Alec Soth

Posted in Photography on Dec 04, 2009


Alec Soth takes you to places you’ve never been.

alec's whitney biennial 2004 piece

alec's whitney biennial 2004 piece

Alec Soth is one of today’s most high-regarded photographers.  His talent became widely recognized in 2004 when he was included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial 2004 (the Biennial strives to showcase the state of art at that moment.)  Actually, he wasn’t just in the Biennial, he was a standout:  in addition to rave reviews, he was one of three artists highlighted by a Time magazine piece about the Biennial…and even the image-sparse Wall Street Journal showcased one of Alec’s images from the exhibition. (see the Biennial piece above)

What draws me into Alec’s work is that the people seem so real and exposed and raw — even the people-free images stir all kinds of emotion and discomfort (but the good kind — the kind that makes you thoughtful or grateful.)

When I saw Alec and his work at a gallery a few years ago, I had a chance to ask ask him if the people in his photos are posed.

alec soth

alec soth

They aren’t. He also pointed out that most people tend to be stiff when they have their photos taken,  but because the equipment he uses makes the process of taking a photo so long,* the people become more comfortable and even unaware that they are subjects.  I love keeping that in mind when I look at his work.

Alec has won countless awards and grants and his series of works are made into gorgeous art books. His latest book, Allowing Flowers, is something particularly close to his heart.  It’s a volunteer project to benefit CommonBond, which creates housing for people in need in the Upper Midwest. (purchase the book through CommonBond)

I’ve made some slide shows of Alec’s work (give it a few seconds to start playing after you hit the play button) — it’s a sampling of some of his series…you’ll definitely want more and can get it at his website.  By the way, don’t miss Alec’s answer in the Proust Questionnaire about how he solves his creative blocks…sounds like something we should all take on (even if it means doing it standing…!)


* Alec uses an 8×10 view camera — it’s a very large camera.
He uses no assistant on personal projects and to get a photo he has to slide in a new film holder for each shot — in other words, it takes a long time.
Love photography? Check out Eric Melzer and Gail Albert Halaban.

You’re probably asked to do pro-bono work all the time — why did you choose to do Allowing Flowers?

There were a whole bunch of reasons to take this on. Of course, Common Bond is a fantastic organization. Moreover, they are local. Along with making the project logistically easier, it felt good to do something in my own town. But what really put me over the top was the project itself. When I was invited to be involved, I was told it would be a high quality book. These are the magic words. My single goal as a photographer is too make great books. Everything else is fine, but this is what I really want to do with my life. So I was given an opportunity to do something good for the community and make a book. It doesn’t get any better.

alec soth “allowing flowers”

What was your intention for this project? Is it trying to convey a certain message?

As is always the case, I never know what I’m doing when I start. All I knew was that CommonBond provided housing for people in need and that I was going to photograph some residents. On the first day of shooting, I photographed a woman in St. Paul. (This picture is edited out of the final sequence). I was impressed with how nice the home was. This didn’t feel like tough, institutional housing. But she hadn’t been there long and it needed some color. So I asked her if I could bring in some flowers. Of course I left the flowers with her when we were done.

Later I was thinking about how good it felt to give her flowers. This simple little gesture was nice for her, and nice for me. It seemed to me that this was really what charitable giving is all about. So it seemed like a nice metaphor for the project.

But there was something else. In the back of my mind I was thinking about the idea that people in need are just as worthy of living with flowers as the rest of us. CommonBond tries to do more than just put a roof over people’s heads. They try to give people a place where they can live with grace. That is when I came up with the title.

In Allowing Flowers, you entered your subjects’ homes. When you enter such a personal space, do you try to get in and out quickly or do you spend time trying to get to know them a little before you start shooting?

It really varies. But I would be lying if I said that I’m the type of photographer who spends hours and hours getting to know people. Virtually all of my photography focuses on strangers because I like the mystery…the not knowing.  I like getting a peek into people’s lives and then imagining the rest. I admire photographers who go deeper, but it just isn’t my way of doing things.

diablo cody 2007

diablo cody 2007

Do you ever try to direct a shot or do you typically let it unfold naturally?

Mostly I like to let things unfold. But it really varies from project to project. On wholly independent projects, there is no pressure to make a great picture. If I’m in the middle of a shoot and things aren’t working, I can just leave. But when I’m doing a magazine assignment, I have to get the picture. The editors ask for a picture of X, and I better come home with a damn good picture of X.

Allowing Flowers was somewhere in between a personal project and a commercial shoot. It was personal in the sense that I was given complete editorial control, but I was dealing with the deadlines and fixed subject matter. In my personal work I often drive around and wait for something to catch my eye. With Allowing Flowers, I was given a list of people to photograph. In this situation, I often need to give more direction to make something happen.

When did you realize your passion for photography and how did you launch it into a career?

I was a bit lost in high school. I was an introspective kid, a dreamer, and didn’t really know how to channel those impulses. But in 10th grade I had a fantastic art teacher, Bill Hardy, who just opened everything up for me. He got me into doing painting. But in college I realized that this wasn’t my medium. I’ve never been comfortable making work in the studio. I need to be out wandering around. So I started doing temporary sculptures outdoors and documented them photographically. This eventually led to pursuing photography itself.

But I had a hard time seeing it as a career. In college I assisted some commercial photographers  and was absolutely miserable. It had nothing to do with that introspective dreaming I was talking about. So I figured it would just be something I did on the side. I made my living doing darkroom work and then later digital imaging.

Around 2002 I finished a project, Sleeping by the Mississippi, which ended up getting a lot of attention. I seized this opportunity to turn my passion into a full-fledged career.

alec soth: last days of W; fashion magazine

Both the New York Times and New Yorker have likened your work to Walker Evans’ work — is he, in fact, an influence on you?

It is pretty much impossible to be an American photographer and not be influenced one way or another by Evans.  He was the crucial link between Alfred Stieglitz and Robert Frank in American photography. The crucial thing, for me, was his idea of ‘documentary style.’ He applied the look and feel of straightforward documentation toward a more lyrical and literary end.

Which of your projects has had the most impact on you?

Asking me to name my favorite baby…ouch. Well, here’s the thing. When I look at Sleeping by the Mississippi now, I really can’t stand a lot of the pictures. I’m a much more mature photographer now and there are lots of things I’d change. But the project as a whole, and the memory of its making, means a great deal to me. I remember when I left on my first major road trip. I took my van, got to the Mississippi and said to myself, ‘I can turn right, or I can turn left.’ That was such an incredible feeling. It was so liberating. My whole world was opened up on that trip. In a way it has never closed down. So I’ll always have great affection for the spirit of that work.

alec soth: niagara, sleeping by the mississippi; dog days, bogota

Do you work with a theme in mind? And if so, do you pick a theme and then shoot photos to match that theme, or do you pick a general subject (e.g., Mississippi River or Niagara Falls) and then figure it out as the photos materialize?

I usually have a loose theme and then focus as things go along. With Niagara, for example, I’d never previously been to the Falls. But I knew I wanted to shoot there in order to use the Falls as a way to talk about love. But the more time I spent there, the more nuanced the meaning became. It wasn’t about love as much as it was about the power and potential destructiveness of passion. When I was done, I had something pretty dark on my hands. That wasn’t at all my intention when I started.

You’ve had people trust you enough to photograph them nude (in “Niagara.”)  How do you get complete strangers to be subjects for you, clothed or not?

I just try to be honest. I try to explain to people who I am and what I’m doing. With those Niagara nudes, for example, I would say that I’m a photographer who makes books and shows in galleries and I’m doing a project about love. Often this doesn’t make a lot of sense to people, but if you lie, all sorts of things can go awry. But in terms of finding people, well, I just ask. It is awkward. I sometimes feel like one of those guys on the street handing out fliers. I get rejected a lot. It’s a strange business.

Has being a dad influenced your work?

Absolutely. When I mentioned earlier that incredible freedom I felt at the Mississippi (turn right or left?), well, it really changes with kids. When I’m gone now, I often just want to turn around and go home.

I have two kids, a 7 year old girl and 3 year old boy. I often say to my wife that I can barely remember what life was like before they came along. So there is no doubt that my work has changed too.

I’m not going to lie. Having kids while managing a career in the arts isn’t easy. I travel constantly and my income is always fluctuating. It is a bit of a rollercoaster. But having kids makes me a better artist. It makes me more focused and gives the work grounding.

Any advice on how to capture our children’s personalities in a photograph?  How do you draw out character in a still?

You know, the cobbler’s child wears no shoes. So I’m probably not the best one to ask. But I’ll say this. The thing you want with kids is a fast camera. All of these little point and shoots are so slow to react. Buy an SLR. Or, better yet, just shoot video. The quality of HD video is getting so good that you can just print stills.

Proust Questionnaire for Alec Soth:

My favorite snack is:  cheese & crackers
Don’t ask me to:  share my Chapstick
I would put in a time capsule:  my book maquettes
My favorite place is:  Memphis (or my imagination)
When I have a creative block:  I nap
My favorite mantra is:  ‘I want to make something great’