Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 17, 2007

Teenage Lust

Filed under: aesthetics,artists — alecsothblog @ 4:33 am

This weekend I went to the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin to see a show that included the work of Larry Clark. After recent discussions on this blog (here and here) it was interesting to see Clark’s pictures from Teenage Lust. He shows a girl who is tripping on acid being raped, male hustlers, a brother with an erection tying up his sister in bed. Clark was in his thirties and early forties when he produced this work. In several pictures we see him naked with the teens. It is disturbing stuff. But seeing it in the safe confines of a museum, I somehow find all of this ‘acceptable.’ Again, it comes down to context. If I saw Teenage Lust in the waiting room of my kid’s doctor, yeah, I’d have a big problem. I’d also be troubled if Clark’s pictures were turned into ads. Remember those banned Calvin Klein spots from the 90’s. (Watch them here). Yeesh.

But should context be a safe-haven? Is it fair to disparage Jock Sturges because his books are sold in Barnes & Noble instead of Printed Matter? Does Clark use the prestige of high art to protect his own Neverland Ranch?

  • Larry Clark has an exhibition of new work here
  • 5b4 has a great review of Clark’s new book here
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September 15, 2007

Documenta, children, sexuality, Barnes & Noble

Filed under: aesthetics,artists,exhibitions (not mine) — alecsothblog @ 12:40 am

Yesterday I went to Documenta. Along with feeling under the weather, I am getting to be too much of a curmudgeon to walk though a half dozen museums of Scotch tape, toothpicks and wall text. But there was the occasional gem. I’m always a fan of Kerry James Marshall. He took the prize for best painter:

In the sculpture catagory, I liked Lukas Duwenhögger’s ‘Celestial Teapot:’

And in photography I was happy to discover the vintage photograms of Bela Kolárová:


more by Kolárová here and here

But the most thrilling experience was watching ‘Who is Listening 1,’ a video by the Taiwanese artist Tseng Yu-Chin.

This video powerfully addressed an issue that has been on my mind. As mentioned yesterday, I recently spent time with the photographer Jock Sturges. Jock is famous for photographing naked children. In 1990, the FBI raided Jock’s studio. After a year, Sturges successfully defended himself on child pornography charges.

Jock and I had a long talk about his work and the way it is received. He convinced me of his good intentions. But I still struggle with how his work functions in the world. For years it seemed like the only photo books the local bookstores carried were crisp new books by Anne Geddes and pawed-over books by Jock Sturges. Why are these books so popular and who is the intended audience?

Sturges agrees that it is problematic. “That dichotomy between the public consumption of the work and my intent and practice in making it is an uneasy one for me, on occasion,” Sturges said in an interview.

The thing that is so fantastic about Tseng Yu-Chin’s video is that it powerfully challenges our ideas of age and sexuality. In the video, the camera is focused on the sweet face of a young boy or girl. Music is playing and a gentle wind blows the child’s hair. All of the sudden, a stream of yogurt is shot on the child’s face and he/she reacts with surprise and pleasure. The same act is then repeated with numerous children.

When I first started watching the video, I was totally entertained (a real relief from Documenta). The children are cute and their reaction is hysterical. In the audience I saw young children barely containing themselves as they waited for the next yogurt blast. I also saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair with an ear to ear grin. But the more I watched, the more I became uncomfortable. “Does this suggest what I think it suggests?” I looked around at the audience. Others looked uncomfortable too.

Along with being a stunning piece of work, the video functions as a kind of Rorschach test. Will you view this like an innocent child or like a suspicious adult?

Poking around online for more information, I came across a text by Yu-Chin that he uses as a statement for the work:

I liked walking in large strides when I was young, freely moving my hands, feeling the air piercing through the gaps between my fingers. It’s comfortable.

But it was ruined by a woman. A stranger. A nameless woman. That one afternoon, when I still walked with my hands moving freely, I cheerfully crossed the street with my mother I lifted my head, without realizing that a woman was coming towards us from the other side. My hand coincidentally collided with her private part. Of course, it was through the cover of fabrics. Honestly, I had yet to realize the significance of sex. I was going to simply apologize. However, I was treated as someone blinded by sexual desire. The woman stared at me with resentment. Full of moral judgment and anger, her lips were pressed so tightly as if she is grinding her teeth behind them. As if I had been slapped mercilessly, my ears rung with endless chatter, and my head filled with cold murmurs, as if the world had frozen over to look at me and my embarrassment, pointing at me with accusation, buzzing over my behavior. And my mother’s figure trembled far ahead. I ran over to hold her hand. Her hand was warm, yet cold at the same time. I didn’t know what to feel. My mother was a woman, too.

I did not know what the stranger was thinking, nor did I know what burden she had placed upon me. At that moment, I felt only the gliding air between my fingers, and not the part of her body that she was taught to believe to be a controversy. I remembered the air becoming suffocating, and those eyes that pierced the stifling space. The zipper on those jeans feels cold, and warm, at the same time. It takes a variety of manners to remind you, that your body had once remained in the naiveté.

It might be that Yu-Chin and Jock Sturges have very similar motives. But context matters. Documenta isn’t the same as Barnes and Noble. Or is it?

    • Watch a clip of Who is Listening 1 here
    • Watch other clips by Yu-Chin here and here
    • Read articles on Tseng Yu-Chin here and here

July 17, 2007

Reflections in the helmet shield

Filed under: aesthetics,photo tech,quotes — alecsothblog @ 10:27 pm

On the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair is a typical bland celebrity photograph. The only interesting element in the picture is the reflection in the helmet:

I’m glad I didn’t have to take this picture. All of that equipment looks like a drag.

In the current issue of PDN, Joseph Kudelka talks about making pictures. “For me photography is playing,” he says, “I go out and I play and I try to discover.” Later in the interview he tells this story of showing pictures to John Szarkowski.

My sister lived in Canada. I was on my way to visit my sister because my mother had gotten permission to go there. I brought with me little prints that, when I traveled, I would show. I missed my plane and went over to Elliot Erwitt’s place. He said, “You are here, so why not show your pictures to this guy from the Museum of Modern Art who once published one of your photographs, John Szarkowski?” I went there and said I have some pictures that I was going to show my sister and mother so they could see the places I’ve been, and he looked through them and John said – this I’ll never forget – “I feel I’d like to go out and take pictures again. And I would like to make your show.”

In Szarkowski’s 1979 book/exhibition, Mirrors and Windows, he divides photographic practice into two categories. On the one hand there is romantic or self-expressionistic work (mirrors), on the other there is realist or more purely descriptive work (windows). As an example of romantic work Szarkowski cites Minor White and the early years of his publication Aperture. As an example of descriptive work he uses Robert Frank’s book The Americans.

Looking through Mirrors and Windows, I often find myself disagreeing with Szarkowski’s classifications. In fact, I’ve always believed that The Americans is as much an act of romantic self-expression as it is a commentary on America. The key is in the last picture of the book. Here Frank shows his own wife and child in an automobile. In giving us this moment of reflection, we see all of the preceding pictures a little differently:


US 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas by Robert Frank

Whether you are Minor White or Robert Frank, almost every photograph starts with an act of pure description – a window. But every now and then you catch a glimpse of the photographer’s reflection. The mirror is just another function of the window:


New Orleans, 1968 by Lee Friedlander

Along with the Koudelka interview, the current issue of PDN interviews Gregory Crewdson about his lighting technique. The article includes this diagram of his lighting setup:


Untitled (Sunday Roast), 2005 by Gregory Crewdson

As with the VF cover, this doesn’t make me want to run out and take pictures. But this isn’t always the case with Crewdson’s work. In 1996, after the collapse of his first marriage, Credson left New York and spent a summer in a log cabin photographing fireflies. The process looks like a lot of fun:


Untitled, 1996 by Gregory Crewdson

Photography is a frustrating medium. Fragmentary, frozen and mute – photographs can never match the immersive pleasures of film or music. So why bother with film sets and lighting crews? The simple process of making pictures is rich enough. “I always wanted to be a photographer,” said Lee Friedlander, “But I never dreamed I would be having this much fun. I imagined something much less elusive, much more mundane.”

  • See more of Crewdson’s Fireflies here.

June 4, 2007

Tactile photography

Filed under: aesthetics,exhibitions (not mine),photo tech,sculpture — alecsothblog @ 11:42 pm

One of my frustrations with contemporary photographic technique, mine included, is the feeling of sterility. Digital processes have become so sophisticated that nearly every picture you see is dusted and anti-scratched to a state of frozen perfection. After awhile it all feels so airless.

So it was with pleasure that I observed evidence of a return to tactile photography at the recent Photo London exhibition. One of the best examples of this was the work of Stephen Gill. In his recent project, Buried, Gill took pictures in Hackney Wick and buried them in the same area. Gill writes about the process:

When burying my first batch of photographs, a passing man spotted me and asked what I was doing. Not only did I not want to give the location away of some of my buried pictures, but It just sounded a bit weird to say that I was burying photographs so replied that I was looking for newts. As soon as I’d said that I looked down and saw a newt at my feet.

Not knowing what an image would look like once it was dug up introduced an element of chance and surprise which I found appealing. This feeling of letting go and in a way collaborating with place – allowing it also to work on putting the finishing touches to a picture – felt fair. Maybe the spirit of the place can also make its mark.

While I’m not sure I even noticed Gill’s imagery, it felt good to experience a contemporary photograph that was overwhelmingly tactile:

gill

I’m not sure how to deal with this hunger for photography that is physical and imperfect. Certainly only one photographer is allowed to bury his photographs. Is the problem photography itself? Maybe I just envy painting and sculpture.

On my recent trip to Tennessee I encountered two other artists who might share my envy. At the Knoxville Museum of Art, I saw Tim Davis’s flawless color photographs of the flaws and textures of painting:

passing_shower
A Passing Shower in the Tropics, by Tim Davis

And at the Powerhouse in Memphis I saw Matt Ducklo’s large C-Prints showing blind people touching sculpture. For me, these pictures were about photographic frustration:

ducklo1
Seated statue of Hatshepsut, 2005 by Matt Ducklo

Yesterday I visited Musee Rodin in Paris. On view was a fantastic exhibition, The Japanese Dream. Nearly half of the show was devoted to the Japanese dancer Hanako. Rodin made more sculptures of Hanako than of any other sitter. But these sculptures weren’t exactly portraits. Hanako was best known for expressionistic plays ending with her performing hara-kiri. With his sculptures, Rodin tried to recreate her expressions of sorrow and horror.

These works left me speechless. They were everything I’d been craving. I went to the museum bookstore to buy a catalogue. But flipping through the book, I was disappointed. While technically refined, the clinical reproductions failed to communicate the spirit of the work:

hanako2

The most worthwhile images in the book were those by Edward Steichen:

steichen

Steichen’s photographs were able to get at the pain and sensuality of the original sculptures. Again I’m left with the question: Can contemporary photography find its way back to something physical?

May 2, 2007

Art & Borat

Filed under: aesthetics,Pamela Anderson — alecsothblog @ 5:51 pm

My recent post on Pamela Anderson got me thinking again about Borat. I was one of the last people to see the movie a couple of months ago. While I found the filmmaking to be truly one-of-a-kind, the overall sensibility seemed familiar. Crude, confrontational and deeply cynical, Baron Sacha Cohen’s view of the world reminded me of a lot of contemporary art.

I suppose I should say modern art. Ever since Duchamp there has been a long line of provocative pranksters in the art world. I suspect Borat would get a kick out of Manzoni’s Shit Cans. But the first artist to come to mind was Maurizio Cattelan:

mc

In an interview with Sculpture Magazine, Andrea Bellini asks Cattelan about his creative persona:

Andrea Bellini: Listen, I don’t mean to be blunt, but even in that case some people said you were a real con-man. You organized fake biennials in the Caribbean, you attached a dealer to the walls of his gallery with Scotch-tape, you copied the show of another artist in every detail, you sold your space at the Venice Biennial to a publicity agency that was launching a new perfume, you denounced the robbery of an invisible work of art of yours to the police, you slashed Zorro’s “Z” into a painting, imitating Fontana’s cuts, you had a 300-year-old tree grow right through a flashy new Audi car. Who is Maurizio Cattelan, a court jester, a liar, or a con-man?

Maurizio Cattelan: A jester? I’ve been trying to say serious things for a lifetime, but nobody ever believes me. A con-man? I never robbed anyone, never committed perjury, never committed immoral acts. A liar? I don’t believe in a single truth, only in an infinite combination of possibilities. I’m a bundle of contradictions, just like everyone else.

hitler
‘him’ 2001 © Maurizio Cattelan

“I like publicity: beautiful images, lots of girls. But I don’t think that Hitler was a publicity stunt. He wasn’t trying to sell anything. On the contrary, it was a rough image about peeling off masks and roles.” Maurizio Cattelan

While Cattelan’s vision can be dark, it doesn’t leave me with the same kind of rot gut that I get from Borat. A number of jaded artists come to mind (Mike Kelly, The Chapman Brothers, Jason Rhodes, Sean Landers, Charles Ray, Paul McCarthy), but the one I keep coming back to is Richard Prince. First there is the cynical humor:

joke
Jokes, 1999-2000 by Richard Prince

Then there is the social commentary/provocation:

spiritual_america
Spiritual America, 1983, by Richard Prince

Finally, like Borat, Richard Prince has a thing for Pamela Anderson. He’s made devotional art:

08
untitled (Bruce Willis, Daryl Hannah, Pamela Anderson), 1999 by Richard Prince

He’s even gotten Pam into the Kazakh Wedding Sack:

prince_pam

Like Borat, Prince’s vision of the world leaves me spinning. On the one hand, I find his technique dazzling. It has also been influential. I doubt I would have collected the Niagara love letters if it weren’t for him.

For the record, Richard Prince owns one of these letters:

60-i-cant
I can’t go on like this 2005, by Alec Soth

This is one of the nastiest pictures I’ve ever produced. While editing NIAGARA, I deleted it from the main sequence of images. The project was already dark, but this image and a couple of others seemed to overwhelm the book in nihilism.

While I laughed along with everyone else at Borat, the movie left me sick to my stomach. The fans at the rodeo are a part of America, but they aren’t America. Same with Prince’s biker-chicks. As much as I respond to the work, I hesitate to give myself over to it. Pamela can have Richard Prince (and Kid Rock and Tommy Lee). I’ll take my wife, please.

January 15, 2007

The End

Filed under: aesthetics,critics & curators — alecsothblog @ 1:07 am

Just like Pat Robertson (watch this), I’ve got apocalypse on the brain. My Top Eleven for 2006 included two depictions of the End Days (The Road, Children of Men). Pat and I aren’t alone. “Apocalypse is on our minds,” Kurt Anderson wrote in New York Magazine, “Apocalypse is … hot. “ But Anderson goes on to say that this trend is nothing new:

Apocalypticism has ebbed and flowed for thousands of years, and the present uptick is the third during my lifetime…but this time, it seems, more widespread and cross-cultural, both more reasonable (climate change, nuclear proliferation) and more insane (religious prophecy), more unnerving.

The art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl spoke about these waves of nihilism in his 1978 essay, The Hydrogen Jukebox, Terror, Narcissism, and Art:

The present widespread disarray and morbidity of the arts in Western civilization represent, it occurs to me, a long-term toxic effect of the atom-bomb terror of the last three decades…Most insidious of the terror’s by-products is what I’ll call the no-future effect. Conditioned to living on the eve of doomsday, we have lost the ability to conceive of a future stretching farther than our own most distant personal goals or responsibilities.

Schjeldahl goes on to explain how this has changed the role of the contemporary artist:

The personality type of our time is the narcissist. Obsessively self-regarding, self-referential, self-consuming, the narcissistic personality finds authenticity only in the moment-to-moment convincingness of bodily sensations and mental events. The narcissistic artist or poet offers to a shadowy public evidence of the dramatizations of these sensations, inviting that public to join in the self-contemplation. Anger, at world or self, alternates with a husky or antic seductiveness, a siren song of love and death or sexy fun, and with abject complaining, the cries of the abandoned baby within.

Nearly thirty years after Schjeldahl’s essay, not much has changed. Along with plenty of terror, narcissism in the arts is alive and well (note my recent post on Snow & Koh). But do artists have a choice? “Deprived of the anchor of the past and the rudder of a future,” writes Schjeldahl, “the new personality is as helpless as a paper boat on the ocean.”

December 21, 2006

Humiliation + Sexual Selection = Art

Filed under: aesthetics,snow — alecsothblog @ 12:52 am

You’ve seen the snow pictures and the charts diagramming science and poetry, and now you are asking yourself, “What motivates these geeks?”

I have an answer. Actually, the world’s preeminent geek-turned-rock star has an answer. On his blog, David Byrne has a terrific post about art as a form of sexual selection:

Art, amongst other pursuits, is, according to this idea, one of a number of gauges of deeper fitness, creativity and skill. The maker may have genetic fitness not immediately apparent, especially given the fact that the typical creative person’s uniform is not a power suit. If he or she can afford to expend mucho time and energy on aesthetic pursuits, for example, the person must be doing O.K. in order to be able to “waste” such time and effort. That is, they have time and energy left over from basic survival.

I’d make a joke here about doing all of this for Cat Power, but my wife isn’t finding those jokes funny anymore. Instead I’ll link to this article where Cat Power talks about her humiliating photo shoot with Avedon:

I was so drunk I could barely stand up. My organs were so messed up from drinking I was in physical pain. I couldn’t zip up my pants because my stomach was killing me. I didn’t even realize I wasn’t wearing underwear until the magazine came out. I had to explain to my grandmother that this was the definitive photographer of the 20th century. (see the picture here).

Speaking of Avedon, he took one of my all-time favorite snow pictures:

auden
W.H Auden, 1960

When Auden was an undergraduate at Oxford, he was close friends with the poet Stephen Spender. Spender was insecure about his writing talent. ‘Do you really think I’m any good,’ he asked Auden. ‘Of course,’ Auden replied. ‘But why?’ ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation.’

December 20, 2006

Spectrum 2.0

Filed under: aesthetics — alecsothblog @ 3:26 pm

Following my post on David Goldes, David emailed me the following thought: “Perhaps reconfiguring your spectrum and labeling it informational at one end and experiential at the other would allow science and art to be thought of as two ways of knowing and not as polarities.”

I think this is a significant upgrade:

spectrum1

Here is my assignment:

  1. If this is the X axis, what would make an interesting Y axis?
  2. Assign a number to ten photographers: Bechers (0), Cartier-Bresson (5), etc.

December 19, 2006

The scientist of Minneapolis & the poet of Prague

Filed under: aesthetics,artists,snow — alecsothblog @ 11:46 pm

I’ve recently discussed on the blog the close relationship between photography and poetry. The process of making and putting together pictures is often linked to the lyrical sensibility. But photography is as much a child of science as poetry. I see this as a spectrum. I’ve even toyed around with charting different photographers on this spectrum:

spectrum

But it is hard to pinpoint the location of certain photographers. A real brainteaser is the work of David Goldes. Goldes has an M.A. in Molecular Genetics from Harvard. His work is rooted in scientific investigation. But David is also a poetry enthusiast and his sensual prints are hardly straightforward experimental documents. It is as though his work oscillates between both extremes through his own brew of creative quantum logic.

This morning I emailed David to ask him about one of his snow pictures. Knowing about my interest in Wilson Bentley, David emailed me the following image:

rain-on-flour
Rain on Flour, David Goldes

David explained the making of the picture:

Rain on Flour is something I made a while ago and the idea behind it is this: I put a sifted tray of flour out in the rain for a few minutes and could see on the flour surface that the rain drops were different sizes. Who knew? After I made this picture I read elsewhere that Bentley had done the same thing but had gone several steps further. He strained out the unaltered flour and was left with little glue balls made by each rain drop and then he sorted the balls to see how many of each size were made. So the flour tray became a method to measure size distribution of droplets in what we crudely call “the rain”.

It would appear that David is a scientific photographer. Or is he? Have a look at these two images:

goldes_sudek

The picture on the left, by Goldes, is titled, Growing Sugar Crystals (2002). The picture on the right, by Josef Sudek (the ‘Poet of Prague’), is titled Simple Still Life (1954). Only the title differentiates the scientist from the poet.

Now take a look at the image I originally requested from David:

goldes_walk-the-dog
Walk the Dog, David Goldes

Why did Goldes take this picture? I imagine his original interest was snow crystals (most of his pictures make some reference to water). But if I were to chart this picture it would be deep on the poetic side of the spectrum. In fact it resembles this snow picture by Josef Sudek:

sudek
The Window of my Studio, Josef Sudek, 1948

Is it poetry or is it science? Like so much of my blather on this blog, it really doesn’t matter. What is curious is how much I love these two pictures. They really are two of my favorites. But it gets weirder. If I were to make a list of my top ten all-time favorite photographs, I would likely include these two:

hockney
Gregrory Watching the Snow Fall, Kyoto, Feb 21st 1983, David Hockney

elsken
Apres Ski in der Schweiz, Ed van der Elsken

Snow, windows, and a touch of erotic longing – This seems to be the formula. It makes me want to do a scientific experiment. If someone were to take a picture with these three elements, what are the chances I’d like it?

Email your pictures to studio@alecsoth.com

Disclaimer for regular blog readers: I’m not suggesting that ‘The Scientist of Minneapolis’ should be ‘the sentence’ for David Goldes. I used it because it sort of works to the tune of My Favorite Things:

Raindrops on flour and windows of fog
The scientist of Minneapolis & the poet of Prague
These are a few of my favorite things.

December 18, 2006

Meerkats & Snowflakes & Trappist Photographers

Filed under: aesthetics,snow,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 10:59 pm

According to yesterday’s New York Times, penguins are passé. With two high-budget documentaries in the works, Meerkats are going to be the anthropomorphized stars of 2007.

This can’t be good news for Richard Gere. Since 2003, Gere has been trying to produce “Emperor Zehnder,” a biographical portrayal of Bruno Penguin Zehnder (previously discussed on this blog here).

I think Gere should drop the penguins. That ship has sailed. If he wants to portray a monomaniacal photographer, might I suggest Snowflake Bentley.

wb
Wilson A. Bentley

In 1885, when he was twenty years old, Wilson A. Bentley was the first person to photograph a snowflake. For the next 46 years, Bentley devoted himself to the snowflake. “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty,” he wrote, “and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.” Bentley shared this appreciation by producing over 5000 photographs of snowflakes.

But as with many passionate people, Bentley was considered an eccentric. In a profile on Bentley (The American Magazine, 1925), Bentley talks about the way he was viewed by his neighbors in Jericho, Vermont:

I guess they’ve always believed that I was crazy, or a fool, or both. Years ago, I thought they might feel different if they understood what I was doing. I thought they might be glad to understand. So I announced that I would give a talk in the village and show lantern slides of my pictures. They are beautiful, you know, marvelously beautiful on screen. But when the night came for my lecture, just six people were there to hear me…I think they found my pictures beautiful. I doubt, though, they have changed their opinion of me. They still think I’m a little cracked. I’ve just had to accept that opinion and try not to care. It doesn’t hurt me–very much.

Bentley’s passion paid off. Because of him, every school child is taught that ‘no two snowflakes are alike.’ While we’ve come to take it for granted, this really is a remarkable discovery. For Bentley it was a revelation, “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.”

bentleycollage2
Collage and self-portrait by Wilson Bentley

But like many revelations, Bentley’s discovery was touched by sadness. “When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost,” he wrote, “Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.” While he took great pleasure in capturing a snowflake on film, he truly despaired at all of the ones that got away:

We had one storm last winter which brought me perhaps the most interesting snow crystal I have ever seen: a wonderful little splinter of ice, incredibly fragile. That was a tragedy! In spite of my carefulness, the crystal was broken in transferring it to the slide. It makes me almost cry, even now.

This is the sadness of photography. There is something futile, almost pathetic, about the photographic quest to possess beauty.

I’ve always found it interesting that so many people try to link Zen and photography. Photography is anti-Zen. Photography is an attempt to stop time and possess the world. Zen is an attempt to live in the moment and relinquish the desire to possess. The two seem completely incompatible.

I recently discussed this with Brother Paul, a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Brother Paul is an avid photographer. His teacher, the legendary Thomas Merton, was also a photographer.

thomasmerton
Thomas Merton

Brother Paul helped remind me that the great thing about Merton is his acceptance of paradox. He knew his life as a prolific writer was at odds with being a monk. “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop,” Merton mourned, “and he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.”

Merton could have been a ‘chicken.’ He could have given himself over entirely to the life of the monastery. He could have lived in the moment. But that would require putting aside the typewriter and the camera. Instead, Merton accepted the joy and despair of paradox. In the preface to a collection of his essays he wrote:

I have had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing far the fact, even to myself. And perhaps this preface is an indication that I have not yet completely learned. No matter. It is in the paradox itself, the paradox which was and is still a source of insecurity, that I have come to find the greatest security. I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me; if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.

Instead of Zen Photography, I suggest the pursuit of Paradox Photography. To make meaningful work there seems to be an inevitable encounter with success and failure, joy and despair.

This doesn’t necessarily mean epic drama. To be successful one needn’t die in a blizzard (like Penguin Zehnder) or from pneumonia after walking home in a blizzard (like Snowflake Bentley). One needn’t cut off an ear. But I don’t think successful art can be made without encountering the joy and despair of paradox.

Speaking of joy and despair, while writing this post I started humming the title (Meerkats & Snowflakes & Trappist Photographers) to the tune of My Favorite Things:

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things

But even in a corny song like this, we can’t be satisfied with pure appreciation. Appreciation is always rooted in sadness. The song ends:

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad

_____________________________________________________________________

Snowflake Bentley’s work will be exhibited until December 22nd at Davis & Landale in New York.

For more information on Bentley, go here or here.

There is an exhibition of Thomas Merton’s photos, A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton, at Loyola University until January 15, 2007

See a terrific portrait of Thomas Merton by Ralph Eugene Meatyard here



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