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A Tale from the Backseat by Kurt Simonson

I first met Jennifer Schwartz at the inaugural Flash Powder retreat in Astoria, Oregon last summer.  It wasn’t long before I was deeply impressed by her passion for art and for people, and her brilliant out-of-the-box thinking.   When she first told me about the upcoming Crusade for Collecting, I loved the idea, and I had the distinct premonition that I’d find myself involved in some way (ok, actually, I had visions of being broken down in the middle of Texas, having repeatedly told Jennifer that I did not drive stick...) Still, this all sounded strangely appealing, so with a teaching sabbatical on the horizon, I figured I’d jump in. I was fortunate enough to participate as one of the featured photographers in both New Orleans and my own home of Los Angeles before I actually joined Lady Blue on the road in San Francisco.  The experience of giving my work away to strangers in both of those cities was a whirlwind of energy.  Whether the people passing by were genuinely interested in my work, or whether they were just bewildered and took a photograph to get me to shut up, it didn’t matter—my work was making it’s way into the hands of new collectors.   Who knows, maybe they got home and threw it away, or maybe they put it on the wall and it’s their new favorite thing… either way that’s okay.  What I found so valuable was the interpersonal connection of artist to collector, giving artists a chance to forge a vibrant network of relationships in the community through their work.

The next week, I met up in San Francisco with Jennifer and our fellow Astoria mate Sean Dana, ready to begin my leg of this adventure on the road.  As promised by Jennifer, I was not allowed to drive Lady Blue, due to my aforementioned ignorance of manual transmission (yes, I’m a bad Minnesotan).   So instead, I took up residence on the backseat bench, where I could get lost in all the street noise and be left to shout “what?!” to Jennifer and Sean as they had their conversations in the front of the bus.   The first story I heard was about how Lady Blue had spent most of the weekend in the shop, being tenderly serviced by an amorous mechanic named Coby.  Sean seemed reassured by Coby (who wore a jumpsuit with the name Paul on it, so Jennifer called him Fake Paul from the start) that things were going to be in good shape for the drive to Portland.   After a leisurely morning of preparation and b-roll footage, we hit the road.

The camera was rolling, the music was cranking…. and the oil was leaking.  Heavily.  We didn’t even make it over the Golden Gate before Lady Blue decided she missed Coby.  With only a couple miles under our belt, we had to go back to Valley WagonWorks to spend some more quality time with Fake Paul Coby.   I was beginning to wonder if we would spend more time crusading for mechanics to become collectors than anyone else.  This photo says it all to me:

The generous sponsorship of the “Impossible” project, written on a decal along the side of the bus, threatened to become an ominous prophesy of doom.  However, long story short, and a mediocre Mexican dinner later, Coby found what was wrong (or did he?) and sent us off on our way, just barely before sunset.

After spending the night in Willits, CA, Sean chugged ole’ Lady Blue out of the parking lot of our hotel and into the middle of the road, where she promptly decided that she was done … only two minutes into the day.  We forced her to chug along a side road to Ron’s Muffler, where we would meet our next batch of collectors mechanics.  This time, however, the experience and wisdom of Ron was on our side.  I had a good feeling about this and was optimistic: I grew up around repair shops and mechanics.  It’s the type of work my family has done for generations, and while I’ve always been a total misfit to that world, I still had a good feeling about Ron and his two guys, Cesar and Matthew.   Sure enough, within minutes, Ron could tell what was happening, and Matthew found a bolt that was loose, or broken, or something like that… I don’t know… Sean talked to them.  I was busy taking photos of junk piles.   Again, I’m a bad Minnesotan and I fell far from the mechanic tree in my family.  In any case, with a sense of great relief, we hit the road again, with our mechanical woes behind us.  Lady Blue was finally happy, it was a beautiful day, and the lush wooded landscape of the 101 northbound was ahead of us.

The day was marked by two epic stops:  first with John and then with the Giants.   Jennifer has already shared a bit about John, and his toilet in the middle of the field along the side of the 101.  (You can see some of Sean's photos here.) This was truly your quintessential road trip experience.  John’s roadside wunderkammern was a definitely a “cabinet of curiosities,” but it was John himself, and his hospitality and generosity, that left us feeling so much joy.  

Upon first getting out of the bus, I was led by John directly to the far back of his large shed where he opened a fridge packed full of beer and soda and proceeded to tell me all about his Chrysler New Yorker, his various collections, and all the different people he gets to meet when they stop to use his toilet in the field.  He pulled up chairs for us, offered us many gifts, and even sang along to some of his favorite songs (he would regularly grab the remote to his Bose speaker system and play whatever song he felt appropriate in the moment).  Eccentric, definitely, but crazy?  Not at all.  John struck me as a man who delights in simple pleasures, and loves to meet anyone who comes his way.  He is a collector of experiences, and a perfect person to meet on this Crusade adventure.

Our next stop was to see the redwoods in the Avenue of the Giants, a sight I have always wanted to see.  Needless to say, I found myself deeply in awe of the beauty of this place… but having been told by Sean that this is where they filmed Return of the Jedi, I was sorely disappointed that there were no Ewoks and speeder bikes.

Our second night was spent in Crescent City, which afforded us this beautiful view the next morning (see above). Day three would be spent driving up the Oregon coast, which is really beyond words in its beauty.  Much to our delight, Lady Blue behaved herself all day and managed to control her addictive desire to meet new mechanics in each major city.   That night we finally found ourselves in Portland, enjoying the warmth and hospitality of my friend Tom, slowly peeling off the layers of clothing that we wore to keep warm inside the bus.  Photolucida was the next day, and my adventures with Lady Blue were coming to a close.   I didn’t participate in the Portland pop-up, due to review appointments at Photolucida, and I have to admit, it felt a little strange to not be part of it.  It had been a total pleasure to be included on three legs of the Crusade and to be along for the ride between two of them (even if I never did get to drive the Lady). Jennifer and the Lady are headed to the Midwest and East Coast next.  If you’re in one of the remaining cities of the Crusade, don’t miss your chance to see what it’s all about, and even go home with some free art.

Kurt Simonson is a fine art photographer and professor based in Los Angeles.  He is also one of the best people on the planet.


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Photolucida Photographer Highlights

Last week the Crusade made a stop in Portland for a pop-up and to attend the Photolucida Portfolio Review event.  At a portfolio review, photographers at the mid-career level register for one-on-one meetings (20 minutes long) with gallery owners, curators, critics, collectors and publishers from around the world.  As a reviewer, I met with 48 photographers over 4 days and was fortunate enough to informally see work from dozens of others. People seem to ask me pretty regularly about current themes I see in photography, and although I don't like to categorize, I will say that I saw a lot of work dealing with contemporary landscape - human intervention, neglect, urbanization. . . And I learned a new word!  "Dross" - ok, now that I used the google, the definition isn't exactly as it was explained to me by one of the many photographers dealing with this topic, but as I learned it, dross is the in-between space in the landscape - places that have fallen away from use or that are coming into use.  Dross.  Photograph that.  (or don't, since lots of others are getting that covered. . .)

So dross aside, I'd like to highlight just a few images/photographers that peaked my interest.  Some of this work is finished and ready to launch, and other portfolios are still working out issues and growing, but these are just few that I keep thinking about.

This image by Amelia Morris made me cry:

I pretty much loved everything about Marico Fayre, including her meditative series, White. Kids With Guns: The Childhood Gravity Games by Kim Campell intruiged me - I think it's going somewhere.  K. K. Depaul's mixed-media collage and assemblage pieces about secrets was wonderfully haunting.

A lot of talent always shows up for this review, and Portland of course is my love, so the whole time there was wonderful, start to finish.

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Sequencing Strategy - Do You Have One?

I'm about to start the third full day of portfolio reviews for Photolucida in Portland.  If you aren't familiar, Photolucida is a wonderful photography festival that hosts portfolio reviews every other year.  For four days, photographers sit with a wide range of industry professionals for 20 minutes at a time to get feedback on their work, and hopefully opportunities for exhibition and publication. Yesterday I was on a sequencing tear.  It seemed that so many photographers I met with had not paid enough attention to the order the images were in.  I cannot stress enough how the sequence can make or break the edit in a portfolio.  So I felt inspired to think about advice that would help a photographer think about how to best sequence their work -

Quite simply, the flow needs to work.  Let the story unfold in a clear, logical way that makes sense as the viewer moves from one image to another.  Make sure you are telling the complete story without hiccups (images that take the viewer off-track) or holes.  Allow the viewer to move seamlessly through the work.  Keep a consistent vibe and feeling, building a narrative or emotional arc without disrupting the viewer’s eyes or emotions.

In addition to considering a logical ordering strategy (chronological, narrative, etc.), pay attention to aesthetic qualities in the photographs.  Colors and shapes can bridge transitions between images and create a smooth flow.  Less obvious connections also create an interesting sequence.  Consider what associations a straight read of an image bring to mind and what other image in the series creates a logical link to it.

Looking for help tightening your project?  Read more here.

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Critical Mass - You Should, and If You Didn't. . .

I have long been a fan of Critical Mass as a fantastic way for photographers to get important eyes on their work. Photographers submit a portfolio of ten images along with an artist statement, and these submissions get culled down to 200 finalists. If you make the finalist list, your work will be viewed, rated and critiqued by over 200 industry heavy-weights, from curators to gallerists to publishers. Whether or not you make the next cut (the Top 50) or win one of the prizes (book award, exhibition award), the exposure a photographer receives from being a finalist is invaluable. Many photographers have been approached for book deals, exhibitions and representation from being viewed on Critical Mass. Honestly, I cannot brag on it enough. Before I highlight some of my favorite entries from this year, I want to share something that I think is really helpful when thinking about a body of work and its impact on the viewer. I once had a friend and fellow juror tell me the judging strategy he/she uses when going through the submissions. Of course, this is a crude break-down and this person is extremely thoughtful when looking at each portfolio, but this is the criteria this photo-person uses as a general guide.

As a juror, we can give a portfolio a score of “0”, “1”, “3” or “7”. This photo-friend (who, by the way, is my go-to person for an honest assessment of my own work) looks at a portfolio of images and uses this system as a starting point to think about the work: - a “0” if the images do not seem compelling enough to want to look farther (again, this is the baseline starting point – I do not want to imply in any way that photographers’ work is not given a fair look and assessment) - a “1” if the images are interesting, but the artist statement does not seem to match the work - a “3” if the work is good and the statement seems to match what the images convey - a “7” if everything comes together and the work is really phenomenal

If you are a photographer, I strongly encourage you to think about this when looking objectively at your own work. Why are you making the work? Why should the viewer care about the work? Do the images reflect what you are trying to say?

OK, so – I was lucky enough to jury Critical Mass again this year, and I was blown away by some of the work. Some of my very favorites made the top 50 and others did not, but here are just a few highlights for me (note: I am purposefully not posting about photographers represented by Jennifer Schwartz Gallery, since it would be hard to appear objective):

Katie Koti I literally cannot stop thinking about this work. It is raw and honest, and I have shown it to everyone who will look since I first saw it. Go to her website. Go now.

Tamas Deszo I actually bought an image of his at AIPAD last year. So yes, I am a fan.

Thomas Jackson Last year there was a floating Cheetos image that made me more hungry than inspired. This year, Thomas Jackson presented a floating Cheese Ball image that kind of blew me away. Just goes to show, it’s all in the approach.

Nate Larson, Marni Shindelman This is a really smart collaborative project using geolocation information to track the locations where users posted updates to Twitter. They photograph the places people stood when sending a particular tweet and pair the image with the originating text.

Tom Griggs I first saw Tom’s work at FotoFest this year (a different series), and I was impressed then and have been since with the thoughtfulness of his imagery.