my brush with the divine

Before I went to this five-day workshop with Alec Soth, I thought the only reason someone would cry from a critique would be if the comments were completely unconstructive or if the person being critiqued had ego-based expectations of being told they’re wonderful. Even when I cried on Tuesday, I tried to blame other life-related stuff for the tears and emotion. But I was wrong. I don’t think I can put it into words, but it’s something about the fact that who we are feeds into our photography.

Anyways, this week was a breakthrough for me on many fronts, not just photographically. It’s the first time I’ve left my family for more than a day and been completely by myself. I did go to Nova Scotia without them in 2008 but I travelled with a friend to get there, and stayed with friends I already knew while I was there. This was also the first time I felt truly comfortable in Toronto. In the past I’ve felt anxious or overstimulated or just out of place there, but a lot of what I experienced of the city this week just felt really good. It was such a treat to spend time without a big To Do list, just going wherever the day took me. I don’t think I’ve had a day without a To Do list in possibly years.

And I haven’t even mentioned the photographic breakthroughs. I think I’ve been feeling a bit blocked and dissatisfied with my work lately, and I’ve barely shot anything since we got home from South Africa. Now I have a new approach… it was an approach I’d thought of doing before but it was never the right time to try it. And let’s face it: learning new tools can feel pretty destabilizing and decidedly unfun. Anyways, Alec forced me to try out two new tools, and I’m pretty excited. I’m hoping to put together a little multimedia thing to post here, but first I need to learn how to edit audio.

Alec Soth is a really great teacher. It seemed to me that he very quickly understood something of what each of us is trying for, and he helped us each along our own path. And he’s also just so charming and open and generous and seriously funny. A few of us hung out with him all Tuesday afternoon, having lunch and then going out to Ward Island, which I’d never been to before.

Here he is having a moment on the island. I didn’t want to disturb him.

On Friday afternoon, a few of us also tagged along with Alec to check out The Mechanical Bride at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, which had some of Alec’s work. It was the first time I’d seen his prints on the wall, and they are SO beautiful. Bonnie Rubinstein, Director and Editor of the Contact Festival, took us through the whole exhibition, and it was great to hear how she pulled it together. I learned so much in that tour. Soth is having a huge show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in September, and I’m seriously considering making a pilgrimage to see it. He’ll also be back in Toronto in October to give a lecture called “The Democratic Jungle,” which I won’t dare miss.

As human and down-to-earth as Alec Soth is, I really wish he’d smacked his lips or breathed through his mouth while eating or something; anything to temper my hero worship with some kind of irritation. But there was nothing. Even when we were all a little drunk on Friday night he was just lovely. Well — and funny, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy on all that.

He even signed my book with a sweet message.

This has been a once in a lifetime experience, maybe even life-changing. For me, it will certainly be photography-changing. If you’d asked me early Friday morning how the workshop was, I’d have said it was good but hard. I was still feeling ragged and confused, about photography and life, and I was a little disappointed to still feel such confusion. By 5 pm, everything had come together, and my answer had changed to the week being amazing. So what changed? It kinda feels like divine intervention. But I’ll leave the rest of that story for the multimedia piece… stay tuned.

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