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:

William Klein's New York

In 1954 William Klein returned to New York from his adopted country France and began to photograph it in a “new way”.  He was an American returning home for eight months after spending six years in Europe and as such was like a foreigner arriving to a new land.  This alienation from the streets and the people he grew up with allowed him to reassess them as an outsider while his familiarity allowed him to relate to them as a local.

'I was a make believe ethnographer: treating new yorkers like an explorer would treat zulus - searching for the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography.'

William Klein, Pepsi and Moves, Harlem, New York, 1955

Klein was returning as an artist using photography as his medium and not just a photographer looking to art for inspiration.  The work was coarse, raw and full of energy.  It resonated with the spontaneity and immediacy that American art was showing at the time. Its primitive and gestural characteristics echoing the “action paintings” of Jackson Pollock.

Klein's presence was evident in all his images.  His physical presence felt through his engagement with his subjects, his vivid technique and style or simply through the angle he would hold the camera.  It was action photography. His images lunged and arrested sometimes feeling like stills ripped from a movie reel and re-presented in their raw state.

William Klein, Vertical Diamonds 1953 (Abstract Art)

Jackson Pollock at work, 1950

Klein rejected conformity.  His shots were often blurred or out of focus. He used fast film and wide angles.  He was transferring abstract art techniques to the real life streets of New York.  He applied a visual filter of movement, blur and haziness to the exuberance of life on the street and in doing so amplified its inherent intensity.

Candy Store, William Klein, New York, 1955
Without any formal photographic training Klein had now created his own style. His technique and approach shocked the photography world.  He had captured life on the streets like no other photographer before.  The subjects were always engaged and engaging. Klein wasn’t capturing life as it went by but was capturing life as it unfolded and wrapping it up in its own aura of visual energy.  Klein then added an extra layer of vitality to every frame through his experimental techniques with flash, blur, close-ups, wide-angle, grab shots, abstraction, noise, and grainy textural qualities.

St. Patricks' Day, 5th Avenue, William Klein, 1955

The city Klein portrays was one of multicultural and social dynamism.  There was little of today's skepticism in the faces of its subjects. The people and the streets of New York were willing and active participants in Klein's portrayal. He showed the underlying exuberance of the city and its sense of fun.  Where there was evidence of darkness there was never threat or menace.  Even his most disturbing and iconic photo from the series turns out to be theatre.

"'s fake violence, a parody. I asked the boy to point the gun at me and then look tough. He did, and then we both laughed…"

Gun #1, William Klein, New York, 1955

Along with Robert Frank's book The Americans (1958), Klein's New York (1955) would eventually become recognised as one of the the most ground breaking works on street photography in America. Both men took a real, honest and sometimes harsh look at life while also rebelling against the traditions of aesthetic formality prevalent in photography to that date. Frank's images were more distant and less violent than Klein's. They both showed America as it had never been shown before but it was Klein that pushed more aggressively the filter through which we saw this "new" America.

Elevator, Miami Beach, Robert Frank, 1955

In Klein’s New York life stopped for no-one.  There was no time to focus, no time to stop and look…just time to glimpse or catch the world as it went by. It was instinctive and in your face.

lsa Maxwell’s Toy Ball, William Klein, New York, 1955