Category Archives: Journal

Cuban Spirit – A Week of Surprises in Havana (Aug. 2017)

Habana Vieja, old Havana, Havana, Egrem Studion, Cuba, cabaret, dancer, fan, yellow, Afro Cuban, Cuban, Estudios Areito, Michael Ast, journal

Dancer / Habana Vieja © Michael Ast, 2017

I miss the surprise and energy of what I experienced last month in Havana so much. I won’t go into a tirade on my boredom with the U.S. and its overarching dismal character pervading the airspace. We all know, this ship is anchored in mire. Instead, I’ll tell a story.

We had just gotten downstairs after witnessing a Cuban jazz recording at Egrem Studios, notorious for the multitude of international acts from Josephine Baker to the consummate sessions led by Ry Cooder, producing his all-star Buena Vista Social Club cast of ambassador musicians. It was to be a surprise like so many that spontaneously occur in the beat of a second in Havana. Tony Leal Rodriguez, current trombonist of the Buena Vista Club, had invited us the night before at dinner to come watch how things are done. Feelings of being in such a sanctuary are inexplicable. In any case, the gentleman at the bar next door, who unlocked the door to let us in earlier, and up the 3 flights of stairs, was now gone. No trace of anyone to let us out of the building. Vira wandered off in search of assistance down a circuitous hallway. A couple minutes later, “I found someone! I found someone!”, she exults from down the hall. She rounds the corner. “Wow!!! You really found someone!”, I blurted. Urszula, Britt and I erupting into praise of beauty. Another surprise. The radiating dancer of course is happy to strike a quick pose for some pictures. She was in the middle of a cabaret performance. She hailed the club manager. He comes. He motions to follow him. We pass nondescript doors, seemingly apartment efficiencies. He unlocks a door. There’s a crowd in a dimly lit room around small tables mesmerized by the choreography of dancers. The four of us stay with the lady in yellow and the manager, cutting through the performance, and led to another door behind the stage. Bright light. Rum, beer, drizzle, afternoon locals on the bar terrace, where we first began our dip into Egrem. Salida. Entrada. A microcosmic moment of the Cuban way. How one doesn’t long for more of such to escape the daily muck? I plot already my return.

Habana Vieja / Viñales (Aug. 2017)

Havana, Habana, Habana Vieja, Havana Vieja, Cuba, Old Havana, tool sharpening, grinder, fedora, Michael Ast

Habana Vieja © Michael Ast, 2017

Habana, Havana, Havana vieja, Habana Vieja, retro car, Chevrolet, Chevy, broke down, Cuba, 50's, spare tire, Michael Ast

Habana Vieja © Michael Ast, 2017

Vinales, Cuba,Viñales, cigar, tobacco, smoke, Cuban cigar, Michael Ast

Tobacco Farmer, Viñales, Cuba © Michael Ast, 2017

Return from Havana

Omara Portuondo, Havana, Hotel Nacional, Cuba, Cuban jazz, Bossa Nova, jazz, Michael Ast, respect

photo credit Urszula Albolik

I went to Cuba for some grounding perspective on life. I lived with the locals through the cherished guidance of my friend Urszula and all her artistic Cuban friends that she’s made through the years. What I witnessed during the intimate stay in Havana is something I’m incapable of describing in words. The thriving character of Cuba is best embodied in their music, for certain. It’s an essential ingredient to the tenacious spirit and endurance in a country of very challenging hardships. A week in their great capital felt like a month for me. At times, I felt my own spirit nearly break, but Cuba allows no such surrender. The oppressive heat at this time of year, for one, is a significant challenge for foreigners visiting from their privileged worlds. In Cuba, you take nothing for granted, and celebrate the little you have through a meekness, which roars like happy thunder through dance and song everywhere, all the time.

To stumble upon the announcement of a rare performance by Cuba’s exemplary singer and national treasure Omara Portuondo was the greatest surprise of the week, among many surprises. Overwhelming gratitude and happiness to stand on stage with such a saint, a most beautiful, expressive human being, singer, performer and persevering personality, while leaning into her ear, “Gracias, eres bella.”

Cowell’s Cove / Santa Cruz (July, 2017)

Santa Cruz, Michael Ast, Cowell's Cove, full moon, moonlight, silver lining, Pacific, bay, ocean, ripples, sailboats, sailing, night photography, aerial, central California, Pacific Coast, Summer, sailing, anchored, CA, black & white

Cowell’s Cove / Santa Cruz © Michael Ast, 2017

Post Vacation

Returning from a rampage of experience, cameras in tote, it is the photographs made, where the soul shoves the norms of psychology aside, that satisfy me most. Traveling to new destinations of astounding beauty often proves brutal in getting beneath enchanting surface. I’m embattled 24/7 with such desire. Gorgeous photographs with technical precision do absolutely nothing for me that the lived moment already presented. Looking through the many images brought home, I see precisely in the mix when I achieved that deeper gaze, unknowingly, without pretension or apparent striving. Essentially, I’m lost at sea in those moments.

Michael Ast, Sonoma County, Sonoma, twilight, Pacific Route 1, Route 1, Pacific ocean, Pacific, coastline, coast, ocean, bluff, outcrop, editing, artist statement, brainstorming, insight

Sonoma County Coast © Michael Ast, 2017

Witnessing Ron Jude’s Nausea for the First Time

I just witnessed Ron Jude’s “Nausea” for the first time, beneath a wooden pavilion being hammered on by a cold Summer rain. I come across this image spread out like the ominous sky surrounding me. It strikes like thunder. A flooring image. An awe accumulates page by page. Pensive photographs brandished by a frenzied, but trusted authentic gaze. I notice odd-colored spiders crawling around my feet. Beige ones, nearly albino. Some black. Wonderfully befitting the book. Not a soul in the expansive park. I take a leak in the grass from the dry concrete. I return to the book. It takes nearly another 20 minutes to reach the last image. More awe, more “gawd damns”! Good art serves you like a meal you struggle not to devour in a few big bites, no breath in between, or a meal you savor and swoosh against the palate, putting the fork down, your head back. That’s the taste I had with my first dish of Nausea here. Dynamic photos and compositions, magnetic in their draw, courageous and brilliantly executed.

photobook, Nausea, Ron Jude, Mack Books, Michael Ast, book review, Sartre

Nausea (spread) © Ron Jude / Mack Books, 2017

photobook, Nausea, Ron Jude, Mack Books, Michael Ast, book review, Sartre

Nausea © Ron Jude / Mack Books, 2017

Morning Coffee – Dirk Braeckman, Sisyphe

Morning Coffee . . . Dirk Braeckman’s “Sisyphe” (published by Xavier Barral, 2014, in conjunction with exhibition at Le Bal, Paris).

Braeckman is a fine means to which escape an exhausted headspace. Always.

Dirk Braeckman, Sisyphe, Xavier Barral, Le Bal, photobook

Bedminster (Handmade Book, 2006)

Returning to Bucks County work from a decade and more past. Conscious of my home region’s changing landscape resulting from encroaching suburban sprawl, I applied an edit to my first attempt at a leporello book.

Michael Ast, leporello, Bedminster, Pennsylvania, Bucks County, handmade book, artist book, changing landscape, altered landscape, PA, artist photography book

Bedminster (Handmade Book, 1/1) © Michael Ast, 2006

Michael Ast, leporello, Bedminster, Pennsylvania, Bucks County, handmade book, artist book, changing landscape, altered landscape, PA, artist photography book, historical ruin

Bedminster (Handmade Book, 1/1) © Michael Ast, 2006

A Return – Bucks County, Pennsylvania

Nearly 2 decades have gone by, as was somewhat intentional, without paying much attention to this contained photographic work. The overarching theme, which I used these cameras to achieve (and a couple others), was a depiction of my home region of Bucks County, Pennsylvania and its changing landscape . . . . a vanishing rural area, finding itself long ago at the center crossroads of the Revolution, caught in the metropolitan outreach of Philadelphia and New York City. Another 2,000 slides and negatives sit in a closet, in safe darkness. It’s time for a return and output to come.

Michael Ast, Bucks County, Pennsylvania

The Month Before Trump, Harvey Benge

Exciting package from New Zealand, from the consistent, inquisitive photo eye of Harvey Benge. “The Month Before Trump”, self-published, 2017, edition of 50 (with 4×6 print). I really dig Harvey’s self-published works created in his own independent making. Always, he offerers up an existential, probing vision that navigates through the ominous nature of modern society, in city centers, delivering photographic juxtapositions and compositions that are enlightening and sometimes cinematically threatening. Here, Harvey is exploring the urban realms of San Francisco & New York City in the lead up to Trump’s election. Rightfully so, there’s a touch of the apocalyptic. Ultimately though, it’s entertaining and exciting color photography handled with austere attitude. Good stuff!

Harvey Benge, Trump, self-published, zine, The Month Before Trump, color photography, photobook

The Month Before Trump, Harvey Benge, © 2017