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?

4 thoughts on “Alec Soth revisited

  1. Apologies if I misunderstood Amano.
    I know you attended a talk by him as well as visiting the London Exhibition, so I assumed there might be something in his work that drew you even in a negative sense, as I often find that I learn more about myself when I explore why a piece of art bothers me.
    You write of him giving attention and understanding to the misfit; taking pleasure in the insanities of life; his reflection of sadness and lack of joyfulness. I think I was expecting you to reflect upon how you might portray the opposite of all those themes, those aspects of life that are important to you but perhaps his work doesn’t interest you enough to do that .
    I visited the Exhibition a while before the Study Visit so decided not to go again but I know I need to record my own responses to his work. Sorry I missed seeing you.

    • I don’t think you misunderstand me but I am not against Soth; in fact, I love his work and the way he goes about it yet still feel the need to not just absorb his work but discover what it means to me. I am not going to buy a large format camera and start using film for instance but am struck by the way he approaches people and photographs them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s