Alec Soth's Archived Blog

December 29, 2006

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 12:10 am

After a productive Snow Week, I decided to take a break from the blog. Along with all of the holiday cheer, we’ve been having 40-degree weather. My enthusiasm for writing seems to have vanished with the snow. I’d rather just leave the writing to the pros – at least until the New Year. So here is poem by a pro, Robert Hass, in celebration of the New Year.

After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa
by Robert Hass

New Year’s morning—
everything is in blossom!
I feel about average.

A huge frog and I
staring at each other,
neither of us moves.

This moth saw brightness
in a woman’s chamber—
burned to a crisp.

Asked how old he was
the boy in the new kimono
stretched out all five fingers.

Blossoms at night,
like people
moved by music

Napped half the day;
no one
punished me!

Fiftieth birthday:

From now on,
It’s all clear profit,
every sky.

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house

These sea slugs,
they just don’t seem


Bright autumn moon;
pond snails crying
in the saucepan.

December 22, 2006

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry,snow — alecsothblog @ 7:12 am

The main reason to have ‘Snow Week’ was to end it with this poem:

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

December 21, 2006

It worked!

Filed under: snow — alecsothblog @ 3:16 pm

Snow week was a success:

Soth Studios, 2pm

Humiliation + Sexual Selection = Art

Filed under: aesthetics,snow — alecsothblog @ 12:52 am

You’ve seen the snow pictures and the charts diagramming science and poetry, and now you are asking yourself, “What motivates these geeks?”

I have an answer. Actually, the world’s preeminent geek-turned-rock star has an answer. On his blog, David Byrne has a terrific post about art as a form of sexual selection:

Art, amongst other pursuits, is, according to this idea, one of a number of gauges of deeper fitness, creativity and skill. The maker may have genetic fitness not immediately apparent, especially given the fact that the typical creative person’s uniform is not a power suit. If he or she can afford to expend mucho time and energy on aesthetic pursuits, for example, the person must be doing O.K. in order to be able to “waste” such time and effort. That is, they have time and energy left over from basic survival.

I’d make a joke here about doing all of this for Cat Power, but my wife isn’t finding those jokes funny anymore. Instead I’ll link to this article where Cat Power talks about her humiliating photo shoot with Avedon:

I was so drunk I could barely stand up. My organs were so messed up from drinking I was in physical pain. I couldn’t zip up my pants because my stomach was killing me. I didn’t even realize I wasn’t wearing underwear until the magazine came out. I had to explain to my grandmother that this was the definitive photographer of the 20th century. (see the picture here).

Speaking of Avedon, he took one of my all-time favorite snow pictures:

W.H Auden, 1960

When Auden was an undergraduate at Oxford, he was close friends with the poet Stephen Spender. Spender was insecure about his writing talent. ‘Do you really think I’m any good,’ he asked Auden. ‘Of course,’ Auden replied. ‘But why?’ ‘Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation.’

December 20, 2006

Spectrum 2.0

Filed under: aesthetics — alecsothblog @ 3:26 pm

Following my post on David Goldes, David emailed me the following thought: “Perhaps reconfiguring your spectrum and labeling it informational at one end and experiential at the other would allow science and art to be thought of as two ways of knowing and not as polarities.”

I think this is a significant upgrade:


Here is my assignment:

  1. If this is the X axis, what would make an interesting Y axis?
  2. Assign a number to ten photographers: Bechers (0), Cartier-Bresson (5), etc.

December 19, 2006

The scientist of Minneapolis & the poet of Prague

Filed under: aesthetics,artists,snow — alecsothblog @ 11:46 pm

I’ve recently discussed on the blog the close relationship between photography and poetry. The process of making and putting together pictures is often linked to the lyrical sensibility. But photography is as much a child of science as poetry. I see this as a spectrum. I’ve even toyed around with charting different photographers on this spectrum:


But it is hard to pinpoint the location of certain photographers. A real brainteaser is the work of David Goldes. Goldes has an M.A. in Molecular Genetics from Harvard. His work is rooted in scientific investigation. But David is also a poetry enthusiast and his sensual prints are hardly straightforward experimental documents. It is as though his work oscillates between both extremes through his own brew of creative quantum logic.

This morning I emailed David to ask him about one of his snow pictures. Knowing about my interest in Wilson Bentley, David emailed me the following image:

Rain on Flour, David Goldes

David explained the making of the picture:

Rain on Flour is something I made a while ago and the idea behind it is this: I put a sifted tray of flour out in the rain for a few minutes and could see on the flour surface that the rain drops were different sizes. Who knew? After I made this picture I read elsewhere that Bentley had done the same thing but had gone several steps further. He strained out the unaltered flour and was left with little glue balls made by each rain drop and then he sorted the balls to see how many of each size were made. So the flour tray became a method to measure size distribution of droplets in what we crudely call “the rain”.

It would appear that David is a scientific photographer. Or is he? Have a look at these two images:


The picture on the left, by Goldes, is titled, Growing Sugar Crystals (2002). The picture on the right, by Josef Sudek (the ‘Poet of Prague’), is titled Simple Still Life (1954). Only the title differentiates the scientist from the poet.

Now take a look at the image I originally requested from David:

Walk the Dog, David Goldes

Why did Goldes take this picture? I imagine his original interest was snow crystals (most of his pictures make some reference to water). But if I were to chart this picture it would be deep on the poetic side of the spectrum. In fact it resembles this snow picture by Josef Sudek:

The Window of my Studio, Josef Sudek, 1948

Is it poetry or is it science? Like so much of my blather on this blog, it really doesn’t matter. What is curious is how much I love these two pictures. They really are two of my favorites. But it gets weirder. If I were to make a list of my top ten all-time favorite photographs, I would likely include these two:

Gregrory Watching the Snow Fall, Kyoto, Feb 21st 1983, David Hockney

Apres Ski in der Schweiz, Ed van der Elsken

Snow, windows, and a touch of erotic longing – This seems to be the formula. It makes me want to do a scientific experiment. If someone were to take a picture with these three elements, what are the chances I’d like it?

Email your pictures to

Disclaimer for regular blog readers: I’m not suggesting that ‘The Scientist of Minneapolis’ should be ‘the sentence’ for David Goldes. I used it because it sort of works to the tune of My Favorite Things:

Raindrops on flour and windows of fog
The scientist of Minneapolis & the poet of Prague
These are a few of my favorite things.

December 18, 2006

Meerkats & Snowflakes & Trappist Photographers

Filed under: aesthetics,snow,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 10:59 pm

According to yesterday’s New York Times, penguins are passé. With two high-budget documentaries in the works, Meerkats are going to be the anthropomorphized stars of 2007.

This can’t be good news for Richard Gere. Since 2003, Gere has been trying to produce “Emperor Zehnder,” a biographical portrayal of Bruno Penguin Zehnder (previously discussed on this blog here).

I think Gere should drop the penguins. That ship has sailed. If he wants to portray a monomaniacal photographer, might I suggest Snowflake Bentley.

Wilson A. Bentley

In 1885, when he was twenty years old, Wilson A. Bentley was the first person to photograph a snowflake. For the next 46 years, Bentley devoted himself to the snowflake. “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty,” he wrote, “and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.” Bentley shared this appreciation by producing over 5000 photographs of snowflakes.

But as with many passionate people, Bentley was considered an eccentric. In a profile on Bentley (The American Magazine, 1925), Bentley talks about the way he was viewed by his neighbors in Jericho, Vermont:

I guess they’ve always believed that I was crazy, or a fool, or both. Years ago, I thought they might feel different if they understood what I was doing. I thought they might be glad to understand. So I announced that I would give a talk in the village and show lantern slides of my pictures. They are beautiful, you know, marvelously beautiful on screen. But when the night came for my lecture, just six people were there to hear me…I think they found my pictures beautiful. I doubt, though, they have changed their opinion of me. They still think I’m a little cracked. I’ve just had to accept that opinion and try not to care. It doesn’t hurt me–very much.

Bentley’s passion paid off. Because of him, every school child is taught that ‘no two snowflakes are alike.’ While we’ve come to take it for granted, this really is a remarkable discovery. For Bentley it was a revelation, “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.”

Collage and self-portrait by Wilson Bentley

But like many revelations, Bentley’s discovery was touched by sadness. “When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost,” he wrote, “Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.” While he took great pleasure in capturing a snowflake on film, he truly despaired at all of the ones that got away:

We had one storm last winter which brought me perhaps the most interesting snow crystal I have ever seen: a wonderful little splinter of ice, incredibly fragile. That was a tragedy! In spite of my carefulness, the crystal was broken in transferring it to the slide. It makes me almost cry, even now.

This is the sadness of photography. There is something futile, almost pathetic, about the photographic quest to possess beauty.

I’ve always found it interesting that so many people try to link Zen and photography. Photography is anti-Zen. Photography is an attempt to stop time and possess the world. Zen is an attempt to live in the moment and relinquish the desire to possess. The two seem completely incompatible.

I recently discussed this with Brother Paul, a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Brother Paul is an avid photographer. His teacher, the legendary Thomas Merton, was also a photographer.

Thomas Merton

Brother Paul helped remind me that the great thing about Merton is his acceptance of paradox. He knew his life as a prolific writer was at odds with being a monk. “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop,” Merton mourned, “and he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.”

Merton could have been a ‘chicken.’ He could have given himself over entirely to the life of the monastery. He could have lived in the moment. But that would require putting aside the typewriter and the camera. Instead, Merton accepted the joy and despair of paradox. In the preface to a collection of his essays he wrote:

I have had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing far the fact, even to myself. And perhaps this preface is an indication that I have not yet completely learned. No matter. It is in the paradox itself, the paradox which was and is still a source of insecurity, that I have come to find the greatest security. I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me; if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.

Instead of Zen Photography, I suggest the pursuit of Paradox Photography. To make meaningful work there seems to be an inevitable encounter with success and failure, joy and despair.

This doesn’t necessarily mean epic drama. To be successful one needn’t die in a blizzard (like Penguin Zehnder) or from pneumonia after walking home in a blizzard (like Snowflake Bentley). One needn’t cut off an ear. But I don’t think successful art can be made without encountering the joy and despair of paradox.

Speaking of joy and despair, while writing this post I started humming the title (Meerkats & Snowflakes & Trappist Photographers) to the tune of My Favorite Things:

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things

But even in a corny song like this, we can’t be satisfied with pure appreciation. Appreciation is always rooted in sadness. The song ends:

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad


Snowflake Bentley’s work will be exhibited until December 22nd at Davis & Landale in New York.

For more information on Bentley, go here or here.

There is an exhibition of Thomas Merton’s photos, A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton, at Loyola University until January 15, 2007

See a terrific portrait of Thomas Merton by Ralph Eugene Meatyard here

December 17, 2006

Playing with snow

Filed under: sculpture,snow — alecsothblog @ 8:12 pm

There is no way to have Snow Week on the blog without highlighting the work of the Swiss photographer Thomas Flechtner. In his monograph, SNOW, Flechtner depicts the frozen Swiss countryside with stunning clarity:

“Colder”, 1996-2000 by Thomas Flechtner

Flechtner has continued his investigation of snow by creating time-exposure performance photographs. Strapping lights to his skis, Flechtner traverses snowy hills in pre-planned routes for as long as fourteen hours.

Chli Rinderhorn, 1999, Walks, by Thomas Flechtner

This work reminds me of a couple of other artists who’ve combined photography, performance, sculpture and snow.

Originally trained as a sculptor, Tokihiro Sato uses a small flashlight at night (or a mirror during the day) to make pinpoints of light that chart his movement through space. On a couple of occasions he has worked within snowscapes.

#354 Hattachi, 1998 by Tokihiro Sato

Sato’s work is often described as emerging from the conceptual tradition of the earthworks artists. Many of these artists experimented with snow:

Dennis Oppenheim, Annual Rings, 1968

Richard Long, Snow Circle

Andy Goldsworthy has done a lot of work with snow and ice. (See the portrait I took of Goldsworthy here). The documentary on Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides, shows him making this sculpture:


Perhaps my favorite Goldsworthy project is his Midsummer Snowballs:


I’d love to hear about other artists that don’t just photograph snow, but also play with it.

Snow Week

Filed under: snow — alecsothblog @ 4:33 pm

Last Friday’s poem by Lynn Emanuel has a terrific line: “I’m a conceptual liver. I prefer the cookbook to the actual meal.” This is probably something most artists can relate to.

In my case, I’m a conceptual admirer of winter. I love the idea of winter, especially snow. I don’t go cross-country skiing. I don’t own snowshoes. I just like the idea it.

This feeling is strongest when I’m away from home. In college (on the East Coast) I was obsessed with this passage in The Great Gatsby:

One of my most vivid memories is of coming back West from prep school and later from college at Christmas time…

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

For as long as I’ve been a photographer I’ve planned on doing a snow project. Every fall I dream up schemes to winterize my camera and photograph ‘the real snow, our snow.’ But one taste of that reality has me running indoors and looking at other people’s pictures.

Today is December 17th. There is still no snow on the ground in Minnesota. But I’m declaring this snow week on the blog. Perhaps this will function as a sort of rain dance. Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow….

December 15, 2006

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 12:27 am

After putting the kids to bed I considered writing an essay on the different ways photography resembles poetry. Too much work. Besides, I’d just end up whining about how both so desperately fail at storytelling. I watched TV instead. But while I brushed my teeth I remembered that I needed to come up with a Friday Poem. I decided to use one of my favorites by Lynn Emanuel. While searching for the poem online I came across an interesting interview with Emanuel.

Q: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you would like to be asked?

Emanuel: Yes, I’d like to be asked why I am wary of interviews.

Q: Why are you?

Emanuel: Because interviews can be used like the sentence, “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.” Interviews can caption poetry and make poems illustrations of the facts in interviews.

Q: So why did you agree to this interview?

Emanuel: Well, I suppose I console myself with the belief that, even in an interview, a fact can be an act of invention.

It is late. I need to go to bed. I really don’t have time to write an essay on photography and poetry. But if were to write it, I’d probably say that a fact can be an act of invention. I’d say that photography, like poetry, doesn’t provide the pool of narrative, just the diving board. And I’d end my essay with this poem:

The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet
by Lynn Emanuel

Jill’s a good kid who’s had some tough luck. But that’s
another story. It’s a day when the smell of fish from Tib’s hash
house is so strong you could build a garage on it. We are sit-
ting in Izzy’s where Carl has just built us a couple of solid
highballs. He’s okay, Carl is, if you don’t count his Roamin’
Hands and Rushin’ Fingers. Then again, that should be the
only trouble we have in this life. Anyway, Jill says, “Why
don’t you tell about it? Nobody ever gets the poet’s point of
view.” I don’t know, maybe she’s right. Jill’s just a kid, but
she’s been around; she knows what’s what.

So, I tell Jill, we are at Izzy’s just like now when he
comes in. And the first thing I notice is his hair, which has
been Vitalis-ed into submission. But, honey, it won’t work,
and it gives him a kind of rumpled your-boudoir-or-mine look.
I don’t know why I noticed that before I noticed his face.
Maybe it was just the highballs doing the looking. Anyway,
then I see his face, and I’m telling you–I’m telling Jill–this is
a masterpiece of a face.

But–and this is the god’s own truth–I’m tired of
beauty. Really. I know, given all that happened, this must
sound kind of funny, but it made me tired just to look at him.
That’s how beautiful he was, and how much he spelled T-R-
O-U-B-L-E. So I threw him back. I mean, I didn’t say it, I say
to Jill, with my mouth. But I said it with my eyes and my
shoulders. I said it with my heart. I said, Honey, I’m throwing
you back. And looking back, that was the worst, I mean, the
worst thing–bar none–that I could have done, because it
drew him like horseshit draws flies. I mean, he didn’t walk
over and say, “Hello, girls; hey, you with the dark hair, your
indifference draws me like horseshit draws flies.”

But he said it with his eyes. And then he smiled. And
that smile was a gas station on a dark night. And as wearying
as all the rest of it. I am many things, but dumb isn’t one of
them. And here is where I say to Jill, “I just can’t go on.” I
mean, how we get from the smile into the bedroom, how it all
happens, and what all happens, just bores me. I am a concep-
tual storyteller. In fact, I’m a conceptual liver. I prefer the
cookbook to the actual meal. Feeling bores me. That’s why I
write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the
reader and say, “Reader, you go on from here.” And what I like
about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I
mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They
pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in
a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader. They’re not like
some people, who maybe do it right if you tell them, “Put this
foot down, and now put that one in front of the other, button
your coat, wipe your nose.”

So, really, I do it for the readers who work hard and, I
feel, deserve something better than they’re used to getting. I
do it for the working stiff. And I write for people, like myself,
who are just tired of the trickle-down theory where some-
body spends pages and pages on some fat book where every-
thing including the draperies, which happen to be burnt orange,
are described, and, further, are some metaphor for something.
And this whole boggy waste trickles down to the reader in the
form of a little burp of feeling. God, I hate prose. I think the
average reader likes ideas.

“A sentence, unlike a line, is not a station of the cross.” I
said this to the poet Mark Strand. I said, “I could not stand to
write prose; I could not stand to have to write things like ‘the
draperies were burnt orange and the carpet was brown.'” And
he said, “You could do it if that’s all you did, if that was the
beginning and the end of your novel.” So please, don’t ask me
for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the
bedroom, and from the bedroom to the death at the end, al-
though you can ask me a lot about death. That’s all I like, the
very beginning and the very end. I haven’t got the stomach for
the rest of it.

I don’t think many people do. But, like me, they’re either
too afraid or too polite to say so. That’s why the movies are
such a disaster. Now there’s a form of popular culture that
doesn’t have a clue. Movies should be five minutes long. You
should go in, see a couple of shots, maybe a room with orange
draperies and a rug. A voice-over would say, “I’m having a
hard time getting Raoul from the hotel room into the eleva-
tor.” And, bang, that’s the end. The lights come on, everybody
walks out full of sympathy because this is a shared experi-
ence. Everybody in that theater knows how hard it is to get
Raoul from the hotel room into the elevator. Everyone has had
to do boring, dogged work. Everyone has lived a life that
seems to inflict every vivid moment the smears, finger-
ings, and pawings of plot and feeling. Everyone has lived un-
der this oppression. In other words, everyone has had to eat
shit–day after day, the endless meals they didn’t want, those
dark, half-gelatinous lakes of gravy that lay on the plate like
an ugly rug and that wrinkled clump of reddish-orange roast
beef that looks like it was dropped onto your plate from a
great height. God what a horror: getting Raoul into the ele-

And that’s why I write poetry. In poetry, you don’t do
that kind of work.

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