Wednesday, March 20, 2013

His name is Alec Soth (rhymes with ‘both’)

As a fine-art photographer Alec Soth’s work has been exhibited widely in solo and group shows, and he has received numerous fellowships and photographic awards for his work. Whilst firmly entrenched in the art world, Soth maintains a healthy scepticism about its long term prospects —
“I don’t trust artworld success” (1) — and is also a member of Magnum Photos. Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, he now works not only as a photographer, but is a prolific blogger, and since 2008 has run his own publishing and photographics services business, Little Brown Mushroom.

Alec Soth was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2006, for his exhibition, Sleeping by the Mississippi. This body of work, photographed from 1999 to 2004, is recognised as being a nuanced and tightly edited reflection and poetic musing on the landscape and life of inhabitants along the iconic river. This exhibition contains one of his most recognised images: Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002. This work also received attention and brought Soth recognition as part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial in New York.

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002 from Sleeping by the Mississippi

Luxora, Arkansas 2002 from Sleeping by the Mississippi

Kaskaskia, Illinois 2002 from Sleeping by the Mississippi
Cemetery, Fountain City, Wisconsin 2002 from Sleeping by the Mississippi
Soth’s work fits within the tradition of great American photographic monographs, and the photography journey or road trip; which runs through American Photographs by Walker Evans, The Americans by Robert Frank, American Prospects by Joel Sternfeld, and the work of William Eggleston amongst others. His wide influences are noticeable in his work, as he appears to mimic and shift between various classic photographic genres or archetypes: the outsider portrait, the deserted landscape, the decaying interior, still lifes and so forth. Geoff Dyer points out that Soth includes in his photographs (whether intentional or not) little visual notes which effectively, and unavoidably, reference the whole history of photography. Dyer particularly notes the inclusion of a hat and its reference to Walker Evans' Negro Barber Shop Interior, Atlanta 1936.(2) Soth himself discusses the complicated relationship that exits between an artist and their influences, and the need to confront and move beyond them. As part of Aperture Remix, a series of responses to influential Aperture publications, Soth acknowledges Robert Adams as an important influence, and completed a video piece as a homage to Summer Nights. Soth also cites his teacher Joel Sternfeld as an important catalyst in his decision to be a photographer.(3) 

Jimmie's Apartment, Memphis, Tennessee 2002
from Sleeping by the Mississippi

Soth says he is a ‘book photographer’; one who “knows how books work and how to sequence for a book”(4), and that rather than aiming to create single great images, he is interested in making series of images which hang together as a unified whole.(5) Within his work there is a common concern for stories and the desire for a narrative to emerge, and hover just below the surface — “photographs are not good at telling stories, but they are good at suggesting stories”.(6) Little Brown Mushroom also states that it, 'is committed to exploring the narrative potential of the photo book'. There is an obvious attraction to the outsider in Soth’s work, which extends not only to capturing a subject, but also in communicating a little of their story as well; an examples being the notes included at the end of Sleeping by the Mississippi and Niagara. But he does this with caution, and says “I hunger to tell stories. But it is dangerous. Words can easily ruin pictures”.(7)

 Falls 26, 2005 from Niagara

Tricia and Curtis, 2005 from Niagara

Image notes from Niagara
In what seems a desire to expand the concept of the photo book, a low-key humour can be glimpsed in From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America (2010), the exhibition catalogue for Soth’s Walker Art Center retrospective. The is cover emblazoned with such enticements as: “Page 199: A camoufleur’s guide to getting noticed”, “137 Caves, buy or rent?”, “90 The greatest love letter ever written” and “177 Learn how to repel women”. Inside is a mixture of images from all of his previous bodies of work, a couple of critical essays which contextualise his work, and some accompanying reflective pieces. This is broken up with snippets of Soth’s blog posts - printed on bright red pages. Ironically, at one point he bemoans the use of ‘American’ in the titles of a whole list of iconic photography publications, in the process revealing the importance he places on the titling of a body of work.

The straightforward and slightly quirky style of blogging seen in From Here to There is still evident in the newer Little Brown Mushroom blog format, although it has more emphasis on promotion. Soth still muses on things like what art is, and the artist’s place in the world. The blog is also populated by a few other identities, including the recurring Lester B Morrison — listed as a writer who Soth collaborates with on his book Broken Manual, but who is mysteriously unavailable (8) —  and Osage Gelder. The two write posts often addressed to each other and contribute odd bits and pieces obliquely related to Soth’s work, or Little Brown Mushroom. Given Soth’s love of stories, here it could be that he is trying to invent one of his own. 

Cave Home, 2008 from Broken Manual

Untitled, 2006 from Broken Manual

Alec Soth and Little Brown Mushroom can also be found here on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Flickr, amongst other places.

(1) A. Soth. From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. (Minneapolis,: Walker Art Center, 2010), 353.
(2) G. Dyer, “Riverrun” in A.Soth. From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. (Minneapolis,: Walker Art Center, 2010), 78-82.
(3) A. Schuman. The Mississippi: An Interview with Alec Soth. Originally published in Seesaw Magazine, August 2004. (Available online at &
(4) See video: PBS Hour Photographer Alec Soth on a Life of Approaching Strangers (Available online:
(5) A. Schuman. The Mississippi: An Interview with Alec Soth.
(6) A. Soth. From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. (Minneapolis,: Walker Art Center, 2010), 36.
(7) A. Schuman. The Mississippi: An Interview with Alec Soth.
(8) E. Kerr. A photographer, a writer and a mysterious recluse collaborate on story about running away. Minnesota Public Radio. (Available online:

No comments:

Post a Comment