Alec Soth on Wandering, Storytelling and Robert Adams vs. Weegee
Last week at the Portland Art Museum as part of the 2013 Photolucida festivities, Alec Soth gave a lecture titled “From Here to There: Searching for Narrative in Photography.” The talk could have been titled “Searching for Narrative in Photography Lectures,” because Soth mostly allowed the audience to lead the way with questions, which he responded to with the aid of a number of prepared slideshows. The evening was free-form, entertaining and a bit wandering, which made sense given that Soth emphasized that wandering and taking pictures without a set goal in mind has produced some of his most important bodies of work. But more on that later.
Soth started on a down note, sharing a quote from Robert Frank—“There are too many images, too many cameras now. We’re all being watched. It gets sillier and sillier. As if all action is meaningful. Nothing is really all that special. It’s just life. If all moments are recorded, then nothing is beautiful and maybe photography isn’t an art any more. Maybe it never was.” He also showed a photograph of an installation by Erik Kessels: a pile of prints made from all of the images uploaded to Flickr in a 24-hour period.
Soth described the perspectives offered by the Frank quote and Kessels’ installation as “bleak.” But, he said, the “way out of this [bleak situation for photographers] is storytelling.”Before opening the talk up to questions from the audience, Soth described how in making the work that led to his first book, Sleeping By the Mississippi, he would look for visual cues in a photograph he made that would lead him to the next picture. Or, he would “interview people [he photographed] to find out what the next picture would be.” He compared this to “pulling a thread” and following where it leads, and said: “part of my art is the act of wandering.”
It was at this point that he allowed the talk to do just that.
Prompted by the audience, Soth spoke about a period of time when he was sick of photography, because “the production of the thing got in the way of wandering.” Soth tried to find a cave to buy so he could disappear. He eventually settled for a scale model of his dream cave built for him by a friend. The idea of escaping or disappearing led to his project about people who were living off the grid in America, which he made over the course of several years—a project that culminated in his book Broken Manual and the documentary film “Somewhere to Disappear,” by filmmakers Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove.
Soth also talked about the battle in his mind between the photographic impulses embodied in the work of Robert Adams and Weegee. The former showed a “reserve and distance from the world” in his images, the latter the “opposite ethics” of in-the-face image making. Soth, to the delight of the audience, likened the two influences to an angel and devil battling it out for attention on his shoulders.
“LBM Dispatches,” a series of short newspapers Soth and writer Brad Zeller are creating, which are published by Soth’s company Little Brown Mushroom, grew out of “the desire to be a suburban newspaper photographer,” Soth said. To create the newspapers, Soth and Zellar pick a place, then go and tell a story about that community. Quickly after they return from reporting trips, they print and release the newspapers. Soth noted his appreciation for the immediacy of publishing work so quickly, and for the processes of self-assigning and self-imposing deadlines.
The “Dispatches” work has also been published editorially and has led to assignments from media outlets like The New York Times Magazine, which hired Soth to create a photo story about the North Dakota oil boom in the style of his “Dispatches” work.
In talking about different ways to “get artwork out there,” Soth showed a large-scale poster he created from a photograph he made at a foam party during a “Dispatches” trip. People who bought the limited edition poster had to assemble it from 64 smaller pieces. Soth shared several images people sent to him showing where they had put up the poster.
The talk ended where it began: with a nod to the reality photographers face in producing their work today. While discussing the “Dispatches,” Soth noted that the projects have been self-funded, and he closed with the suggestion that the next “LBM Dispatch” might be about Oregon, asking the audience half-jokingly if they knew anyone who might be interested in funding it.