January 2, 2008

Model Home

One of my wife's aunts just bought a new house in one of those pre-fab subdivisions that seem to be taking over middle America, a McMansion. The subdivision is still brand new. The streets aren't on maps, and most of the houses are half-finished, or have that just-moved-in look. But there is one house with green grass and trees outside. It's the model house, and that's the one they bought—fully furnished. To give the illusion of the perfect life, the model house has fake family photos in each room—the pictures always feature a handsome couple with one or two kids. The couple would vary from room to room, but you wouldn't notice if you didn't look closely. The mom was always blonde, the dad, muscular, occassionally shirtless. In the kid's room a framed drawing titled, "World's Best Dad" was carefully hung in the corner while the master bedroom was decorated with glossy travel magazines, and books in bookshelves that invitably carried the word "success" in the title. In the living room a pretend television displays a serene ocean scene.

My wife's aunt and uncle and their daughter will move into the new house leaving most of their old furniture behind, walking into a readymade life. In truth the new life looks pretty similar to the old life. The new house is virtually indistinguishable from the old one which is also in a pre-fab subdivision. Inside the house feels the same- miles of beige carpet, huge windows with plastic sills, and a sense of complete anonymity. The cherry veneer furniture and bland paintings on the walls are indistinguishable between the homes. But in the new house the rooms are all one or two sizes bigger, there's a third door on the garage, and the basement is graced with a media room. A year from now little will have changed in the model house. The furniture will not have been moved, the paintings will stay exactly as they are, and my guess is it will take months if not years to replace all those family photos scattered around. Even the plastic TV will stay put.

It is easy for my wife and I to be horrified by all this as the house and everything it represents is pretty much the opposite of how we believe life should be lived, but for my wife's aunt and uncle, immigrants from Korea who were both children of war who arrived here with nothing, the house is tangilbe evidence of a life of unbelievably hard work— year upon year of labor without vacations or government holidays often in dangerous neighborhoods where they are mocked and threatened. The house will remain chilly in winter as they would never waste money on something as frivoulous as heat, and it will feel empty to visitors, but out in the back Jenn's uncle will plant a vegetable garden with seeds sent from Korea. He grew up on a farm and still sometimes refers to himself as a farmer. He'll complain about the soil, but he'll make it work and before long the garden will be overflowing with tomatos and squash and chilis. In the summers he'll host barbecues complaining about the expense of such a big house, but enjoying hosting everyone in it, and dreaming of a bigger one.

January 3, 2008

Stefan Ruiz

Stefan Ruiz is a San Francisco born photographer of Mexican-Italian descent. His wide ranging portfolios cover everything from African refugee camps to the sets of Mexican telenovelas, to Cuban Psychiatric hospitals. They give us much to chew on.

His book, simple titled People features portraits from many of these projects presented in sequence.

January 3, 2008

To Each His Own

It is the third day of the year
I’m on a train eating clementines
The woman behind me is enjoying a bucket of chicken
Which smells delicious
but she would never share
and besides, the clementines are sweeter.

January 4, 2008

Lisa Robinson

Long time readers of this blog know that I have something of an obsessive relationship with snow, a product of a largely snowless childhood in a hot corner of Texas. Simply put I love snow. It makes me a little bit crazy, so I guess I was predisposed to be a fan of Lisa Robinson’s Snowbound, photographs taken over several years of snows. Her landscapes remind us of the thrill of being the first to tread on new snow and the wonder of discovering a world made new. The understated images achieve power through subtlety which is a hard trick indeed given the challenges of shooting and of printing such images.

This work deserves to be seen in person as digital files viewed on screen don’t do the prints justice, so make the trek over to DUMBO and check out the show at the Klompching Gallery, it’s up through February 29th.

If aren’t in the New York area, Robinson’s book of the same title was cited by PhotoEye editor and photobook connoisseur Darius Himes as one of his favorite photobooks of 2007.

Tangential: And while we’re on the subject of snow and photography why not re-read Alec Soth’s snow-tagged posts. Of all the blogs that have come and gone over the years, his is the one I miss reading the most.

January 6, 2008

On Turning 41

41 is one of those blah birthdays. Like 31 or 27 or 11 it’s a day to be marked and then quickly forgotten. 41 rates a Wikipedia entry which seems impressive at first blush, but so do all numbers under 100. 42’s entry is much more impressive.

My three year old can’t count to 41 yet and calls it a "big big very big number with a 4 and a 1". Nobody bothers to put 41 candles on a cake and as it’s a prime number there’s no easily divisible scaling factor. I imagine some get candles that look like the numbers 4 and 1 or candles arranged into 4’s and 1’s but most of us just get a random set of candles that fill the cake. I got 16 candles spread out in a circle. 16 was something to look forward to. I'm not sure anyone looks forward to 41 which is not to say there's anything wrong with actually being 41, it's just not as fun as 16 when you could get a driver's license picture from the front instead of from the side.

At 41 I’m the age my mother was when I went away to college. I’m a little over double my youngest brother’s age when he died. I’ve lived 14,975 days which is less than I would have thought. Actuarial tables suggest I have about 12,401 days left although family history would suggest something like 19,345 days. Perhaps counting days is morbid but I've been doing it since I was 11. Back then I was probably a little less optimistic than I am now. Back then if I thought 31 was ancient never realizing that the distance that separates 11 and 31 or 11 and 41 is much shorter in many ways than the distance between 11 and 1.

In my 41st year I plan on making things. On my post for 42 I'll resolve to list the projects completed.

related: 40

January 8, 2008

Mexican Retablos

SanCamilodeLelis.jpgI collect Mexican retablos- small paintings of saints on tin. One of my favorite dealers James Caswell has written an insightful book titled Saints and Sinners on Mexican devotional art with a big section devoted to retablos illustrated largely with selections from his own impressive collection. The book came out 2 years ago but somehow escaped my notice until recently. I recommend the book as well as his gallery's website which contains a good selection of links and explanatory information and where most items for sale have detailed descriptions to give context. For example on the image above:

An illustration of the Catholic belief that Camille guides and protects at the final hour. Titled at bottom San Camilo de Lelis Patron de los Agonizontes, or "San Camilo of Lelis patron of people in final agony", depicts a fascinating cast of Hieronymous Bosch like characters who represent spiritual hazards of death. San Camilo and his acolytes guard the dying soul against final temptations of a host of satanical troublemakers. A devil in the window says, "I can't" (meaning he can't get to the dying man to detour him to hell). The demon floating above the enthroned Virgin Mary threatens, "your children". The Virgin invites, ven a mi gloria, "come to my glory". Notice the dying man's little white soul flying up to the Virgin's open arms..... The devil beneath the bed says, vuelvale intentar "try again". On the left are the seven demons of the deadly sins...

January 9, 2008

Nicholas Nixon

Next Thursday here in New York Nicholas Nixon will be opening a show titled Patients which is a must see... It features arresting images of terminally ill patients. Nixon turns the photographic cliché of shooting the dying it's head by making savagely beautiful almost sensual portraits that are at once sculptural and delicately, tragically human. Most of the images from the show aren't online yet, but I expect they will be soon.

Nixon became part of the modern art photography canon for his Brown Sisters project, but his portfolio is wide ranging. I wish galleries/phtographers would realize the value of putting up older projects online. Nixon's Photos from one Year for example is a no brainer for the web.

January 13, 2008

100 Drums

Makes me happy.

January 14, 2008

Objects in the punch lines of my grandfather's jokes.

tres viboras
viente pesos
ese juercito que voy aplastar
frijoles quemado
el bigote de tu tia
el elefante
huevos... rancheros

January 18, 2008

Joakim Eskildsen

I had never gone through Denmark based photographer Joakim Eskildesn's portfolios because the work I had seen of his had a high polish finish which doesn't suit my taste (overly dramatic skys are always the tipoff...National Geographicy for want of a better adjective.), but his project titled iChickenMoon which I believe was shot in South Africa is beautiful stuff and got me looking. And my stylistic qualms notwithstanding Eskildsen has seen more than most of us, and his portfolios all hold fascinating imagery. His site is worth delving into.

January 22, 2008


Mongolia has never been known for its salads, but on my first trip there in the early 90's there were virtually no green vegetables to be had in the entire country. Fruit was impossible to come by, in fact I could find nothing to eat but mutton. For almost two months I had mutton for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Occasionally the lamb would be served with a bit of onion or some sickly looking rice, but generally it was just mutton. Boiled, fried, or roasted three times a day you would be served meat on a plate until you couldn't stand the site of the stuff. You would sweat mutton, pee mutton, shit mutton. If you were lucky you could wash the mutton down with mares milk, but it was more common to be given a bowl of mutton broth. I slept in homes with sheep skin pelts on the floor. I chased sheep with kids who played games amongst the livestock in the streets. I killed sheep with a sharp knife (apparently an honor, rude to refuse).

Counting sheep did not lull me to sleep but instead sheep became the stuff nightmares in which I could feel my chemical composition tipping toward the bovid. Eventually I stopped eating all together except when starving.

If you can imagine all that, think of what it was like to take a night train away from Mongolia and waking up in Ulan Ude in Siberia and seeing a woman selling a can of pineapple on the train platform. The can's bright red Vietnamese and Cyrillic letters printed over an obscenely lush pineapple drawing hovering over a turquoise background practically shouted at me. I paid the woman, a Buryat with a pleasant open face and bright green eyes, one dollar which was probably 10 times the value of can. Still, I would have paid 10 dollars. Maybe 20. The can was marked 'Hanoi' and was 2 years out of date. It was heavy duty. Like the kind you see in 60's movies, But it opened right up. And the pineapple? Well, I close my eyes in pleasure at the thought of the first scent of that opened can. You will never known pineapple until you have only eaten mutton for a month or two. When I finished the fruit, I drank the juice and then added water to leach out any remaining flavor. For years that can would remain on my desk holding pencils until it was finally lost in a move. I don't know why I am remembering this at 2:55 in the morning but I can't stop thinking about that can, about how it felt to open it, and about how rare it is to get such pleasure from such small things.

January 22, 2008

Charlie Crane

Unlike many photographers who visit to Pyongyang, North Korea only return with images of the Potemkin Village spectacles put on for tourists, Charlie Crane manages to capture the some of the stark emptiness and weirdness of the place. Crane's recent Welcome to Pyongyang is one of the best of the recent spate of North Korea books and has been widely hailed as one of the best photo books of 2007.

We have a Charlie Crane print available on 20x200 this week!

January 24, 2008

Found on Bergen & Smith

A list torn from a yellow notepad (scan to follow):

Resolutions 2008

1. Be smart.
2. Be strong.
3. Be aggressive!
4. End it with M.
5. Get through #4. No guilt.
6. Tell B how I feel.
7. Make B understand.
8. Don't make mistakes with B.
9. Love like a Tiger.
10. Live the life.
11. BE with B.
12. Forget THE PAST.
13. Get healthy in the brain.
14. Be happy.
15. Don't think about things too much.

January 26, 2008

Robert Capa's Lost Negatives

robert-Capa-negatives.jpgPhoto by Tony Cenicola
Great story in today's Times on Robert Capa's lost negatives.

January 30, 2008

Bug Truck

The truth is you never know what people are thinking.

I was eating lunch alone in a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown today—the order was a limeade and Bo La Lot over rice— when the waitress, perhaps seeing me staring out the window, asked what I was thinking about. How could I explain I was thinking of the bug trucks which would roll slowly through the backroads of my Texas hometown? They would appear at sunset spraying a fine mist of mosquito repellent in the air. I wasn't thinking of the trucks themselves, but rather of the kerosene smell and how we would ride up along side the trucks on our banana bikes holding onto ladders on the tanks with one hand so we wouldn't have to pedal. We would look back through the spray at the sunset which, because of oil, would flare into countless oily rainbows. We would call to each other. "Marco"
"Ten four"
"Keep on truckin' dude."
Jay would flick matches back at the spray hoping to ignite a fireball. Having convinced ourselves that one day he would succeed creating an Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon style propulsion, we held the ladders with only our fingers ready to peel off at any moment. He could light and flick matches with one hand. It was an impressive skill which we chalked up to the fact that he was both double jointed and six months older than the rest of us. We would ride the trucks until twilight or until we were kicked off or until someone started coughing too much. Sometimes even a few days later you would still have the smell in your nose. It was hard to wash off.

Jay died in a car accident right out of college. He fell asleep at the wheel on one those long straight country highways and drifted off the road. And today sitting at lunch down on Baxter Street I was thinking about how I wished that just once he had managed to set the spray off and propelled that bug truck down the street like we had imagined because it would have been something to remember. But this was all too complicated to explain to the waitress so I just said I was thinking about the limeade and how delicious it was on a rainy winter day even though limeade is a summer drink that evokes Texas and August sunsets.

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