A Photographic Tour in the World of Alec Soth

Up to Fargo for “Individual to Icon,” an exhibit currently on display at the Plains Art Museum, Alec Soth met with our two correspondents, Jane Gudmundson and Antony Anderson, to discuss the inspiration behind his Little Brown Mushroom Tour, the outlook of a book photographer, and the importance of experimentation in photography.

Up to Fargo for “Individual to Icon,” an exhibit currently on display at the Plains Art Museum, Alec Soth met with our two correspondents, Jane Gudmundson and Antony Anderson, to discuss the inspiration behind his Little Brown Mushroom Tour, the outlook of a book photographer, and the importance of experimentation in photography.

Photography Alec Soth
Bonnie (with a photograph of an angel), Port Gibson, Mississippi, 2000  -Sleeping by the Mississippi

Jane Gudmundson: You were once quoted as saying: “Photography is an excuse to engage the world.” Could you expand on that notion?

Alec Soth: When I first got into photography, it was around the time the internet was taking off. I love the internet and I love bouncing around, but I think we all sometimes feel like, “wow, does the real world exist anymore?” We’re so inside this digital realm. Photography, for me, is a lot like web surfing in real life. You get you go out, bounce around, sort of web surf, but encountering real things and real people and wake up to the fact that things still have smells and sounds. It makes you more optimistic, because one gets pessimistic when you sit in front of a screen for too long.  It’s an excuse to wander, that said, I have huge problems with the role of photography. I think it’s a great hobby, but I struggle with its larger role. I’m conflicted in that I do it because deep down it’s fun, but why show it to other people then?

When I say photography is an excuse to have fun, that’s great, but why share it with other people? It’s like playing badminton is fun too, but I don’t need to put it on a museum wall. Sometimes I think too much photography feels like people’s hobbies on display.

Photography Alec Soth
Boris Mikhailov, Berlin, Germany, 2004  -Portraits

JG: How do you make the differentiation of what to show or not show?

AS: Well, it’s a tough call but it’s less about individual pictures. For me the real goal is to make a great book- that’s always the ambition. A great series of pictures that functions as a larger authored vision that is more reminiscent of something like film making, or the novel. It’s not just the fragmentary picture of while I was out having fun.

JG: So the context is important too?

AS: Yeah, but photographs by their very nature get shown in many different contexts. I control the context of the book and my ambition is to make that great. And then I let them live on in all sorts of other ways, like the exhibition here. I was just interviewed by the local newspaper about the role of these pictures in this exhibition. Of course, when I made these pictures they had nothing to do with what this exhibition is about. I’m happy for them to have this other life, but I don’t control that.

Photography Alec Soth
Untitled 29, Bogotá  -Dog Days, Bogotá

JG: What is the Little Brown Mushroom Tour?

AS: Well, Little Brown Mushroom is the name of my “do it yourself” publishing company. I have this life with the big art world and I wanted a place where I could have fun and make little things. So, Little Mushroom is that. I self-published a newspaper a couple years ago under that name and now I have a whole bunch of little things in the works with Little Brown Mushroom – publishing other people’s books, selling T-shirts, and doing fun little things. I jokingly put things under the umbrella of Little Brown Mushroom- like the “tour”.  It’s not really a tour- I’m just travelling a ton these days. Does that make sense?

JG: Yes – I have a soft spot for mushrooms. I think there are all kinds of things you can use them as umbrellas for.

AS: Yeah- Part of it is free association and creating your own universe, your own brand.  Much like how certain music labels are now super independent, do it yourself on the internet –that kind of spirit. It’s also a place to really experiment and have fun.

JG: It’s a nice counterpoint to living in a high art world.

AS: Exactly. Our first publication, a zine, cost $9.75. I’m making no money on it, but it’s a way to put things out there. There’s a lot of exciting stuff coming up. There is going to be a whole series of books. And there are lots of mind games too – on the blog there is a lot of different people writing in and you’re never really sure who it is.

Photography Alec Soth
John, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2003  -Portraits

Antony Anderson: How does the utilization of a large format camera inform how you interact with your subjects?

AS: For starters, I like the disclaimer that I don’t always shoot with a large format camera and especially lately. I’m trying not to be tied down to that. But fundamentally, it slows things down, working with a large format. Generally when I ask to photograph someone, I don’t even have the camera with me, it’s in the car. So, there is a whole different kind of engagement that isn’t bam, bam, bam, in your face. It’s slower, it’s more distant in a funny way, but there is still this intense voyeurism of being under a dark cloth, staring at someone, which really suits me. I like that process. There have been times when I’ve used other cameras and I can mimic that process – I can still slow things down. I guess I’m trying to downplay the role of the technology, but that comes up over and over again and I grow weary of it.

There is this funny thing because the technology is so forefront in the conversation about photography. Part of this Little Brown Mushroom thing is a way to break free of a limitation that I have to work a certain way.

Photography Alec Soth
Jim Harrison, Livingston, Montana, 2004  -Portraits

JG: “Perfect Strangers” is a body of work you did in the ‘90s. What did it teach you?

AS: I never wanted to call it a body of work because even when I was doing it, I knew that I wasn’t making a book, or a true body of work. I was practicing. I was really teaching myself how to photograph other people. I was really shy and I was just out of school. I knew I needed to know how to do it, so I just photographed everybody- all different types of people.

And what happened was that the more I did it, the more I found myself attracted to certain types of people.  Then you start listening to: “Why am I attracted to these kinds of people?” And through this process, you begin developing your vision. This is the beginning of finding your voice.

Photography Alec Soth
Wedding dress, 2005  -NIAGARA

JG: Vince Aletti wrote about your book “Niagara”: “Romance and risk come together here with great frequency and force.” How accurate is his observation in light of what you wanted to portray?

AS: I think that is pretty accurate. What I found out about “Niagara,” over the course of shooting it, is that it’s about new love and new romance. But why do we use this powerful destructive waterfall, a place that attracts people who commit suicide, why is that the metaphor for new love?

Photography Alec Soth
Jen and Matthew, 2004  -NIAGARA

It is also very connected to the movie “Niagara,” with Marilynn Monroe, where she is a newlywed and she is trying to kill her husband, who is having an affair. Those themes are present, so it does have to do with risk and romance. I actually think new love is dangerous and deceptive.

JG: In “Dog Days,” you explain that you set out to photograph the beauty of your adopted daughter’s birth country. How do you define beauty?

AS: True beauty has an element of reality within it. You can’t just have a model with a lot of make-up on. It’s feeling, it’s getting your fingers into the dirt and just having an authentic affection for something. It’s too big of a question.

Photography Alec Soth
Untitled 08, Bogotá  -Dog Days, Bogotá

Photography Alec Soth
Untitled 22, Bogotá  -Dog Days, Bogotá

Photography Alec Soth
Untitled 55, Bogotá  -Dog Days, Bogotá

JG: The Jeu de Paume exhibit, in Paris, “Fashion Magazine” showed striking comparisons between French and Minnesotan culture via fashion. Can you describe your approach to that assignment?

AS: First, it was this overall project through Magnum Photos to do an entire magazine of your own fashion work, including the advertisements. In the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing and they sent me to Paris to go to these fashion shows. I felt so disconnected from it. I was aware of my removal from that world and I thought that was what was interesting- why not depict my removal or show these two worlds? With that, the idea that fashion is simply how you present yourself to the world. We all have fashion. It doesn’t matter what it is- you are displaying yourself, through your clothing, to the world. I think it’s interesting no matter where it is.

Photography Alec Soth
Grand Palais  -Fashion Magazine

There is one picture taken at a Channel show, and there is Carl Lagerfeld, and then I took a picture a mile away from my house of a woman coming out of a Savers shop, or whatever, with a Channel bag. What’s interesting is that high fashion trickles all the way down. It was a way to look at that contrast and show that fashion is not one thing.

Photography Alec Soth
Brianna  -Fashion Magazine

AA: Many of your projects convey an interest in establishing a sense of place for your viewers. What role does place serve in your photographs?

AS: The three main books all have place names in their titles. They are very much about place. In all cases I’m uncomfortable saying I’ve documented a real place. I know that I’m fabricating a place too. I like to think of it as a novel – it takes place somewhere, it has characters. It’s not just one thing, you’re creating a universe. I’m using these places to create my universe. I feel like the stories need to be located somewhere, so I use place. I’m trying to break out of that, but I really have a hard time. Even if it’s all over America, it still needs to be in America. I need a boundary around it.

Photography Alec Soth
Happiness Inn, 2005  -NIAGARA

AA: “Individual to Icon” exhibit at the Plains Art Museum contains images from “Sleeping Along the Mississippi.” How would you categorize the essence of these photographs?

AS: I wouldn’t categorize the essence of these photographs. It’s the whole Walker Evans thing about working in a documentary style. I work in documentary style; it looks like documentary work, but it’s not. I always talk about this spectrum. If you had scientific facts on one side of the spectrum and poetry on the other, I think photography can fall wherever. As a photographer, I’m way more on that poetic side. I leave it open for interpretation. I’m pretty comfortable with all interpretations. I don’t have an agenda. I know what the work means for me within the context of the book, but I don’t expect people to read it that way.

Photography Alec Soth
New Orleans, Louisiana, 2002  -Sleeping by the Mississippi

AA: That is interesting because I see documentary photography as being so straight forward and compositionally, as far as presentation, your work does that.  It just seems to be far more complex especially within the book format.

AS: Yeah, but this is the whole problematic tradition. For whatever reason, it happens over and over again that people are working in that style where it looks like documentary when it’s not. It’s quite confusing and I don’t know why we continue to do it.

AA: How do you feel that the different forms of presentation that you use, whether it’s the photo book or a framed wall piece, alters the viewers perception of the work?

AS: They are radically different. I would say that there are wall photographers and book photographers. Of course, you do both, but you are one first. I’m definitely a book photographer first. It’s taken me a long time to understand how the wall works. Book photographs are read and they are read in association with other photographs near them. Wall photographs live much more independent and so a large, sharp, precise, individual picture does a different thing. You enter the world at that picture much more so.

Photography Alec Soth
Peter’s Houseboat, Winona, Minnesota, 2002  -Sleeping by the Mississippi

And then there are things like this group show, where it’s a cluster of pictures, but I didn’t create that cluster of pictures. It’s a curatorial vision. So, wall photography is very different. Fundamentally, I control the book, I set the parameters, the beginning, the end; I am the curator.

Photography Alec Soth
Kristin  -Fashion Magazine

JG: What are you currently working on?

AS: I have a multi-year project that is coming out in September as part of this Walker Arts Center show that I’m having. That work I’m not talking about yet….
Then there is new stuff which is quite different. Because I’m busy travelling and preparing for the Walker exhibit, I wanted to do some smaller things. Essentially they are like short stories. I’m doing one after another after another. Now I’m going to be doing them as a monthly blog in the New York Times. I really get to experiment and do different things each month.

Interviewed in Fargo, North Dakota, by JG and AA

Link to Alec Soth’s website