Alec Soth's Archived Blog

December 14, 2006

Holiday Cheer

Filed under: vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 4:32 pm

Andrew Cahan has a nice little selection of holiday cards from photographers for sale. I love the spirit of family togetherness that is communicated in Brett Weston’s card:


I also like that the Uelsmann’s used a picture called Apocalyse II to bring in the New Year:


Static Master & Power Shammy

Filed under: goof — alecsothblog @ 12:44 am

In three months of blogging, I’ve restrained myself by only mentioning Paul Shambroom three times. Paul has been a longtime hero. Beyond the greatness of his work, his career as a Minnesota artist has provided a significant role model for me.

But as Buddha said “Embrace nothing. If you meet the Buddha, Kill the Buddha.” I guess this is why I have a need to tease Paul by calling him “ruggedly handsome” and “Power Shambroom.”

But now I have the ultimate material to take Paul down. He recently sent me an email with the Subject Line: Dear “Eccentric-sad Americans by iconic water with big camera” guy. Here is the content of the email:

Dear Mr. Soth-

Please help unravel a mystery. You seem like a smart guy, the kind of guy who understands complex connections between seemingly disconnected things. After reading on your blog about people like Mitch Epstein who don’t have Wikipedia entries, I checked myself for the first time. (OK, it was the first time this week.) I discovered that I don’t have one either! It’s like I don’t exist. Just then a strange thing happened. I took a sip of coffee and noticed a warm liquid seeping into my lap. Yes, I’m getting old, but not “Depends” old, if you know what I mean. It turns out that the coffee was coming out from between my ribs. I’m slowly disappearing. A look in the mirror confirmed that I’m not all there!


Are you with me so far? Now it gets REALLY complicated. I had just received a package, a Russian magazine with some of my photos in it. (Also lots of cars, electronics, and naked women. Competition for the Russian Maxim, I guess.) I noticed the UPS envelope from Moscow was sitting on my desk RIGHT NEXT TO my trusty 1982-vintage Static-Master negative cleaning brush. A while ago I did a calculation based on the half-life of Polonium 210 (138.4 days) after 24 years, which gave a result of 8.8383e-20 for the relative strength of my Static-Master source. I don’t understand scientific notation too well, but I know that’s a REALLY small number. Feeling well in the safety zone, I had started using my Static-Master to stir my coffee. Yesterday (before the leaking episode) I noticed that my coffee was warmer AFTER I stirred it! A coincidence? I don’t think so.


My physical self is fading AND I don’t exist on-line because I don’t have a Wikipedia entry. I’m fading away like a cyber-space Cheshire Cat! What’s happening to me? Are these things connected?

Here’s my theory- I think the Russians put a replacement Static-Master with a fresh Polonium source in the magazine package. Plus- I believe I used to have a glorious multi-page Wikipedia entry with links, illustrations, testimonials from old girlfriends, etc, but it was removed (by those same Russians) before I ever saw it!

There are some holes in this theory, though. I was hoping, Alec, you could help me tie up these loose ends:

  • Why didn’t the FBI agents (who usually sit in a truck outside my studio disguised as Qwest employees) do something to intervene? (sorry I’m getting ahead of myself and should explain- they’ve been there since my nuclear weapons project, some other guys have joined them since I’ve been working on Homeland Security.)
  • How did the Russians know I stir my coffee with my Static-Master? (Wait, I know- they hacked into the iSight camera on my new MacBook.)
  • How did they switch my OLD Static-Master with the new one (nano-robots inside the UPS package?)
  • Most puzzling- what was the motive? Were the Russians mad at me because I never photographed THEIR nuclear weapons (or their town council meetings, as if godless ex-communists even have those)? Are they working WITH the guys in the Qwest truck?

Needless to say, I am quite unsettled by all this. I was hoping that you could help solve this. Or, if you’re too busy farting around in Kentucky, or perhaps just not smart enough, maybe the brilliant readers of your blog could help. It would give me great comfort to have closure in my final days in the physical world.

Sincerely yours, Paul Shambroom

I’m worried about Paul. Can someone help? Can we get the guy a Wikipedia entry and/or an endorsement deal with Power Shammy?

December 11, 2006

He took the last picture of Lennon

Filed under: media,the sentence,vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 10:08 pm

If you think Bruno Penguin Zehnder went a bit far in connecting with a single subject, take a look at Paul Goresh. Goresh was a John Lennon stalker. On one occasion he lied his way into Lennon’s apartment. But after a long period of pestering him, Lennon eventually became friendly with Goresh. He even used one of his pictures for his single Watching the Wheels.

But the one sentence they’ll always say about Goresh is that he took the last picture of Lennon alive – the picture of Lennon signing an autograph for his assassin, Mark David Chapman:


You can watch a program about Goresh on YouTube: Part 1 , Part 2

Q: What is your sentence

Filed under: career,photographs (mine),the sentence — alecsothblog @ 9:06 pm

In the discussion regarding my recent post on the sentence used to describe an artist, Zoe asked: “Alec, do you have a sentence in mind for yourself?” I don’t. I just have a laundry list of things I don’t want it to be. I’m reminded of a picture I took a long time ago:


This picture won a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair Art Show! It was published in a book. I sold prints. I became worried. The picture is a one-liner. I don’t want to be a one-liner photographer. I don’t want to be ‘that guy that took the picture of the cop and the clown.’

There are a lot of things I don’t want my sentence to be. Unfortunately I don’t have the clarity, or maturity, to say what I do want it to be.

December 10, 2006

The sentence

Filed under: career,media,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 11:35 pm

NPR’s On The Media aired an excellent piece on how the popularity of penguins has turned them into political pawns. First anti-abortionists praised March of the Penguins saying, “Almost every scene and narrative verified the beauty of life and the rightness of protecting it.” Now liberals are being criticized for co-opting the penguin with a pro-gay children’s book And Tango Makes Three and a pro-environment animated film Happy Feet. I haven’t seen any of these productions, but it has been interesting to watch both sides spinning penguins.

This mix of penguins and propaganda got me thinking about Bruno Penguin Zehnder – the Swiss penguin photographer who died in a blizzard in 1997. While I don’t really know Zehnder’s pictures, I’m fascinated by his legacy. Zehnder is the ultimate example of a photographer who is directly linked to a single subject. When anyone brings up Zehnder’s name, people respond by saying ‘He’s the guy that photographed penguins.’

I have a theory that no matter what kind of photographer you are, everyone will end up saying one sentence about you. It is a kind of cultural shorthand. Some examples:

  • He took celebrity portraits with a white background
  • She took pictures of freaks and committed suicide
  • He took picture of Parisian architecture at the turn of the century
  • She makes creepy digital pictures of kids with big eyes
  • She takes large-format pictures of her wealthy family and friends

Zehnder embraced his sentence so much that he changed his middle name to Penguin. This biographical fact, along with his death in a blizzard, has actually become part of his sentence. (For an example read his Time Magazine obit here).

Biographical details often make their way into the sentence: ‘She was Arbus’s teacher’ (Lisette Model), ‘He was Edward Weston’s son’ (Cole & Brett).

Some artists have a sentence that is tied to a single picture: Iwo Jima Flag Raising (Joe Rosenthal), Piss Christ (Andres Serrano), Couple Kissing in Paris (Robert Doisneau).

While artists aren’t usually as blatant as Penguin Zehnder, most work to shape their sentence. In the recently discussed interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, he downplayed his early interest in Surrealism but repeatedly described himself as ‘an anarchist.’

I admire the way Paul Shambroom has shaped his sentence. On the front page of his website he writes: “Artist/Photographer Paul Shambroom’s work explores power in its various forms.” I’ve heard Paul repeat the same thing during his lectures. Repetition, after-all, is what makes the sentence.

But while photographers can help shape their sentence, they can’t control it. No matter how many times Cartier-Bresson called himself an anarchist it would never make the sentence. And if Paul Shambroom ends up taking a picture of George Bush’s assassination, that will be his sentence. Unless you change your name, the sentence can only be shaped, not controlled.

Hmmm, Power Shambroom does have a ring to it.

December 9, 2006

Art Basel Chattanooga

Filed under: psa — alecsothblog @ 1:05 pm
The blog is going to continue being quiet for the next week while I’m in Tennessee and everyone else is in Miami.

December 8, 2006

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 2:45 am

Untitled (Michael in front of deteriorating wall),1960, ©Ralph Eugene Meatyard

Thanks to Raabia for sending me this poem from James Baker Hall, the Poet Laureate of Kentucky. It was written in memory of the legendary photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard:

That First Kite

That first kite was made of newspaper and strung
with fish line. I was lying next to it, alone. Sunlight
in the bright shape of a window, X-ed once
with the shadow of the sash, moved

slowly across the floor toward
me. A way had to be found

to make it work. We were trying. All this
took place in the attic where the cat brought
the birds.
My mother was downstairs
or out back in the cornfield
with a gun.
I didn’t move. Who knew
where my father was.
Nothing ever worked.
I kept my eyes closed

whenever I thought
I was asleep
or flying. I awoke

when I felt the light touch
my feet, perfect, still

I didn’t move. When it touched
my eyes I opened. The crosshairs
were on my chest, breathing. I saw
my heart. A cold wind rattled
the kite.

December 7, 2006

Review Santa Fe

Filed under: psa — alecsothblog @ 12:30 am

In a recent post on advice for emerging photographers, I neglected to mention my absolute #1 recommendation, Review Santa Fe. In 2003 I won a free trip to the Reviews. I hadn’t heard of a portfolio review before and wasn’t even sure I wanted to go.

In Santa Fe I had a chance to have some of the most refined eyes in the country look at my work. Everthing changed. I left Santa Fe with a fistful of opportunities and a bunch of new friends.

If you don’t believe me, read what Brian Ulrich had to say.

The deadline for 2007 Review Santa Fe is quickly approaching: December 15, 2006. For information on applying, go here.

December 5, 2006

Martin Parr & Lionel Richie

Filed under: artists,photographs (mine) — alecsothblog @ 12:06 am


Tonight I had dinner at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in rural Kentucky. While gnawing on heat-lamp aged shrimp wontons, I couldn’t stop thinking about a radio program I’d heard earlier today. Apparently the one thing that unifies Sunni and Shiite Muslims (besides Allah) is Lionel Richie. (Listen to the program here or watch a Nightline episode on the topic here).

As I reflected on this remarkable example of truth being stranger than fiction, I noticed a display at the front counter of the restaurant:


My eyes have probably scanned a scene like this a thousand times. But I doubt I ever noticed it until I became aware of Martin Parr. Parr opened my eyes. He made me see the world around me in a new way. For this reason alone I think he is an important photographer.

Martin Parr, London, 2004, ©Alec Soth

But plenty of people dispute Parr’s importance. In a recent Magnum in Motion slideshow, Parr says, “I always find it very strange that people think it is controversial to go into a supermarket and take a photograph of someone – while there is no controversy associated with the idea of going into a very volatile situation in the Middle East and photographing victims.”

It is peculiar how much heat Parr generates. I’m reminded of the story about Henri Cartier-Bresson visiting one of Parr’s exhibitions and chastising his work as being “without humor, where rancor and scorn dominate, a nihilistic attitude symptomatic of society today.”

In an interview archived on YouTube, Charlie Rose asked Cartier-Bresson if he worries about globalization. “The present society is crumbling to pieces,” says HCB. Isn’t Parr’s achievement the documentation of this crumbling? Of course we need photographers showing us, say, the war in Iraq. But don’t we also need someone to show us the unifying power of Lionel Richie?

December 3, 2006

Where are the people?

Filed under: media — alecsothblog @ 11:47 pm

In the current issue of the New Yorker, there is a profile of the legendary 96-year-old architectural photographer Julius Shulman. The article discusses Shulman’s disapproval of the way most architectural photographers only photograph empty buildings:

“Why is there such a fear of using people? Richard Neutra was always furious if I used people in pictures of his houses – he was afraid they would overpower the architecture. But my photographs show babies and cats and dogs and children. Why not? It makes it interesting to connect it with the life.”

Case Study House #21, 1958 by Julius Shulman

Fine art and documentary photographers often appropriate the techniques of architectural photography. Perhaps the most notable example in the fine art arena has been Andreas Gursky. I think Gursky is a great photographer (I sense a backlash against him amongst other photographers, but I think this is largely due to overexposure and outrageous auction prices).

I enjoy Gursky’s clinical, god’s eye view. And I like the work of his contemporaries Thomas Struth, Peter Bialobrzeski, Candida Höfer, etc (are they all German?). But a little goes a long way. After awhile I get hungry to see people in the pictures. Instead of Gursky’s iconic 99 cent II Diptychon (which recently sold at auction for 2.48 million… ironic), I might want to look at, say, Brian Ulrich:

Chicgo, IL by Brian Ulrich

Luc Delahaye is another photographer I greatly admire. He maintains Gursky’s god’s eye view, but the view often includes people. A few years ago Delahaye created controversy when he exhibited this image at the Ricco-Maresca gallery:

Taliban Soldier by Luc Delahaye

The controversy had to do with commercialism. The image was printed large and sold for approximately $15,000 (a drop in the Gursky bucket). Why are people so uncomfortable with this kind of photography depicting real life and real death? As Shulman asked, “Why is there such a fear of using people.”

Of course one of the other reasons that Delahaye got into trouble was because he was applying journalistic imagery to a fine-art context. But so what? Are we supposed to erase images of people to make photographs palatable for the art market? I suppose people are disturbed by the idea of, in the words of Shulman, ‘using people.’ It is disturbing. Photographs of people use people. It makes us uncomfortable. But it is also what makes the medium so potent.

I’ve been thinking about this issue in relation to the spate of fine-art images from Katrina: Robert Polidori, Chris Jordan, Katherine Wolkoff and others. I think these are all terrific photographers. And they’ve done admirable work. But after awhile I find the absence of people in the pictures a little frustrating.

Katrina is a good example of why I often defend the efforts of photojournalists. Certainly photojournalism has numerous faults, but I admire the attempt to connect the subject (in this case Katrina) to real people. Along with all of the images of destroyed homes, don’t we also need to see pictures like this:

15 days after Katrina hit New Orleans, Edgar Hollingsworth, 74, is rescued from his Broadmoor District home, photograph by Bruce Chambers/Orange County Register

“It makes it interesting to connect it with the life,” said Shulman. Of course! Architecture isn’t some frozen box, it is a home, a place where life is lived. While it is worthwhile to see the architectual devastation of New Orleans, I also want to see the people – the lives actually living in this mess.

Architect Richard Neutra was afraid that pictures with people would overpower the architecture. I sometime wonder if the contemporary art world is afraid that pictures with people will overpower the art.

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