Category "Photography Books"

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.

 

This Week In Photography Books – Rikard Laving

by Jonathan Blaustein

We’re all middle class, aren’t we? We, the creative class, were reared to have options. Here in America, at least, if you’re reading this, you’re probably white, and you likely grew up comfortable. (If you were upper class, you’d be reading Frieze, and planning to jet off to Dubai to take some sun.)

In case you’re wondering, I am aware that one of these days my penchant for stereotyping might just get me into trouble. But until then, I will endeavor to keep it real. If you grew up with enough education to become a photographer, or an editor, or an art buyer, it’s unlikely that you come from a dirt poor rural spot of nothing, or a gritty inner-city ghetto.

I believe our respective middle-ness is a big driver for the need many photographers have to visit emerging nations to document poverty. (And violence. And misery.) The obsession with “The Other” is well-worn. On the flip side, our mission to share truth and reality with the wider world, through our respective media outlets, often comes from noble roots.

Seriously, how many of you have a colleague who rose up from nothing to become an artist? Or a journalist? Of course it’s possible, but I’d suggest that for those with little or nothing, the desperate need to ensure survival supersedes the desire to make pretty, or important pictures. Given how much I believe in the power of Art, would that it were different. But class matters, as does one’s home turf.

I got to thinking about this, having just put down “Steel Work City,” a new book by Rikard Laving. (Journal) If bleak beauty is your thing, this is one to buy. If you love a peek into how the other half lives, those who toil thanklessly in dirty industry to make the cash to buy food, pay for gas, and perhaps have time to fish a bit on the weekends, then this one is for you as well.

The slim volume opens with a lovely poem by Mattias Alkberg, in Swedish, and then English. To be fair, you don’t know it takes place in Sweden until the end notes. The initial viewing provides a generic, cold, Scandinavian experience. Sitting here in New Mexico, it could have been Finland, Norway, or Denmark for all I knew. (It’s funny that some neighboring countries have internecine rivalries, but all look the same from the other side of the planet.)

But Sweden it is. The narrative is based at the Swedish Steel AB compound in Oxelösund, and the surrounding areas. (It employs 54% of the local population.) Lots of billowing smoke, modernist institutional architecture, and gray light. In the wrong hands, the material could easily be bland and banal. Instead, I was hooked.

This book is a great example, (as was last week’s,) of what happens when everything comes together. The production quality, the text, the graphic design, the use of suspense. (Where is this? What’s going on?) I loved that each image was allowed to breathe on the page, and that the titles gave me the info I needed just below.

The subtle color shifts communicate cold, and even boredom. The school children pictures truly surprise, as we see that diversity has hit this sleepy little area. It’s not just a bunch of little Aryan kids. Who knew?

I’ll readily admit that bleak beauty doesn’t do it for everyone. Some folks prefer otters and ocelots. Cacti and chameleons. Boobs and bikinis. Why not?

But I love the experience of opening up a photo-book, and being reminded how lucky I was to be born with options, in spitting distance of the most powerful city in the World. (Here’s your shout-out, NYC. Enjoy the mantle while you’ve still got it.) It’s a big part of why I worked so hard for seven years to share the power of Art with kids less fortunate than I was. The other reason, unsurprisingly, was that the bills needed paying. I’m a working stiff too. Thankfully, though, my fingernails are clean, and my hands are as soft as a baby’s belly.

Bottom Line: Lyrical, bleak life in a Swedish Steel town

To Purchase “Steel Work City” 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 – Paolo Ventura

by Jonathan Blaustein

Three nights ago, I flung raw chicken out the second story window of my Aunt Lynda’s house. With a salad fork. In East Brunswick, New Jersey.

Two nights ago, I traveled to a parallel dimension, and then back again. I was accompanied by a childhood friend named Brett. We made the journey in a machine; a cross between a sauna, and the hot tub from “Hot Tub Time Machine.” When I returned, I was a woman.

Last night, I repeatedly bashed a former summer-camp counselor about the collarbone with a hammer. Again and again, I beat him. Whump. Whump. Whump. A giraffe trotted by in the background.

You’ve probably guessed these narratives come from my dreams. I rarely remember them, but my son recently asked me to try harder, and now I can’t shake the visuals from my mind. I’m ambivalent about the whole thing, as the retained images are as troubling as they are bizarre.

We’re all comfortable with the fact that each evening, our conscious mind cedes control. The conductor of the night shift is clinically insane. We know this, yet still wake up refreshed, or screaming for coffee. Either way, how many of us spend significant time parsing these madcap adventures? And if we did, what might we learn? (No, I’m not about to quote Freud.)

Within the realm of art, when people think of the dreamworld, they invariably go to Dali. Melting clocks in the desert. Maybe the photo-geeks think of Robert & Shana Parke Harrison, or that young woman who ripped them off and is showing her work around these days. (No, I won’t name the offender.)

Some of the most compelling dream-scape images I’ve seen, though, emerge from “Lo Zuavo Scomparso,” a new, magnificent hard-cover book by Paolo Ventura. (Punctum Press, 2012.) Just last week, I assured you that it’s nothing to me if you buy these books or not. Today, I’ll reverse course, and suggest that this is one for the collection.

The book is experiential on multiple levels. The cover is bright red, with terrific design. Open it up, and you’re treated to a cryptic, repeating graphic inside the cover. Then, we get two poems, in Italian and English, that establish the narrative to come. (Anyone with a brain knows that Italian is the most beautiful language in the world. I encourage you to read the Italian text out loud, for sonorous pleasure.)

As many of you probably know, Mr. Ventura builds intricate sets for his imagery. They resemble paintings, while reflecting the camera’s power to observe. Here, the subject is a Papal Zouave who comes to Rome, and then disappears. (The city itself competes for attention.) The mood is mysterious and elegant, the light not easy to describe.

After the photos conclude, there is an interview with the artist, again in English and Italian, that gives compelling clues to the nature of his process and obsession. Rare for my somewhat-short-attention-span, I found myself reading, then going back to the pictures, then reading again. I returned to some passages three or four times.

Eventually, I decided I needed to know more, and googled Papal Zouave. Normally, I won’t do that, believing that the artist ought to provide all necessary information. Here, I was too entranced to care.

Papal Zouaves were 19th Century soldiers in service to the Pope. In Italy, they fought against the Risorgimento, or unification of the country. (In light of Silvio Berlusconi’s ridiculous escapades, perhaps they were on to something. Bunga, Bunga.)

The book concludes with a set of polaroids that were presumably used as sketches. And then that crazy graphic again, which I could by-then recognize as a Papal Zouave’s profile, repeated over and over. (Just like gelaterias in Rome. How much f-cking ice cream can people eat?) This book will be tough to give back, because it transported me to a different reality. Will it do the same for you?

Bottom line: Masterful, beautiful, dreamy piece of work

To Purchase “Lo Zuavo Scomparso” 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 – Erik Kessels

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’m in a bad mood right now. Grumpy, surly, sour. Take your pick. Why? Because I’m cold, deep in my bones. Nobody likes a whiner, but it’s been well-below-zero here in Taos for more than a month now. Each day, I wake up hoping this arctic wave will break. No such luck.

I know some of you are reading this in the Southern Hemisphere, or straddling the equator. Hell, even my parents were smart enough to high tail it down to Mexico. To all of you, I hope you’re happy. Enjoy it. Because the serotonin doesn’t pump as freely when everything is bleak, gray and dim.

Even now, as I try to put this foul temper behind me, I’m having trouble. The words don’t flow as well when your mind is trapped in a negative feedback loop. Too. Cold. To. Be. Witty. Today.

So what is a hard-working columnist to do? Keep bashing you over the head with complaints? Move to Mumbai? Take a bath in chicken soup? All respectable options, but none seem right.

I have a better idea. I can re-open and flip through “in almost every picture.”, a new book published by Erik Kessels of kesselkramer in Amsterdam. (What would I do if I were in Amsterdam right now? Do you have to ask?) Let’s pause a moment while I actually do look at the book again.

OK, I’m back. And I feel better already. This is one of the funniest, strangest, and most oddly heart-warming books I’ve seen in a long time. If ever. (No, it’s not genius. But that is a big threshold to cross.)

So what is it about? Apparently, one of the publisher’s acquaintances spotted this project on the web, and then the book was born. In almost every photograph, we see a middle-aged woman standing fully clothed in water. Her name is Valerie, and she and her husband Fred are the team behind the project.

I suppose we’d call them amateurs, but then again, they’ve got a book, and most of us don’t. Valerie is a willing subject, and Terry has photographed her, over the years, in fountains, pools, oceans, lakes, showers, you name it. The only catch is that she’s wearing clothes, and standing in water. Or wet, having poured a jug over herself.

It sounds like a concept cooked up out of irony, but it’s not. The end statement mentions the thrill of eroticism, and I guess it’s there. Maybe. Thankfully, though, the book is not made out to mock Valerie either. While she doesn’t look like anybody’s mental vision of a model, she does know how to vary her expression, and to play along. It must take a lot of guts to show yourself this way, especially as she ages over time.

I know many of you look to this column to see what books you ought to buy. But that’s never my motivation. I’m looking to find things that are interesting, innovative, thought-provoking, important, powerful, inspirational, bizarre, or absurd. It’s a high standard, and maybe I don’t always get there. But today, at least, I’m less grumpy than I was five minutes ago. So that’s something.

Bottom line: Weird, fun-loving book by amateur photographers

To Purchase “in almost every picture” 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 LaChapelle

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

Taste is fickle. We all think we have good taste, but of course that’s impossible. Some of us are chic, and others display ceramic frogs around their home.

I’m more attuned to the dichotomy than most. Taos, where I live, is famed as an art outpost at the edge of nowhere. We used to have Agnes Martin, Ken Price, and Dennis Hopper, but they’re all dead now. Bummer.

Instead, in the 80’s and 90’s, the Taos art scene began to cater directly to the hordes of moneyed Texan and Oklahoman tourists that drove into town with regularity. Big trucks, big checkbooks, questionable taste. The result was a glut of “art galleries” that each tried to outdo the others with uninspired, gaudy Southwestern art.

If you like bad paintings of cowboys, indians, flowers, teepees, mountains, horses and hollyhocks, this is your kind of place. If, like me, you try to make and look at intellectually challenging work, then you’re probably better served elsewhere. I hate to be harsh, but it is what it is.

Sometimes, though, bad taste can be accepted within the realm of high art. We’re all familiar with kitsch, but I suppose it’s difficult to define. You know it when you see it, like porn. Some things are so cheesy or tacky that you like them in spite of yourself. (Like Billy the Badmouth Bass crooning “Don’t Worry Be Happy” every time you touch the button.)

I’ve got all this in mind, as I just put down a copy of David LaChapelle’s big new monograph, “Thus Spoke LaChapelle,” published in conjunction with an exhibition in Prague. (Yes, I know I ought not pick on the Eastern Europeans again. But I saw more silly mustaches and tacky vinyl siding while living in Polish Greenpoint, Brooklyn than I care to remember.)

David LaChapelle is a super-famous photographer, and you’ve probably already got you mind made up about him. As my knowledge base skews towards the art world, rather and editorial, I knew him as some dude who makes crazy, opulent photos, and who also sued Rhianna. (My goodness she’s beautiful.)

But I didn’t have a microfiche catalogue of his work in my head. Not at all. So I was pleasantly surprised to see this book, filled to the brim with celebrities, hookers, models, fake boobs, fake butts, jutting penises, and tons of campy, gay-themed silliness. Let me be clear: this is a big book, so there is more bad taste than a gas-guzzling RV from Texas towing a Hummer off the back. (Yes, I see them all the time.)

I’d rather not get into too many details here, because there’s too much to discuss. The famous people are there, and boy did he make Courtney Love and Michael Jackson look bonkers. But David Bowie is hip, Uma Thurman is radiant, and he even got Daniel Day-Lewis to do something strange. (Just imagine that set, if it was in the actor’s Bill the Butcher phase. “Uh, Mr. Lewis, we’d like you to rub a pomegranate all over your face. And if you’re planning to stab anybody, please avoid the vital organs.”)

There are some terrible photos in this book, and some photos that are terrible in a good way. (In fairness, some of the celeb pictures are good without being bad at all.) It’s big enough that you’re likely to find some you love, and some that shock you with audacity. Surprisingly, near the end, we see the series of images, represented on the cover, of people photographed while submerged in water. They’re well made, powerful, interesting, and subtle. If you didn’t know who made them, you’d probably just assume they came from the mind of a talented, less crazy artist.

Bottom line: Crazy monograph, famous photographer, famous subjects

To purchase Thus Spoke LaChapelle 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 – Risaku Suzuki

by Jonathan Blaustein

Karl Marx got it wrong. He prophesied the demise of Religion and Nationalism. Bad call. I know it’s ballsy of me to quibble with a dead great mind, but it was never going to be thus.

As long as humans have been upright, they’ve looked to the night sky. Before pollution, every part of the planet would have provided proper vantage to see the billions of stars above. Speaking as one who retains the privilege, you don’t need to know what those things are up there. You just feel, in your genetic code, that you are a small, insignificant nothing in the face of it all.

From there, it’s not a long leap to name that feeling of awe and worthlessness. And then to worship that name, and then again to ask for favors. (And to pray.) That progression happened everywhere on Earth, and many names developed as such. My wife was just telling me the other day that we Jews have multiple names to suit the many faces of our lone deity.

We, the people of the book, who have such a prominence in the state of the safety of the World, are but .2% of its population, I recently read. (Seriously, Bibi, you can’t keep building on what will obviously be Palestine.) Christianity leads the way with 31%, and then Islam is second with 23%.

Both religions seek converts. And we wonder why countries with those tendencies are oft at each other’s throats. (ie, the Bush Wars.) Nationalism is nothing more than our need for the tribe, of which I’ve already written, and that’s never going away. Put the two together and the reptilian brain takes over, leading to conflict.

Elsewhere in the world, there are Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and many other types of worshippers. In Japan, Shintoism remains popular. To those believers, there are entrances to the sacred world called “Torii.” Which is also, conveniently, the name of a new book, out last year, by Risaku Suzuki. (Superlabo)

(You knew there had to be a connection there, right?) The mid-sized hardcover consists of a set polaroid photographs, taken in Japan, in 1993. Almost all contain the presence of the large scale shrine-temple-type structure. It looks like the entrance to something that ought to be just behind it, or above it, but that got vaporized into a parallel dimension. (Or razed to make another mini-mart.)

The pictures look vintage, and some are washed out or have disintegrated edges. The colors might have shifted a touch here or there, but it serves the look and the meaning. Seeing these Torii in parking lots and dwarfed by city architecture hammers home the point that some ideas are eternal, and times always change.

The repetition of the beautiful, shape, over and over again is mesmerizing. Such a beautiful shape, this portal. Peaceful. I loved the one framed against the open car door. Not a big leap from this to the oft-mentioned Murakami vibe. (Pass through and you too can talk to the Sheep Man.)

I hate to state the obvious, but the book and pictures within are Zen. They close that loop on religion, in the way they inspire some immediate mental calm. And that is high praise from a man who’s staring at a snow covered mountain peak as he’s typing these words. (No easy feat.)

Bottom Line: Super-Zen Shinto shrines from 1993

To Purchase Torii 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 – Alec Soth

by Jonathan Blaustein

I signed up for Instagram a few months ago. As ridiculous as it sounds, I use my Ipad to shoot the photographs. It’s a crappy camera, but what I love most is that I see something, reach for the tablet, and make a picture. It’s perfectly unprecious, and I appreciate that the platform engenders occasional creativity in me, nothing more.

Normally I stay away from the day-to-day controversies in cyberworld, but this Instagram Term of Service kerfuffle is too good to pass up. We can all be as outraged as we like, and feel free to think that way. (Which comes first, I wonder, the liquor or the pitchforks? Wouldn’t you have drink first before you went out to hunt Frankenstein’s monster?)

Can we not acknowledge the silliness of trying to commodify the random, meaningless little compositions we create? If there are billions of these things (photos) getting made every day, how much could any one of them truly be worth? Value is traditionally derived from scarcity, for heaven’s sake.

How much money do you expect to lose when Instagram charges some dumb company $.00037 to put their ad next to your filtered photo? Does anyone actually think they’ll be denied untold riches from Mr. Zuckerberg’s secret vault? (I’ll have the rubies, thank you.)

Rather than focus on the news cycle, though, I wanted to write this last column of the year with a more important message. In the time I’ve been writing here, (2.5 years,) it seems as if the publication industry has started to stabilize, as has the American economy. So, many of you are off the proverbial ledge, worrying about how to pay the mortgage. At least, I hope that’s true.

So, for 2013, as we all emerge from perma-fear-mode, why not take a risk? Try something new. Learn a new skill. Make a conscious effort to improve yourself, and your knowledge base. Embrace the New Year with a sense of opportunity, rather than fear. (And of course I’ll try to do the same.)

Why am I off on this rant today? Why no mention of the wife and kids? Because I just finished looking at Alec Soth’s “Looking for Love 1996,” published by Kominek, and it seemed like the perfect catalyst for a “stretch yourself” message today. (Plus, that was the year I graduated college and took up photography, so I couldn’t resist the chance to wax philosophical.)

According to the text, Mr. Soth began investing in his photographic talents while working at a commercial printing facility in 1996. He would print other people’s birthday photos all day long, and then go out at night to drink and photograph away his misery. He also admits, after the statute of limitations has probably run its course, that he would make his own prints and sneak them out at night, wrapped around his legs. (Cue vision of the robot dance.)

I know Mr. Soth has many, many publications on the market. I don’t know if you should buy this one to add to your collection. That’s up to you. But his photographic style, though raw, is certainly on display here. He walks the line between pathos and poking fun at people. The photos display an eye for detail, and the ability to celebrate the awkward moment, rather than gut it like a branzino destined for the grill.

There is a bit of a time capsule feel to the book. It’s all in black and white, which is not the way we know Mr. Soth’s best work. It really is a cool little object, and ends with a dorktastic self-portrait. The artist, lacking his now-famous beard, lounges back in a tuxedo, sans jacket and bow-tie. The look in his eye is a bit doofy, but you can definitely sense the beginning of some serious confidence. (What the f-ck are you looking at?)

Let’s all take inspiration from Mr. Soth’s journey. Let 2013 be the time when you too try to build something fresh. I’m not advocating theft, per se. But my New Year’s wishes for you are clear. I hope, this time next year, that you find yourself fulfilled, and capable of new and dynamic things.

Bottom Line: Very cool collection of the artist’s early work

To Purchase “Looking for Love 1996″ 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 – Itai Doron

- - Photography Books

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s late at night, and very dark. The street lamps around you are half-broken. You could be anywhere in Eastern Europe. Let’s say it’s Warsaw.

The rain comes down, cold and painful. It’s half-frozen; not quite snow. The worst. You feel the wet chill deep in your bones, and the slick cobblestones beneath your feet. The tread on your boots is worn, so you have to walk less quickly than you might like. Is this neighborhood dangerous?

Up ahead, a shadow takes form. Just a person, walking in your direction. Nothing to worry about. Two blocks becomes one, and suddenly you can make out some details. It’s a white dude with a nose that’s been broken. He’s big. 6’2″? His jangly leather jacket is tight, so you can see that his muscles are enormous.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Do you feel threatened? Are you afraid of getting mugged? Or is your blood flowing for another reason? Is he cute? Does he look like he wants to hook up? Wait, what’s going on here?

Exactly what I was wondering when I looked at “Fifteen Minutes With You,” a new small hard-cover book by Itai Doron, from Omoplata in Japan. The jacket image, of a muscly white guy taking off his wife-beater while staring threatening daggers at the camera…that’s the gist of it. (Honest to god, I just wrote Ass instead of All as the first word of the next sentence I was about to write. Freudian slip.)

The whole book is a series of thuggish, Eastern European-looking white men, mostly half-naked. They’re taking off items of clothes, holding weapons, or punching, while wearing boxing gloves. What? There’s little overt nudity, just one butt at the end of the book.

But what the f-ck is going on here? The guys look like they want to beat the shit out of the photographer most of the time, but sometimes like they want to make out. As the eroticism is not meant for me, I find it ironic and campy and intelligent. Like images from some 1981 KGB-Christmas-calender-gone-wrong that got its maker dropped in the gulag. Forever.

The pictures are ambiguous and strange. There is no text, no explanation of who these guys are, or where, or why this whole book was published, for starters. Just these weird, thug-porn-meets-MMA-fighter-pseudo-documentary photographs. Only at the end do we get a title sheet, with the names, locations and dates. (Of course it’s Eastern Europe.)

Meager context, but that’s what makes the thing fascinating for me. From the minute I opened the cover, I was constantly trying to figure out the puzzle, while also thinking about all the weird ways that masculinity can be symbologized in 2012. So next time you bump into Miroslav from Bulgaria, keep an open mind.

Bottom Line: Weird, compelling, homo-erotic Polaroids

To Purchase “Fifteen Minutes With You” 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 – Chema Madoz

by Jonathan Blaustein

Last night, my wife trudged to bed in her green bathrobe. At 7pm. She looked at me, forlorn, and said, “It feels like it’s always time to make the donuts.” Then she continued down the hall.

Much as I wished to say something witty or helpful, I was at a loss. Our lives are pretty wonderful, all things considered, but she hasn’t slept right in six months. Every day, from wakeup to bed, she’s responsible for helping someone out of a mess, or cleaning one up from the kids.

Some day, she’ll sleep through the night again. Schedules will develop, allowing for some planned “downtime.” Fun will return to her life, and someone else can make those blasted donuts instead.

Drudgery is a part of the human condition, as much as fun. Death never happens without the sex first, right? But Art is one of the best ways to try to cheat said mortality. And when we make it, we preoccupy those parts of the brain otherwise used for neurotic self-criticality, or constant to-do-list-making. (And the prints we leave behind will outlast us, we hope.)

Those negative thought trains are silenced while the hand draws a line, types a phrase, or clicks a shutter. We all know how much fun it is to be focused on both the present, and the matter of creation at hand. Looking at Art does much the same thing, with the additional benefit of giving us new information about the world around us.

When we’re exclusively literal, we miss out on many of the best parts of life. Photography is a literal medium, but we all know it can be cheated. (I was fooled by a fake shark-in-a-Long-Beach-Island-Front-Yard photograph. Even tweeted it.)

Literature and painting are all better known for delivering abstracted realities. Hence the love for writers like Murakami and Garcia Marquez. And Spanish painters like Picasso, Goya and Dali. (Not to mention the not-quite-Spanishly titled “El Greco”.)

Personally, I love the blending of absurdity married to reality that we see in Spanish culture. I speak from the experience of the bastard son. New Mexico has deeply Spanish roots, but our particular kind of lunacy is homegrown.

As anyone would tell you, life is crazy. But that need not be a sorry assertion. Absurd humor can be cathartic and profound, and is rarely seen in modern photography. Much rarer still in Black and White. So I was happy to find a new soft-cover book from Chema Madoz, a Spaniard, published jointly by PHotoBolsillo and La Fabrica.

I’d never heard of the artist, but that’s not unusual for this column. The pin-through-the-cloud cover gives a quick and not subtle nod to surrealism, and probably Photoshop. The pictures within are excellent. Formally, they’re super-tight. The tonality is always well-crafted too, as is the use of light. The subjects are sculptural as well as whimsical.

We see a chair wearing suspenders. A burned match in the center of a thermostat. A set of plates, stacked in a storm grate instead of a dish rack. A cactus made of stone. Scissors with eye lashes. Shoelaces made of braided hair.

Surreal images like these are ideal for expressing the dreamlike world of the subconscious. And for reminding us that life is not all about punching the time-clock.

Given my own work, and my taste, it was almost assured that I’d love this book. But I think most people would. Once you’ve flipped through it, you’ll likely feel a bit better than you did before. I should probably show it to my wife when she gets home from work.

Bottom Line: Formal, Surreal, Black & White photo gems

To purchase PHotoBolsillo 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.