September 24, 2013
Man and Woman. Husband and Wife. Artist and Muse. It’s a path few travel because it demands. A kind of commitment to creativity unparalleled, as standard of excellence, an ability to balance the personal and the professional, the private and the public, a kind of elasticity and mutability that comes from years past, experiences shared, mysteries unfolding, new opportunities revealed, the moment made eternal. The photograph, the space where the two meet, where time stops and what once was shall now and forever be.
Fat Girl by Carlos Batts (Barnacle Books) is a love story. It is a story of love that begins with a knowledge of self, a fearless acceptance of truth, of a way of being that is deeply one’s own, so FTW if they complain. April Flores found her happiness in the body voluptuous, the body scorned by society as this, that, and the third thing because they won’t let a woman live.
April Flores does not just live. She flourishes. She is not but a flower but a field, a meadow, a deep luscious jungle, for she is not merely muse and model, she is a feminist porn icon to (knee-high) boot. This is her body—and this is her world. And it began with her first encounter with Batts, when he suggested she put on a bikini, and after a moment’s hesitation, Flores freed herself, and she stepped before the camera, and the love affair began.
Fat Girl is a tribute to the beauty of woman as she is, as she discovers herself in all her glory, as goddess, siren, and beauty. The photograph is the space where artist and muse meet, each enchanted with the other in the self, enacting Nature’s math of one plus one equals three. The photograph lives in our world, now a thing to contemplate as a reflection of both Flores and Batts and the space in between, where all are invited to meet.
The book is an invitation into their world, and a celebration of all the spirit made flesh, manifest in each photograph, for Miss Flores is an energy, radiating fire, light, flame. She changes her image but never her identity, like a diamond revealing facets of herself, as she grows, blossoming like the flora for which her name stands.
Flores writes, “It is hard for women of all sizes to feel confident because, from the time we are young girls, we are bombarded with messages and images in the media and other places that make us feel like we can never be too thin, too young, or too successful. It is even harder for plus size women to feel good about themselves because rarely are plus sized women represented in a completely positive way. The book is my answer to that problem. This book is an exhibition of my confidence and happiness as a plus size woman.”
Indeed it is, a beautifully, thoughtfully, tastefully curated collection of Batts’ deliciously vivid celebration of his wife, the yin to his yang, the fusion of seeming opposites. Through his photographs, we come to see his vision of a world where women are creatures of completeness, knowing themselves better than anyone else. No longer do we ask, “What do women want?” so much as we say, “Yes, more please.”
Flores is more than a sex symbol, she is a symbol of the sex that inspires the act of creation, be it in life and in art, in the way that the book becomes a treasure chest to be perused at leisure. Fat Girl is one woman’s path through this world, one that is exquisitely pleasurable, risqué and erotic, an adventure in art and style, a tongue planted firmly in chic. Batts’ photographs of Flores naked but for red stilettos and a Miss Piggy mask, remind us that the truest icon of womanhood begins with the Venus of Willendorf.
Fat Girl is deeply personal, yet splendidly friendly, just like Flores and Batts themselves, their lives an open book, a collaboration of kindred spirits now pressed in inks on paper and tucked between the covers. Fat Girl reminds us that she is we and we are she is beauty is deep. It is of the skin, muscle, flesh, bone, soul, and spirit. We are lucky to witness and share it.
September 22, 2013
Many people see their lives as worthy of books, of stories and histories, of memories repeating themselves over and over again with every turn of the page, memories of a time and a place that was once not too long ago but with every passing moment it slips further away. It is the ether to which we return and we hold to its shores, as the river sweeps through. We see and we smile and we think and we know that it comes and it goes.
The book then sets forth to stop time, time capsule, treasure chest of a world that will live on. In ink printed on pages in images and in words and the book speaks to us from the past in the present for the future and we hold it close. We clasp it in our hands, we cradle it to our chest, and our eyes feast upon its contents, devouring every last bit. This is life in print.
And so it is to the book that we return to celebrate the great Gigi Giannuzzi. Trolleyology: The First Ten Years of Trolley Books is a delightfully bright mango number, all board debossed with the simplest boldface, and I’m thinking of that Classic A B C D F U C K t-shirt from back in the days. I love it, this little brick of a book, a marvel of engineering that needs no refinement whatsoever. Form follows function, like Le Corbusier said, and it is here that Trolleyology sets forth.
“Trolley is ten. We would like to thank, from the bottom of our hearts, all those that have helped us reach this milestone, the artists and the people that always believed in us, from our resolute supporters to our very patient printers. Glimpsing at the world as it appears now we little anticipated then, at the outset of this journey, what we have witnessed in those ten years. Wars waged on the precepts of lies, the dramatic effects of collateral damage on millions of innocent people, Geneva Convention rules ignored by ‘First World’ countries, the resurrection and proliferation of torture as a normal means to obtain information. Above all, we have witnessed the rise of fear, the emergence of a new breed of global authoritarianism and corresponding brutal methods of repression, from Burma to the UK, from France to Zimbabwe. At the same time there has been a dramatic fall in the sales of informative books. At Trolley we still believe in the power of information and the people’s undeniable right to know what is happening in their name. We shall continue to promote and support our authors in the next ten years, as we have done since Trolley first began a decade ago.”
Gigi penned these words, before his death. And like Biggie Smalls said, this is Life After Death, for in the circle spinning around in full, a revolution has been completed. Gigi stands for revolution, for things coming around again, and the legacy of Trolley can be found in all that have stood at his side, aligning themselves with Truth, Justice, and the Integrity of the Soul.
Trolleyology reveals it as this, and so it is here that we set forth, looking to what was done, how it was built by the mind of a most swashbuckling lunatic, who possessed a passion that could not be denied. It is a passion for speaking truth to power, for creating art, for using the book as the medium to bring us together, to marry the sacred and the profane, the book is art in the age of mass reproduction and it lives and it breathes in a new milennia where it has a new kind of weight. The book exists. It cannot be erased. And it is the job of the publisher to tell stories worthy of the ages. Stories that command attention and respect, stories that force us out of our comfort zones, into the world outside the known, to a place that calls to our deepest humanity and asks us to be the change we want to see in the world.
Trolleyology offers up chapters from The Book of Life, each chapter dedicated to telling the story of a book on the Trolley list. Consider just a few and you’ll understand the depth, breadth, courage, and strength it takes to publish stories of this caliber:
Chernobyl: The Hidden Legacy by Pierpaolo Mittica
Purple Hearts: Back from Iraq by Nina Berman
Open Wound: Chechnya 1994-2003 by Stanley Greene
A Million Shillings: Escape from Somalia by Alixandra Fazzina
Say Yes to a Rosy Future: Nicolas Righetti
Double Blund: War in Lebanon 2006 by Paolo Pellgrin
Crosses: Portraits of Clergy Abuse by Carmine Gallasso
Taliban: Thomas Dworzak
The list goes on and on, each chapter a rabbit hole into another world, each book a portal into a truth on earth. Gigi’s gift was his passion, and it was this passion that he brought where ever he went, and it was this passion that changed our lives, with each and every book. It is this passion that we see in the pictures and read in the words, in the stories of how each book came to be, and the lives Gigi touched with love.
Trolleyology sits behind my desk on a narrow ledge, a shelf that is home to the books that shape my inner and outer worlds, from The Rumi Collection and The Way of Chuang Tzu to I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell. And it is that image of the tramp that stays with me, the tramp whose heart is huge, whose spirit is luminous, and whose legend lives on in eternity. It is that trap that is Gigi and his trolley of books, his curiosity lit like a fire, like a flame, whose soul radiates with each and every turn of the page.
The book is the mirror into which we look, not just at ourselves, but a reflection of those who bring it into existence. The book as object, idea, invention, inspiration. The book that calls to a higher self. The book as created by Gigi Giannuzzi. Visionary. Activist. Artist. Emissary. Gentleman. Madman. Publisher. God Bless.
September 19, 2013
Joie Iacono is a diamond, polished to shine, reflecting, refracting, and bending light at she desires. A photographer, painter, designer, director, stylist, actor, DJ, and collaborator, Iacono is a many-faceted gem who best embodies the phrase, “I am every woman.” She first picked up a camera at the age of eight and turned the lens upon herself, becoming both artist and model in each frame.
“My work is diaristic; I am always pulling elements from what is going on in my life, to re-enact and perform these moments for the camera. I am an artist, a business woman, a wife, a homemaker, and a world traveler—yet I’ve been an outsider all of my life. As humans, we are such chameleons. I believe in making the world what I want it to be. My birthday is December 31; according to astrocartography, that’s the Day of the Joker. The Joker is no card and yet it is all the cards in the deck at the same time. I experience nothing and everything. In my art I am capturing the experiences I am having from a tertiary place. I am observing the changes and allowing the process to take place. My mantra for the last couple of years has been to let experiences pass through myself, rather than carry them with me. I am being a receptor, a channel, a path for these ideas.”
It is through these channels that Iacono’s imagery travels, finding its form as it makes its way through time and space. In 2003, Iacono debuted her photographs in “To Drown a Rose,” a solo exhibition in New York’s Chelsea Gallery District. Her work was met with great acclaim. She recalls, “After my success, I got shy about being so open with my life. It took me a long time to begin working intuitively again. I could hear the voices of critics in my head, or wondered what buzz words gallerists might use to pigeonhole my work, and that made me scared of success. Working on commissions for other artists such as Antony and the Johnsons helped. I could put things forward for other people, and explore where my vision and their vision would intersect. That really helped on a personal level. It got me back to myself. My work became about exploring insecurities, narcissism, vanity, beauty, self hatred and self love.”
It is now, ten years later that Iacono returns to the world stage in “J.O.I.E.”, a collaboration with Cédrix Crespel opening September 19 at AD Galerie in Montpellier. The exhibition, which features Crespel’s paintings of Iacono’s photographs, runs through October 19. Crespel’s press materials describe an admiration that borders on idolatry, a love and affection that elevates Iacono to kitten on a pedestal status. The text notes, “From this exchange emanate the grandiose portraits of J.O.I.E., with their fluorescent lipstick traces that illuminate the penetrating and piercing tints, their fluttering black satin sheaths and their cracking garters. The artist does not center sexuality in the glimpse of a thigh, an erect nipple or a moist mouth, but in these stretched forms, gloved in black, playing striptease with the arms and the hands of the model. Joie is depicted as dressed, and her finery, though light, seems like a substitutive virginity. She is passionate about her role, and she photographs herself in the poses the artist will later reproduce in paint.”
Iacono embraces all of the luxuriousness a sex kitten promises. “These works show how I see myself, and then how Cédrix sees me. They place importance on the object and this gives me the opportunity to perform, to act, to be Bardot. I didn’t have to overthink a thing. I just put on a little make up, locked myself in, and I took pictures of myself. It was a great way to blow off some steam!”
Iacono then references a Buddha quote: “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” Her portraiture reflects her profound respect for her being, and the photograph becomes a marriage of inside and out, of soul and visage, of director and star, of bridges across seemingly opposite sides of life, each image Iacono creates is a collaboration between artist and muse. Two equals one in this duet that celebrates the feminine, the goddess, the siren song that calls to all in the mortal realm.
“Being human you can affect change. I’d much rather be a dolphin but they can’t effect change in the same way. That’s part of the burden. The human condition is heaven and hell. The cycles of beginning and ending, light and dark, spring and fall, death and rebirth, they are universal principles. This is a space of discovery, and of meditation. Think of crying and laughing; the place where they meet is rapturous. When we love ourselves as much as we love others, we allow ourselves to be open and let it pass through you. That’s a huge driving force in my work right now.” Which makes Iacono ripe, vibrant, and alive, her vision of self is strong and passionate enough to capture Crespel’s imagination this Fall.
September 17, 2013
Sleep. It is the portal into another world, a shadow self, a space that exists inside the mind, so far beyond any dimension we’ve known before or may known since, for it is in this way that we take flight inside out bodies, leaving them aside as we explore new and fertile earth. And here upon this plane they lay, not simply inert, but in their own passages through time and space, telling their very own story.
And because we are inside, we cannot see, sleep is like our face, our visage for all to see but we to whom it belongs. We never quite know until we stand before the evidence of who we are when we are both in and outside of this world. It is then that a work like Sleep by Ted Spagna, Edited by Delia Bonfilio and Ron Eldridge with Martynka Wawrzyniak (Rizzoli New York) comes to the fore, to show us how it is, how we live, how similar and dissimilar, how familiar and foreign.
Here we see sleep through stop motion photography, which reminds me of how I light I sleep, awakening to every change in my space. The other night I lay in bed frequently awoken by a snore that was not my own and when I opened my eyes, we had both moved. New positions, over and over again. The choreography of the unconscious in continuous motion, and me, I’m taking note and smiling at how right before the sun arises, he has the covers gathered up under his chin.
And in these positions, he tells stories, stories I don’t know, in the very same way Spagna photographs capture a plot as it unfolds. It is said that gesture does not lie, and so when we look at each and every frame we find the mind in body as it responds to the travels of the mind and wherefore it goes, we can only imagine for the land of the unconscious is more a poem than an essay or a speech. It is both linear and not in that rhythm follows measure and time, just like music and dance.
Sleep then becomes a performance of sorts, private dancer to no one and nothing except the Lord up above. Or not. Hard to know, until gazing upon these grids, frame after frame after frame, each one a slight variation on a theme, a gesture that is created out of biological necessity. When looking at the body in this way, we see a kind if floating, a swimming, a movement through space that has nothing whatsoever to do with our upright nature.
As Dr. Allan Hobson writes in “The Influence of Science,” an essay which appears in the book, “Ted Spagna’s photographs have done more than any other medium to make sleep science visible and, hence, directly understandable to the general public…. Whether or not Spagna’s sleep portraits capture a hidden self, they are unquestionably surprising in their revelations of sleep as behavior—especially the tenderness of sleeping couples—and they are unquestionably visually rich, owing to Spagna’s meticulous concern with photographic technique.”
Spagna’s photographs reveal sleep as nothing so much as an adventure we barely fathom, as memories of out time in the shadow world fade int the light of day. Yet we engage, night after night after night, and for some, it is never not enough. And for others, it has become far too much. But there it is.
Sleep is that which we do in ways we do not know, until we reflect and study ourselves, investigate a world we all go, a world we all know, a world we can but barely begin to describe and it is in this way that Spagna’s photographs contribute to the vocabulary of sleep and build a dialogue, giving us a new means upon which to reflect and consider this world in which we live.
September 17, 2013
Rumi said, “Be the change you want to see in this world.” This is where it all begins. The power to create the world in which we want to live, to exact a future that is happening now, today, using all that exists at our fingertips. Exactly, it is this, I type as my fingers fly free across the keyboard. The Universe conspires to remind us of this. D.I.Y. Do It Yourself.
It’s like the 70s all over again. A return to the era when the artist represents the underground and brings new worlds to light through the publication of their vision in print form. It is this space, this world at our fingertips, a world we unconsciously read as our hands traverse the page. We feel the image, we let it sink in, we read the words as the pages turn. We see it unfold, with our eyes and our hands, the stories touching us as they rest in our laps. It is the book made manifest that reminds us of the beauty of physical life.
Bruno Ceschel knows this, though it came to him by way of seeming happenstance. After curating an exhibitions of self-published artist books for A The Photographer’s Gallery in London in 2010, the digital response was large enough to propel the website into ongoing curatorial project for artists and authors alike [we don’t really distribute books, we feature them, showcase them] and from this Self Publish, Be Happy was born.
Ceschel observes, “Digital has caused a renaissance of printed matter. Self-publishing is not a way to make money. That is a burden. Self-publishing requires you to spend money which paradoxically free you from being concerned about profits. That is the restriction of the traditional publishing house. The people who do it today are very young. They are born into the digital generation. They are used to the computer and the online world. Self-publishing is their response to it. They are finding a complement to it in book form; they now have a physical object in reality and can share it with people. Books give them a different way to communicate.”
And this idea inspires and uplifts print more than anything ever could. Because it is not simply a matter of marketability, of consumer appeal, but of a need to tell stories, produce objects, create content the enlivens, inspires, and elucidates all sorts of spaces in the Universe we would never otherwise know, were the author not driven to make manifest that which holds them captive. And it is in this same way that the publisher operates.
Ceschel’s background is in magazines. He began working as a journalist for Colors in 2001. He then joined Chris Boot in 2013 where he learned the process of publishing and saw the tyranny of the trade firsthand. Most books are simply not economically viable, and an industry built on this offers a tightrope held at great heights. It’s a challenging business model from any angle you look. Self Publish, Be Happy avoids this by forgoing the model itself. It exists on its own terms, as defined by Ceschel. It is less a company and more a curated space, a digital doorway that transports us into another world of books and art as they are being lived today. Liberated from the burden of profits, the artist is free to do as they wish.
And it is here that Ceschel reveals his own love, establishing the SPBH Book Club that funds the production SPBH Editions. These are books that Ceschel selected, chosen from love. “It’s a small enterprise that’s very personal. I went to my people: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Brad Feuerhelm, Christina de Middel.”
And it is here that we come full circle, back to a love of books that is without beginning or end, but born of a desire to see in print our vision of the world and the way in which we want to live. As both publisher and a curator of the self published illustrated book, Ceschel has found himself in a new and dynamic world that combines tradition and experiment, classic and avant garde to sublime effect. Self Publish, Be Happy is more than a name, it is an ethos, a call to action, and way of being that speak to people from all walks of life, the single common denominator being a wish, want, desire, and need to produce a book.
Many are called, few are chosen. Come see why. Self Publish, Be Happy will be exhibiting at the New York Art Book Fair from September 19-22 at P.S. 1 in Queens, New York.
August 30, 2013
I did not know until it began and then and only then it began to expand, this desire and will for all things photography, for publishing, for books, for essays poems odes sonnets everlasting of stories told, for the people who lived and live forevermore captured on the page where the photograph is born.
It had been since 1999 that I found myself captivated by the spell of the photography book, page after page after page of lives unfolding, one page after another. It had found me, this thing I had been living unconsciously, and it has been to this I have given myself completely, with everything I possess, a true believer driven to act upon the printed page, with words, photographs, stories being told in complete and utter silence.
I beheld, held these things to be sacred, though I didn’t know the hows or the why of it at all, and I still don’t. But I do know it is fate for in my life it transforms…
I began as a publicist, a publisher, and I became a journalist, a book reviewer. It was Jean Jacques Naudet at Le Journal de la Photographie who made this possible, with a daily newsletter detailing the international photography world, documenting an expansive array of festivals, fairs, exhibitions, events, and industry moves. It also features notable profiles and interviews, as well as archival stories and weekend portfolios. I was given the freedom to cover anything I’d like, anything that sparked my interest and fanned the flames of curiosity and wonder, anything that inspired tribute and reverence, consideration of ideas that exist only in pictorial form.
I had never thought, until I had to, of the nature of the photograph and how it held me spellbound like Ingrid Bergman in the Hitchcock classic. And as I began to write, it came to me, that it was the photography book that is my destiny. And that is a beautiful thing, the freedom to create the world in which I wish to live. I was given cause to speak with artists, publishers, visionaries, to peruse these very powerful pages of their lives, to share in ideas and wisdom, to listen to the words and the silence and the stillness of the single image…
and then to return to the world with this new found knowledge, to share of these photographs and books. I remember standing outside Bookmarc on Bleecker Street as a cop on horseback watched the scene. Old punks gathered thick and deep to celebrate “Just Chaos,” curated by Roberta Bayley. And it was at that moment that I knew punks were the last of the hippies. Never sell out, never say die, just keep on keepinn onn, because art is life. Life is art. The Art of Living, like Epictetus wrote.
And so we gather here today to salute Le Journal de la Photographie, which bids us adieu after three years sailing the uncharted waters of digital publishing. Of communications, community, and communion; we stand here today in honor of the photograph, of what it is, what it was, what it shall be, for we know, without words, we know in our souls these things. Cheers to Le Journal for making this possible, for giving writers like myself the opportunity to discover our Truth in photography.
August 21, 2013
It is always happening, always going, always here, now, forever flowing like a fountain gushing forth, and we are splashing in the candy rain, the colors, sights, sounds, only it is silence, silent, not a sound. The photograph, it is so many things, all of which pass before our eyes with a stillness that bespeaks a moment in life, that has taken all time it frozen it, making here and now forever and then—
It is the photographer who see, knows, captures, collects. A magician, transforming three dimensions into two. Depth moves from a physical to a mental space, as we perceive beingness in a world where everything is flat, and we are free to look, to stare, to consider life in retrospect.
Martha Cooper has been doing her thing since the 60s, archiving urban vernacular with her camera, recording the transitory arts of life as they flash before our eyes. Marty quit her job at the New York Post to photograph the trains full time. To go into the yards and around the way, always looking, always seeing, always aware of this moment in time, this place in space, this landscape of life, a New York that no longer is but always was. Just like graff, time keeps on slippinn, slippinn, like Steve Miller Band say. But thing about art is, This is the Remix, and thas where A Thousand Words comes into play.
T-shirts. Canvases. Cotton is the fabric of our lives. T-shirt game, cause this is America and casual chic is a way of life. The DONDI T is all that I’ve been waiting for. Props to Martha Cooper and Koe Rodriguez. Keep Love Alive.
August 20, 2013
One night in Los Angeles, a sixteen-year-old boy approached photographer Donna De Cesare, saying, “Lady, put me in your book—you can take my picture.” De Cesare recalls the memory of this encounter in Fred Ritchin’s foreword to her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego (University of Texas Press).
The boy did not let up. De Cesare continued her story: “ ‘Am I going to be in your book?’ he asked. ‘I can’t promise that,’ I replied. ‘To make a book takes a lot of pictures and a long time,’ I explained. I told him I couldn’t say for sure, but my best guess was that it would be about three years if all went well. ‘Shit! I won’t be alive by then,’ he responded dejectedly.”
The boy went on to explain that all his homies died before they reached twenty. They were gangbangers. Life on the streets was short, ugly, and violent. The boy didn’t believe he was going to be any different. He, who was never named, is like countless who have come before him, the children lost to a war that has no beginning and no ending because it is played in the shadows, between the borders, and across the Americas. Here are the victims of the War on Drugs: the children.
Donna De Cesare has graciously agreed to discuss her work here. She will speaking at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., on September 11 in conjunction with the War/Photography exhibition currently on view, which. originated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and came to D.C. from The Annenberg Space for Photography in LA. After D.C., it will end its tour at the Brooklyn Museum (Oct 29-Feb).
I am particularly interested in the way in which the photographer uses the camera as both a means to connection as well as a means to create distance between the self and the subject. Please talk about how you relate to the use of the camera in your work documenting the victims of the drug war over the past two decades.
What I love most about photographing is precisely the way it can engage a relationship. Looking with the camera is similar to listening attentively. I strive for the same comfort level and connection. I want to be as emotionally close as I can so that I can convey as accurately as possible the feelings I receive from the photographic subject/protagonist.
When I’m working I move between moments of “just looking” to moments of “just listening.” This is the part of the work I find most rewarding. When you achieve great trust with a subject, it begins to approximate the sensation of looking in a mirror. You see the other person looking back at you and recognize their difference, but you move in concert. Some photographers refer to it as a dance. This empathic connection may be charged, but it is also fragile. If a person becomes fearful or distrustful he/she will retreat leaving you with a mask.
There are other situations in which the camera creates distance. It can be a kind of emotional shield. I’m thinking here particularly of the photographs I make at crime scenes or during moments of chaos or commotion. These are complex unfolding situations. The photographer must anticipate and remain attuned to the dynamic interplay of action and reaction within a group.
Pulling back not only allows me to see the overall but sometimes it may also help me examine my own looking as I make ethical choices in the moment. This creates a kind of third eye –not objective, but a looking that is at some remove from the subjective curiosity or intuition of “first person” or the intimacy of “first person” to “second person” exchange.
I need this meta-perspective to negotiate the suffering I witness. It is a vital component of my search for an enlarged sense of truth or meaning in the situations I witness.
The photographer becomes both witness and interpreter of the stories they learn, making the photograph both evidence/proof, as well as a constructed narrative of its own. Please talk about the inherent tension between the act of documenting a subject as difficult as the children who have been victimized by the culture of drugs, gangs, and violence, as well as the way in which the photograph itself becomes a frame by which you can share these stories with people from all walks of life.
Documenting this story challenged me on so many levels. I am always striving for a horizontal relationship with the protagonists of the stories I tell—one that is open, non-judgmental, empathic and which does not deprive subjects of their own agency. At the same time I am conscious that as an adult interacting with children and young people I have power and responsibility as well as a different perspective.
I learned quickly that many things I might take for granted are absent or alien or seemingly impossible for children enveloped by a reality of violence, drugs and gangs. I often felt angry, frustrated, and impotent to make a difference of any kind as I worked. But in the give and take of relationships a safe space develops which may permit some solace and growth for all involved. I try then to convey that enlarged perspective through my photographs.
A photograph can be a forensic record—it records what is visually evident. But I think it is also always a tool of imagination. In freezing the frame it speaks the language of metaphor as well as the language of fact. My mission is to distill what I learn by “being there” in order to enlarge understanding. I aim to reach people who would never choose to enter the places I visit. But I am also always thinking of my subjects. What might they learn if my images could help them recognize their own story, in the photographs of other children who would otherwise be their “enemies?”
When creating Unsettled/Desasosiego, you appear charged with a tremendous task, going through both your own life experiences as well as those you have met over the years, in order to distill a narrative thread that extends beyond time and space to tell the story of the Drug War. Please talk about the most empowering challenge you faced as a photographer and an author to reflect upon your work, and the larger story itself?
When I sat down to write the book I had already produced a website and I had lived with many of these images and stories for a decade or longer. In piecing together the narratives, which form the website Destiny’s Children, I worked consciously with the layers of these testimonies. My approach there was to follow individual life stories of four young people I’d come to know over a period of years. Each story is emblematic as well as idiosyncratic. All make evident how quickly poverty, trauma and misguided social policy contribute to the stigma and marginalization that so many youth face.
Two young people are engulfed by the violence and suffer tragic ends. Despite occasional setbacks, the other two are able to muster inner strength. Each forges a path that defies the expectations of a cynical and selfish social order. I included a timeline with pivotal moments of upheaval in a history binding the US and Latin America. I added hypertext links in the stories, so that the reader could drill down discovering context for the issues that emerge at different points in the protagonists’ lives.
Having done the website why do a book? One reason is that books slow you down and they offer a different tangible encounter. They also are not prey to the pace of changing technology. I designed my website first in html, then in flash and now just a few years later it would require expensive re-coding to make it accessible on tablets and smart phones. As physical objects books have presence, and if well made and cared for, longevity. I knew the book would need a different structure and narrative strategy, but it took me awhile to embrace a first person approach. Putting myself at the center felt awkward at best. And my worst fears involved the many pitfalls–from hubris to sentimentality—in which that choice of voice might become ensnared.
But I kept turning a recurring experience over in my mind. When I give talks about my work, someone in the audience invariably strays from the discussion to ask about me: Weren’t you scared? How did you get them to trust you? Was your life ever threatened? These are not the questions I wanted my work to provoke or engage. At first I found them irritating and at odds with my work’s intent. I was in part trying to reveal how stigmatizing our projections of such fears are for the young people in my photographs.
But as I sat with my discomfort, I realized I had to find a more effective way of highlighting the mechanism of prejudice and the unconscious ways it filters our perceptions and responses to people who don’t fit our norms. I hadn’t always known what I now know. I realized I could take the reader back to my beginning. By invoking the image of a younger less self-aware self, I could use memoir to chart my own path of discovery. The selection of personal anecdotes could move the reader from a small personal story to an insight and a larger collective history marking points of connection across time and space. It was at times painful to relive experiences as I wrote, but as I grew to trust my voice I began to enjoy the process and fell in love with writing again.
We have created a culture of complicity in the Drug War itself, that to me on the outside feels like an extension of the old myths of the frontier, the outlaw, the “cowboys and Indians” where the bad guy was good and the good guy was bad, and the world appropriated this narrative in order to protect the United States government. This could be a huge stretch on my part, so if I am off base, please feel free to reel me in, but what do you see as the reasoning for criminalizing the most disenfranchised populations in the Western hemisphere today?
Your mention of our frontier mythologies of “good guys” and “bad ones” is of course nowhere more evident than in Hollywood movies. And that is perhaps the only place such one-dimensional characters exist. Real human beings are always struggling with the nuances and moral complexities of our choices. But “outlaw” “cowboy” and “indian” myths immortalized in classic westerns nearly always vilified those who in some way resisted “civilizing” colonization. The brutal loss of life, theft of land and displacement suffered is presented as inevitable. I think we need to remember that slavery played a role in the push westward too and that Manifest Destiny was the zeitgeist of that age.
Some legacies die hard. Today the Drug War is colored by similar biases in the guise of “American Exceptionalism.” It has played a significant hegemonic role in US power relations with Latin America—although of late many South American countries are questioning and challenging its premise. One has only to look as far as Mexico to realize that increased militarization has resulted in increased corruption, mayhem and bloodshed with little tangible impact on the expansion of illegal drug markets.
And here at home there is overwhelming evidence that the Drug War is endless and unwinnable. With 5% of the world’s total population, the US has 25% of the world’s imprisoned population placing it at the top of the prison industrial complex. Moreover, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness demonstrates the racialized nature of this deplorable state of affairs—1 out of every 15 black males over age 18 and 1 of every 36 Latino males over the age of 18 is incarcerated in the U.S. compared with 1 of every 106 white males in that age group. As an Urban Institute study recently pointed out, when you factor race into the rapidly expanding chasm between the richest 1% of Americans and everyone else you are left with an inescapable conclusion: we live in a culture that has criminalized poverty at the same time that poverty has surged.
The culture of fear and selfishness dominating our country for well over a decade has hardened our hearts and crippled our minds. We once waged war on poverty. We now wage war on the poor. The real threat to our national values and freedom is these habits of mind and ways of seeing that make this seem inevitable. The children whose lives I’ve documented are caught in this drama. We have made our myopia their tragedy.
With the publication of Unsettled/Desasosiego, what do you hope to achieve by way of creating awareness and inspiring activism? What can we, as individuals, as a group, and as a society do to begin to address and unravel this incredibly complex problem that has claimed so many lives?
I published this book because first and foremost I wanted to restore to the children who are the protagonists in my images and stories the basic humanity and individuality that is denied them when they are seen as “child soldiers,” “gang members,” “migrants” or any other reductive category. Once we are able to connect to their stories, our tendency to dismiss or to excuse our complicity by focusing narrowly on some of their own ill-conceived choices melts away. We can then begin to take in the panoply of factors limiting their options. That is when we face some choices of our own.
We live in a culture that brands and markets products and causes alike. While gestures such as purchasing “fair trade coffee” or donating to relief efforts are certainly good starting points, for putting “your money where your mouth is,” the big issues clamoring for our attention require more.
The Drug War’s human repercussions are an issue “eco-system” where, youth violence prevention, gun safety, criminal justice reform, immigration reform and other concerns meet. Whether one finds direct hands-on work with youth most rewarding or is drawn to policy reform advocacy, there are many points of entry for individual and collective action at the local, national and international level.
In many ways I am cautiously hopeful. The public health paradigm of harm reduction pioneered by academics and activists in violence-affected communities in the 1990s has gained institutional currency even in places that were long resistant. There are indications that the next generation of leadership in Central America has learned the folly of relying exclusively on repression in their approach to gangs. And countries in Latin America have grown skeptical of the US prescription for battling drugs and organized crime. Uruguay’s recent decision to create the world’s first nationally controlled legal marijuana market is a crucial public health experiment to watch.
In this era of instant communication, constant distraction and expectations of quick results, it is easy to feel lost in the forest. Ultimately the message of my book is take your time– look, listen, make connections. Social movements for change need patience and commitment for the long haul. That is perhaps the most enduring lesson of the US Civil Rights Movement. Decide what you can do and commit to it with patience, heart, and faith in collective forward motion.
August 19, 2013
A portrait of the artist is his subject, that which he stands before, for it is through his eye through his mind through the very pressure he asserts at the tip of his finger as he sets forth, that very moment he aims, fires, and shoots, that fraction of a second captured as the shutter clicks, the photographer stands before the Universe, eternally.
It is the photograph that is evidence of his path, a path cut and carved with great swaths of panache and pride, a kind of knowingness that camera creates, that shutter click is really a wink, a tongue placed firmly in cheek, cheekie, all these good things. It is the way we stop time and set it free, releasing the eternal into the Universe, eternally.
Joe Conzo happens, is always happening, wherever he goes be sure to know, there will be scenes, people, stages upon this earth, be it the sidewalks or the streets, be it the performance palaces and the neighborhood parks. Joe is New York, the Bronx to be exact. Born and Bred, represent. A gentleman of the old school, from a time and a place where you stood your ground, because ground is sacred, and from the ashes of flames arose the greatest generation because they fought the war on this here homefront. They stood for the people—our people—and they won.
It’s bigger than hip hop. Hip Hop was born of this. We see it in Joe Conzo, and we see it everywhere he goes. The Hell Lady of the Bronx begat a soul that continues to share of himself, here with Koe Rodriguez for a Thousand Words, with photographs of Paul Newman and Charlie Chase. This is how it was, how it went, almost all of us missed it except Joe, who was there, just as he always is, with a camera in hand, a big smile and kiss, a twinkle in the eye, and a story to tell. Because he knows. Joe Conzo He is the revolution made whole.
August 17, 2013
A Thousand Words in every language. A thousand worlds all seeing the same image. The stories captured forever and then—
We behold because what we see is always there when we look. It is in the image that we live forevermore, photographs from the Album of Life, every page a reverie, a memory .. of a shared time and a place that was and is forevermore captured on the page. It is this, the photograph, a vessel of soul, three dimensions transposed into two, the ephemeral made eternal and then—
We print it in a book, print it on the page and hang it on the wall. In this way the photograph is precious for a piece of paper is easily torn. But what holds well, endures and can be born? Cotton. It is a canvas upon which we have created egalitarian style, a casual chic that is all that is great about America. The t-shirt is a space for hopes and dreams as it stands before us to bear witness. It is this, as the billboard of the heart, the the t-shirt is where art becomes love.
Koe Rodriguez launches A Thousand Words, a new line of apparel and home design that showcases the work of New York legends Joe Conzo, Martha Cooper, and Jamel Shabazz. I’ve been waiting for this. That Dondi t-shirt! Cause, I mean, who would have ever thought? I gotta give it up. Props to Koe Rodriguez for having the knowledge and the vision to make this happen. Because it’s what the world’s been needing. Art, sweet, art.
Once upon a time, the trains actually ran, and you could see burners, throw ups, tags, whether you wanted to or not. That was live. Fly handstyles add energy to the mix. Graff is life as art, and everyone’s taken along for the ride. Just like music, block parties, shows around the way, kids inventing the world in which they want to live.
Do It Yourself. That was and it is the ethos by which I was raised, New York in the 70s. We know it, that’s why we create. What else can you do? “Be the change you want to see in the world,” like Rumi said.
August 3, 2013
I had to get on stage so people would leave me alone.
August 1, 2013
Nothing can grow under big trees.
When we are no longer children we are already dead.
What is real is not the external form, but the essence of things …
it is impossible for anyone to express anything essentially real
by imitating its exterior surface.
To see far is one thing, going there is another.
Artwork and Quotes by Constantin Brancusi
July 27, 2013
“In the house of lovers,
the music never stops.
The walls are made of songs,
and the floor dances.”
Saturday. July 27 from 3–6pm, The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles hosts a conversation and book signing with April Flores and Carlos Batts on the occasion of the publication of FAT GIRL, a Barnacle Book. And though I cannot be there in person, I am there in spirit, writing this morning of April Flores and Carlos Batts. Writing? Well, really, listening.
The words come. They always do. It’s a river, just step into it. I sit still and listen and then I hear the words tap dance across the pages of my mind, and I take dictation and pretend these words I write are really mine. I’ma say I share in them, with this voice. But it’s not a voice, it is a compulsion to translate the ineffable into words.
So I put fingertip to keyboard and I stroke away, ratta-tat-tat like Snoop Dog said on some track off his first album. And I’m saying Los Angeles. California. There’s something in the air, the water, the light, the sky, the sun. For this is where I first met Carlos Batts, in a hotel lobby in Irvine, back in 2002. And we sat talking photography, and talking books. These things happen, and then they happen again, and seeds are planted, and the thing is, you can’t ever know, even if you think you can.
From this came that and then it took a turn. And then it circled on back. And then one day last summer i began. To put fingertip to keyboard and stroke away, and write the foreword to FAT GIRL and Miss Flores told me she read it aloud, like a poem, like a troubadour, like me I can’t not ever not, so I keep on keepinn onn. And I don’t re-read, because i can’t, not til time has long passed, and the ink has dried upon the page. And the book is releasing, and my words are there, alongside the photographs and stories that Flores and Batts share.
And I am honored. More than that. I am humbled because there but for the grace of God… I was just thinking, allaboutthat. About that song by Machine. You know that. But yea, There is a grace, a divine energy, a cat landing upon its feet, tumbling tumbling tumbling. It is always as it is meant to be. It is a Barnacle Book, and me I am fanning Tyson Cornell for making this a reality. And I am saying y’all gonna learn today.
July 27, 2013
And so it had finally come, From the Edge of the World, because this is where it is. This, yes, California Punk. 1977, 78, 79, right on to 81. Turn the decade I remember it. My first. It. Was. Big. Brave New World like Huxley said. But out in SF, we talking Burroughs. She caught him with a gun. Darby Crash. Hellinn Killer and Sid Vicious. Poison Ivy. Kids on stage. Kids off stage. All this raw gorgeous energy. Black and White. Color shots. A sweet little photo album, remembrance of things past like Proust said.
And me, quoting novelists I’ve never read, and never will, because words, they do go onn. But photos, now they be screaming, shouting, whispering sweet nothings without ever saying a word. And they embed themselves in memory just like I am there and it is happening to me, like I am hanging with John Maxwell and Roky Erickson at Mabuhay Gardens, and I’m standing against the wall and Ruby Ray is taking photographs in the mirror and it’s just like yesterday, it’s like Fate Keeps On Happening. And that’s Anita Loos, you see ..