Something Redemptive or Transcendent

Carl Socolow and cows

Everyone knows Dickinson’s photographer, Carl Socolow ’77. Featuring a neck heavy with cameras and a soft-spoken approach, Socolow has been a notable figure on campus since 2011, and his photographs vibrantly bring both the college’s website and Dickinson Magazine to life. But maybe not everyone knows that Socolow is also an alumnus and Guggenheim Fellow, one who looks at photography as a spiritual undertaking akin to writing poetry. So read on to learn more about how Socolow approaches his work and why his cameras may be in Carlisle but his heart is in Europe.

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts approach helped you along your career path?

Using my English literature major as a focus for the humanities—including sociology, philosophy and psychology—I have been able to explore and illustrate the human experience through my photography. This included my time as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, as a photojournalist for a daily newspaper, my 26 years in my commercial and editorial photography business and the work I did for my Guggenheim Fellowship on a small village in Mexico.

What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?

What I really enjoyed was the intellectual growth I experienced and the opportunities to discuss and share these ideas with fellow students and faculty.

How do you support Dickinson, and why do you think it’s important?

Almost since graduation I have supported Dickinson with annual contributions. Dickinson was very formative for me, and with targeted giving I’m able to support those programs that I really believe in and that I hope would be as influential for today’s students.

How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?

I’ve always been interested in photography, even prior to coming to Dickinson. Oddly enough, I came to Dickinson to be a political science major, but the humanities and literature really spoke to my sensibilities. I find the process of creating photographs to be very similar to writing poetry in that they both come from some inner spiritual, aesthetic state of being. That is, at least, what I consider for my own more personal work. What excites me is realizing when something that felt right to photograph exceeds all the expectations that led me to make that photograph, and it rises from a document to something redemptive or transcendent.

What is the most challenging part of your work?

I worked for myself for 26 years so I’m struck by how complex an institutional community is and how to function within it. I think this is a challenge, regardless of the institution, for those with artistic predispositions. Being in a rich and rewarding academic environment has a lot of added value to offset those challenges. The other challenge is keeping up with the technology and software, which, all too often, advances more for market purposes than actual need.

What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?

I consider as a formative part of my educational experience the time I spent vagabonding around Europe after graduating. The opportunity to use my language skills, to experience peoples and cultures, to savor and absorb works of art firsthand, to explore beyond the usual travel destinations and to develop and use interpersonal skills have been a tremendous boon to all that I’ve done since. That desire for experience and adventure persists to this day, and I try to feed it whenever possible.

If you could have dinner with anyone famous, living or dead, who would it be?

Thomas Jefferson, because there are a lot of questions I would like to ask him, and I’d also like to take him on a guided tour of this experiment that he helped set in motion.

You just built a time machine: Where and when do you go?

I’d go to 1920s expatriate Paris. The place was wild with creativity, brilliant and eccentric people, passion and energy.

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Published December 19, 2016