The Jonathan Blaustein Mixtape
When you attend a photography portfolio review, Jonathan Blaustein is easy to spot. He’s probably the only reviewer standing up and gesturing wildly. As you get a little closer to his table, you begin to understand that this person is extremely passionate about photography and his goal as a reviewer is to push that passion back at you, getting you to consider your photographs in new ways and understand why he feels so strongly one way or the other about the work. Trust me, this is a very good thing.
Jonathan does it all–he’s father, husband, an engaged photographer, well-read writer (who contributes regularly to the New York Times LENS blog and A Photo Editor), an educator, and all around photographic rabble-rouser. It has been a pleasure to get to know Jonathan over the years at various portfolio review events–he’s always filled with enthusiasm and excitement and brings a particular energy to the reviews, in fact, this weekend, Jonathan will be reviewing and teaching at the Los Angeles Center of Photography’s EXPOSURE Reviews so it’s perfect timing to present The Jonathan Blaustein Mixtape!
Tell us about your growing up and what brought you to photography.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the late 70’s and early 80’s. My childhood was pretty typical, as I played sports all the time, ran around the neighborhood with abandon, and hung out with my friends.
I didn’t become interested in the arts until the end of college, but my Uncle, with whom I’m close, was formerly a professional wedding photographer, so a camera was always nearby when I was a kid.
As he was always bugging people to pose at every family event, (Sorry to throw you under the bus, Uncle Keith,) I saw photography as an annoyance, more than anything. He cared about photography so much, he got me a small point-and-shoot camera for my high school graduation in 1992.
I never even used it, (beyond graduation night,) but sure enough, about a week before I was embarking on a solo, 5 day cross-county drive, in 1996, someone showed me some black and white images they’d shot at a party.
I didn’t think much of it, but still, I went to the store to buy a few rolls for that little point-and-shoot, and began shooting pictures the very second I left for the trip. (I shot the door of my cousin’s apartment as I was leaving.)
By the middle of the road trip, in the heart of Texas, I decided to dedicate my life to photography, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. (Twenty-two years later…)
What is your title and job description and tell us about a typical day?
I wear a lot of hats, as do many of us in the creative fields these days. My business card says artist/writer/educator, but I’d probably put father and husband before any of it, as far as my priorities go.
As an artist, I’m always working on something, but not every project is worthy of getting exhibited or published, so it goes in phases.
As a writer, I’ve had a weekly column at the popular industry blog A Photo Editor.com for nearly seven years, and have been a regular contributor to the New York Times Lens blog for five years as well.
I’d say I write two to three days each week, and receive pitches and submissions from photographers and press agents every day. I always try to respond to people, at worst within a few days, and then I forward on all appropriate projects to my editors in New York.
It’s ironic, but I have 100% editorial control over what I publish at APE, and 0% control over what gets chosen for Lens.
As an educator, I taught for one semester at Pratt Institute, where I received my MFA, and then for 11 years at UNM-Taos here in New Mexico. I left the college last year to focus on teaching people privately through one-on-one consultations, at workshops like LACP, and at the Antidote Photo Retreat program at our family horse farm in Taos.
Each day, I end up working at least a bit on every part of my creative practice.
What are some of your proudest achievements?
Well, in my time at UNM-Taos, I taught in a small program where I was working with at-risk teenagers, who often suffered from serious abuse. Photography gave them an outlet to express the powerful emotions they were feeling.
Several students flourished over the years, but one in particular went from being non-communicative, with her head down on the table each day, to being open and engaged in class.
That was pretty hard to top.
Another proud achievement was when the State of New Mexico and the Library of Congress each purchased an entire set of images from my 2008-10 photo project “The Value of a Dollar.” As an artist, we want to know that our work can matter, and be preserved, so that was definitely mind-blowing.
Finally, I’d have to say that launching Antidote last summer was the best I’ve felt in a long time. I’m known for having a lot of energy, (at least when I’m working with people,) but at Antidote, everyone was helping everyone else, and I got to see a community come together in real-time.
The further I get into my career, the more I realize how important it is to share our knowledge and passion with others, to help light their creative flames, so knowing that our new program could help people, and allow them to help each other, made my heart swell for sure.
Any advice for photographers wanting their work featured on the Lens Blog or A Photo Editor? What’s the best way to pitch a story?
Well as I said above, I pretty much get to write about what I’d like at APE, so I think that anyone who knows what I cover, and has as a sense of my style, should just drop me a line. (Photobooks are my specialty.) Typically, people get a hold of me through my website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
If I meet you at a portfolio review, I might write about your work, as I always do follow-up pieces after I attend an event. (I’ll be at the LACP Exposure portfolio review in LA this weekend.)
As for the NYT Lens blog, they have a clear slant towards photo-journalistic and documentary-style work, with a preference towards global stories, when possible. They are super-interested in championing younger people, women, and artists of color. (That’s how I see it, at least, five years in.)
So I always suggest to people not to bother pitching someone if there’s zero crossover with what they actually publish, exhibit, or promote.
From a practical advice standpoint, I think most good practices are pretty obvious: follow up, but don’t be too pushy. Be polite. Avoid typos or misspelling people’s name. And make it easy to see your pictures.
Any advice for photographers coming to a review event?
I’ve given this advice before, and read it many times too, so I won’t belabor the point. But please, have a sense of who you’re meeting, the kind of work they do, and the kind of photographs they can actually use in their job.
It seems like common sense, but you’d be surprised that some people will sit down, totally unaware of who you are or what you do.
Beyond that, I’d say common sense should prevail here too. Be prepared. Be prompt. Be respectful. Try to ask questions and listen to the answers. (Listening really is key.)
But most of all, I’d say it’s super-important to get to know as many people as possible. Even if you’re shy, push yourself out of that dreaded comfort zone and meet people. If having a drink helps, (and you’re OK to drink,) then loosen up and hit the bar or the after-parties.
Making friends is fun, but it’s also your peer network that ends up helping your career as much or more than any mentor. The best part of the events is the fun to be had, and when you build real relationships, it leads to good things.
What is something unexpected that we don’t know about you?
I grew up watching action movies, because, as I said before: the 80’s, Jersey, the suburbs. Action movies were IT! This was the heyday of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and even peak-of-his-powers Bruce Willis. (“Die Hard” may well be the best action movie of all time, though I know it’s not a controversial pick.)
I have vivid memories of going to the theater with my buddies to see the first two Steven Seagal movies, and then once I got into Kung Fu films, with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, it was all over.
Back then, I never had the discipline to learn martial arts. I tried Aikido a couple of times, (Seagal’s art,) but never stuck with it. So I’m happy to report that I’m almost 2 years into Kung Fu training at the moment, (Wing Chun,) and just started Brazilian Jiu Jitsu last month too.
As an artist, we’re told that learning new skills makes us smarter, and stronger, so I’ve equated Martial Arts with an entirely new kind of language. Getting injured sucks, and it does happen, but overall, I’ve never been healthier or happier.
And since this is a Mixtape, what is your favorite song, band, and do you dance?
Well, as Jersey Boy, I grew up loving Bruce Springsteen and classic rock. Both Bruce and Jon Bon Jovi are from my local area, so of course Rock and Roll was king.
These days, I’m a big fan of Spotify, and listen to a lot of Reggae playlists. (I love Burning Spear, Lee “Scratch” Perry, and people like that.) I actually busted the creator of Luke Cage for stealing Season 2 music from a Spotify playlist, and then read that it was true.
But I also like Jazz, the Blues, and totally love Hip Hop. (East and West Coast. NWA and Biggie.) My dirty secret is that my kids have recently gotten me into Pop Music.
I resisted for years, because they listen to that stuff constantly with my wife, but about a year ago I finally gave in. Some Pop Music is not awful. (Shout out to Meghan Trainor.)
And now I hand the headphones over to Jonathan to share what’s going on in his world!
As I said above, I’m definitely a hybrid in this industry, so my projects are appropriately varied. I’d like to tell you guys a bit about a few of the things I have going on at the moment.
First off, this weekend, I’ll be in Los Angeles reviewing portfolios at the LACP Exposure portfolio review event. It’s held at the MdR hotel, and if you’re in the LA area, you can sign up to get a private meeting with me over the weekend.
On Sunday, I’ll be teaching a workshop at Exposure called “Pushing Your Work Forward.” It’s basically like going to graduate school for the day, as we’ll be doing a group critique where all the participants get to delve into their work, and artistic process, and then emerge with new ideas and directions.
It’s going to be a ton of fun.
And speak of fun, next month, my wife Jessie and I will be hosting two Antidote Photo Retreats at our family horse farm here in Taos.
We began the program last year, and it was a big success, so we’re hoping to continue to grow. This year’s retreats are sold out, but we’re hoping to offer three retreats next summer. If you’d like to know more, you can apply through our website.
Our program is unique, in that our students come out to get critical feedback on their photographic work, but also to go hiking, soak in hot springs, and chill in hammocks by the side of a mountain stream.
Plus, I do all the cooking, and teachers and students eat and drink with each other throughout the day. We’ve created an environment where real relationships can flourish, and then our alumni network can support each other going forward.
In effort to build community, for example, this May, we had an Antidote Meet-up at the Art Institute of Chicago, and local photographer Barbara Diener gave us a presentation about her new book before we toured the museum.
It’s been a busy summer so far, and I’m also glad to report that my new conceptual photo series, “Party City is the Devil,” is debuting today at THE FENCE public art exhibition in Santa Fe, NM.
Since I’m here in California, I’ll have to miss the opening back home, as we can’t be in two places at once. (At least not yet.)
Here are a few images from the series, which presents party supplies as the perfect metaphor for the absurdist, ridiculous over-consumption that’s killing the planet.
Finally, I’ve got to give a shout out to my regular weekly blog at A Photo Editor.com. Rob Haggart, my boss, is one of the coolest, most honest and decent people I’ve met in this industry. He’s supported my growth a writer, and a photo editor, and that allows us to keep promoting the work of up-and-coming photographers.
In the coming weeks, for instance, I’ll be featuring the best work I saw at the LACP Exposure portfolio review, which means several people will get their work seen by an audience for the very first time.
Thanks to Aline and the Lenscratch team for allowing me to share my mixtape with you all.
Thank YOU Jonathan, for all you do for photography and photographers! Enjoy the California sunshine!
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