Category "Photography Books"

This Week In Photography Books – Martin Parr

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Oi. Lad. You’re in my sun. Move your arse.”

“‘Scuse me?”

“I said you’re in my sun.”

“Your sun? It’s not your sun, mate. It belongs to everyone.”

“Does it now? And will the sun come and save you when I bash
your skull in? Move your arse or you’ll find out.”

That must have happened countless times over the years,
on the endless beaches around the UK. Right? Where I grew up, on the Jersey shore, it might have gone something like this:

“Hey, asshole, you kicked sand on my blanket.”

“Aaaay. Oh.”

“You heard me. You kicked some f-ckin’ sand all over my girlfriend’s towel. Clean it up.”

“Take it easy. It was an accident. Deal with it, meathead, or go back to Staten Island.”

“F-ck you!”

“F-ck me? F-ck you!”

Ah, the beach. Given that we are now smack in the middle of summer, you knew I was going to pull out a beach column. Right? Last year, around this time, I reviewed a book about some blue lakes in the Czech Republic. (Summer-y, yes, but it lacked a certain sex appeal.) So let’s bring back the Summer Vacation column, but do it right this year.

Martin Parr is a photographer who’s made many a book, yet I’ve never managed to review one before. Today, that changes. “Life’s a Beach,” published by Aperture, has a pink cover, dotted with flowers and leaves. It looks like a photo album you might pick up in an overpriced grocery store on Kauai, (along with some $4 flip flops) in anticipation of all the great memories you were planning to record. (When people still did such things.)

The photos within are cheeky. Witty. Fun. Take your pick of positive, light-hearted adjectives. The images were made of and in beach cultures across the world, thereby giving us a look at the similarities and differences. (A saggy tush on the beach in Miami, a cow prowling the sand in Goa, a woman sucking down a crab claw in China, sausages on the barbie in Australia, a tuft of back hair in Spain…you get the picture.)

It wouldn’t be a Summer Vacation column if I didn’t wrap it up quickly. (Thank god, they say, as they chuckle into their Iphone screens.) Too many words and it will seem like work. So, to recap, this is a super-fun book by a photographer renown for his wit and sense of humor. It’s very cool, and if you buy it, Aperture will give you one free beach pass at Spring Lake, Point Pleasant, or some other spot on the Jersey Shore. (I just made that up.)

Bottom Line: Martin Parr at the beach. Need I say more?

To Purchase “Life’s a Beach” 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 Maisel

by Jonathan Blaustein

Imagine if hamsters were self-aware. Wouldn’t that be strange? The first hamster to achieve consciousness would be a hero. Then he’d whisper in all the other hamsters’ ears: we’re going to die. (You know he would.)

For a while, all of hamsterdom would be in an uproar. We don’t want to die, they’d say. What can we do to forestall this calamity? How can we lengthen our lives? Certainly, all activity at the hamster wheel would stop. Who wants to run in circles while the fate of the species is at stake?

All around the water bowl, hamster plans would be hatched. What if we eat more? Or less? What if we pray to the human who gives us food each day? Pray more, dammit. I said, pray more!

Alas. Nothing worked. The hamsters began to die, one by one, when their time was up. Eventually, the rest of the hamsters got bored of examining the situation, as it was clearly futile. They couldn’t stop nature, so they went back to running in circles.

The End.

We’re no different. We’re going to die. You know it. I know it. And still we go about our daily business. Toast is buttered. Metrocards are swiped. Babies are born. It’s the way of things.

I believe our acceptance of said reality leads to short-term thinking. Around the world, people will do what they have to do to survive. Without bread and water today, (or a Big Mac,) there will be no tomorrow. So tomorrow will always have to wait, because I’m hungry today. (Those cows won’t eat themselves.)

This is the best explanation I can muster for why we degrade and destroy our planet. Why else would we shit where we eat? Anyone who’s raised a puppy knows they don’t do that. They know better. But we don’t. We constantly dump our pollutants in the water and air, and scrape away sections of the Earth until mountains are plains.

In fairness, the planet will survive. We can’t hack it all away. It will continue to spin, long after we’re gone. All of us, that is. Sure, it would be tough to wipe away all the people at one time, and maybe technology will save us all in the end, but it’s not likely. So much damage cannot be undone.

Personally, I’m an optimist. I’ve got two young children, so I have little choice. I’d like to think we’ll adapt together, us and Earth. We’ll make some concessions, maybe move some houses back off the coasts. Perhaps she’ll agree to terms limiting all future temperature changes? Who’s to say.

But what about the book, you say? Doesn’t he have to review a book in a book review? Right. I guess I do. Rules are rules.

“Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime” is a new monograph by David Maisel, published by the always steady Steidl. (Try saying that five times fast, with a German accent: steady Steidl.) As you might have guessed, I just spent some time leafing through its large and luxurious pages. The above riff is evidence that Mr. Maisel has been successful in his multi-decade examination of how humans are changing the skin of the World.

It is an excellent book filled with aerial photographs of various altered places. No criticisms today. (Even of the veiled or back-handed kind. My speciality.) These photographs ought to be seen, and their aesthetic awesomeness ensures that they will. It’s a little uncomfortable to view pollution and environmental degradation, and remark upon the beauty. But view these you will.

It’s clear that the inter-connected projects will at some point be parsed by historians. The images speak to the future, while they record the present. It’s a fairly high compliment, but I’m sure the artist is used to hearing it by now. The pharmaceutical colors, and reliance on modern technology, (airplanes and helicopters) embed the work in time. Can’t you just hear some future critic, elongating certain vowel sounds, ironically laughing at how stupid everyone must have been in the early 21st Century?

Bottom Line: Terrific book, important photographs

To Purchase “Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime” 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 – Dash Snow

by Jonathan Blaustein

I was sitting on my porch the other day, chatting with a friend. He’s a wicked smart photographer, and has had a good bit of success, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. The ideas were flying rather quickly as we sat, rocking in our rocking chairs, killing black and red ants as they explored my territory. (They’re aggressive, and they bite, so they had it coming.)

He’d just returned from forty days roaming the hinterlands of Dick Cheney’s Wyoming, and was hungry for conversation, like a Jew who’s fasted after dropping a Torah. Mostly I listened, because he likes to talk. At some point, we reached the subject of artistic intent, which is guaranteed to rile up anyone/everyone.

My friend was an environmental activist for many years, and makes art for the noblest of intentions. He’s either trying to save the planet, or make us realize we’re all doomed. I haven’t decided yet. Regardless, he comes from a long line of artists who want to make the world a better place. The serious guys.

I mentioned that, though I occasionally vacillate, I mostly believe that no one reason for making art is inherently better than another. It’s the moral relativism argument, grafted onto an art conversation. He smiled, (or was it a smirk?) and said, sure, that’s the politically correct thing to say.

“But do you really believe that,” he asked?

I paused, and then said yes. I do. I’ve seen enough interesting art, over the years, that came from infantile experimentation, or anarchic rebellion, to believe that it’s not only the serious strivers who get to make the good stuff. Sometimes, great (or provocative) art can come from hedonistic, nihilistic nitwits, whether we like it or not.

This week’s book is a great example of the phenomenon. “I Love You, Stupid,” is a very thick book filled with Polaroid photographs (and video stills) taken by the now deceased art star Dash Snow. Before I say anything else, I’ll admit that the pictures you’ll see below will likely offend your better sensibilities. They’re meant to, and they succeed.

Mr. Snow was famous before he died, as he came from a line of very important people in the art world. (The de Menils.) I didn’t know this, nor had I seen his work while he was alive. I do remember him dying, but only because I must have heard third hand that some junkie art dude overdosed. That was the extent of my knowledge, though perhaps you know more than that.

The book contains a very well-written opening essay by Glenn O’Brien, of GQ and Andy Warhol circle fame. Great stuff, really. It will make you excited to make art, for sure, and also prejudice you towards liking the images that follow. He’s extremely persuasive, and also forthright in countering any rich-kid bias you might have. (Basically, he presents Mr. Snow as a 21st Century Shaman.)

Once you’re fired up and ready to go, you get to see countless photographs of all the bad stuff you’re not supposed to do. There is tons of sex, drugs, blood, semen, graffiti, partying, homelessness, vomit, and more sex. Seriously, if I had a dollar for every penis included in this book, I could…well…buy the book. Fortunately, all the bad behavior reeks of genuine effort. (Must be all the smack and coke.)

A little while back, I wrote about Mike Brodie’s book “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” and was a bit cynical about his intentions. Great project, but I could see his mind whirring as he realized how perfectly his photographs would deliver what people wanted. It wasn’t that he didn’t seem serious about his frisky lifestyle choice, (freight train hopping,) only that the concurrent calculation was also evident. This book obviates those concerns. This mayhem feels real, like it doesn’t care whether we’re there to look or not.

I’m not saying this art is brilliant. (It’s not.) Nor that you should like it. (You probably won’t.) But I’m pretty sure Dash Snow wasn’t trying to be bad. He just was. And darkness walks upon the Earth, whether we like it or not. So art that captures that essence is valuable. Every bit as valuable as the art that tries to improve upon our faulty existence on this spinning blue orb.

Bottom Line: A nihilistic, voyeuristic, bad boy thrill ride

To Purchase “I Love You, Stupid” 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 – Stefan Olah

by Jonathan Blaustein

Everything’s bigger in Texas, and Americans love their cars. How’s that for mashing two stereotypical truisms into one. It’s like a mixed metaphor, only better. (Like if you kill two birds with one stone, you might cry over spilt milk. Poor little birds. They never hurt anyone. What’s wrong with you? Killing two defenseless birds.)

What was I saying?

Oh. Right. Americans and their cars. Ours are bigger than yours, if you live anywhere but here. We like big trucks and Hummers and things like that. Little cars are for sissies. And Europeans. (We all know how much I like Europe, so let’s not take my joking too seriously.)

Kidding aside, Europeans drive smaller cars than we do. It’s a fact. (Maybe the Japanese do too, but I’ve never been there. If you want to fly me over to Japan to give a lecture or something, send me an email and we can talk.) Small cars make sense in Europe, what with the ancient streets designed for horses and fiestas and such. Can you just imagine trying to navigate a Ford F-350 through the streets of Rome? No thanks.

Things are different over there, and mostly, we assume they’re better. (Except for the economy, of course.) The charm and the history are seductive to us, as we often lack that here. But we do have our own strengths: empty highways, endless horizons and kitchy gas stations, like the ones immortalized by last week’s artist, Ed Ruscha. (No, I won’t throw him under the bus again this week.)

Like “Some Los Angeles Apartments,” Mr. Ruscha made an artist book in the 60’s called “Twenty Six Gas Stations.” They were depictions of Americana, and the categorical title was likely inspired by the 19th Century Japanese woodblock printers Hokusai and Hiroshige, not to mention Marcel Duchamp and his readymades. How do I know this? Because I read it in a book called “Twentysix Viennese Gas Stations,” by Sebastian Hackenschmidt and Stefan Olah.

In this, the second edition, there are actually far more than twenty six gas stations. The name remains to ensure the reader gets the connection/allusion to Mr. Ruscha. He was the clear inspiration, and the book includes a pastiche of interviews he’s given over the years. But the book is not about him, really.

The focus is on a car culture that is as alien as I can imagine, living, as I do, in the heart of the American West. (Or as I like to call it, the land of lunatics and dropouts. Which am I? Do you have to ask?) Out here, there is space for everything. Gas stations are expansive, with plenty of room for people to hang out and try to bum spare change for cigarettes or booze. (Which they also sell, in most places.)

In Vienna? Forget about it. There’s no room for such extravagance. And if there were, they’d probably still do something different, what with their refined tastes. As it is, this book shows us that people buy gas for their cars in some pretty weird places. Like alleyways, apartment building basements, and little courtyard hideaways. Strange, and almost effete.

Let’s be real here. This book will not change your life. The photos are well crafted, with solid, formal compositions and good use of (bleak) color. They’re cool, in that pan-Germanic kind of way. But you won’t have an epileptic fit from their genius.

Instead, they provide a window into the antithesis of an archetype. Or, rather, they give us ethnocentric Americans a solid look at how the other half lives. And how we might, too, once gas prices rise enough that Smart cars are the intelligent choice for all of us. For now, they’re pretty useless out here. Once you see some 18 wheelers hauling down the road at 85mph, you’ll know what I mean.

Bottom line: Cool book riffing on Ed Ruscha’s idea

To Purchase “Twentysix Viennese Gas Stations” 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 – Ed Ruscha

by Jonathan Blaustein

Just because someone says something, doesn’t make it true. We know this. (And its corollary: don’t trust everything you read on the Internet.) We know this, and yet almost always choose to give people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, it’s more appropriate to call bullshit.

Take Ed Ruscha, for instance. I met the man in Albuquerque a few years ago. He was standing in the vestibule of the Tamarind Institute, waiting to head out into the heat with his good friend, Dave Hickey. (Who was sitting on some concrete outside, looking like he might have a stroke right then and there.)

I’m not much for hero worship, and rarely get starstruck, so I walked up to Mr. Ruscha and said hello. He said hello back, and offered up a beefy, California smile. Pushing my luck, I told him that he had been quite the topic of conversation at a lecture I’d recently attended at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. (They had exhibited the re-constructed, seminal exhibition “New Topographics.”)

William Jenkins, the original curator, Frank Gohlke, one of the artists, and Britt Salvesen, the curator 2.0, were talking about the New Topo movement, and Mr. Ruscha’s name came up again and again. (Mostly in an embittered, black sheep kind of way.) They’d say things like, “Unlike Ed Ruscha…” and then talk about their photographic intentions. It happened so many times, I giggled.

I mentioned this to Mr. Ruscha, thinking he’d find it amusing. His response caught me off guard. “New Topographics? Never heard of it. What are you talking about,” he said.

I stammered something about the group of art stars that were included, like Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and the Bechers. “Surely, you must know who I’m talking about?”

“Nope,” he replied. “Never heard of them.”

What to say then? I’m pretty sure I went with a sorry for the confusion, such a pleasure to meet you, and then shuffled off. I don’t have a tail, obviously, but if I did, it would have tucked comfortably between my legs as I walked out into the blazing sun. (My friend David was a witness to the entire event. He took a photo, but unfortunately, my eyes were closed.)

Surely, I would have loved to call bullshit. I don’t care what anyone tells me, I don’t believe that Ed Ruscha has never heard of any of those artists. It defies logic. But it does fit in squarely with the longstanding stereotypes about his adopted city, Los Angeles. (i.e., People often lie to your face.)

Despite that familiar drawback, folks continue to move to LA in search of blue skies, beautiful beaches, In’n’Out burgers, and lofty dreams. Whether you’re a hot farm girl from Iowa looking for a big break in the Valley, or a grumpy, record-store-clerk-looking sculptor hoping to get into art school at UCLA, there is gold in them thar hills. And people will do almost anything for gold.

Personally, I have some fondness for LA. I almost moved there back in 2002, but got hustled by some hucksters who realized I spoke no Angelino. (I moved to Brooklyn instead, which was a blessing.) But I’ve been back many times, and find a lot of charm in the seemingly charmless unbroken stretch of strip malls and palm trees. It’s so American, that perfect mix of artifice and optimism. It’s beautiful and seedy at the same time.

At it’s best, art aims to capture and coalesce the essence of a person, place, thing, or idea. Irrespective of his aggression against veracity, Ed Ruscha has managed to represent LA better than any artist before or since. His series of commercially-produced artist books from the 60’s are brilliant, and continue to resonate to this day. He gives us LA as Atget gave us Paris, Walker Evans gave us the Great Depression, or Robert Frank gave us the Beatnik version of the USA.

Much as I’d love to take credit for that lovely thought, (and would if I were an insufferable Hollywood studio exec,) it comes to us via Virginia Heckert, the curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. She compares the work of the four legends in the excellent new book, published by the museum, called “Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments.”

I’ll say it straight out, I love this work. (I do prefer “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” but this is great too.) Yes, it’s dry, and seemingly effortless, but that’s part of why it’s so good. The more you look, the more you realize that the humor and nonchalance dance quite well with a nihilistic passion for a misunderstood place. These photographs are a bit of a love letter, albeit wrapped up in a healthy dose of irony. (Even the lazy cropping lends tension.)

Ed Ruscha might be the most symbolic American artist since Andy Warhol. He doesn’t try, he just is. He’s cool and unemotional, but his work reflects a respect for craft, tradition and obsession that is borderline sentimental. (And Hollywood by way of Nebraska and Oklahoma is the perfect, plucky backstory.) These gray pictures, which eschew hard whites and rich blacks, speak to the reality of a world in which we’re all hypocrites, to some degree. (I should know, after hearing my wife try to delicately explain to my young son why it’s OK to fib sometimes, to spare someone’s feelings, weeks after we told him that it’s never acceptable to lie.)

Ms. Heckert’s essay is admirable, and also allows for the inclusion of some excellent plates by other artists. (Including the aforementioned New Topo Masters: Shore, Adams, and Baltz, who were said to be influenced by Mr. Ruscha’s work.) Then come the plates, which have a great rhythm. My only complaint is that they added a few additional pictures that were released as prints in 2003, (despite Mr. Ruscha previously saying he’d never sell prints, and basically trashing the whole idea entirely,) and they do feel a bit tacked on.

He might not have ever admitted it, but there was a lot of work and thought that went into seeming so casual about the whole thing. And his initial editing instincts, back in 1965, were spot on. The book seems to naturally end where he wanted it to.

Given that I’ve never, ever ended a column with a quote before, let’s try it. Ms. Heckert summed it up perfectly, so we’ll let her have the last word today:

“Whether Ruscha plotted his route in advance or happened upon his subjects by chance, whether he was familiar with the neighborhood or exploring new locations expressly for the purpose of finding subjects for his book, is ultimately irrelevant, because his photographic depictions of Los Angeles apartment buildings are simultaneously arbritary and inconsequential- and at the same time carefully edited and quintessential.”

Bottom Line: A re-issued classic, get it while you can

To Purchase “Ed Ruscha and Some Los Angeles Apartments” 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 – 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

To Purchase America 101 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 – 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

To Purchase “Vanilla Partner” 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 – 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.