Saturday, June 27, 2020

Crit: Extinction Party by Jonathan Blaustein

This book crossed my radar a bunch of times. I think I was aware of the kickstarter campaign in November of 2019, and I've seen mentions of it here and there (not least because I read Blaustein on aPhotoEditor). Initially I was completely uninterested. Absolutely not my thing. But damn it, that drip marketing works, and so eventually I came around to thinking it might after all be my cup of tea. At some point in there I asked him for a favor, and he was very nice about it, which led me — primed to buy — to actually buy. Probably he popped into mind in part because of the book, so keep that in mind. Publish a book, and the mooks are gonna start crawling out of the woodwork with favors to ask.

Anyways, here we are.

So, what is this thing? You can buy it here, while supplies last. It's about 50 pictures, from four different projects. Two essays, and two anecdotes. All in a slim volume, well-made, with a foil embossed graphic of a mask on the cover.

The essays tell you what it's about. It's about consumerism, consumption, and the effects of that on the planet. It directly indicts us, you, me, the reader. At the same time it indicts the wealthy even harder. So, that's about right. But, anyone can write an essay about that, and god damn near everyone has at this point. The question is whether the pictures support the thesis in a good way.

The answer is, yeah they do, but let's look at how.

The four projects here are as follows, in no particular order:

MINE which is a series of studio studies of natural objects arranged or built into sculptural forms, and captioned My <whatever> so My dirt and My snow and My mushroom or whatever. The caption is the key here, Blaustein is explicitly claiming stuff from the natural world that is, in absolutely no meaningful way, his.

Party City is The Devil is a series of studio studies of objects purchased at Party City, arranged in sculptural forms, and captioned neutrally with an inventory of what's in the frame, Blue spoons and green tablecloth. These are very brightly colored, and Blaustein uses formal color theory a lot here. Blue and orange show up a lot.

The Value of a Dollar is a series of studio studies of one dollar's worth of various edible products, arranged in sculptural forms, captioned One dollar's worth of <whatever>.

Recycling my Junk is a series of studio studies of things Blaustein was throwing out, arranged, you may have guessed, in sculptural forms and captioned with various whimsical, tangential, remarks.

Ok, so what do we have? Blaustein may do more in his life, but these four projects which have consumed much of his time for many years are very very similar. They are objects, arranged sculpturally, and photographed in the studio. The frames contain nothing but the subject, and perhaps a little neutral background. There is no implied world around the objects, they are explicitly arranged to be seen by themselves without any visual context.

This, essentially, is why I have been wrestling recently with what a photograph of artifice actually does. I knew I was likely to want to make sense of this thing, so I best have a theory handy, right?

Let us clear some underbrush first.

The sequence is very strong in the visual/graphical sense. The visual connections frame-to-frame are very dense and well done. I have learned that the publisher, Jennifer Yoffy, did most of the work here. One assumes that Blaustein and the designer (Caleb Marcus) spent the year mooching around drinking coffee and talking smart while a woman did all the work. As a feminist I am, naturally, outraged. (You in the cheap seats? It's a joke, settle down.)

All the text is set in this bland-ass sans font which I hate hate hate. But I am a known fontist, number three on the Southern Typographical Law Center's list I think, with very strong and inappropriate opinions, so there's that. The covers caught my eye, because the elements are centered on the boards rather than the book — the spine material does not seem to have been considered here. The result is that the title (on the back) and the mask graphic (on the front) both appear to be set forward on the book. I don't know if this is a deliberate detail to.. I don't know, create unease? It feels like a design flub, in a book that is very well designed indeed.

So that's the design bits and pieces. It's well done, elements are thoroughly considered, the thing is a very pleasing and elegant object. I would not say it feels sumptuous, but it definitely feels done up right and I am pleased to have it in my house.

Moving on to what it might mean, and how it works conceptually. Let us suppose that I've got it right, and that what a photograph actually does is it brings the viewer, you, to the subject in a sort of metaphor of teleportation.

If you are being brought to the subject, rather than the other way around, or something else, it follows that you are being explicitly brought to Blaustein's studio. You are being brought there for a pretty explicit purpose: so he can lecture you.

Now, this sounds pretty bad. But Blaustein is not literally snatching you off the street and yelling at you, it's just a book! Calm down! What I mean is that the book is didactic, by design. The notion that, metaphorically, you travel to the subject rather than the reverse is really just a device to explain how the thing is didactic. It is a bit lecture-y, but never in an annoying way. The captions are the lecture, and they are short, sometimes witty, never strident.

I attended a webinar thingy a few days ago, about the making of this book. The making was a pretty Cadillac process with most of the trimmings. Designer, Publisher, Offset Presses in Europe, a year of effort, and so on. In the discussion, Blaustein suggested that mashing these four projects together was not particularly easy, and I have to say I am a little baffled by that. The projects seem to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces.

It may be that he was having trouble making the work together graphically, rather than conceptually, though. As concepts they work perfectly in concert.

The Value of a Dollar hammers home how cheap bad food is, and how expensive high quality food is. Party City is the Devil highlights a bunch of other useless cheap shit. MINE covers the all too human attitude of simply assuming ownership of anything that's not nailed down. Recycling my Junk is maybe the weakest here? Still, Blaustein drags out a handful of cheap consumerist shit objects and shows them to us. They're the kind of thing we seem to "need" 100s of. Thumbtacks. Dusters. Why do we need so god damned many objects?

This brings us around to the two anecdotes and two photos I haven't mentioned. There was a dead deer one winter, and Blaustein took a foot off it, and photographed it in the same style he uses for everything else (having failed to take off its head). Later, his mother-in-law gifted him with the head, which he also photographed. This is one of two dead animals in the book.

The deer parts are the only full bleed pages in the book, the head being a two-page full bleed spread. We're supposed to notice these things. Also, I do not think they're officially part of any project, although he claims the head — kind of — as part of MINE by captioning it My dear head (not a typo.)

What are we to make of this? The deer, we learn in the anecdotes, was not the victim of environmental disaster as far as anyone knows. It was just a deer that died, as they do sometimes, in winter. I think it is intended, though, to stand in for all the deer, all the non-human life. Its deadness leaps off the page. The foot and the head are photographed with greater depth than anything else in the book (Blaustein tends to render things rather flat, planar). It is maybe the most real thing in the book.

At the same time, in contrast to everything else, the deer's meaning is left more open. We are not boxed about the ears with its meaning, it's there to be made sense of on our own terms. Blaustein's use of the word "dear" in the caption suggests, I guess, that he values the deer in ways that he doesn't value most of the other shit he's photographed, which certainly makes sense.

So, Blaustein teleports us to his studio and lectures, us, persuasively and fairly inoffensively, about how bad our consumer culture is. He rubs our nose in object after object that support this point.

Look at all this garbage we buy. Why is garbage from 10,000 miles away so cheap, and quality so expensive? Why do we claim every damn thing that's not nailed down? What the fuck are we even doing, how can this even make sense? And oh christ look at this poor fucking deer. We chopped it apart for photographs.

There is a certain irony in a book indicting cheaply made brightly colored Shit You Can buy being itself an inexpensive, brightly colored, Thing You Can Buy. Thanks to Blaustein, I have another goddamned object in my life which I cannot eat, which gives me no shelter, which provides me no warmth.

I bought it because I liked it, and I still like it, but man, we like so much shit, you know?


  1. "...which provides me no warmth." But it got you moved to write this, to attend a webinar, etc. Sounds like warmth to me. Being teleported isn't necessarily passive.

    1. Fair enough ;) I don't intend to donate the book to the poor.

      Still, what I meant was owning the book is rather high up Maslow's hierarchy, at a time when arguably we should be more focused on the lower tiers on account of they're looking a little dicey at the moment.

  2. Students, your homework this weekend is to compare and contrast Mr Blaustein's project with Chris Jordan's and Martin Parr's work.

    1. It contrasts, and rather unfavourably as a soulless design exercise, with Mr. Warhol's work.

    2. I don't buy soulless. I'd accept overworked, perhaps.

      It has a sincerity that Warhol would have found ridiculous, and I'm not sure that's a flaw. Plus, it's photographs, and so, better.

    3. I think you must mean the essays, which I haven't read. Warhol worked extensively with photographs, better photographs. His work about consumerism and marketing was truly ground-breaking.

    4. You won't find many art/culture/music critics (or journos, not really sure where JB's metier lies) who turned their hand to the medium with any success.

      Actually, I can't think of a single one.

      I daresay JB's status as a journo/critic/photo-editor/whatever was no obstacle to getting this pimped-out little vanity project published.

    5. So what are you saying, David? Do you like the book?

      Blaustein's career as an artist predates his writing career by a few years, and he's been taken pretty seriously. As you may have heard, it's pretty hard to make a living being a Serious Art Photographer, so unless you're name is Cindy or Andreas you probably have a day job.

      So, I'm not really sure how that figures?

    6. But is he a Serious Art Photographer? No, I don't think so. MFA dabbler about covers it.

    7. He's been exhibited, collected, and awarded? I dunno what else there is, really. If you're saying "look there's 10 people at the top, and a bunch of dabblers" then that's a position. Not sure lumping everyone apart from the top 10 into one group is broadly useful, but then, neither is infinitely parsing levels of success.

      He looks a lot like Daniel Milnor and, no doubt, many thousands of other people who have had some success Art Making but not enough to keep the lights on.

      I cannot help but suspect that what you're saying, though, is that you don't like the pictures, so he sucks. Which is also a perfectly reasonable position to take.

      You seem to be dressing your opinion up in "nobody likes this guy" which isn't true and "he got his book deal through favoritism" which isn't wrong, but it's how everyone gets every book deal.

    8. I think he would have a better shot if he stopped fiddle-fucking around in his studio with party favours and whatnot, got out and engaged with the real world. It's never too late, eh?

  3. I can't really comment on the book since I haven't seen it, but I have read many of Blaustein's APE columns over the years and so I have a rough sense of what his photos might be. Apples and oranges, I know, but I'd be curious to hear your reaction/comments on his writing.