Tonight I heard photographer Alec Soth speak at the High Museum, a guest of this month’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography events. It was incredibly cool. It was a walk through his career so far, his major projects and commissioned work, and what he’s been learning. I took several pages of notes in the Moleskine… and now to decipher my handwriting and share a bit. I don’t want to make a transcript, so I’m skipping around and weaving together some of the things he talked about.
Take a look at his big projects: Portraits, Sleeping by the Mississippi (“the 3rd coast”), Niagara, Fashion Magazine, and Dog Days, Bogot?°.
Here are a few of my favorite photographs, matched with Soth’s words that may or may not have been uttered around the time the slide was up:
- In Europe a lot of the Mississippi photographs are thought of as a critique of America. For him, it was about the excitement of travel and discovery. “For me, it’s Huck Finn’s raft.”
- “I’m not good at photographing a contained thing.”
- “I really aim to be empathetic.”
- “Simple often makes a better picture.”
- “You can’t trust new passion.”
Back in his high school days, Soth was a painter, but “wasn’t comfortable in the studio.” Too antsy, too fidgety. It was a Joel Sternfeld photo in particular that turned him to photography, one that showed the photographer’s own car in the distance as just another part of the scenery. Like Sternfeld, Soth “wanted to be out in the world.” He was painfully shy when he first got started (“I was shaking, sweating”), but yet he was drawn to portraiture. And the portraits aren’t just snapshot candids—they often take some awkward negotiation with a stranger and time to fiddle with gear and set up the shot. So the photo is not only about the person but also about “the space between us.” The irony is that Soth wanted to be out in the world, drawing on the passion and energy and intimacy, but a lot of his work touches on the desire for withdrawal and evasion and anger and disconnection and decline and violence. So there’s this internal artistic tension.
Soth said, “One of the frustrating things when I show my pieces is people searching for little clues.” So he started taking on specific project themes for his work, one of the first of these was the Mississippi project. In a way, the theme serves as another sort of evasive maneuver—it relieves some of the artistic pressure, the self-consciousness. “I don’t always know what I’m doing at the beginning… it evolves over time.”
Some interesting quotes on his craft, out of context:
- “For me, photography is not like storytelling… It’s evocative, you make these connections… That’s the poetic model: people respond in their own way.”
- “A list gets you focused, and then it leads to something else.”
- “Because I’m a stranger, I can ask a question and get an intimate response.”
- “I’m trying to please myself… my audience is me.”
And, lastly, Soth’s three levels of artistic achievement:
- When the work causes the audience to reconsider their life