Alec Soth and the Future of (Alec Soth’s) Photography
Published March 21, 2011
ALEC SOTH. PHOTOS BY AUSTIN NELSON
Leafing through Sleeping by the Mississippi or Niagara, you’re instantly aware of the brilliance of Alec Soth’s photographs—but then you also begin to notice how thoughtfully the images are sequenced, the order itself creating a visual narrative that draws you in like your favorite novel. Alec Soth is a storyteller who happens to be exceptionally good at photography. He says, “I like individual images to certainly have a life on their own and to exist in that way,” but the main vehicle for his photography is the book. He considers himself a “book artist” first and a “wall artist” second.
Lately, Soth has wondered aloud where his career and his photography are headed. Traditionally, he has worked with an 8×10 view camera, but in a world where virtually everyone has a camera in their pocket, how can you make images that are more meaningful than the next person’s? He says, “There has been a change, I think, where you used to have to be a chemist to be able to be a photographer, and now it keeps getting easier and easier and easier … if an eight-year-old can take a picture, how do I add meaning to that? And, for myself, there is a move towards storytelling as a way of connecting these fragments to mean more.”
Soth was in town this weekend for a panel discussion at AIPAD with Shirin Neshat and Larry Fink on the topic “Photography Now: How Artists Are Thinking Today” and a book signing at ICP for two new releases from his new publishing venture Little Brown Mushroom, including Mr. Soth’s Lonely-Boy Magazine, a sort of satire on men’s magazines. We sat down with Soth after his ICP event.
AUSTIN NELSON: Your work is a mix of styles—sometimes diaristic, sometimes documentarian, sometimes street, etc. Do you have trouble defining your genre when you talk about your work, or do you not like to define it?
ALEC SOTH: I mean, I think there was a time where I felt comfortable having a genre, and right now I’m really trying to break that down and sort of tear apart the structure of what I’ve done before. So, like, right in front of me right here is a men’s magazine that I just made, and so that’s speaking one language and then something else speaks another, and, yeah, I kind of want to get lost.
NELSON: You’ve said that you were painfully shy as a child. How has photography helped you overcome that shyness, and in what ways or to what degree do you consider the camera a psychological shield?
SOTH: Yeah, I really thought of it as a shield. And I used it that way, and it functioned that way. What’s different now is that there’s this whole public aspect to the work and the presentation of it, so doing a book signing like this right here is such a social event, and, unintentionally, photography has forced me into that. So, like, the photography suits my shyness, but all this other stuff didn’t and I just was pushed into it.
NELSON: You certainly have your own style and personal aesthetic in your work, but you also don’t deny the influences of William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld, among others, on your photography. Are you starting to see the influence that your work has had on other photographers?
SOTH: I have a hard time answering that. I don’t know. I don’t have that perspective on it… and I’m uncomfortable with it. [laughs]
NELSON: There’s a different type of moment captured with an 8×10 camera than, say, a Leica Rangefinder. The process of setting up the shot is slower and more elaborate. How do the camera and the slower process affect the end result of your images?
SOTH: I think when you slow it down that much, the picture-making process becomes very quiet and contemplative, and there’s not a lot of smiling, there’s not a lot of expression; it’s just simple, quiet looking, which I really like. And I used that for a long time, but I’m interested in also interrupting that and having different energy and personality going into it.
NELSON: How do you mean “interrupting?” Engaging with the subject more?
SOTH: Engaging or not engaging, or, like, not… maybe they don’t know that I’m looking at them. Maybe I’m just driving by, or maybe I’m jumping in their face and doing something, or forcing them to do something uncomfortable, or really, like, not having it be quiet, in a way.
NELSON: So how much are you shooting now with other cameras besides a view camera?
SOTH: I’m not shooting with a view camera at all, right now.
NELSON: Oh, okay. What are you using?
SOTH: I’m really in this highly experimental stage, so I’ve been doing little videos, I just did a project with a hundred disposable cameras, and then, I mean, mostly… 90 percent digital.
NELSON: The people you photograph are generally strangers to you and have a certain look. What are the difficulties you face when you approach someone about posing for you?
SOTH: I mean, it’s intuitive, but it’s also like, you know, if I walk out here outside and there’s someone handing out slips to “come to my dance party tonight,” you know, to this dance club, I’m kind of that guy. I’m like the annoying guy in the street. But, I approach specific people based on whatever attraction I have to them.
NELSON: You’ve also spoken of the ethical dilemmas you’ve occasionally struggled with when shooting strangers for your own personal gain. Have you ever taken a photo and decided not to use it just because of an internal moral concern, or have you ever had anyone see an image you took of him or her that they became upset about later?
SOTH: Have those people been upset in the past, like with the results? Yes, it’s been really rare, but it has happened, which is really scary and unsettling.
NELSON: Are you always looking for interesting people and places that fit your style, or are you fitting the subjects into your aesthetic with your vision and camera work?
SOTH: No, like, we’re sitting, I don’t have a camera with me. I’m not engaged with the world in that way, I’m not looking for things when I’m not working. I’m not proud of that. If I were a true, you know, artistic genius I would be engaged all the time, but it’s like a focused effort. When I’m on, I’m on; when I’m not, I’m not.
NELSON: Do you feel that there’s a difference in your fine art photography and your commissioned editorial work for, say, The New York Times?
SOTH: Oh absolutely, yeah. For like The New York Times, I have to, you know, abide by certain journalistic ethics and I have to keep in mind a whole different audience, yeah, so it’s very different. Absolutely.
NELSON: In what sense, if any, do you consider your photographs to show “truth”, and what do you want people to learn or take away from your photos?
SOTH: No, I don’t—uh—no truth. [laughs] I’m really uncomfortable with that term. The reason I often say, for me, photography is analogous to poetry, for my kind of work more so than journalism, is because it’s so open to interpretation. And I’m very happy having different interpretations of it, so I don’t have an agenda to push at all.
NELSON: So a bit like Eggleston, in that you don’t like to talk about it?
SOTH: Yeah, but I talk about it all the freakin’ time, unlike Eggleston! [laughs] So, I take a very different approach than him. For whatever reason, I talk about it ad nauseam, but I don’t want to say what it is, you know.
NELSON: You’ve questioned the future of photography a lot lately. What is it?
SOTH: [laughs] What is it? I mean, photography’s future is infinite and bright, it’s just my involvement with it is constantly being challenged by the limitations of the medium, and so the future of the medium is enormous, endless. I mean, it’s growing exponentially, so that’s great, but for me as a practitioner, that exponential growth makes it even more problematic. And so for me, it’s got me more engaged with storytelling.
ALEC SOTH WILL BE BACK IN NEW YORK CITY IN MAY TO ACCEPT THE ICP INFINTY AWARD FOR HIS PUBLICATION FROM HERE TO THERE: ALEC SOTH’S AMERICA.