Monday, August 20, 2007

Niagara Undertones

I had so much fun on Monday afternoon as a guest lecturer at San Francisco Art Institutes' "Finding Your Subject" photo class. I was asked to put together a slide show on the projects that preceded "Sex Machines", so I had to dig thru a bunch of early work and try to find the link between all of these projects. Worked on it Sunday, nervously went over it on Monday morning and then hustled over to the SFAI to deal with the talk . I was a bit suspicious: the entire speaking gig had been arranged via blackberry emails while I was chasing my kids around at the park on Saturday morning: "Please show up at noon, room 16a. No need to call, just come by"

Sunday night it struck me. This was possibly a set up. A large scale practical joke arranged by lord knows who, devised to punish and humiliate me for lord knows what...maybe for taking myself too seriously."Hahahaha...Sex Machine guy....hahaha...yeah, please come and discuss the depth of your work....hahahaha....." But it was too late: I already told all my friends I was doing this talk.

We find room 16a up a narrow stairway. We knock on the door, the room is dark. I dunno...this can't be the place. A friendly looking guy approaches. Who is that guy in the feed cap? Looks kinda like the guy working the beer concession at the ball park., I'll have two more please. Oh, it's Magnum photographer, Sleeping By The Mississippi and Niagara author Alec Soth! He's running the class five days a week, 9 am to 4 pm, for two weeks. The students come in and come out two weeks later, enlightened. Sounds like boot camp, basic training, and Minor White all wrapped up in one.

Just to get to the heart of the matter over lunch, I blurt out the question that his been on my mind for months now: " What is up with those naked people in Niagara?"

And there, with a bite of tuna sandwich on his plate, a bowl of macaroni and cheese between us, he addresses it as if I was asking him if I could borrow his lawnmower. Straight up, no apologies, I got my answer. Niagara was about love: the honeymoon at Niagara Falls, the hotel rooms, the love letters, the wedding rings...and then these undertones of sexuality, specifically relating to the penis. Every naked couple in the book...the man is exposed, the woman is tastefully covered. Soth photographs himself awkwardly in the mirror of a hotel room, tilting his body and exposing himself, reflected in the hotel bathroom mirror. " sounds like Viagra, then the falls are this rushing explosion of water, a fluid, a force", he straightforwardly explains.

I drove home and looked thru the book. The theory holds up. Like listening to Dark Side of The Moon and watching Wizard of Oz simultaneously, you just gotta go home and try it. You'll never look at the book the same way again.

alec soth ( center) and sfai class

top photo of falls by alec soth, excerpted from Niagra


Robert Holmgren said...

Now I remember...
Same expectant white walls.
Same laconicly puzzled students.
Same outwardly projecting confidence and inwardly self-doubting teachers.
But the tables and chairs have indeed been upgraded.

Timothy Archibald said...

Hi Bob-

I dunno....from the sidelines of assignment work, Alec's teaching gig was looking pretty challenging but really really a blast. I think I left trying to figure out how to score a gig like that. Got any ideas?


Robert Holmgren said...

I've noticed that the small college I sent my daughter off to yesterday has a photography class. You might inquire about pitching in. It's in Rome--you probably wouldn't be interested, the commute would be a killer.

Robert Holmgren said...

I suppose it would have been more generous of me to note that the comments about the instructors were derived soley from the body language of the bottom photo. Speaking as someone who vainly attempted to soak up wisdom in the same setting, I don't question anyone's effort and committment--Henry Wessel excepted.

Timothy Archibald said...

I hear ya...i hear ya...

I liked the 2 week-ness of the gig, especially...

Wessle's a god, wtf?

Robert Holmgren said...

I'll confine my opinion to personal experience and leave the diety parts for you to ponder.