Tag Archives: Book Review

Lo-Life: An American Classic by George “Rack-Lo” Billips and Jackson Blount

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‘Lo-Life’ is the remarkable story of a small group of teenagers fighting to make a name for themselves who eventually made themselves seen, heard, and emulated globally.

Lo-Life: An American Classic takes the reader on a trip to New York City in the early 80s—a time when crime and violence ran the streets. The infamous Lo-Life gang emerged from this tumultuous time. Formed by crews of teenagers from the Brownsville and Crown Heights neighborhoods of Brooklyn, they made a name for themselves by dressing head-to-toe in expensive Ralph Lauren clothing, or “Lo.” Polo apparel—and other preppy 80s fashion labels like Guess, Nautica, and Benetton, among others—represented an aspirational lifestyle for these kids from rough neighborhoods just struggling to get by. Fighting for style and survival, the Lo-Lifes targeted these brands, and would acquire them by any means necessary, including stick-ups, shoplifting, and hustling. A reign of terror ensued, when your new winter coat could make you the target for a robbery—or worse.

 

 

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The book covers the background of what was happening culturally and socially in the greater New York area in the 1980s, and progresses until present time. There are images from published features about the members of these gangs, a ‘style-book” of sorts showing some of the most desired Lo-Life clothing, and the personal photographs and stories from some of the members of the gangs, with names like Rack-Lo, Thirstin Howl the 3rd, Uncle Disco, and Boostin’ Billy. They recount what is was like to go on boosting sprees in high-end clothing stores like Lord & Taylor, Saks 5th Avenue, John Wanamaker’s, and Trump Towers – stealing as many as possible, or the most prized pieces in the Ralph Lauren collection of clothing that defined their social status. One gang member recalls what is was like to steal a silk Crown shirt from a Lord & Taylor store:

“If you had that shirt, you were exclusive. People treated me like a celebrity, everyone wanted to take pictures with me. I didn’t even know these people, it was all because of the shirt. To other people, it was that serious.” Bek-Live

 

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What started as an informal gang uniform organized around clean designs and bright colors, became a devotion to a lifestyle brand, and eventually created an association between the streets and luxury that would fundamentally change the fashion industry. The iconic clothing style designed by Ralph Lauren (born Ralph Lifshitz in the Bronx, NY to Jewish immigrant parents in 1939) as an expression of quality, taste, and style, an expression of the ultimate luxury living experience, was adopted by street gangs as their uniform of choice. Their desire to achieve their American Dream was presented to the world through apparel that was designed to declare: I have made it.

 

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‘Lo-Life’ is an intriguing look inside this gang culture and its members. Although I never knew anyone personally who had been mugged or hurt for their designer clothing from that era, I heard stories of people being shot for their Air Jordans, or had their designer jacket stolen (be it Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nautica, or Bennetton) – and this was in the midwest, far from the hustle and bustle of New York. ‘Lo-Life’ is ultimately the story of a life journey, a story of the American Dream, and what is was like for these young kids from New York to make a name for themselves – just like Ralph Lauren himself.

 

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Lo-Life: An American Classic by George “Rack-Lo” Billips and Jackson Blount 
Hardcover, 7.25 x 9.75 inches, 232 pages
ISBN: 978-1-57687-812-5

To buy a copy of Lo-Life, please visit the book’s website: http://www.powerhousebooks.com/books/lo-life-an-american-classic/ 


Jackson Blount, a Brooklyn native, graduated from SVA in 2001. He has designed professionally since, doing both corporate and freelance work throughout his design career.

Rack-Lo is one of the main catalysts of the Lo-Life movement. He played a major role in the unification of boosting crews of the early 80s to form the world-renowned Lo-Life crew. 


This is an edited version of the article originally published in F-Stop Magazine, Janurary 2017.

North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South

Mark Speltz presents an overview of the civil rights era of the latter 20th century through photographs and contextual history of the socio-political environment of the United States  He has utilized historical photographs from the J.Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. For this powerful and compelling volume, Speltz carefully selected one hundred photographs, some never-before-seen or published, taken between 1938 and 1975 in more than twenty-five cities in the Northeast, Midwest and Western United States by photojournalists, artists, and activists that include Bob Adelman, Ruth-Marion Baruch, Charles Brittin, Diana Davies, Jack Delano, Leonard Freed, Don Hogan Charles, Gordon Parks, Art Shay, Morgan and Marvin Smith, and Maria Varela.

There are thoughtful and informed writings at the beginning of the book by Timothy Potts, Director at The J. Paul Getty Museum, and in the preface by Deborah Willis, the chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Speltz’s curated collection of photographs offer a broader and more complex view of the American civil rights movement than is usually presented by the media. Hand-in hand with iconic and lesser known images of the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, Speltz presents passages of text to frame and inform the reader of the socio-political environment at the time. It surprises me that so many people born in the late 20th century to early 21st century are unaware of the history that directly affected the two generations before them. Without hitting you over the head or preaching to the reader about the history of the civil rights movement and the current environment of race relations in the United States, North of Dixie pulls from a great archive of historic photography and combines it with pertinent text to inform the reader. The end result is a cross between your favorite textbook, the one you’ve kept all these years, and a photo book you page through to soak up great photography.

CHARLES BRITTIN, LOS ANGELES, CA, SEPTEMBER 1963. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute. News media interviewing CORE activists waging a sit-in and hunger strike outside the Los Angeles Board of Education offices to raise awareness of segregation and inequality in the public schools.
UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, ST. LOUIS, MO, EARLY 1940s. Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records. Members of the St. Louis Branch of the NAACP calling for victory at home and abroad and an end to racial violence.

In the book’s epilogue, Speltz connects earlier photographs of the civil rights movement with the cell phone imagery that documents the black struggle of today. He writes:

Their recurring themes should remind us that racism and concerted efforts to roll back hard-won civil rights gains persist. The ongoing and constantly evolving struggle against police brutality and militarism, entrenched poverty, institutionalized racism, and everyday micro aggressions suggests that photographs will continue to play a crucial role in documenting the struggle and advancing the much-needed dialogue around it.”

A poignant comparison is presented in the introduction by placing two images on the same page; a photograph of a protester in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 is paired with a photo of a boy in Newark, New Jersey in 1967 (not shown here). There is 47 years difference between those images, two different centuries apart, and yet very little, if no, change in the way people of color are being discriminated against but still show strength and courage in the face of moments of chaos and flared emotions.

COX STUDIO, SAN FRANCISCO, CA, 1955. Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the NAACP Records. San Francisco NAACP members during a “Don’t Ride” campaign urging riders to boycott Yellow Cab and help stop hiring discrimination.

There is a passage from 1961 by James Baldwin in the preface that addresses the theme of “what kind of country” would a first “Negro” president be president of? This idea weighed on me throughout reading and looking at this book. But North of Dixie does a wonderful job of presenting images and background information that perhaps many readers did not already know. Powerful historic images of fire hoses and german shepherds in Alabama, and lunch counter sit-ins by the freedom riders are some of the best known photographs in the world, period. Those iconic images were also on my mind as I looked at the photographs in this book. But the overall feeling I got from North of Dixie is a combination of disappointment mixed with hope. A black man has served as a two-term president. People of color have held some of the highest offices in the government – yet the nation has not seen many issues of race and inequality disappear in the everyday lives of many Americans.

LEONARD FREED, BROOKLYN, NY, 1963. Los Angeles, the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008.62.5 / © Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos. Demonstrators sitting with signs and intentionally blocking traffic during protest on car-lined thoroughfare.

Yet there is hope. It is my personal hope that people of different races, color or creed will see there is far more to be gained in life by working together and accepting each other for who we are. North of Dixie brings to light numerous lesser-known images and illuminates the story of the civil rights movement in the American North and West. The book reveals the power of photography to preserve historical memory, impact social consciousness, and stimulate critical dialogue among everyone interested in social justice, human rights, American history, the African American civil rights movement, Black studies, and photojournalism. And hopefully, by better understanding the failures of our past we can avoid the pitfalls of repeating it. North of Dixie certainly goes a long way to guide the way.


Mark Speltz is an author and historian who writes about civil rights photography, vernacular architecture, and Wisconsin culture and history. He is currently a senior historian at American Girl in Madison, Wisconsin.

Deborah Willis is chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She has been the recipient of Guggenheim, Fletcher, and MacArthur fellowships and was named one of the “100 Most Important People in Photography” by American Photography magazine.

North of Dixie: Civil Rights Photography Beyond the South
Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-60606-505-1
160 pages
8 3/4 x 9 3/4 inches
100 b&w illustrations
$35.00 US | £20 | €33
Imprint: J. Paul Getty Museum

To purchase a copy of North of Dixie, visit here.


Photo credit (top): CHARLES BRITTIN, NEAR LOS ANGELES, CA, 1963. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute. Activists picketing at a demonstration for housing equality while uniformed American Nazi Party members counterprotest in the background with signs displaying anti-integration slogans and racist epithets.


This is an edited version of the review published in F-Stop Magazine, December, 2016

Book Review: On the Nest by Dona Schwartz

 

Kristin and Ryan, 18 Days
Kristin and Ryan, 18 Days

Dona Schwartz describes her book as such: “In On the Nest, I use environmental portraiture to examine two moments of change that bookend parents’ lives—the transition to parenthood with a first child’s birth, and the transition to life without day-to-day responsibility for parenting when young adults leave their childhood homes.”

The book is comprised of three parts. The ‘Expecting’ series at the beginning of the book shows couples who are parents-to-be. Schwartz has photographed couples in the space they’ve prepared in anticipation of the baby who will soon arrive. The images are titled by listing their names and the amount of time left before their lives will change forever (due date/adoption date). The nervousness and/or excitement shown in the expressions and body language of the expectant parents is palpable. The clutter of all the recommended items for expectant parents in some of the shots is dizzying. Shelves covered with books for what to expect (but can never fully address), or clothes that won’t be worn for months and months after the baby arrives, and the single package of infant sized diapers… as if to declare: “We are ready”.

The middle of the book contains an essay by William A. Ewing. Ewing is a photography curator, author, and former director of photography for several prestigious centers for photography, including the International Center of Photography, New York from 1977 to 1984. Ewing’s essay, ‘Great Expectations’, is written both from the perspective of a parent who has gone through both stages of Expecting and Empty Nester, and that of an expert on the subject matter of a well-conceived and executed photography project – which On the Nest certainly is. These portraits have the power to draw in the viewer and as Schwartz says, “… invite viewers to reflect on their own experiences of change and the trajectories we trace in the course of a lifetime.”

The latter part of the book is the series of images, ‘Empty Nesters’. Presented in a similar fashion as the expectant parents, these couples are parents who are in the phase of life after their children have left home and their bedrooms/personal spaces.

Christina and Mark, 14 Months
Christina and Mark, 14 Months

The color images Schwarz presents throughout are practically deadpan. Couples are photographed in these spaces in a direct, documentary style. Couples of diverse races, ethnicities, and genders are all presented in the same way. The extreme wide angle lens used to capture these couples in small rooms results in images with the physical space distorted and exaggerated. Tables and chairs are distorted from their normal shape around the frame edge of the shots and the perspective is off – as if stretched by extreme gravity that warps both time and space. One could suppose this is how the Empty Nesters feel… Where did the time go? How did it go by so quickly? What happened to our baby?

Some Empty Nesters are shown in cramped rooms with some of the same types of knick-knacks as the expectant parents, with the substitution of exercise equipment for bouncy seats, and craft tables for changing tables. The only thing missing is the kids.

Gloria and Alan, 5 Years
Gloria and Alan, 5 Years

In fact, the children are never physically present in these portraits; save for photos on shelves or bulletin boards. The details in Schwartz’s photographs, the artifacts, the evidence that time has passed and are the only clues to the real inhabitants of these spaces. These clues are all we have to guess what the children are like – or in the case of the expectant parents: what they hope their children will be like.

Bobby and Kevin, Waiting to Adopt
Bobby and Kevin, Waiting to Adopt

Schwartz captures the broad strokes of the project by stating, “In our lives we experience multiple transitions, and in these moments of change we renegotiate our sense of self. Events like communions, weddings, baby showers, and retirement parties formally mark the new roles and statuses we take on. We cross other thresholds without rituals or celebrations—even though divorce is a momentous life transition, there is no script for marking its passage. I am intrigued by the ways in which we move from one life phase to the next, and I am working programmatically to represent complex processes of changing identity.”


Dona Schwartz is an American photographer living in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She earned her PhD at the Annenberg School for Communication and is professionally engaged with photography as an artist, scholar, and educator. Amongst her many academic publications are two photographic ethnographies, Waucoma Twilight: Generations of the Farm (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992) and Contesting the Super Bowl (Routledge, 1997). Her photographic monograph, In the Kitchen, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2009.

Her work has been internationally published and exhibited at venues including the National Portrait Gallery, London, Blue Sky Gallery, the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Stephen Bulger Gallery, the Pingyao International Photography Festival, and in numerous juried exhibitions in the United States. Her work is included in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, George Eastman House, the Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland, the Harry Ransom Center, the Portland Art Museum, and the Kinsey Institute. She is currently on the faculty of the Department of Art at the University of Calgary.


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On the Nest – Dona Schwartz (with essay by William A. Ewing)
Published by Kehrer Verlag – November 2015

For more information on On the Nest, and other books by Dona Schwartz, visit her website.


(Originally written for and published by F-Stop Magazine in February 2016.)