Thoughts on a Monday

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From The New York Times Magazine, November 6, 2016. ©Alec Soth

Well, not just any Monday but the eve of Election Day 2016. I don’t think anyone would argue that this has been one of the most trying, tense, angry campaigns in modern American history. The nation as a whole is riled up and seething, and rightly so. Many political and social norms have been disrupted. It is a time of change, a time of new benchmarks in society, a time of changing statuses for the different people that make up this swirl called America. Hispanics have growing status as do women and white men are no longer necessarily the dominant force in America.

The sixties were a time of similar social upheaval. At that time in American photo history artists such as Minor White, Harry Callahan, Edward Weston and Paul Caponigro were a dominant force on the scene. They emphasized a more contemplative, metaphorical approach to the medium. Minor White bordered on the mystical. But beyond this, these photographers advocated the discovery of the self through camera work.

The camera is first a means of self-discovery and a means of self-growth. The artist has one thing to say—himself.          Minor White

It seemed interesting  to come across an article in this past Sunday’s New York Times magazine on the photographer Alec Soth who is best known for his book, Sleeping By The Mississippi, and his work as a member of Magnum. He is essentially a documentary photographer. Soth in the article talks about his experience and his discovery of something called Laughing Yoga. This is what caught my eye:

My photography is about separation — about a piece of glass separating me from a person or from the world. But then, several months ago, I was confronted with my limitations. I had a sort of mini-meltdown and started doing this made-up form of meditation. At one point when I was in Finland, as squirrels were eating nuts out of my hand, I was meditating on a rock and had this total, I-am-one-with-the-universe feeling, and it went against everything I believed. I knew I couldn’t look at my work in the same way after Finland, and I just wanted to keep figuring out what that feeling I experienced there was.

He is expressing what so many of Minor White’s students were searching for and made headway with in his teachings about photography. It is interesting to see that in these times of social stress and anxiety, very similar to the times that White and his school were active, a photographer such as Soth wants to go beyond what is in front of his lens and is looking for sustenance in laughing yoga. Much like Minor White’s study of dance and acting and Gurdjief, camera work was a way of life for Minor, and yet not enough to live by (that’s a bad paraphrase of a well known quote of Minor White’s).

For White and I suspect, now Alec Soth, photography was a beginning, an entrance to a path of self discovery. Much has been recently made of White’s homosexuality and it’s effect on his images, downplaying his significance because of repressed desires that could be read (justifiably) into his photographs. But this misses the significance of his teachings. Photography as way of discovering who you truly are, deep down inside, a way of figuring out your relationship to the world and society. Isn’t that want everyone is seeking?

Be one with society and please, please vote tomorrow.

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