This issue of Aperture records an adventure in research and discovery, conducted informally in a way—and place—far from ordinary. At the invitation of the editors of Aperture, a group of about twenty people was brought together for some days in an isolated spot on the coast of California to consider issues vital to the art and profession of photography.
Sense of place. Before the meetings start, our hosts offer a tour. Esalen Institute occupies one of the few flat tabletops along the Big Sur Coast. Elsewhere, mountains plunge straight into the sea. To the north, the school for staff members' children, the campus consisting of a teepee, a hogan, an abandoned bus.
Early afternoon. Our first entry into the meeting room. Wall-to-wall shag carpets. Scores of giant soft pillows. All of us enter sock-footed. Sprawl, sit, recline among the pillows—it is to be a semi-recumbent to recumbent conference.
CHRISTENBERRY: I feel that there’s been a tremendous emphasis in recent years on what I call formalist photography. I have nothing against it. But, I would like to talk with people who are interested in more subjective attitudes toward making pictures, or toward art in general.
NARRATOR: I was born in 1946, just after the first atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. I learned to protect myself in case of atomic war, and to believe in "atoms for peace," to have faith in our friend the atom. The atom became part of our culture, the perfect protector and the perfect provider.
Dawn. Yoga sessions energize. Afterward, a young man with lank black hair stands before a murderous-looking appliance in the kitchen. It is an extractor that releases juice from wheat grass. He offers a taste. This is quite generous of him as it appears to take a great deal of grass to get a jigger of this health elixir.
As a practicing visual communication designer and teacher, I involve in my work the articulation and development of “visible language” concepts. In basic terms visible language is a marriage of the “visual” (formal, structural, and aesthetic relations) with “language” intentions which are social in nature (linguistic/ literary systems).
"City Whispers" began in the spring of 1980, when Ray Metzker was on a Guggenheim Fellowship. The locales are Chicago and Philadelphia. Ray recalls that spring as being somehow different from those more recent. The cities gave off a tantalizing glow. He was drawn to it.
LIEBLING: I wanted to show a few color photographs of a wonderful New England college town—Amherst. I have grown to like it a great deal. The openness—you can move around and photograph and try to find the indigenous qualities. It is also the poet Emily Dickinson’s town.
HALUS: Like Bill Christenberry, I also came from a background of sculpture and drawing. Having been interested in that, I started thinking about processes that would allow me to engage issues of time, that in photography we don’t normally have.
Mark Holborn moves among the group as the shy, friendly Englishman—a young man who blushes easily, and speaks quietly. Taking his place in front of the screen, an astonishing transformation occurs. His voice booms out with disturbing intensity.
GRIMES: As a teacher and as someone who has dealt with the history of photography, I always seem to have a need to understand why the present is like it is. To understand not just what’s happening right now, this week, but to see it in a longer frame.
Alison Knowles On The Book of Bean The First Guided Tour through The Book of Bean
In the leguminous cosmology we are about to enter, there are beans without end: metaphorical beans, lovable beans, humble beans, godlike beans, ichthyological beans, dancing beans, fraudulent beans, soulful (Pythagorean) beans, demonic (Japanese) beans ... there are beans who make clothes and beans who sell them.
Though Robert Adams did not come to Esalen his presence was felt throughout the conference. The artist had cancelled just a few days before, explaining that illness and the struggle to keep on working left him no choice. He was preserving all remaining energies and resources for the project "Our Lives and Our Children," a stark, compelling work related to the film Dark Circle.
HOFFMAN: As most of you know, 19521964 was a period when Aperture was primarily involved in the explorations of Minor White, and had to do with personal growth, his and other people’s. It was very much a hands-on period when the issues of the magazine were being printed two or four pages at a time with letterpress plates.
CONNOR: Why were there no nineteenth-century women landscape photographers? Why is there not a single twentieth-century woman whom you would label as a landscape photographer? These two questions have made me very curious about the historical development of landscape imagery in Western art and photography, and the differentiation between the sexes in relationship to our environment.
SISCHY: There's one thing that I've noticed that hasn't come up. It's a part of what I perceive to be the history of both the photography community and also, very personally, the history of Aperture. That is, the gap of criticism. At this conference you have editors, you have photographers, and you have writers: no critics.
Raymond Depardon lives up to his reputation: shy, physically inconspicuous, master of the flyon-the-wall photographic style. He is the odd visitor among us at Esalen. He barely utters a word, is seen most frequently staring off at the sea or buried in a book.
Impressions. A bearded young man, sitting in the lotus position near the Institute's gate, is meditating on a Monarch butterfly that's landed between his legs. By the doorway to the dining room, another Monarch appears. This one caught in the playful claws of a fat black cat.
Late-night overcast sky. The sea can be heard but not seen. Its immensity is reduced to the proximate faces and familiar warmth of the meeting room. The lights dim. On the screen, in stark contrast to the closeness that has settled in around us, Frank Gohlke's landscape images are projected.
KISMARIC: It’s clear that the results of this gathering could just scatter off into the horizon— just another gathering of people in which interesting, provocative ideas were exchanged. Would you feel differently about the time spent here if there were a series of very specific outcomes, and if then we plotted a plan of action to make sure those things were going to happen?
A glorious sunny morning. We begin with a change of place. Down the steps, leading from the Big House to the sea, we gather on the small deck, surrounded by a rock garden that overlooks a carp pond. Brewster and John read extracts of works suggested by the talks given over the past days.
The artist sees, with sensitivity and insight, the intangible breadth and depth of human experience. Without the sensitivity of the artist, we would overlook the richness of humanity. Without imagination, a society is impoverished.
Photography: 1982 represents the first step in an effort to encourage a meaningful dialogue between members of the visual arts community. The Esalen meeting determined that there is need for a genuine, spontaneous exchange between individuals who share a community of interests, and began to describe some of the issues facing that community.
The Esalen Institute offered the generous hospitality of its beautiful home by the Pacific. With special thanks to directors Michael Murphy and Richard Price, to Nancy Lunney, Steve Beck, Joyce Rogers and Brian Lyke, Heather and Rick Tarnas, and to the many other members of the staff whose generous hospitality provided the warmth and careful support for which the Institute has come to be known through its many years.