Alec Soth, Seeing Feelings
“Photography is a very lonely medium. There’s a kind of beautiful loneliness in voyeurism. And that’s why I’m a photographer.” –Alec Soth, 138*
Photographers are watchers foremost. Some watch with the intention to belie what they see, and some do so with the hope of capturing that which they observe. Alec Soth is certainly in the latter category, peer to a growing group of contemporary photographers who are all looking to eschew the cold conceptualism of the Düsseldorf School by appealing to that which is still warm in all of us. To say that Mr. Soth’s work is visceral gets to the point quickly, but his pictures portray a lyricism as well. This intangible quality is easily felt in photographs of a certain age, as in those of Walker Evans, Garry Winnogrand, Diane Arbus, et al; however, in the medium’s fight to be the champion expression of the post-modern age, photos that simply “tell a story” became passé.
In the art world of the 1980’s, photography played a principal role, and artists like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Sophie Calle, Jenny Holzer, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and the aforementioned Germans all pushed the pursuit of picture-taking into new directions. Walter Benjamin’s antiquated notion that photography lacked the “aura” of painting** had become superceded by the concept that art was the idea and the idea was the art (no nod to Gertrude Stein’s Rose). The fact that a photograph was a reproducible thing no longer hindered its bid for art world acceptance; if anything, this lack of physical propriety helped images make it onto gallery walls and into installations. Unfortunately though, this newfound attention cost photography its Modernist spirit. Until this time, photography’s best case for it being art was in its aestheticism (a beautiful composition was tough to achieve, and if it “said” something, all the better). The new “photographic art” needed to lose its dependence on aesthetics and the real; it needed to ignore photographic truth and embrace artistic truth, and this was conditioned most successfully by Berndt and Hilla Becher (founders of the Düsseldorf School).
That said, outside of New York, in both the West Coast and the American Midwest of the 1990’s, photography began to slowly take on another new character, one that did not fully make obsolete its own history. This photography embraced documentation, but borrowed some of the solemn compositioning of more conceptual photographic art. Historically, this was not a sudden trend, but more of a slow growth off the radar. New Topographics photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz inspired thoughtful re-contextualizing by artists like Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, who in turn became the de facto prophets for this new breed***. Suddenly, there was some room for subject again in picture-making, and an obscure photographer from Minnesota found himself at the forefront of a worldwide movement (including contemporaries such as Pieter Hugo, Rineke Dijkstra, Taryn Simon, An-My Lê, etc.).
“The mission of the photographer is to put a frame around things you have seen all your life and yet haven’t seen at all.” –David Goldblatt, 165`
Putting a frame around something you see might seem easy at first, and it is precisely this perceptual flaw that misbegets Alec Soth’s stirring pictures. Looking at Mr. Soth’s body of work unveils a surprising wide range of subject matter, from headshots to full body portraits, from landscapes to small environments, from objects big to small. This variety, combined with a half-hearted read, might lead one to conclude that his imagery is haphazard, or that it was shot quickly while on the go; both assumptions are far from the truth. Alec Soth, like many photographers influenced by Shore or Sternfeld, photographs using a large-format view camera. The laborious process of lugging around this heavy equipment, and setting it up lends itself to highly considered compositions and, where people are concerned, situations leaning toward intimacy. Photographers like Soth have said that their 8×10 or 4×5 cameras are both a barrier and a battering ram, meaning that they provide both a comfortable distance between subject and practitioner and a lengthiness to the shoot facilitating a means for their sitters to “open up”. With this in mind, a closer look at Soth’s work reveals a simultaneous exploration of and familiarity with whatever subject is photographed. In interviews, the artist has described this peculiar sensibility as going beyond mere storytelling, to the point where the photographer becomes a protagonist in the picture’s narrative“.
“…something about going out into the world and hearing people’s stories was exciting. It was as though I’d forgotten that reality could be interesting. …But it’s also about my feelings about the role of photography, too. Are we documenting something, or are we trying to create something? What was I doing there? …sometimes you think, eighty years ago the world must have been black and white. But of course it didn’t actually look like those photographs. The way that it was photographed shaped that reality just as much then as now.” –Alec Soth, (26)“`
Alec Soth’s decisions about what photography does or should do are impacted by his multiple roles within photography, that of artist, documentarian/journalist (Soth is a member of Magnum Photos), and publisher (he owns Little Brown Mushroom, a small publishing company for creatives). Simultaneous to the maturing of Alec Soth and his peers as artists, the greater photographic community re-embraced the photo book, which has imparted a certain flow to how photographers like Soth go about producing their imagery. When taking pictures whose eventual aim are to be published in sequence, the photographer must make decisions about how that narrative unfolds. Of course, this affects everything, from what individual images look like to what their function is. Context is key, but in a gallery setting, this can sometimes be interrupted. Jason Fulford compares photography to language, in the sense that the words surrounding a word change its meaning: think tank, tank top^. Likewise, if we take a series of images directly out of one of Alec Soth’s books, and re-sequence them, we change their meaning completely. This is an interesting dilemma to have to be conscious of while photographing, and because of it some images may look uneventful or somber when viewed apart. It is a very interesting paradox of photography in our age, that an image can be both full and empty depending upon what you may happen to see directly before it, and/or directly after it.
Little Brown Mushroom (LBM), the publishing company, is a play on words relating to both the actual spore, which Soth has photographed, and a pseudonym (or, at least, I think so) that he uses as a photographer and a writer: Lester B. Morrison. Lester has appeared as a commentator on Soth’s blog, as a contributor to books published by LBM, and as the author of some of Soth’s zanier works, often published as zines. Publicly, Alec Soth denies that Morrison is a fragment of himself^^, insisting instead that he is a recluse and a real person. Often, he says this with a wry smile.
The world of contemporary photography is far removed from that of the medium’s inception. Although, to some degree, the adventurous spirit inspired by opening oneself up to reality as its cipher remains, or at least it does in photographers like Alec Soth. However, it is no longer pertinent to record a picture in order to know what something looks like; in a society inundated with pictures, a photographer of merit takes photographs in order to know what pictured reality feels like (even when it’s banal). Looking through Alec Soth’s images, you get that sense, but if you still need some clarification, just go ask Lester B. Morrison.
* From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America; edited by Siri Engberg; 2011.
** The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; Walter Benjamin; 1936.
*** “Joel Sternfeld was a teacher of mine at Sarah Lawrence so, inevitably, I get compared to him. For a long time I tried to run away from it, but then I accepted his influence and worked through it.” –Alec Soth, in interview with Walker Art Center; 2010.
` The Pleasures of Good Photographs; Gerry Badger; 2012.
“ From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America; edited by Siri Engberg; 2011.
“` Aperture, issue number 209, winter 2012; conversation with Brad Zeller.
^ Aperture, issue number 208, summer 2012.