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Interview with Jonathan Blaustein of “The Value of a Dollar”


Jonathan Blaustein is the photographer behind the project “The Value of a Dollar“, which went viral on the Internet in 2010 and then was subsequently acquired by the State of New Mexico and the Library of Congress. Visit his website here.

PetaPixel: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Jonathan Blaustein: I’m a photographer, writer, and professor based in Taos, New Mexico, originally from New Jersey (who isn’t?). In addition to my career as a photographer, I’m also a correspondent for the photo industry blog A Photo Editor. My family and I live in a little horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, far from everywhere. I’m pretty fortunate, as Northern New Mexico has a really vibrant photography scene, and of course our light is legendary. As far as my background goes, I first studied History and Economics at Duke University, but returned to school to study photography, and I have an MFA in Photography from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. I’ve been a practicing artist for the last 15 years, and my work has been exhibited in galleries, alternative spaces and museums around the United States.

PP: How did you first get started in photography, and what was your first camera?

JB: It’s kind of silly, but I began taking pictures for the most random of reasons. It was December of 1996, and I’d just finished working on a film production in New York called “Devil’s Advocate” with Al Pacino (crappy crew job, and I got fired). Anyway, I was headed out on a big solo cross-country drive to move back to New Mexico. I had the idea to buy a few rolls of black and white film for a cheap little automatic 35mm point-and-shoot that I’d been given for my high school graduation. To this day, I still don’t know where the motivation came from, as I’d never been into photography before. I started shooting as I got into the car, and was totally overwhelmed by the experience. The camera allowed me to see the world in a much deeper, more interesting way. By the time I got to Texas, I was sure that I’d found my passion and career path. Shortly thereafter, I returned to school at UNM in Albuquerque, and worked with a manual, 35mm Minolta for a couple of years before switching to an Olympus OM-1.

PP: What equipment do you shoot with nowadays?

JB: Brand loyalty is a funny thing. I still shoot with Olympus, but now it’s a digital SLR. “The Value of a Dollar” was shot with an Olympus E-3 and a Panasonic-Leica 25mm 1.4 lens. Razor sharp. I also recently got an Olympus EPL-1 with an adapter to use the same lens for video, which is something I’m excited about experimenting with in the future.

PP: How would you describe your photography to someone who has never seen it?

JB: Well, I’m interested in making photographs that have ideas, meaning and a conceptual structure embedded within. I try hard to balance the power of aesthetics with the power of ideas. I like to mash-up the beautiful with the grotesque, because I believe in creating juxtaposition and relationships between images. “The Value of a Dollar” photographs are simple and clean, but that structure allows a viewer to really focus on the objects themselves, and way food can symbolize issues like class, poverty, globalization, and America’s obesity epidemic. I’m currently working on a new project that will tackle another pressing issue in 21st Century society, which I’ll be releasing later this year.

PP: How did your “Value of a Dollar” project come about, and what was the process like?

JB: I tend to get an idea and let it gestate for a while before I begin making photographs. In this case, in the fall of 2007, I began thinking about the way photography is used to sell food. Out here in the West, we have billboards and semi-trucks that will depict 20′ high fast food cheeseburgers that bear no resemblance to the real thing. Everyone knows that the pictures don’t show what the food looks like, but the images are so powerful that they entice people to buy toxic crap that has led to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in this country. So I started to wonder what the food actually looks like, as opposed to what they display in advertising imagery.

I began shopping for food in the spring of 2008, as the economy was really tanking. Shopping, consuming, is the heart of the American culture and economy, so it seemed like the right way to make art. I’d shop for food in my local area, and look for items that I thought were both visually and symbolically interesting. I wanted each photograph to represent a dollar so that each image would be the commodified equivalent of every other image. I shot everything as is, with only natural lighting in my studio. I’ve got a white table and white walls, so the picture style was pretty straightforward. As I built the series, I was able to tackle a slew of issues, and learn more about the global supply chain for food in the 21st Century.

PP: How did you spread the word about your project?

JB: It began pretty conventionally. I debuted the pictures in the Biennial Southwest ’08 art exhibition at the Albuquerque Museum, and then showed a few more in a gallery in Santa Fe. I attended the Review Santa Fe portfolio review in the summer of 2009, and several of my fellow attendees began to blog about the work. Andy Adams at Flak Photo also published one image, which then popped up on a few more blogs around the world. It was a slow build from there, until the New York Times published the project on the Lens Blog in the fall of 2010. Within hours all hell broke loose.

PP: What was it like for the project to go viral?

JB: Even seven months later, it’s still hard to process. Being in the NY Times was such a huge honor, but I really never thought it would go much beyond that. Almost immediately, the pictures were everywhere. I didn’t even think to check my stats counter until a few days later, and the hits were off the charts. 500,000 hits within the first week to my site alone. The requests for interviews came in from a few foreign press organizations, but mostly regular people were using Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr to tell and show their friends. A wise advisor of mine recommended that I document the process through screen grabs, so I now have almost 400 images of my photographs published in like 15 languages. They were showing up in such a wide range of websites: humor, hunger, politics, economics, style, fashion, design, architecture, art, food, photography. Totally insane. To date, the photos have been seen by more than a million people in 128 countries.

But what was it like? Gratifying and confusing at the same time. Most people weren’t asking permission, and some aggregator sites were clearly making money off of posting the work. I’m a pretty digitally literate guy, so I accepted that it was a function of our Internet-based world, and tried to enjoy the ride. Seeing average people engage with contemporary art was thrilling. On the flip side, everyone kept asking me how I was going to “monetize” it, which became tiresome. Lo and behold, six months later, all the attention led to these acquisitions.

PP: Can you tell us about the experience of having your work acquired by the State of New Mexico?

JB: I’m fortunate to live in a State that publicly supports the arts, though of course such programs are now being threatened. I saw an online Call for Entries for an acquisition program, and planned to submit some pictures. A friend had received a public commission through the same organization, New Mexico Arts, and she suggested I email a few people there directly to introduce myself. So I did, and then I added them to my email list. After the NY Times piece went viral, I sent out an email about the story and the viral sensation. (Which also led to an interview on American Public Media’s “Marketplace.”) The program manager from NM Arts responded to my email blast and said he’d like to get together to discuss an acquisition. I’ve learned over time that one has to be really patient with such things, so it ended up taking four months or so to get a meeting. The entire staff was familiar with my work by then, but the prints are pretty special, and after showing them a unique portfolio that I’d made, they let me know they’d like to buy the entire lot. I kept a cool head, and we negotiated a deal pretty quickly and easily. After shaking hands, I had one of the biggest serotonin rushes of my life. It was just awesome.

PP: How about being acquired by the Library of Congress?

JB: I met one of the photography curators, Verna Curtis, at the Review Santa Fe portfolio review last June.

We had a great conversation, and she was very taken with the project. She told me on the spot that she’d like to acquire the work for their collection, and I was thrilled. But she also said that she couldn’t be sure if she could get the funding, and that regardless she wouldn’t know until the Fall, when the fiscal year turned over. Ms. Curtis asked me to follow up with her in late September, which I did. It took many months of emailing back and forth from there, but again, I remained patient. I got word that the acquisition had been given final approval quite recently.

PP: How do you go about setting a price tag on a collection of photographs?

JB: Most fine artists have a price set for images that they’re offering within an edition. So that’s already established beforehand, in most cases. These two deals were a bit irregular, though. The State of New Mexico wanted to buy my master set of prints, which were in a different size, and one-of-a-kind. I’d made them to submit to a very important fellowship, (which I didn’t receive), and the prints were really gorgeous and perfect. I made it clear that as they were unique, the price would have to be high, and the NM Arts folks were OK with that. I came up with a number that I thought was fair, and in line with my current market prices, and they came up with the same number. So we were done.

With the Library of Congress, it was made clear to me that their budget was severely limited, as we all know the Federal Government is in a huge fiscal crisis right now. The LoC also wanted prints from an edition of 10, which I’ve just begun to sell. I’m a fairly patriotic guy, and the prospect of having my work deemed worthy of the historical archive of the United States was pretty mind-blowing, so I gave them the best deal I possibly could. They accepted the offer a few months later.

PP: What are the main lessons you learned from your experience with “The Value of a Dollar”?

JB: That’s an interesting question. I’d say that I’ve been most impressed with the fact that the Internet really is the perfect vehicle for information dissemination. Pictures can get out into the world and be seen by almost everyone, everywhere. Sometimes simultaneously. I also learned that there is a hunger for art and imagery that conveys ideas, challenges convention, and communicates information clearly. “The Value of a Dollar” photos don’t really need much text, so they prove that visual communication is ever more important in the 21st Century. No Google translation algorithm necessary.

Finally, I’d say that it’s smart to try to get to a good idea before everyone else. I made work about food because it’s a huge, huge part of my life. (I know we all have to eat, which is part of the point, but some do take the process more seriously than others.) I was also aware that I’d never seen photographs like the ones I was making, and that beyond traditional still lives, I hadn’t seen food addressed as a major subject in contemporary art. So the work was already made and battle-tested before food became such a hot topic within global culture.

Lastly, I’d say that I learned that the New York Times is definitely on to something with the Lens Blog. Time recently came out with a similar concept, Lightbox. It’s true that they don’t pay, which some find unfortunate, but when the biggest news organizations in the word throw their weight behind photography, over the Internet, the reach is limitless.

PP: What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

JB: Look at great art as often as possible. Find your voice. Take risks. Don’t try to make photographs that look exactly like all the photographs you’ve seen before. Dig deep into your own personal narrative, your vision, your community, your culture. We’re all unique, but the deeper we search into our own individuality, the more likely we are to hit what Jung called the Collective Unconscious: the universal part of the human condition that everyone can relate to. Also, don’t be afraid to be honest about how you perceive the world, politically or otherwise.

I’d also recommend going to school, but only if it’s affordable. And building a community and network of friends and peers. That’s huge. No one gets better without practice, help and constructive criticism.

PP: Who are your favorite photographers, and where do you get inspiration from?

JB: My list of favorite photographers is really long. Off the top of my head, I’d say August Sander, Robert Frank, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Stephen Shore, Cristina Garcia Rodero, Thomas Demand, Taryn Simon, Julia Margaret Cameron, John Baldessari, some of Thomas Struth’s early work, Richard Misrach, the Bechers. I’m sure I’m forgetting some big ones.

With respect to inspiration, I try to look at as many different kinds of art as possible, both contemporary and historical, and film as well. Through the years, I’ve been hugely influenced by old-school artists like Caravaggio, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Duchamp, Mondrian, Picasso, Velázquez, and Andy Warhol. “The Value of a Dollar” was primarily inspired by Warhol, and Southern Song Chinese Landscape painting from the 12th & 13th Century. I studied a lot of Non-Western art in graduate school, and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and I’d certainly recommend it.

Right now, I’m loving some of the great long-form narrative that’s being done on American television. Netflix is so great for that. Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” and David Simon’s “The Wire” and “Treme” are definitely inspirational to me. There’s just so much great work being made around the world in so many ways, I try to stay engaged as much as possible. Speaking of which, Free Ai Weiwei.