Will and the World in Photography: Alec Soth’s “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating,” Part 1, by Robert Dunn

In the promo materials for Alec Soth’s long-awaited, and quite wonderful, new photobook, “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating,” Soth says, “I went through a long period of rethinking my creative process. For over a year I stopped traveling and photographing people. I barely took any pictures at all.” As a photographer who finds himself compulsively taking his camera out every time I wander the city (all the time), and if I don’t have my camera with me always seeing potential photographs loom up before me, and kicking myself that I don’t have the one tool to at least try to grab them, I found this a curious thought: in effect, Soth says he’s been having photographer’s block, the equivalent for writers of sitting there before a blank screen with nothing coming out.

For novelists, being blocked is often a sense that the task at hand—creating a full world wholly out of imagination, a heavy lift in the best of times—is just too much. So you sit there and feel terrible. In case anybody’s curious, my best advice as a longtime novelist for being stuck is to simply sit there, even if you don’t write. You can’t get up, can’t fiddle with Facebook, can’t do anything but stare at your screen. If you do this long and disciplined enough, you’ll start writing. Anything is better than just sitting there doing nothing. Anything … even writing.

So I’m curious about what this photographer’s block is like, what gets in the way of doing what seems so natural, and also how Soth in particular broke through it in such spectacular fashion.

Fortunately for my understanding, Soth has been giving numerous interviews about his new book, including a long one in the back of “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating” itself. I think it helps to know the book better by seeing how he came to make it. So in Part 1 of my article on Soth, I’ll look into the process how he got going, before tackling the actual book in Part 2.

The key to Soth’s hiatus seems to be not at all that he didn’t feel he could do photography; indeed, the problem appears to be that he knew he could do it too well. That is, if at bottom any photograph comes from some degree of distance between the photographer and the world outside him- or herself—a gulf, a chasm, if you will—and if both sides of this space are defined by degrees of power and intention, then Soth seems to have fallen into the pit. In effect, he lost a true understanding of where the balance line between photographer and subject should be drawn.

An interesting predicament! What seems to have gotten to Soth is that what he wanted from a photo (and a person sitting as subject) was coming too easily. Here’s how he puts it, in an interview with the Guardian. “When I started out I had so little power,” but with his editorial work and increasing fame—arguably, he’s the best-known of his generation of photographers—he got far more power, and found he could “push things in order to get a better picture.”

That is, Soth was able to manipulate scenes, mostly for his editorial work, and get the shots he wanted … and yet for Soth there appears to have become less of the true world in them, less of the fluxes of air and light that move beyond our own will and concentration. In the book interview he speaks about how predatory his earlier way of taking portraits was; how he would be out “driving around, snagging people, talking them into stuff they don’t want to do.” Too much power, too much ego, too much being wrapped up in himself.

Then Soth had a “full-on mystical experience” in Helsinki that made him see the oneness of the universe and everything in it. And he stopped taking photos.

Writers have jokingly likened his experience to an acid trip, but think of it this way: over fifty years ago the Beatles did drop LSD, and came up with “Sgt. Pepper.” George Harrison contributed “Within You Without You” to the timeless album, and that’s as good a way as I can think of to describe the photographer’s eternal search for the correct balance between what they want and what the world itself wants them to get into images. Every photo you take should be equally within you and outside you. In the song, Harrison talks about how if you see beyond yourself, peace of mind can come. You see that we’re all one, “and life flows on within you and without you.”

If Soth’s own power was blinding him, of course he couldn’t take the photos he needed to; in effect, he realized he needed to step back, let the world and the people in it reassert themselves. For Soth, a notably good guy, it might be a stretch to invoke Harrison’s words about the people who gain the world and lose their souls, but I’m guessing that was in a way the dynamic at play.

So for a year he did nothing, cheerily. “I was just so happy sitting around looking at the light,” Soth tells us in the book interview. He finally again felt the need to take photos, but in a new way. He purposefully searched out people with identities and power to match, or at least balance with, his own. He has said he wrote to people he knew in different cities asking for names of people with singular presences, powerful personas who fill up their home spaces, then arranged to meet and photograph them. In his words, “to have an encounter that is visually strong.”

He also wanted to photograph people he didn’t know at all. In the book interview he intriguingly says, “The more I know you, the less likely I am to take your picture.” When asked why, he says, “I don’t understand it. I honestly don’t understand it. It just doesn’t work. I have to get on the therapist’s couch.”

Well, I’m no therapist, but I think his inability to shoot people he knows too well has a literary explanation. Henry James speaks about the donnée, the small given that informs a writer’s imagination. I’ve always thought of it as seeking out glimpses of actual intriguing scenes, the way you can get a tiny peek through a door into somebody’s world, and then imagine full lives around that glimpse. If you see or know too much, everything you’ve taken in can shut down what my mentor Bernard Malamud called “necessary invention.”

Soth seems to understand just this. Earlier in the book interview he talks about how “when I was in high school, I used to deliver Chinese food. I loved that moment when the customer opened the door and I could peek into their interior world. It always felt magical and mysterious.”

That’s exactly it. Gain too much power and control in the world and you lose not only your soul but also the world of magic and mystery.

Maybe that’s what photographer’s block comes down to. Losing the balance in the universe. Letting your ego subsume the sublime. And the cure? Being honest and clear enough with yourself to know that good photography—good anything—isn’t a pure expression of personal will and power, but the focus and force you bring to a situation in which what’s around you is equally forceful and focused. In that balance comes a loss of self, which leads to a greater expression of self; your art is not confined by your own boundaries but extends into the world, reaches an understanding with the world; and both your art and the world are richer for it.

And, oh, yes, you have to be always looking for, and respectful of, those quick glimpses through the door … into the inexplicable, the mysterious, the unknowable, the sublime.

A hard lesson well-learned by Alec Soth. A year’s personal sabbatical that brought a wealth of new photos, and a very special book, which I’ll write about in detail in Part 2 of this piece.

And all the while the world flows on within and….

I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating by Alec Soth can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.