thankfully, I’d borrowed my wife’s cell phone, and was able to call for a ride back home. I shook for hours.

Do we all have a story like this? I sure hope not. Though it happened three years ago this week, and I’m very happy with the Hyundai I bought as a replacement, my head still quivers at my good luck. Others, of course, fare not-so-well in similar encounters.

This week, I looked at Nicolai Howalt’s “Car Crash Studies,” put out by Etudes Books in Paris. It didn’t take long for my mind to flash back to that dismal, gray day. I can see it all in my mind so clearly. But the book, you say?

The images are cold, formal examinations of bent steel, crunched glass, and dirty interior carpets. It begins with abstract imagery, pictures one might honestly describe as beautiful. If you like that sort of thing.

After a run of abstractions, the photographer pulls back, and we see the aforementioned airbags. Then, the inside of destroyed cars. Little details emerge. A stuffed animal hanging from a rear view mirror. A pink key chain dangling from the ignition block. A pack of cigarettes never to be smoked. They could be installations, or de facto sculptures inside the wreckage.

Near the end, we see the blood. Only one photo, thankfully. On the steering wheel. Any more would have been heavy-handed. (Looking again, I noticed that this image was also on the cover. I would have chosen differently.)

People can’t help but look at car crashes. Rubber-necking is a morbid and pathetic part of the human condition, but there it is. More traffic is caused by twisted curiosity than I care to ponder. Just think of all that latent economic activity.

Always, though, it comes back to tragedy. These pictures imply it, as did Andy Warhol’s excellent painting series on the same subject. Misery and death are hard to stomach, in literal fashion. A photo of a dead person is just that. A photo. Not much metaphor possible. Here, though, our imagination is stimulated. Our memories flood. And that’s good enough for me.

Bottom Line: Formal, abstract visions of car-crash destruction

To Purchase “Car Crash Studies” Visit Photo-Eye

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

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