Kill Your Television

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So there was this one day when we had a lot of spare time, a case of beer, a JEEP with a failing transmission, a .22 caliber rifle and a television set that I’d been spending way too much time trying to fix. Call it ‘capricious youth,’ but there’s something cathartic about driving out into the desert and firing a few rounds into a useless item that needs to be put down.

My lady and I had a similar experience last week when we wanted to shampoo the carpet before assembling our baby’s new crib in the soon-to-be nursery. After struggling for about an hour and spilling water & cleaning solution all over the house, it was clear that the machine needed to be put out of its misery. I would have enjoyed driving out to the mountain and delivering a genuine and honest execution, but who has the time anymore? Instead, it was a gangland assassination commensurate with the xerox machine scene from Office Space, in the parking lot outside of our townhouse.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to exhale some serious frustration.
My recommendation? Kill your television, not a person. Then make some art out of it.

Hidden Color And The Utility Of Art

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When I was at university, one of my mentors said something that has stayed with me. It was obvious to me the he realized how the photography program was utterly failing its students by providing zero instruction on career development, small business management, or information on how to navigate the gallery system. I had a sense that he was as disappointed with the department as I was (and continue to be), but it was equally obvious how passionate he was about the craft with the time and attention he paid to those students who demonstrated a genuine interest in fine art and photography.

As innocuous or even silly as it sounds, I remember him saying that “everything you make is a self portrait.”
Everything you make is a reflection of your sensibilities, your attitudes, your appreciations, and your conflicts.

I don’t know why, exactly, but that sentence had a marked impact on how I began to approach each new project. Rather than trying to make the most beautiful print, or try to imagine what my audience might want, I began to think of each painting, each photograph, each mono-print or lino-cut as a part of myself – a thumb-print on a skyscraper, small and forgettable, but unique – rather than a ‘product’ or an attempt to fulfill some arbitrary notion of what other people may value as great art. The tension between commerce and art has always existed, and compromises almost always need to be made in creative professions. But that doesn’t prevent the artist from taking time out of his day to make something in the privacy of his home or studio, make anything, for no other reason than he thinks it’s interesting or beautiful.

I liken the creative process to meditation. It’s where I find my center after a hard day. It has navigated me through troubled relationships. It has connected me to other people and helped create very fruitful and lasting relationships.

A frustrated piece is only ever the result of having an idea in your head, the vision of exactly how you want it to look when it’s complete, and getting to that point can be hard – sometimes impossible. But just as often, tinkering with a sketchbook or fooling around in the darkroom – having a glass of wine and slapping some paint onto a canvas when there is no pressure to achieve a specific goal – and the artist is free to improvise and embrace their own intuition and stream-of-consciousness. And that’s when real magic can happen.

Wasn’t it Picasso who said that every child is born an artist, the problem is how to remain one as we grow up?
I think there’s truth to that. Going to school, memorizing dates and spitting out correct answers for the test, learning the formula to a successful job interview, paying bills and raising children, taking the car into the shop and watching tragedy after tragedy unfold on the nightly news – these things can tamp-down our artistic impulses, distract us from our Selves.

Art is a magic trick. A therapy. A language without syntax. I absolutely love it.

Now do me a favor and try to enjoy this stupid picture of a glass bottle, will ya? And while you’re at it, think about picking up a paintbrush or photographing the sunset, making a collage out of old magazines or designing a scrap-book page to commemorate last Christmas – it certainly won’t hurt you. Find an excuse to smile, and enjoy your weekend.

With much love,

-joe

Patterns In The Blacktop

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From my earliest days in the darkroom, before the digital revolution, I started veering toward abstract compositions. It seemed so incredibly counter-intuitive, contradictory even, to sculpt abstractions from camera images. In the beginning, the camera was designed to be the most accurate method for re-creating images from the world around us; before the camera, we relied on drawn and painted images to reflect the world. The painter’s hands could be biased, however, but the cold gaze of a lensed machine promised to never lie.

As an example, photo-mechanical images brought the true horror of war to the public, rather than the glorified tableaux as depicted in works like Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s “Washington Crossing The Delaware” or Eugène Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading The People.” Scholars in the field of visual culture studies credit broadcast television for helping galvanize the American public against the Vietnam War; with images of dying young men being beamed nightly into American households, it helped foment an unprecedented anti-war attitude.

The camera also liberated the painterly arts, which had been preoccupied with attempts to reflect the real world. Once the camera proved it could make the most accurate portraits, the most detailed architectural studies, we begin to see the painterly arts fragment into impressionism, expressionism, cubism, die brucke, de stijl, and a multitude of other styles. If we look at the timeline, we’ll see that this revolution in painting began at almost the exact same time that Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre patented their photographic technologies in the mid-1800’s.

The truth is, though, that the camera can lie just as effectively as anything else, and the photographer can be just as biased as the painter. The process is different, but the camera operator is perpetually editorializing, purely by choosing to photograph ‘this’ over here rather than ‘that’ over there. Framing, color, composition are all methods to generate atmosphere, convey emotion, manipulate the audience’s reaction to the images presented. With the modern advent of image editing software, it could be argued that the camera has the ability to both tell the objective truth and, at the same time, lie more effectively than virtually any other medium.

I think the reason I enjoy abstract photography is because it’s very difficult for it to become political. We respond to shapes, colors, and textures based on our own individual histories. Each viewer can have a potentially different reaction to an abstract composition, based solely on the emotional and intellectual experiences they carry with themselves into the room. I’m fascinated by the little details we miss on the way to the bus stop, making our morning coffee, walking down to the mail box. I like to think that, by making images like this one, I can help remind my audience that there are curious little things all around us, at all times, that we kind of choose to ignore. And if we could just slow down for a moment and look around, turn over the rocks and see what’s underneath, we might develop a greater attachment and appreciation for this tiny, insignificant little blue marble we have the unique and exquisite privilege to live on.

Creativity is one of the greatest gifts we possess, folks. Life is a blessing, and I hope each and every one of you has a wonderful day.

-joe

July 22, 2017 – Portrait of Caitlin

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“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
~Franz Kafka

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July 21, 2017 – Buckey, A Real Cowboy

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“If you haven’t fallen off a horse, then you haven’t been ridin’ long enough.”

Buckey was a real cowboy. He loved trail riding and he had a stable of horses that he took incredibly good care of. Sadly, he passed away not too long ago; I’m proud to have had the chance to ride with him and make this photograph.

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July 20, 2017 – The Red-Haired Woman

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“When you have a brush in your hand, inking a beautiful woman is a lot like running your hands over her.”
~Frank Miller

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July 19, 2017 – Vlad The Impaler

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Today’s image is a photograph of a retired screen print of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad The Impaler, derived from a popular A 1491 engraving from Bamberg, Germany. The history of this Romanian tyrant is interesting, especially his connection to the myth of Dracula, which is derived from his father’s name, Vlad Dracul (Vlad The Dragon).

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June 30, 2017 – The Mission Creeps

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To close out a month of images of performers, musicians, circus acts, and poets, I decided to reach back to the Zombie Prom and the band The Mission Creeps, and a photograph of lead singer James Arr. The following is lifted from their website, which describes their style and method more effectively than I imagine I could:

“Hailing from Tucson, the same diverse music scene that spawned Calexico and Bog Log III, The Mission Creeps spin tales of a different, darker kind of desert, one of lonesome highways and ghost stories. Inspired by art and film noir and horror movies, The Mission Creeps take their cues from bands following similar inspirations, such as The Cramps, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Joy Division, and Deadbolt.

Rue Morgue Magazine described their sound as “awash in surf guitar” and noted singer James “Arr’s ability, much like Nick Cave, to switch between seductive narrative and a raving yelp.” Supported by the throbbing rhythms of bassist Miss Frankie Stein and drummer George “of the Jungle Beat” Palenzuela, a scary good time can always be had at their shows. With six releases, they continue offer up musical tales populated with witches, killer gnomes, and parties for the undead while providing beats that keep the body moving and the demons at bay.”

Every performance is memorable. These guys don’t phone it in.

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June 29, 2017 – Omni

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I could write a hundred-page essay about ‘Omni,’ and I’m still considering it. There’s no way I could distill the qualities of this person into a quick post like this. I met Omni on 4th Avenue near downtown Tucson. During the entire time I knew him, he was living out of his car, a Dodge Omni, and spent his time in local coffee houses writing “spells” into Bibles lifted from hotels, playing open-mic nights, scribbling artwork and signs on cardboard, and strumming the strings on street-corners. He was a pleasant guy, and often made friends with local college students and kindred hippie spirits, so he never went too long without a decent meal or a shower.

He wasn’t ever anything you’d consider ‘normal,’ but he was always smiling, writing music, and entertaining people with his wild conspiracy theories. I imagined he’d had brushes with the law, but it’s pretty inevitable when loitering is your lifestyle. I remember hanging out various flop-houses where he was allowed to crash, and abandoned apartment units he discovered were unlocked. I watched him scrub his teeth with salt in lieu of toothpaste, and I watched him make friends with non-English-speaking emigres who could play the bassoon, guitar, trumpet – and I hung out with them in their squatter spots, candle-lit with no electricity, making music and trying to communicate without a common language.

Omni wasn’t mentally together; many likely assumed that he was on the Asperger spectrum. To my knowledge, he has yet to be diagnosed. Years after he left Tucson, after he packed up his gear and drove out of my life, I learned that he wound up in some legal trouble in Colorado. To my knowledge, he’s still behind bars after having hunkered down into a chemical toilet to spy on girls using the toilet during a yoga festival. He was spotted running from the scene, covered in feces, and was later apprehended. The news didn’t necessarily surprise me, but it was sad to learn that this guitar-playing vagabond had somehow wound up in a position like that.

I don’t forgive him his trespasses, but I can recall very pleasant moments with him, and recognize that he is mentally ill. I suppose we’ll see what happens as his legal situation unfolds. After violating his parole, he has been sentenced to six years in Boulder – you can read about it HERE.

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June 28, 2017 – Pyrotechnic Theater

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This is Ruben Palma. He decided – after a series of miscommunications that are, ultimately, no single person’s fault – that he doesn’t much like me. I had endeared myself to a local performance troupe, but joblessness, poverty, and the threat of homelessness motivated me to focus my efforts on, well, not winding up homeless and starving. I don’t think that these folks realized that I was promoting them for free and that I was desperate for legitimate work, but they definitely felt burned when I up-and-vanished to spend time with individuals who could actually put food on my table.

I’ve always appreciated what these guys do, and I hold no ill-will personally.
But my experience, and this is a big one, has definitely been that photographers should be more than happy with published “credit” for their work, rather than a paycheck to actually feed themselves and pay their rent. This was a unique moment in my life, when I realized how thoroughly undervalued my craft really was. I literally had people abusing me on social media because I wasn’t in a position to work for free…because I was living on a friend’s couch, in abject poverty.

After Ruben had dismissed me from social media – after a torrent of unpleasant invective – I ran into him one time at a local night club. Rather than let things be completely awkward, he astonished me by walking straight up to me and addressing the elephant. It wasn’t so much an apology as a request to leave the past in the past – and that was enough for me. We shook hands and walked away from each other, back to our respective friends. I’m not sure what the guy’s up to these days, but I hope that things are going well for him.

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