Interviewsand Articles


The Artist's Way: Newsletter #28

by Richard Whittaker, Jun 22, 2013



Rephrasing Joseph Campbell, and looking for a theme for this issue, we could easily settle on “the artist’s way.” Our last two pieces came out of an art exhibit this past April framed in the context of Campbell’s reflections about art. Late in his life, he gave a talk he called “The Way of the Artist” in which he quoted his wife, Jean Erdman, “The way of the mystic and way of the artist are much alike.” I was asked to write an essay for the catalog and I also talked with two of the artists Tom Nakashima and Rob Barnard one evening during the exhibit. Given how little we hear anything about such ideas today in the art world, I was grateful for the invitation. And thinking about the newsletter I remembered a recent interview with photographer David Ulrich. Ulrich is a wonderful photographer and very articulate. When I first learned that he'd been a student and friend of Minor White, I was excited. Campbell would have whole-heartedly embraced Minor’s philosophy and his approach to the practice of photography. 

In regard to this famous and controversial photographer, the late John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art, wrote: "Of those photographers who reached their creative maturity after the Second World War, none have been more influential than Minor White."

In 1946 Minor and Ansel Adams founded the first fine art photography program in the U.S. The two of them were among the small group who founded Aperture Magazine. Minor was the editor from the first issue in 1952 to 1975, a year before his death. Perhaps most significantly, he was known for his belief that photography could be practiced as a spiritual search. His own life was a spiritual journey and he used photography as a means to communicate his inner moments of presence to the outer world. In this journey he was influenced by Christianity, Zen meditation and the ideas of G. I. Gurdjieff. 

About Minor White, Paul Caponigro wrote, “He often said that to know or discover substance in an image, one needed to be still before it. He also stated that one could photograph a thing not only for what it is, but for what else it is.” Caponigro also wrote, “I recall a time when I was with Ansel and Minor. They were drinking and chatting, when Minor chidingly asked Ansel if he was still practicing the Zone System.

Ansel replied that he certainly was, and that he understood Minor was now practicing the "Zen System.” All this was long before the advent of digital photography, of course. Caponigro wrote that he learned a great deal from both men about Zen and Zones - and reflecting about making photographs, he said, “It still amazes me how such a mechanical process as photography allows subject and silver to be affected by emotion and intention. No matter what you touch, you invariably leave your thumbprint on it.”

It’s possible that today many younger photographers know nothing about Minor White. And that’s a shame because what Minor taught is as true today as it was during his life. It took him many years to fully develop his teaching methods. By the time David Ulrich met him in 1970, studying with Minor must have been a very powerful experience. In listening to Ulrich describe those years, and his own practice of photography, it’s clear that Minor was able to pass on the gift he dedicated his life to sharing.

That leads us to our two remaining features. Americ Azevedo is not an artist in the sense we usually think of artists. Rather, I see him as that rare figure among academics - a throwback to ancient times when, as the French philosopher Pierre Hadot says, philosophers were judged by how they lived their lives and what they did, not what they said. Considering Azevedo’s story in the context of Campbell’s thought, it’s impossible not to be reminded of “the hero’s journey.”
Fittingly, our interview with him is titled “The Truth Must Be Lived.”

Very briefly, after receiving his Master’s degree in philosophy, Americ found himself getting by as a lowly temp worker addressing envelopes for a computer firm. He looked around and started to investigate how things worked in that system in which he was just a small cog. What he learned soon led him into a position as a programmer and later to a job teaching computer science at the University of California at Berkeley.

Before long at UC, he initiated a class he called, “Time, Money and Love in the Age of Technology.” And he expanded his computer engineering courses to include questions of ethics - even adding a course on “Mysticism and Science.” Always following an inner path of his own, he found his way into a position in another department, Peace and Conflict Studies, where he initiated a meditation class that soon grew to over six hundred students.

Each of us can probably point to one or two teachers in our lives who made a difference—if we’re exceptionally lucky, maybe more than two. I have no doubt that, for many of his students, Azevedo was just such a teacher.

And finally we come to our interview with photographer Radek Skrivanek. Here is an artist who is also an investigative journalist. Skrivanek takes photos of truths. His work is not mystical. It’s a look at some of the disturbing facts of life on this planet.

Here he lays out the sad story of one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet. Only a few decades ago the Aral Sea was one of the four largest freshwater lakes in the world. Today, very little of the lake remains. The two rivers, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, that fed the lake no longer even reach the lake. How did it happen? In “The Dying Sea,” Skrivanek describes the choices that led to its destruction. Not a happy note to end on, but one we need to ponder.

Welcome to issue #28.  

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.


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