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Dutch photographer Jan Banning is fascinated by what communism looks like today. In 2013, he set out to document the obscured activities of small Communist Party chapters in Italy, India, Nepal, Portugal and Russia.

“I’m interested in countries in which communism isn’t a dominating ideology and places I could assume that members do it out of conviction and not because they think it’s good for their career,” says Banning of the series, Red Utopia. “Many of the local party members I met, who are still plodding along, certainly have a place in my heart now — either because of their own sad fate or because of how they devote themselves to social justice, often unpaid, and in many practical ways offer help to ordinary people.”

I wrote about the work for Timeline. Read and see more: Photos: A look at communists and their humble party offices around the globe

 

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My end of year resolution was to avoid best of lists. My new years resolution is to write more letters on paper to actual people. Here’s 8-minutes of writing I made for the LensCulture 2017 Best Photobooks list.

I nominated three books, but only Jim Mortam’s was included in LC’s published rundown best of. By comparison, my selections look not very arty and quite concerned with real life.

Rob Stothard and Silvia Mollicchi

Removal

 

 

Impeccably researched, quietly shot, and brilliantly designed to mimic a UK Home Office report, Removal takes stock of the immigration real estate *portfolio* in Britain. Safely photographed from distance, Stothard’s unfrequented images remind us that we see virtually nothing of the insides of these sites. The extent to which private firms contract, own and operate these facilities is shocking.

Jim Mortram

Small Town Inertia

 

A long time coming (in the best way), Small Town Inertia proves that you needn’t chase the big smoke, the big names or the big bangs to make important work that speaks universally. From the town of Dereham and the surrounds, Mortram has made work that should remind us of our deep connection to, and responsibility for, our neighbours.

Jeffrey Stockbridge

Kensington Blues

 

 

A comprehensive, difficult and generous portrait of Philadelphians in some very challenged parts of the city. Stockbridge lived among his subjects and was a fixture on the blocks; that’s important to know because he has exposed some subjects while they’re engaged in risky behaviours. Subjects stand in the light, adopt body shapes and fix their stares right down the lens. Some scenes in Kensington Blues aren’t pretty but, then again, you’re not pretty. Most of the characters and their strength of character just take your breath away.

 

 

 

 

What to do with a defunct prison? Demolish? Renovate into a hotel or apartments. Create a museum or arts centre? The response and reuse of prisons depends largely on economics but also on whether a society has written and agreed on a narrative and the place of the prison in relation to the state and body politic.

For example, Robben Island is an obvious memorial to anti-Apartheid campaigners and their unjust imprisonment; a rejection of state-sanctioned racism. Similarly, Tuol Sleng in Cambodia is a Genocide Museum honouring the victims of the Khmer Rouge. While Alcatraz does include information about the American Indian Movement and the Indian Occupation of the island in 1969-71, the narrative is mostly a distant historical view of “The Rock” in which tourists can get macabre and creeped out, safely.

Now closed, Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, doesn’t have an agreed history, yet. It cannot be so easily be packaged for a public, or narrative. Opened in 1835, Kingston Pen established the basis of Canada’s prison philosophy; the architectural embodiment of prison as a legal structure in accordance with British rule and colonial prerogatives. It was a place for carceral not corporal punishment—100 months instead of 100 licks of the paddle.

Until its closure in 2013, Kingston Pen was one of the longest continuous operating prisons in the world. It was shuttered due to rising maintenance costs and documented human rights violations. In its 160 years, Kingston Pen served up hardship and oppression. Not least, as in all Western societies, for minority groups and indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples make up less than four percent of the Canadian population, yet they account for the largest demographic of prisoners.

Into the awaiting “space” of cultural definition and narrative framing of Kingston Pen, enter Through a Penal System, Darkly (2013 – 2015), a raking, bamboozling, photo-based survey of the prison by artist Cindy Blažević and partners. Onto a general history of the institution, Blažević knits oral histories of current and past corrections administrators, legal experts, staff and prisoners. Audio clips, maps, photo-documentation and photo-composites bring the past to this very moment and foreground prison abolition arguments.

 

An illustration of a Plains-style teepee is superimposed onto a photo of a small, enclosed prison yard – a place where Indigenous cultural practices would often take place. The actual teepee was packed away, as part of the decommissioning process, before Blažević had a chance to photograph it.

 

For some, the closure of Kingston Pen, as with many iconic prisons, might serve as an excuse to draw a line and refrain from examining history, but Through a Penal System, Darkly encourages us to do the opposite and leap right back into our immediate history; to face the many shortcomings of incarceration.

In an excellent read of Blažević’s work, Ellyn Walker delineates the way, familial, racial and social-control dynamics persist in society, through the prison, and because of the prison.

“One must consider deeply the ways in which justice and compassion go hand-in-hand, in particular, in spaces of extreme vulnerability and oppression, such as the prison,” writes Walker, who quotes Dr. Angela Y. Davis as she urges us to look toward contested sites: “The prison is one of the most important features of our image environment,” said Davis.

“[The prison] reveals the imperative for reimagining how we both understand and practice justice,” adds Walker. That’s why Through a Penal System, Darkly is such a landmark work of art and research. Comprehensive and content-rich, Through a Penal System, Darkly has been presented as an exhibition and lives online as a multi-pronged inquiry. Working with law students, Blažević made the project while the inaugural artist-in-residence (2013-14) at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto.

Energised by the way in which she pushed passed the mere static image and committed political and complex readings of the prison, I pressed Blažević with some questions on the kernels, goals and outcomes of the project. I can only provide a smattering of the hundreds of photograph Blažević made and as the audio and context for the photos is so key, I encourage you all to visit the Through a Penal System, Darkly website and spend some time.

 

 

Some of the surprising colours in Blažević’s images are reminiscent of William Eggleston’s photography. Somehow the electrical switch boxes, mail-drops, wall paintings, signage and the vernacular touches make for the most engaging photos. The deadpan images of children’s play structures and lawn chairs speak to the normalisation of prison operations. Janitorial, medical and infrastructural observations reveal the comprehensiveness of resources and operations. The exterior shots seem mostly to be establishing shots and hold the least interest, but I suspect Blažević is aware of this. Still, she was there to photograph as much as possible, almost forensically while her access lasted. There are other comparisons to be made between Through a Penal System, Darkly and other photographers work, and Blažević and I talk about them in the Q&A below.

While Through a Penal System, Darkly undoubtedly required a massive amount of work, significant institutional support, the buy-in of co-makers, and others’ skillsets, I think it is a project that is instructive about how professionals working with media can explode the issue of prisons and other controversial, historically-rich sites.

Scroll on for our Q&A.

 

Q & A

Why should people care about prisons?

This Angela Davis quote really nails it: “There is reluctance to face the realities hidden within [prisons], a fear of thinking about what happens inside them. Thus, the prison is present in our lives and, at the same time, it is absent from our lives. To think about this simultaneous presence and absence is to begin to acknowledge the part played by ideology in shaping the way we interact with our social surroundings.”

That, in a nutshell, is why people should care. We’re naïve to think that prisons and criminal justice happen in a bubble that has nothing to do with the configuration of all of society.

Prisons are very much a reflection of our deepest, seemingly unsolvable social problems. This project looked at the many ways that prisons obscure our individual and collective responsibilities of taking seriously the ongoing problems of our society, particularly those produced by racism, colonialism, patriarchy and global capitalism. Kim Pate, one of the contributors to my project, at the time Director of the Elizabeth Fry Societies and currently a Canadian senator, spoke about prison being the only system that couldn’t say no. In other words, when the health care system and the legal aid system and the welfare system are unable to help you, because of successive budget cuts, the prison will be there for you.

Decarceration should be everybody’s business.

The relatability of the project was important to me, which is why the exhibition that accompanied the website was a massive photograph mounted on the exterior of the law school, accessible to all passers-by and not exclusively to law students or gallery goers, and linked to the website. I want everyone to care.

 

 

Where did your interest in prisons begin? Generally, or with Kingston specifically?

Who doesn’t have a natural fascination with prisons? With what it means to lose one’s freedom?

As a visual artist, I have a specific interest in spaces and how they define us, as individuals and as a society. I majored in International Relations and minored in political science, so the interest has always been there, simmering away in the background, as a backdrop to many of the subjects I’ve explored over the years, academically and artistically.

Kingston Penitentiary, whose interior architecture had never been photographed in any systematic way, holds a deep fascination with the Canadian public. So when I heard it would close, I thought, let me try to get in there. And I did.

What started as a project to photograph 19th century experiments in prison architecture no longer acceptable to our current ideas of incarceration, turned into a massive photographic and audio compendium of issues and thoughts expressed and experienced about the Canadian justice system, all through the lens of Kingston Penitentiary.

At its root, I think Through a Penal System, Darkly is a project about fairness, about what is actually fair when it comes to punishment. Working on it has given me pause to appreciate how fundamental our preoccupation with justice is. I have three children and it is really incredible how fairness and a sense of justness is prevalent even at an extremely early age. One could dismiss this as philosophical waxing, but the basic ubiquity of it is undeniable.

 

 

What is the public opinion in Canada toward prisons?

An apathy arising from the false comfort that America has a problem with over-incarceration and that, because we’re not America, we don’t. Canadians see themselves as social progressives, as we are on many fronts. This seemed to stop at prisons under the previous, Conservative government. Even though statistics showed crime rates have been dropping for decades, the Harper Conservative government took a “tough on crime” approach: more prisons, longer sentences, mandatory minimums, and eliminating discretion for courts. Under the current Liberal government, whatever its shortcomings, the Supreme Court has ruled that many of the anti-crime laws enacted by the Harper government were unconstitutional. These actions have a role in shaping public opinion, tangentially.

Just the other day our national broadcaster, CBC, aired a story about the “shock and dismay” of parents and area residents to news that a halfway house for federal penitentiary inmates would open beside a Toronto Catholic elementary school. It’s telling. It’s sad that media perpetuates many of the black-and-white, negative, populist stereotypes surrounding criminal justice.

Honestly, I think most people don’t have a clue about what happens inside prison. A few days into my project I realised I didn’t either, not really. For example, I hadn’t given any thought to the reality that when one is sentenced to prison the term of their removal from freedom is supposed to be the punishment itself, but, actually, prisoners experience layer after layer of additional punishments and micro-aggressions—from withholding mail to arbitrary corporal punishment. Why would a former inmate have to endure continued punishment, say, in the form of community isolation, while finishing the terms of his or her sentence in a halfway house?

 

 

Why did you decide to lay out the information as you did in this wide-ranging, chapter-esque history of Kingston Prison?

The reality of incarceration is not simple or easily summarised, so how could depicting that reality be any less complex? I wanted to create a legal and historical context for the photographs. There are many chapters to the story of this prison, so many ways of thinking about incarceration and concepts of justice. I had real difficulty editing down the many stories and perspectives I encountered while fitting them into the parameters of the residency. And that is why the project sits at such a busy intersection of art, photographic documentation, social justice, cultural anthropology, legal theory, historical research and oral storytelling.

At heart is the realisation that every photograph I took has long tendrils of political, legal and social reality trailing beneath it. That’s not just a fenced-in yard or a sad-looking metal door you’re looking at, that’s the consequence of a policy that was drawn up, discussed, implemented and is a plan for how to go about “correcting” behaviour, how to set a moral balance right.

At its simplest, the project maps out—literally and conceptually—the relationship of the architecture to its previous inhabitants. It’s a political, legal and historical choose-your-own adventure.

Were the experts and others you interviewed keen to talk? It seems a decommissioned facility gives more license to be honest about the criminal justice system? Would you agree?

Ha! I had great difficulty getting access. I had to leverage my grant from the Canada Council for the Arts (a federal body) to get permission from the Commissioner of the Corrections Services Canada to enter the facility.

The experts were, indeed, keen to talk, but the Department of Justice was not so keen to let their employees do so. On the morning of a scheduled interview with two CSC employees, the DoJ intercepted, postponing it until my questions had been screened. Initially, I was surprised. However, the CSC, already cautious and unforthcoming, became perceptively more so following the 2007 suicide of Ashley Smith while in detention and especially when a 2013 inquest ruled her death a homicide. My interviews and inquiries took place in the months following this ruling, when the CSC was under greater scrutiny for its treatment of prisoners, especially the mentally ill. I don’t think an artist is particularly threatening, though an artist paired with a law school might be, I suppose.

What were the most surprising testimonies you heard?

The syndicated prison radio show really hit me. The tongue-in-cheek songs and skits paint a very different picture from the kind of controlled environment, detached from its surrounding community, that we’ve come to associate with a federal penitentiary.

The emotional account given by Margaret Beare of the breakdown in humaneness that happens inside total institutions.

Kim Pate, who is now a Senator, talking about what the replacement of old-fashioned metal keys with electronic buttons (to open cell doors) means for the mental health of prisoners.

How extremely poorly correctional officers are educated in mental health intervention, not to mention how much the officers themselves struggle in this regard, with PTSD at post-Vietnam War levels.

And new information that stuck with you?

The bricks and mortar architecture dictating how we imprison, how we punish/correct long after our ideologies and laws change. The implication being that a more progressive approach to justice would be curtailed by the expensive assemblage of bricks that themselves were the result of the imperfect plans and fads of the day.

 

 

 

Who did you work with on Through a Penal System, Darkly?

The photography was made possible thanks to a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. What followed—the contextualization of the photographs, the website – was the result of an artist residency at the Osgoode Hall Law School, an unusual intersection of disciplines that was the brainchild of the school’s forward-thinking Dean, Lorne Sossin.

The focus of the residency was to research and create a legal and historical context for the photographs I had taken—which was accomplished through collaboration with seven upper-year law students who elected to take my Directed Reading course.

Through research, discussions and interviews with the various stakeholders, the students and I explored the ideals of the criminal justice system—past, present and future. Ultimately, the photographs and accompanying stories, essays, historical anecdotes tell us something about Kingston Penitentiary. However, they also invite us to ruminate on the bigger picture—that is, on the evolving structure of the penal system, on society’s changing understanding of the role of prison, and on the role played by the many people who have a willing or unwilling stake in the criminal justice and penal systems. The breadth and scope of the interviews and essays are owed mostly to them.

The work for me sits somewhere between Donovan Wylie’s work on the decommissioned Long Kesh Prison, Northern Ireland, Geoffrey James’ work on Kingston and perhaps even the Guantanamo Bay Museum of Art and History.

I love Donovan Wylie’s comment about “applying a [photographic] system to a [prison] system”. I can relate to it. Wylie’s Maze series is one of my favourites. Those curtains! I couldn’t help but have him in the back of my mind when I was arranging my project.

It wasn’t until Geoffrey James published his book that I had any idea he, too, had photographed the prison. We don’t run in similar circles. He had such great access! My access was minimum and given grudgingly by the Head of the Correctional Service Canada.

I like thinking that my project aligns with the work of Tings Chak, which strives to be more experiential than the more straight-forward documentarian photographs of, say, Geoffrey James. Her graphic novel, Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, explores the role and ethics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration, and is pretty amazing.

Another artist who is documenting from an interesting angle is Brett Story, who just finished her PhD in geography at University of Toronto and made a film The Prison In Twelve Landscapes about the influence of prisons on public systems, cities and economics.

It’s a gorgeous, harrowing film. I thought it was one of the best films of 2016.

I’d like to see more multimedia in-depth photo-based pieces like Through a Penal System, Darkly. It seems the skills to code all this might beyond most people? Am I right, or am I just a luddite? Could Through a Penal System, Darkly be used as a template for other projects?

Thank you! You’re no luddite—the coding was beyond me and so would have been the cost of hiring a programmer without institutional support. I am grateful to Osgoode Hall Law School for generously providing the resources (developers, hosting, etc) to bring to life the idea in my head. I would love to use it as a template for future projects.

These types of projects are expensive and there is some risk. Another major project (also map-based) that I worked on 2007-2010 across seven Balkan countries with multiple arts organisations and which was funded by major European institutions went offline in 2015 because Google stopped supporting the web-based map platform on which the entire site was built. And, poof!, the work no longer exists. The cost of rebuilding it is too high and the momentum to search for support has passed. In-depth multimedia web projects are tricky things.

 

 

How and where do you want the work to sit? What do you hope it will do?

I hope the work sparks reaction and thought. It would be great if my own small contribution could inspire a change in the direction and tone of the conversation around decarceration.

I would love the opportunity to re-mount the exhibition publicly elsewhere.

I hope the website will continue to be used as a resource at Osgoode Hall Law School. It’s currently being used by high school students via the Law in Action Within Schools (LAWS) program, an innovative collaborative academic and extracurricular education program aimed at supporting, guiding and motivating high school students who face challenges in engaging successfully with school and accessing postsecondary education, which is wonderful.

Thanks, Cindy.

Thank you, Pete.

 

 

All images: Cindy Blažević

 

 

 

 

This week, Mimi Plumb kindly let me write about her series What Is Remembered which shows the clearing of orchards and farms for subdivisions between 1972 and 1975, in her (then) hometown of Walnut Creek. She photographed the alienated kids who reminded her of her younger self. I first met Mimi in 2014. It feels like this article has been a long time coming. I had wrote about 500 words. I wish I had 500 pages.

I adore Mimi. I posted about her series Pictures From The Valley, when her images were used in an initiative to find farmworkers involved in California labor organizing, and then to secure their oral histories.

What Is Remembered is evocative stuff fusing memory, generational differences, consumerism, fear, innocence and our place in the world–that is all to say, our responsibility to the world.

 

 

To quote:

After a career teaching photography, only recently has Plumb returned to her archive. Nostalgia, partly, accounts for the current popularity of Plumb’s work. But, frankly, it is only now that people have the stomach for it. While her college instructors at the time loved the work, it was too unadorned and too uncomfortable for many others to appreciate.

“The raw dirt yards and treeless streets, model homes expanding exponentially, with imperceptible variation. A lot of it’s pretty dark and some of it is pessimistic.”

Plumb never felt comfortable among the cul-de-sacs and manicured yards. She rarely had the words for what she was experiencing … until she discovered photography in high school.

In 1971, the two lane road to the city became four lanes. Aged 17, Plumb left for San Francisco. The bland atmosphere of the suburbs stood in stark contrast, says Plumb, to the cultural and violent upheavals taking place across the country — the shooting of John F Kennedy, the ongoing threat of nuclear war, the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement.

“Suburbia felt like something of a purgatory to me,” she explains. “It was intellectually hard; you couldn’t really talk about what was going on in the world.”

“I watched the rolling hills and valleys mushroom with tract homes,” says Plumb. “To me and my teenage friends, they were the blandest, saddest homes in the world.”

More: Photos of growing up in the Bay Area suburbs tell a story of innocence and disaffection

 

 

 

    

 

Trump rages on about a broken America. America is raging about a broken Trump. Among the many memes and earworms the Whinger-In-Chief has provided, “American Carnage” is the one that sticks, for me. As long as Trump can convince his base that other people, other milieus and other communities are in carnage, his base will happily cede logic and allow the White House to enact its politics of division. As soon as Trump bellowed “American carnage” during his inauguration speech, the foreboding inevitability of a belligerent, smarting, testy, bickering presidency came to bear. Do images of social blight carry a different message under a fascistic executive?

Of his series Slow Blink, Open Mouth, Jordan Baumgarten says, With apparent lawlessness, chaos is inevitable. The world comes alive with bits of magic, bits of darkness, and the inability to discern which is which. In this world, private moments are public, animals and humans roam free, fueled by id, and always, somewhere, there is a fire burning.

 

While Slow Blink, Open Mouth is difficult for its content alone, it is also difficult because it might provide the ammunition for both sides of the political battle of rhetoric, fought from distance, over the health and feasibility of the nation. In We Look At The Same Photos, We See Different Things, published on Vantage, I investigate the difficulty inherent to images, in the Trump era, of addiction and social stress.

To quote:

When I view these images I think of failed manufacturing, job loss, modern alienation, big pharma pushing painkillers, crimes of need, and cycles of profit and predation that cannot, will not, be broken by the will power of addicts alone. I see the result of decades of inadequate public education, mental and medical health care and viable addiction treatment. I see the legacy of the failed War On Drugs, mass incarceration, and policy and policing that has criminalised poverty. I see the cracks in society through which individuals have fallen and I know the cracks used to be smaller, and fewer and farther between.

I do not discount, however, the fact that others may see a society that’s lost its way; a society that fell from grace decades ago and needs a short, sharp reset. I know viewers might reason they have nothing in common with Baumgarten’s subject(s) and are moved to do nothing but judge. Trump has fueled the aggressive judgement of others. Perversely, though he hasn’t done this by avoiding the topics of poverty and addiction. Instead, he’s pointed (from distance) to problems in inner-city America (Chicago being his preferred bogeyman) and yelled about carnage, wastelands and the opioid epidemic. Trump is correct in identifying the opioid epidemic as specific to our times, but he’s more invested in stoking dangerous rhetoric about *dangerous* cities than he is listening to, or implementing, nuanced policy and social care solutions.

 

 

Read and see more: We Look At The Same Photos, We See Different Things

Slow Blink Open Mouth will be published as a book by GOST. Please consider buying a print from the series to help support the production costs.

Follow Jordan Baumgarten on Tumblr and Instagram.

 

 

I wrote about Lucas Foglia’s third and most recent photobook Human Nature for Photo District News: ‘Human Nature’ Finds New Ways To Understand Our Impact On The Environment

To quote:

Human Nature (Nazraeli) journeys from Nevada ranch lands to constructed paradises in Singapore, from a farm in a New York City jail to a research station on an Alaska glacier. Foglia not only documents ice floes, clear-cut forests, green urbanism and other common climate change subjects, he meditates on what nature has become and how we interact emotionally, or not, with our planet.

He also pulls back the veil on the work of earth scientists. Having resolved that most places on earth had been visited, documented and altered, Foglia decided to demystify the labor behind our understanding of the planet. “I started photographing scientists who measured the air. Amidst all of the news stories and political arguments about climate change, most people don’t know what the process of the science looks like,” he says.

Foglia photographed field researchers at the Guyana Forestry Commission, the Juneau Icefield Research Program, the NOAA Observatories and USDA Agricultural Research Stations. The scientists granted Foglia free access because, he says, they recognized that he was intent, like they are, on describing the world fairly. “We shared a common cause,” he says. […] The Trump administration has proposed cutting NOAA’s budget by 17 percent, including a 26 percent cut to research. “Most of the scientists I photographed are at risk of losing funding,” Foglia notes.

Read more. See more.

 

All images: Lucas Foglia. (Top to bottom): 1. Kate in an EEG Study of Cognition in the Wild, Strayer Lab, University of Utah. 2. Esme Swimming, Parkroyal on Pickering, Singapore. 3. Lava Boat Tour, Hawai‘i shows brand new land created by lava pouring into the ocean. 4. Air Sampling, Mauna Loa Observatory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hawai‘i. 5. New crop varieties are grown and tested in the Geneva Greenhouses at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station. The USDA’s national and regional seed banks store hundreds of thousands of plant varieties, and crop scientists race to create a climate-change-resilient agriculture. As droughts, extreme rainstorms, and other erratic weather patterns intensify, farmers need crops that can cope with such stresses. 6. Ice to Protect Orange Trees from the Cold, California. 7. Evan sleeps at Camp Eighteen, overlooking the Vaughan Lewis Icefall. One of the greatest non-polar concentrations of glaciers in the world, the Juneau Icefield spans 90 miles of southeast Alaska. 8. Icebergs float away from the Gilkey Glacier in Alaska. 9. Kenzie inside a Melting Glacier, Juneau Icefield Research Program, Alaska. 10. Honey bees trail water across a rooftop after rain in Portland, Oregon.

 

I just wrote about Christopher Herwig’s new book Soviet Bus Stops Volume II for Timeline: Photos: From Brutalism to folk art, Soviet-era bus stops crush the myth of Communist homogeneity:

In 1975, the Soviet Ministry of Transport Construction dictated that bus stops “should pay special attention to modern architectural design, in accordance with the climate and the local and national characteristics of the area. Bus stops should be the compositional centers of the architectural ensemble of the road.” But if the shells of these structures reflected governmental decree, their quirky inventiveness is the result of the mores of local artisans.

These remote bus stops are the little cousins to the monumental Communist construction projects — the high-rises, TV towers, space shuttles, and state-owned factories—most of us are familiar with. In his new book, Soviet Bus Stops Volume II, photographer Christopher Herwig examines the Soviet-era bus stop as an architectural type, where regional planners flexed their patriotic muscle and pushed artistic boundaries. These humble structures challenge the preconception of the Soviet landscape as blandly homogeneous.

“Some were made by famous architects and artists,” says Herwig. “Some were made by road construction workers and probably even decorated by school children or at least university students on summer break. Some are one-offs and some are repeated.”

The book is published by Fuel.

Read and see more.

I learnt about Bill Washburn‘s series Taxi years ago (on a recommendation from Blake Andrews). The pictures stuck with me, especially during a recent two-year stint living in San Francisco. Now I’m back in Portland and Bill Washburn is my neighbour and I’m so happy to have been able to write about Taxi for Timeline: These vivid 1980s photos show gritty San Francisco cab life in the days before Uber.

“As a taxi driver, I had a very privileged viewpoint,” says Washburn who drove a cab between 1982 and 1986 to supplement his income during art school. “It was an opportunity to get to know San Francisco intensely. It was a dynamic city, I worked it all, not just downtown.”

Washburn’s unorthodox portraits are strange nostalgic triggers for a city we may not have known then but know now, through daily headlines, of a city drastically changed by decades of housing market spikes, mass displacement and gentrification. There’s loss as well as discovery in these photos.

I asked Kelly Dessaint, cab-driver, San Francisco Examiner columnist and author of I Drive SF, what he thought of Washburn’s images.

“It’s always a mystery who’s going to climb in the back of your taxi,” says Dessaint. “The uncertainty of where a ride will take you can be exhilarating and terrifying. Sometimes simultaneously. These photos really capture the randomness of taxi driving, as well as the awkward intimacy that comes from sharing an enclosed space with a stranger for a prolonged period of time.”

Dessaint, who drove for both Uber and Lyft before signing up with City Cabs, laments the loss of spontaneity and unpredictability brought on by ridesharing

“With app-based transportation,” he explains, “the pick up and drop off points, along with the route, are recorded. You know the passenger’s name before they get in the car. They know yours. It’s not a random encounter like when someone flags you on the street. And with the rating system, the passenger is always in control. Drivers know that if they step out of line, they can easily get deactivated. Which limits spontaneity and creates a passive experience for the driver. As a taxi driver, you’re always in control.”

The power of these photos may lie in the fact that they show conversation not merely transaction; that they depict a time before profiles, stars and likes. For Washburn, now in his seventies, the differences and decisions are obvious.

“I’ll never take an Uber or a Lyft. I’d feel like a traitor,” says Washburn.

See more and read more here.

 

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