Book Review: “I’m in Miami Bitch” by Andrew Kaufman

A certain subset of the human population believes that because I work for Blurb I’m a mutant-like savant when it comes to the world of illustrated publications. It’s not true. I come from the weird world of photography where the Earth revolves around people consumed by their chosen narratives, passionate to tell their visual stories to a world with seemingly little care or concern. My razor-thin knowledge of books only began to build in 2006, and like the practice squad for the Jamaican bobsled team, there have been many twists, turns and accidental rollovers on the way.

When I review a book my thoughts are not intended for the high-end book world. Those folks work from a pre-Berlin wall, Soviet-like, super-structure of knowledge, impenetrable to all but a chosen few who were trained in underground bunkers near the North Dakota/South Dakota border. You can see this world unfold at precisely this time of year with the much hyped “Best Books of the Year” lists, or better yet, the “Worst Books of the Year” tally. Those lists to a guy like me, a blue-collar luddite, remind me of movie reviews where a Hollywood academic waxes poetic about influence, tribute and feminism while referring to a three-hour foreign flick about lesbian relationships, but when I ask a female friend who had just seen the film what her thoughts were I got the “lots of gratuitous pussy” summary which not only peaked my interest but also provided me far more realistic insight than the aforementioned Hollywood piece. Nothing wrong with academics, we need them, and their insight, but different tools work at different times for different people, and my view is that most of the books on these lists could be interchanged and not a single complaint would be voiced.(There ARE version of these “best of” lists that are more complete than others, and a very few are really sourced and thought out, so go find them and you will find true treasures. These lists include the far reaches of the publishing world, not just the expected heavyweight choices.)

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This is a book review of the book you see above, Andrew Kaufman’s “I’m in Miami Bitch,” but I want to continue with the critic theme just for a moment because there is another point I want to make in regard to audience. Kaufman’s book was NOT published by Blurb, but like always I need a round about story to get to my points…

I’ve been approached by A LOT of photographers over the years who confront me with question number one….“Hey Milnor, how many books have you sold on Blurb?” Now, what this question REALLY means is “Please tell me you have sold a lot of books because I want to sell a lot of books and I’m really hoping you are going to tell me it’s possible.” The first few years I would break down the question rationally and actually talk about numbers, but then I realized I was missing the point. Now I answer with a question of my own. “How good is your database?” I get two responses. Occasionally I get “It’s good, categories, but within the overall database I have a select group I work with more closely.” These people can sell books. The most common answer I get is “What is a database?” These folks are in real trouble and simply aren’t going to sell books. Audience, and having a relationship with one is HUGELY important to bookmaking and more specifically book selling. Photobook people, critics and the well known or famous can be very important in the life of a book. They can write reviews, endorse something, even just talk about something and drum up interest but the audience they are typically drumming up is important yet very, very small and not representative of the world in general, something that took me a while to figure out. Personally, I no longer have any interest in having my work in galleries or publications because I realize those places don’t reach the folks I want to reach. The people IN my photographs don’t buy these publications, nor will they ever go to a gallery or museum to take in the work, even if they are in the show. And in most cases they won’t buy the book. So my question is this, “Why not grab someone off the street, someone totally unknown, someone totally outside the world of illustrated anything and get their opinion?” Who will you learn more from, the critic or the stranger? Does it matter? The reason I’m bringing this up is you need to really consider who your audience is and how they operate. The life of your book might just depend on it. Until 2007 I was interested and driven by the industry person, the critic, the expert, those I thought could influence my career. Then I realized I was more interested in the thoughts of those in my photographs and my life has been VERY different ever since. Now, when you approach a total stranger and ask them what they think of your photography book you need to realize you are not always going to get a warm and fuzzy reception. Most people have NEVER been asked to participate like this and sometimes the resulting response is fear and suspicion. Heck, I think people are fearful in general, especially those who watch cable news all day long. Tunneling accidents in the US are up 30%. It’s weird out there.

And speaking of sales. Let me clarify a few things. I recently spoke to a class of graduating seniors at an art school and I asked them how many in the room wanted to publish a traditional photobook? All forty people in the room raised their hand. When I asked how many books they envisioned the publisher would print on their first run of books you know what the first answer I got was? Guess..come on…guess. 100,000. Yes, this is entirely delusional but it’s based on the idea of fame which has crept into the photography world and has landed full force due to things like social media, online followings, reality TV and the selfie epidemic. The subsequent answers, by the way, went UP from there. Let’s just say that many illustrated books are printed in the 1500-3000 copy range and many just simply don’t sell. The numbers are actually pretty sad. But guess what? So what? Because here is the interesting thing. You could print 1500 books, place TWO of those books with the right people then lose the rest in a gambling accident and the book could STILL be considered a success depending on those two books you placed. The book, in the life of the artist, is a catalyst. And let’s also not forget some books SELL and I mean really sell in multiple languages in the hundreds of thousands. But let me get back to a specific book.
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Andrew Kaufman is a pain in my ass. He always has been and this goes back to the late 1990’s when I first met him. Most people, in some way, shape or form are a pain in the ass, so his warm home in this category shouldn’t be a surprise. Andrew is a photographer. He’s not old school, or new school, he’s somewhere in the middle. There are many parallels between his “career” and mine. There was the photojournalism degree, the subsequent newspaper experience, followed by magazines, portraits, a bit of commercial work, but most importantly the lingering disease of long-term storytelling in a world consumed by microwaved thoughts spilled out via mobile device, so when Andrew first told me about the project, the project which would eventually become the book you see here, I knew I was in for a long and treacherous road as sounding board, confident and insult driven fire starter. Yes, I said insult, which is being “G” rated because if you actually knew what we said to each other, both for sport and for motivation, you would probably not only never read this journal again but you might even think of calling the NSA to encourage them to broaden their piercing surveillance of us “undesirables.”

You see, when a project like this first invades your mental space there is momentary loss of reasoning, of reality, because you know the seed has been planted and there is nothing you can do about it, but you also know that until the final nail in the visual coffin is made your life will no longer be yours. Your life will be about the project. Friends, family, duties all become annoying blocked, creative arteries. There is no half-ass. There is no shoot for ten minutes then spend ten days Photoshopping and promoting via social channels. No, that is for the other people because Andrew and I both know one very damn important and sobering thing. Just as you can’t take your supercharged, nitro-fueled, crossfire injection muscle car and outrun the radar, you also can’t outrun your negatives and contact sheets. If it’s not there it’s not there, regardless of how much you promote, and to get it you need to make a pact with evil and everything else falls by the wayside.

There were the phone calls, the emails the texts. There still are. And this is the way it should be. Remember, this is first an idea, then a story, then the actual fieldwork, then the editing, sequencing, design, publication specs, printing, shipping, distribution, reviews, placements, contracts, shows, promotion and subsequent dizzying amount of details. Books are children. There is no way around it. Any of it.

I look at a lot of books. A lot. Via Blurb, via online outlets and the traditional brick and mortar stops like Photoeye here in Santa Fe. In less than a minute I am lost in another world of war, society, art and the rest of the human spectrum. Books are journeys, ones that allow for the imagination of the viewer to run wild. Interpretation is a magical thing. When I respond to a book it has little to do with the author. A lot of folks will buy books sight unseen based on who the author is. Not me. Yesterday I was in Photoeye and noticed a new, oversized book by one of the true superstars of the art photography world. It did NOTHING for me and felt more like an inside joke between the artist and the art world, almost as if they were saying “I’m so important I can do anything and people will love it.” This might in fact be true, and I am only relaying my feelings which are probably skewed, flawed and dangerous. What I do base my book love on is the work. Design is important as well but the WORK HAS TO BE THERE.
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Now I come from the reality based photography world, journalism, and for the most part the art world has no idea what to do with this work. A lot of people more credible than me have written about this, but it’s an important point to make, especially if you are prone to wasting your time making real images of real people doing real things. This work takes copious amounts of time, luck and a willingness to do things like sleep in your car, starve yourself and perhaps even put yourself in places you might not get out of. This work is disappearing rapidly because it takes too much of said time and it will almost certainly rule you out from even becoming famous because the work tends to be about the folks IN the photographs and not about the person behind the camera. Most of the time.

“I’m in Miami Bitch” isn’t an artist driven book, it’s a STORY driven book. Now this story happens to be about artists, a cruel twist of publishing fate, but this point is important. This isn’t a book about Andrew Kaufman saying “Look at me, I’m a badass artist.” This is a book about Andrew Kaufman saying “Look at what these other artists are doing and look at how it has become a part of the fabric of the DNA of our city.” This is a book about street art, community, history and preservation of a style of art that often times is gone less than 24-hours after is has been finished. This book is evidence.

“In the fall of 2012 with the Art Basel Miami Beach quickly approaching I decided to ensconce myself in the street art scene of Wynwood to tell the story.” An area once known as “El Barrio” and now gentrified into the Wynwood Art District, every year in late November artists from around the world descend on the streets of Wynwood to remake the facade of almost every building, overhead door and nook or cranny where paint could be applied.”
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My first impression of this book was “intimate, buyable.” The size is right. What size is it? Well, I could give you specs but let me describe it in another more practical way. You know when you go someone’s house who is in the art world and they have those pillars of books stacked on top of each other with the massive books on the bottom and the tiny novels at the top? Andrews book is in the “I will actually pull this book out and read it” space as opposed to the monolith style, behemoth statement books at the bottom of the stack, books that haven’t been viewed in years because most people would rupture a disc attempting to handle the beast. Another way of describing it would be this book is approachable, and I cannot stress enough how important this is in a world of minimal attention span. Monograph style books, often times, are just too much for “outsiders” to deal with when they are browsing. And remember, when it comes to this book, ask yourself this, “Who is the audience?” This is where things get really interesting. In my limited opinion this book has multiple audiences. Yes, this book works as a statement for Kaufman, a calling card, a business card, but this book also belongs to the people IN the photographs and most importantly this book belongs to the people of Miami. This is the beauty of a story driven book, especially one that takes on something like street art, a specific neighborhood during a specific timeframe. This is the kind of shit that really gets my juices flowing. What to DO with a book like this after you get your grubby mitts on it.
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Am I a book designer? No, far from it, so when I speak of the design it’s coming from limited knowledge. Street art is the Wild West of the art world and this book takes advantage of this as well as things like vibrancy, Miami-style and the freedom and experimentation that lives alongside those who conduct their lives living on the edge of permission or possible incarceration. The design is fun. From doubletruck full bleed to album style grids of the details of modern spray art warfare. Also scattered throughout are vertical images run horizontally which force the viewer to physically turn the book sideways, something I’ve heard many serious people say is a no-no, but personally I love it. Anything that makes me physically interact is a good thing. Heck, he could rig a few books to spray the viewer when they crack open the cover and I would still love it. The book also has a forward written by a street art heavyweight and an interview between Kaufman and yet another major player illustrating the photographer wasn’t just snapping away with imagery in mind.
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Speaking of the imagery. This is pure documentary photography. This isn’t color content. If you know Kaufman’s work you know it’s his when you see it, something that every photographer should strive for. I just flipped through the latest issue of a well known outdoor magazine and there wasn’t a single good, recognizable image in the ENTIRE publication. Color content rules the day. I told my wife, “Don’t resubscribe to this rag even if it’s free.” When I first opened this book my first thought was “Cool, this is film.” Color, medium format falloff plus a combination of 35mm black and white and color. For those of you who say “Who cares if it’s film,” just consider where you see the benefits are in things like skin tone, tonal range and depth within the images, even those printed very small. It makes a HUGE difference. Plus, it tells me about how the photographer works, something I think is important. Modern documentary photography has been overrun by the full frame digital SLR with 50mm 1.2 shot wide open all the time for no apparent reason. I’m SO BORED WITH THIS LOOK, so when I see something different it peaks my curiosity, and makes me realized the photographer has given a lot of thought to things like PALETTE, choosing specific tools for specific projects as opposed to the speedy, “one technique fits all” of the modern electronic world. I’m guessing here, but I think Kaufman has at least seventeen different cameras, from 8×10 to a bevy of 35mm, 6×6, 645, 6×7, 6×9, Polaroid, panoramic, etc, etc and he uses them based on what he is needing or wanting on a case by case story by story basis. Oh, and I should also point out, had this book been created with a mobile phone I would have never picked it up let alone purchased it. Sorry, I’m entirely over the mobile phone essay, especially since Robert Clark did THIS all those years ago. Listening to major news outlets, ad agencies and industry publications STILL talking about this method is frankly, incredibly depressing. Can’t we all just move along?

The book contains a select set of classic photographs, things that have the potential to become a part of Miami’s visual history, photographs like “Art Died in Wynwood, “Lincoln Continental” and “Hole in the Wall.” It also contains factual, location and time specific images that work to round out the story, and STORY is the key here. This is visual journalism, complete with unposed, real moments. The photographer as participant, not conductor, and for those of you who do this work you know what I’m talking about.
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Conformity will be the death of photography, in my opinion, and this book breaks with conformity. This book dabbles in what you aren’t supposed to do which is why it works so well. Street art does the same damn thing, which is what makes IT so fantastic. This book matches what the work demanded, NOT what the artist demanded. A self-sacrifice on paper. What more can anyone ask for?

This book was printed in Asia.

PS: You can purchase and handle a copy here.

2 Responses to “Book Review: “I’m in Miami Bitch” by Andrew Kaufman”

  1. Jason Timmis says:

    Milnor you are on fire. You should take extended breaks more often (health problems not included!).

    A great piece about a guy with great subject matter let alone images. Your underlying story on books is another great reminder for me. Remembering some of your previous advice on book use in general I carried a few copies of the little book I did with me this summer. I used them as gifts, bribes and examples where and when I thought it would work and yes…catalyst is a great word for it. Using my book really helped open a few doors, make some contacts and ultimately is responsible for what turned out to be one my favorite images from the trip.

    Oh and BTW, if we owe you anything for this great little write up send the bill to Big Enos Burdette ;-)

    • Smogranch says:

      JT,
      Big Enos owes me money already. The book as business card. The book as portfolio. The book as OBJECT. Once you get into them it’s difficult to get out.

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