Alec Soth revisited

(talk with Alec Soth HERE; previous visit to the exhibition HERE)

Before making my second visit to the Alec Soth exhibition, I watched an interview with the photographer from YouTube with ASX. “taking pleasure in the insanities of life” is what Soth says of Weegee; Soth also sees himself as working in the same vein. Perhaps this is what makes me wary of Soth! I find overall the work although brilliantly constructed to be somewhat oppressive. A lot of sadness is reflected in the people he photographs! Even the happy family from Niagara are actually a combination of about 4 families owing to divorce. Both talks about a joyous element to his work but I do not necessarily find this apparent.
Soth references photographic history in his work e.g. Grafilex camera, press photography from early days, Weegee etc Falling in and out of love with photography. Tried film making but it did not go very well. Depressing subject matters; Soth pursuing his vision e.g. people who had run away from society but still needed contact …likes to educate others about photography … particularly the young. Wants to do something good. Has own publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom; it became too successful after awhile …now a Magnum photographer! Magnum photographers are “authors” says Soth.
“Form Here to There” was an early work by Soth; I am more interested in moving from There to Here!
There is something that does not appeal to me about Soth! It is his focus on the “insanities of life” perhaps that leaves me feeling dispirited yet so much contemporary art is like this; to create something cheerful seems inappropriate …

OCA students gather at Media Space; tutor Helen Warburton facing far left.

The college meet early for a full day. Helen Warburton is the OCA tutor for the event; first met her a few years ago when she was working for Ffotogallery in Wales. Now she works part time for Thames and Hudson as well as the OCA. There are about 10 students for the day most of whom I know.
We start by seeing the exhibition. I tackle Helen over references in Soth’s work to other photographers such as W.Eggleston and Ansel Adams. Does it matter that others won’t understand these references? No, because the photograph always has multiple meanings some of which will mean nothing to the majority yet Soth consciously references other photographers, a fact most likely to pass almost all visitors.
Sees himself as an American photographer.

various editions of Sleeping by the Mississippi are also exhibited


Helen points out various versions of the book of Sleeping by the Missisipi inside a zine. The covers show different photographs and some are different sizes, formats etc Soth self-published the book before Steidl took it on and have so far made 3 editions, all with different covers.
Niagara room has a lot of blue! There is underlying sadness too as in much of Soth’s work. He refers to “vulnerability” in his work.
Impala? Photograph of statue that looks like a horse. Impala is presumably a reference to the place.

a monk in the woods

Capable of making really pleasing photographs such as the one of the Niagara Falls and from the Broken Manual, a picture of a monkish man dressed in black dwarfed by the trees of the forest he is in.
Broken Manual about people who want to and try to disappear.
Soth’s palette worth considering! Songbook is made in black and white. More stark perhaps. Walls of this room are a very light grey, zone 7.5 perhaps, and prints have white mounts. Frames are narrow black.
Songbook about Alec trying to rediscover photography. Mimicking early press photography in particular the Graphiflex. Evidence of flash. Soth trying to function as a photojournalist of a previous era. Referencing Weegee in particular.
Joy? Soth does say he wants to communicate this. Helen finds the images unsettling. Does Soth succeed in communicating joy? Or is it just irony! Whatever Soth’s images are very considered.
Views on wildlife photo-exhibition as draining; images too bright, backlit,
Children’s entries ??
Upset about images of poached animals
Photos from gallery
Hellen Van Meene
Peter Fraser
Colour work
Zhao Renhui
Institute of Critical Zoologists

Curator Kate Bush (speaking) gives a tour

After lunch, there is a curator lead tour ( which most of us could not hear!) by Kate Bush
Soth, a photographer’s photographer
Works in many different ways … Fine art, Magnum reportage, Instagram etc, engaging teenagers …
Thought process behind each body of work!
Mississipi project relates to the idea of the American road trip such as Robert Frank; bleak view of America! Yet like Sternfield, Soth used a large format camera and focused on picture making … Just one trip? No several!
(I notice that a landscape photograph from end of book is missing from the exhibition!?)
Niagara a body of Soth’s work that followed his marriage to a childhood sweetheart (female)!
Made a picture postcard view but progressed to taking more individual photographs.; Niagara Falls photo a sublime image of nature at it’s most powerful.
Reason for photo of woman used to advertise the exhibition?
Photography a serial medium; need to show a narrative !
Photographs staged rather than shot from hip.
Lyrical documentary
Stallion called Impala!? Name of place perhaps!
Photography a medium about distancing oneself from the world
Broken Manual about many people living in the wildernesses of America yet still contactable via the Internet. Why all men?
Privilege to be an artist; duty to be playful!
Placing literature in centre of gallery under glass relating to the body of work!
Romantic landscape idea in photograph of monk.
House built into cave; humorous touch is a visable TV dish.
About loneliness followed by intensely social subject matter …
Songbook 2012-2014
Invented his own paper with friend; less interest stories.
Trace of irony in his work but do Americans do irony?!
Sweet and joyful images?

student discussion

Kieran points out that Mississipi images are much smaller than others in the exhibition!

SOMEWHERE TO DISSAPPEAR is a film about Alec Soth’s Broken Manual
Project about the idea of escape rather than escape!
Visiting men who live in remote areas
Photographing the places where they live!
About fear and loneliness, simplicity … subject of retreating from the world. for purchasing out of the way places!
People who see themselves as refugees; freedom not to pay taxes!
Scared Rabit Syndrome … Fear of authorities!
People who live in out of the way places …
Soth photographs the world the way it is …
Ethical issues … Some people love the attention, desperate for love!
OCA tutor Helen Warburton suggests considering the following points … 
Soth being part of a network
Soth meteoric rise
Look at Soth Kickstarter campaign
Why an exhibition?
Can one compare this exhibition with others?
e.g. JMC next door who used her friends to help promote her work
Who proposed this exhibition?
Shift in nature of his work suggests reflective nature of work
Number of crosses in photographs? More interested in photos with beds!
Does the height of the display cases exclude children?
Differences between book and exhibition?
Curator is pushing lyrical poetic quality of work above other qualities?

Julia Margaret Cameron at 200


cleaning the V&A Museum

This was a one day conference that I attended at The Victoria and Albert Museum and which was overshadowed by a misunderstanding. During the morning session, a man came to speak to a woman in front of me and I had the feeling that they were discussing me; a few moments later, the woman in question asked me to leave the lecture theatre as she needed to talk to me. There was an objection from her superior to my photographing! This surprised me as it a common practice to make images of speakers when attending a function such as this yet I should have turned off the AF Focusing device on my camera as this projects a beam that can be seen by others; I presume in retrospect that I was distracting others and accept my mistake! However, the insinuation was that I was making photos of images, some of which are in private collections, and hence this might be contravening copyright restrictions. I assured the lady, at least tried to, that I was a mature student with the Open College of the Arts and was merely making images to accompany my blog (it helps to had an image of a speaker) and would not be reproducing images that might be copyright bound. The unpleasantness about this was that I was singled out when others were also making photographs including one of the speakers who definitely was more I tested in recording photos being shown rather than the speaker! This little incident made me question the role of the V&A in photography.

In regard to the conference itself, I found it related to culture and history rather than the medium of photography. For instance, a talk on the procedure that Cameron used to make her prints would have been relevant since she clearly struggled with technique which in those early days was not standardised. There was no Zone system, a formula for making black and white prints that was developed in the mid-twentieth century almost a century after Cameron.
Nevertheless, the conference was interesting though I was not in agreement with all the speakers. There is much more to find out about Cameron, JMC as I refer to her, and while she is agreeable to post-modernist thinking, later eras might not be so tolerant of her “accidents”.

Marta Weiss, exhibition curator, talking

A couple of days before the conference, I had attended a talk by the curator of the exhibition, Marta Weiss, who is also responsible for the catalogue published by MACK, in which she has written a long introduction. The most interesting part of this was the chapter entitled “Her mistakes were her successes” which deals with the sometimes sloppy technique of JMC.
 Weiss pointed out that JMC had friends in London society and was well connected. The
Great Exhibition showed photographs such as those by Ludwig Belitiski c.1855 lent by Prince Albert while the V&A was collecting such photographs; a museum without walls.
Salt prints, albumen prints are on show. Remarkable that JMC being collected by a museum of that time; she was friends with Henry Cole, director of the V&A, who she photographed.
 Annie, 1864, an albumen print; she considered it her first success. Only been photographing a short while! Given her first camera at 48. Photography quite complicated at that time; print making not easy. Technique of umbrella held over subject to control light. Portraits, Madonna groups subjects and picturesque motifs/fanciful subjects for pictorial effect.
May 1865 she asked Cole to accept collections of her photographs and was accepted. JMC believed in photography as an art form rather than an instrument of science; she also seems to have believed in herself!
Letter to Cole, 1866, writes that her photographs “should electrify you with delight and startle the world.” Had increased negative size in 1865. Focused on face rather than body except when making group portraits; she focuses on portraiture even though she lived in very beautiful countryside!
1868 used 2 rooms in V&A for making photographs; she had commercial ambitions as well as artistic intentions. Trying to be a professional art photographer. Her portrait of Charles Darwin made in 1868 is still used on £10 notes
JMC attracted controversy. Some did not like her “slovenliness of manipulation” (BJP in May 1865) while other praised the artistry of her soft focus. JMC tolerated criticism.
JMC was innovative sometimes printing only part of negative or combining them, scratching negatives to create dark backgrounds; concern for her process. Flaws over cracking and smears on negatives.
A collection of photographs emerged later on. Found by researchers after being donated in 1941, having belonged to G.F.Watts who offered JMC advice on her work. Watts mentioned her “careless, or imperfect manipulation” as well as commenting on her compositional skills. JMC was constantly trying to improve her work.
There is a short Q&A session! The original negatives are not surviving; some glass plates might have been used in making greenhouses, a custom of the time. The V&A collection is mostly of earlier work; no Singhalese photos for instance. Photography her first artistic endeavour!
Weiss also gave the first talk of the day conference and it was good to hear from someone who really did know her material and when questioned, was able to add to the subject rather than defend or further explain a point of view.
JMC was associated with V&A since she knew Sir Henry Cole who bought and accepted her photos. Cole was photographed by her at Little Holland House where the two met. Cole mentions an umbrella being held over him by a German girl. Xmas 1863 JMC given her first camera; 18 months later she was making exceptional photographs though her first success was in early 1864. By 1865, selling photographs to the V&A. The museum were collecting JMC’s more artistic work.
November 1865 BJP commenting on her work. Edward Fox’s photographs of trees also acquired; more scientific in approach.
Photography concerned with the passage of time!
Henry Cole aware of the power of photography in making copies of old masters etc; mentions a Rafaelle drawing being sold for £200 at Sotheby’s which could be made available to the working man for 5p owing to photography.

Erika Lederman

The next speaker is Erika Lederman, a colleague of Weiss at the V&A, whose research for the exhibition started by looking for provenance relating to the photographs of JMC held at the V&A. All objects were initially recorded in an Excel spreadsheet!
Apart from photographs there were also letters and notes; she was able to explore the V&A archives that include numerous records of acquisitions, letters relating to JMC, registered papers, index cards no longer in use, files about individuals connected to JMC etc
A few of these records such as letters from a descendant of JMC proved revealing and explained the provenance of many unknown photos.
Of Chance and Life
The next speaker is Robin Kelsey from Harvard University. He mentions the obsession with JMC! Lot of imperfections to photographs! JMC not over concerned with this as she pursued more artistic ambitions; she never accepted that she had improved as a photographer!
Accommodation of accident radical. Ran against both artistic and photographic institutions of the time. Gives an insight into the modernity of the time.
Hailing from the colonies, she stood out against the society of her time. She also later suffered from debt as family fortunes failed due to the collapse of coffee growing in Sri Lanka.
The value of the imperfect copy. Can be understood in relation to her colonial past in which the original culture was far away. The colonial background enabled her to work like this and uphold more traditional values that England had lost.
Her social status was threatened by the collapse of her family’s coffee business.
Annals of my glass house is a short book by JMC that is worth reading.
The low aesthetic taste of the popular seen in more technically perfect works not something that appealed to her.
Function of accident in her work! Language in correspondence with Watts revealing of aesthetic conception; Watts still charmed by her work even though he was critical of it. She grudgingly tried to improve her technique but maintained her aesthetic inspirations.
Giving life to inert materials has been concern of art since the Renaissance!
Lady Eastlake questioned the thoughtless exactitude of photography.
JMC handled her lens tenderly! She preferred chiaroscuro rather than overhead lights and also ignored use of head rests. A mistake marks something as human, not conforming to the machine.
Tears appearing on photographs suggest femininity though some oppose this interpretation. Radical modernism of her practice!
Andy Warhol and JMC have similarities … pushed against norms in a theatrical way! Both made icons of people; subverting mechanicalness.
Barbara Bryant, an independent scholar, whose topic is Little Holland House. She mentions JMC’s relationship with G.F.Watts
JMC’s origins as a photographer did not start with gift of a camera. She also gained a great deal through her younger sisters at Holland House.
Exotic sense of style came from time in India.
Little Holland House is now part of Holland Park. A lot of eminent people visited. GF Watts had a studio here and painted JMC’s sisters. He wanted to avoid “vulgar” portraiture of the time. JMC inspired by Watts it seems.
Prince Albert was a photographic enthusiast as was Lord Somers, a brother in law to JMC.
Many considered photography to be unsurpassed in its’ rendition of beauty. OJ Rejlander from Sweden part of this group; sold work such as the Two Ways of Life to Prince Albert so became well known.
Dating photographs by looking at age of people in them.
Watts advised JMC on arranging drapery within photographs.
Watts nicknamed Signor owing to time he spent in Italy which was influential to him.
Photographs made for fun of friends etc good for developing composition but often there was no intention to use them.
Using photographs for drawing and painting also to create family trees.
Other people photographing in the 1850’s; JMC greatly influenced by photos being made around Watts at Little Holland House.
Signor an album put together at the time by JMC Watts (mentioned later in the day as a potential source for more to be found out about JMC; it is n longer in the UK).
Watts was not a member of the RA; struck out on his own to create something different.
Before we break for lunch here is a discussion.
(Someone objects to me taking photographs! I have been taking too many in an attempt to get a good one. The lady who approaches me is from the V&A; it is however a man presumably also from the V&A who has objected as I heard him talking to her! I understand that some lecturers might not want to be pictured and also that some of the photos being shown are from private collections; the latter are not my real interest. I am not the only one taking photographs of course, some of the lecturers are doing likewise! Others are using more powerful cameras than myself. This brings up questions about the use of photography but outside the remit of this conference. The objection reminds me of what Barthes said about restricting photography by making it art!)
Photographs as sketches. This approach was being pursued around Watts.
JMC made different kinds of albums.
Photographs aspiring to be live paintings. JMC wants life to be part of the photographs hence mistakes are part of her work.
Who might JMC be compared to today? Vivienne Westwood perhaps. Warhol not alike in personality but both had a similar kind of volcanic energy. (What about Annie Leibovitz as a contemporary JMC? She has photographed many celebrities including the queen yet managed to bankrupt herself! Technique though is faultless probably thanks to having many assistants. There is a similar flamboyance though, a sense of grandness.)
JMC remarkable in way she has survived the post modern shift; Ansel Adams does not seem to have done so.
Jungian interpretations of her work.
JMC claiming copyright for her work was taking advantage of new laws. She did have commercial aspirations, to be a professional artist.
Rapid career development owing to connections. Initially, had the money to do it but later did not. Easy to forget how difficult photography was in those days. Process less predictable. Focusing on ground glass not easy as well as chemical influences. JMC playing with the process, finding it fun. Did she become less enthused? Talk of her wonder being diminished but not her enjoyment of the process.
She took up photography to help with the education of one of her boys. From the beginning, she saw a commercial interest but this does not seem to have adversely effect her work.
Did JMC photograph her photographs? The official photographer at the V&A would have done so.
Honey-combing in images did bother her yet still a sign of life. ” A cruel calamity that befalls her negatives” was JMC view; she was alarmed by it! Her accommodation of accident different to some conceptual artists; deterioration over time not so appealing to JMC.
Inattentiveness to her own appearance was a characteristic of JMC!
(Did JMC consider herself to be an artist or just a photographer? This is a question I might have asked but did not!)
I make my way to a health food restaurant in Exhibition Road! Might have made more sense to have tried to talk to the lady organising but I did not feel drawn to making contact with any of the speakers.
The next talk is by Joanne Lukitsh, and concerns JMC’s Anglican Madonna
More on the dialogue that JMC continues to inspire. She did a lot of images about sacred maternity! Quotes from the Bible! E.g. John 14.19, James 5.16, Luke 2.19
Nine Fruits of the Spirit is one example of this kind of approach. Repurposing imagery from painting. Christian comment and attitudes towards the Madonna. Invoking Christianity and history of Western art.
Photographs named. E.g. Goodness (1864), also love, faith, meekness, gentleness, temperance, long-suffering, joy, peace …
Children also involved in these pictures.
These pictures are of the Anglican Madonna; another series called La Madonna and given Latin names.
There were objections to JMC’s use of Holy scripture.
Blessing and Blessed, Grace through love were different titles; Daughters of Jerusalem also Shadow of the Cross.
Cameron idea to make life size heads encouraged by Watts.
The shadow of the cross 1865, Devotion, La Madonna Purissima 1868 is a direct reference to Italian painting; downcast eyes …
Annals of my Glass House begins with mention of her international success; looks like she did not want to explore other themes such as practical problemsShe was concerned with the imperfections in the materiality of her work.
Cameron, Class, Colonialism by Juliet Hacking is the next talk.
Images of Sophia Dalrymple. Possible to identify and learn more about the photographs of JMC through close examination of details in images such as by looking closely at the architecture in the background. JMC was involved in photographs from 1850 as a model.
Idea of JMC as an eccentric and that she dignified photography with her social status?
Not seeing the Sri Lankan photographs as seperate as all her work is inspiredcolonial !!
Can you turn a man down if he is good and would take you off your parents? Is a theme behind one photo that reflects the morality of the time.
Colonial service highly regarded as gave chance to act as well as think.
Photographs of colonial subjects. Attempts to gloss over political events?
Use of colonials as models!
All kinds of people were JMC models … beggar, servant, close relative etc
Literary perspective, picturesque ideals
Paternalistic Colonialism
Colin Ford from the National Media Museum in conversation with Martin Barnes, senior curator of photographs at the V&A
This talk concerns the Herschel album is the best example of Cameron’s work and is now being shown in Media Space at The Science Museum.
Went for what was a world record price of £52,000 in the mid 1970’s; first time export licence was refused for photographs anywhere in the world.
When encountering the Herschel album of Cameron for the first time, it did not appeal but Ford became obsessive about it and has written extensively about JMC. The NPG did not have much money to buy photographs.
FFord mounted a campaign to stop Herschel album going out of the country; he was attacked by the RPS for trying to start a national collection of photographs.
Kodak made copies of the originals.
Cameron noted for “world’s first close-ups!” according to Ford who was responsible for first UK national collection of images.
Massive shift in value of photographs. Herschel album cost record breaking £52,000 in the 1970s; now just one of those images likely to raise at least £500,000 possibly as much as £750,000 !!
Sunara Begum who is a photographer/artist; her exhibition Truth and Art has been made into a film of the same name.
Met a Sri Lankan living in London called Dunstan Perera who came to her exhibition and became her guide. Gave her some old photos from Sri Lanka. Dunstan has also created work about Sri Lanka called Faces of Sri Lanka. Used pigments to paint on images. Made photos during 1960’s. Inspired by Julia Margaret Cameron. Dimbola Museum in Isle of White was good to visit.
She did an exhibition with Dunstan. Many of her prints done on Bockingford paper.
Visited Dilmah estates which were owned by the Camerons. Glencairn Bungalow is where JMC lived.
Tracy Shields
has spent last 10 years researching for a film about JMC.
Stayed near Dimbola Lodge JMC’s home in Isle of White
Beauty is timeless and JMC embodied it.
1845 Daguerrotype of JMC and daughter Julia made in India
Shows a short film about JMC with Hendrix music “The wind cries Mary”.
Dimbola House was saved in Isle of White thanks to intervention; now a successful gallery.
Glencairn Bungalow in Hatton Sri Lanka
More has been written about JMC than any other photographer?!
Much more to be discovered and learnt about JMC
NB photographic historians not the best people to learn photography from !!
Does not really help to know too much about what was going on yet this was a fascinating day which I enjoyed.
Cf V&A word and image