A couple of weeks ago, I received an intriguing email. It was from photographer Jonathan Blaustein, inviting me to take a look at his first book, “Extinction Party” (Yoffy Press, 2020).
I have been familiar with Blaustein’s work for many years, from his “The Value of a Dollar” (which ended up going viral after being published by the New York Times) to his writing about photography in the A Photo Editor blog as well as the New York Times’s Lens blog.
After taking a look at his book, I was interested in highlighting it here on In Sight. The book’s message about how we interact with the planet seems more pressing, especially now. But I was wary about writing about the book because Blaustein is a much better writer than I am. So I proposed that he take the reins and give us his own insight into the work. I’m thankful that he graciously obliged. Here’s what he had to say:
“Little miracles happen in our daily lives.
“Events that require so much luck, they become a part of our personal mythology.
“In late August 2008, my wife and I were approved for a construction loan to build our house here in New Mexico, based on the value of some family land. Within weeks, such loans disappeared, due to the global economic crash, and we didn’t qualify for the stringent ones that replaced them.
“If not for timing, we wouldn’t have the home we live in today, in which we’re raising two children; our safe haven from the covid-19 pandemic sweeping the planet.
“Thankfully, I had another little miracle this year, too. My first photo book, ‘Extinction Party,’ was published by Yoffy Press in Atlanta, and we made it by the skin of our teeth.
“In the fall, we pegged the Society for Photographic Education national conference in Houston, in early March, for our book launch. (The one time I broached delaying release, back in December, my publisher told me to man up, so our deadline became hard.)
“Working backward, the book needed to be at the press by Feb. 17 at the latest, as our printer, Wilco Art Books, was in Amersfoort, Netherlands.
“My wife, and the book’s designer, my friend Caleb Cain Marcus, encouraged me to supervise production, so I headed to Europe two months ago, returning Feb. 20.
“The finished books arrived in the United States at the last second, just before the borders closed, and we successfully launched ‘Extinction Party’ with a book signing in Houston on March 7.
“I flew home to New Mexico on March 8, and within days, America began to shut down because of this deadly, easily spreadable virus. (The entire planet soon followed.)
“I was put on official self-quarantine March 13, as New Mexico’s governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, asked anyone who had been out of state to stay home for 14 days.
“My family stayed in, too, as they’d been exposed to my germs, and we’ve been home since.
“Of course, my book signings have been canceled, and normally that would be grim for a new publication.
“But the book’s conceit (as the title suggests) is that human overconsumption of the planet’s animals and natural resources imperils life as we know it, leading to the potential extinction of nearly everything.
“In his introduction, the novelist Kevin Kwan writes of ‘the waste and inhumanity of an earth catastrophically out of balance,’ in which ‘far too few individuals control the planet’s wealth, control the companies that create the all-too-quickly disposed objects, and ultimately control the ecological system on which the rest of us are dependent.’
“My introduction, on the next page, opens, ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it,’ and later I write, ‘We humans treat the planet like one big, rowdy, discount super-market: a Trader Joe’s filled with chickens, cows and pigs. And we’re hungry for all of it.’
“Though we won’t be selling the book at art fairs as planned, it is available online, and we’ve been sending copies to people who pre-purchased it on Kickstarter, via the U.S. Postal Service. During the pandemic.
“It being #2020, our readers are posting photos on Twitter and Instagram, or sending texts, emails and Facebook messages, telling us the book is timely and prescient.
“ ‘Extinction Party’ warns that Mother Nature would fight back against our rapacity, and was published just when humanity is threatened by this new virus.
“Some images such as ‘No one’s hands are clean,’ of a white cotton glove, or ‘Don’t worry everything will be OK?’ of an emoji face made from purple Pop Rocks candy, seem like they are of the moment, despite being shot in 2013.
“My publisher and I imagined people at home during the quarantine, and their book arrives. After leaving the package outside for a safe amount of time, they would open the box, wash their hands profusely, remove the book from its plastic wrapping, look at the creepy mask on the cover, and read it start to finish.
“And it’s transpired, with one reader emailing, ‘It was time to bring in the packages ‘quarantined’ for 4 days on shelf #3 against the north wall of the garage. They’d actually sat there about a week de-virusing themselves. One of them turned out to be the copy of your book.’
“I began making photographs of one dollar’s worth of food from around the world, on the cusp of the Great Recession, and followed with a conceptual series made out of nature from my property. After that, I shot pictures of my own studio trash, and between 2016 and 2018, I built photographs out of party supplies I bought at Party City, as nearly everything they sell is disposable.
“There are photos of animals in various forms: a deer head and leg, a cross-section of a beef shank, powdered shrimp, pig fat and skin, duck and chicken eggs, a dead baby mouse, and some potted meat made from chickens, cows and pigs.
“We see ice and snow, leaves and grass, dirt and weeds.
“One photograph, an homage to the late artist John Baldessari, features red, blue and yellow dot stickers I bought once and is titled ‘Everything is for sale!’ The exclamation point is a subtle joke (in his honor), but it also is an emphatic symbol of our overwhelming, consumption-driven economic system, which exacerbates Climate Change, increasing the risk of a pandemic.
“Wet markets selling wild animals reputedly got us here, and Wild West-style mask piracy, ventilator market profiteering and empty global streets are the result.
“When life returns to normal (or a new normal, anyway), I hope we will all respect the planet more, both because it’s the right thing to do, and because the Earth has all sorts of ways to kill us if we don’t behave.”
You can see more of Blaustein’s work on his website, here.
In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.
More on In Sight: