Alec Soth's Archived Blog

January 11, 2007

Shit Week

Filed under: shit — alecsothblog @ 2:05 am

After the success of Snow Week and my recent post on That Smell in New York, a reader suggested I launch Shit Week. It is worth consideration. As the parent of two small children and the owner of two dogs, the majority of my domestic life revolves around feces. I sometimes forget that this isn’t true of everyone. Not long ago a friend took care of my dogs while we were on vacation. When we returned home, he told me that he’d devised a trick. “While walking the dogs,” he said, “I realized that I could put my hand in the bag, pick up the poop, and pull my hand out.” I didn’t dare ask how he’d been doing it previously.

I’m reminded of that old Seinfeld line:

“On my block, a lot of people walk their dogs, and I always see them walking along with their little poop bags, which to me is just the lowest function of human life. If aliens are watching this through telescopes, they’re gonna think the dogs are the leaders. If you see two life forms, one of them’s making a poop, the other one’s carrying it for him, who would you assume was in charge?”

There are plenty of examples of feces in the art world: Piero Manzoni’s Artist Shit, Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, Martin Creed’s Shit Film and just about everything Paul McCarthy has ever done. There has even been a serious group show on the subject. But the greatest achievement in this arena is Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca. (Be sure to check out the fantastic Cloaca Website).

But what about photography and feces? Only one example comes to mind – a truly revolting picture by Terry Richardson. I recently posted the controversial question, Where are the People? Now I’m wondering, Where is the Poop? If disaster photography is more successful without people, is bowel movement photography better without the feces?

Excusado, 1925, by Edward Weston


January 10, 2007

That smell in New York

Filed under: shit — alecsothblog @ 1:18 am

Last night the upstairs toilet overflowed. We had water and God knows what else dripping through our kitchen ceiling. (I’m blaming Katrina karma). This morning I woke up at 4:30 to catch a plane to New York. While eating breakfast I read the NYTimes front page:

A Mystery Odor in Manhattan Raises Alarms and Questions

It was the odor associated with natural gas – the telltale, unpleasant sulfer scent that typically signals a gas leak. But this time, it was lingering in many areas of Manhattan, coursing through its buildings and leading to fears that is could ignite.

On the plane I read New York Magazine. The cover story was on Dash Snow, the downtown bad-boy artist with a De Menil bloodline. In the article he talks about his work:

“I’ve always been a big fan of the Post, and I remember in 1992, or whenever the fuck it was, Desert Storm, the Gulf War? Remember? I’d always read the Post, and there’d be really rad headlines about it,” said Snow. “I was just down for it! I’m down with anyone, even if they’re bad people, if they’re just, like, anti-American, you know what I mean? This is a series I’m working on,” he pointed at some collages on the wall with lots of pictures of Saddam Hussein, whose likeness is also tattooed on Snow’s arm. “They’re old headlines, and they all have come on them. Yeah, mine.”

Snow has been working with his own ejaculate a lot lately; his contribution to the Saatchi show was a piece called Fuck the Police, which featured sprays of his sperm on a collagelike installation of tabloid cutouts, headlines about corrupt cops.

The magazine also features another artist profile. The headline reads, Is Terence Koh’s Sperm Worth $100,000? The article describes the “fist-size gold-plated chunks” of his own excrement” and “his use of come as an art material.” But mostly the article talks about money:

Koh once posted online how much money he claimed to have earned as an artist in 2004: $153,782. Even conservative estimates for his 2006 take would break a million dollars. “I love money,” says Koh. “Having money is the grease that helps me run my other crazy projects, like my magazine and my Website and the new porn production company I am setting up in my basement.”

Is it possible that this mix of art, money and body fluid is the source of the mystery smell in New York? Should I have taken Polaroids of that brown juice dripping through my ceiling to show my dealer?

January 7, 2007

Polidori and people pictures

Filed under: media — alecsothblog @ 11:31 pm

A month ago I wrote a post entitled Where Are the People. Among other things, I discussed the fine art photographs of the Katrina disaster. Regarding the work of Robert Polidori, Chris Jordan, Katherine Wolkoff and others, I wrote:

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.

Today Robert Polidori responded to this post. (Read the full response here). Most of his comments are a defense of his photographic practice. Just to be clear, I never said that Polidori (or the others) did anything wrong. I didn’t criticize the use of beauty and certainly did not suggest a moral failure.

My point was quite simple. “While it is worthwhile to see the architectural devastation of New Orleans,” I wrote, “I also want to see the people – the lives actually living in this mess.”

I was tempted to let Polidori’s response stay lost in the blog archives. I have no beef with him or his work and don’t want to fan any flames. But along with Polidori’s defense of his practice, he made one particular comment that was just too juicy to leave alone:

What more are you really going to learn from having a person there? My belief is that you should take stills of what doesn’t seem to move, and take movies or videos of does. It’s my opinion that people come off better in movies.

It is an interesting opinion. While I won’t claim that portraits capture the ‘soul life’ (as he says of his interiors), I would certainly argue for their relevance.

Jeremiah Ward wears makeshift shoes after he was rescued from the Ninth Ward, photo by Irwin Thompson / Dallas Morning News

Polidori asks what we learn from pictures of people. In the case of the image above, one might say something about cigar boxes or improvisation or resiliency – but is art really about learning? I’m much more comfortable with the pursuit of beauty.

Would the feet be more beautiful if they were on video or described in prose? Or would this photograph be more beautiful if we didn’t see the feet?

Polidori makes a good point about a certain kind of fine-art portraiture. Had he or I (or the other artists mentioned above) attempted to photograph the victims of Katrina, they might have appeared “like stick figure props in front of their house.”

But this just gets to the crux of my argument. If we are going to have images from events like Katrina in our galleries, museums and libraries (as I think we must), I hope they aren’t limited to stiff, large-format photography. Those pictures absolutely have their place. But so do Jeremiah’s feet.

January 6, 2007

Top 10 addendum

Filed under: lists — alecsothblog @ 10:49 pm

While working on my Top 10 list, I realized that I only watched one movie in a theater in 2006. My New Year’s resolution was to make more time for the big screen. Tonight I made my first outing to see Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). I doubt I’ll see a better movie this year. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (also on my Top 10 list), Children of Men is a masterpiece of bleak and breathless storytelling. It is also equally relevant. “It imagines the unthinkable,” Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, “What if instead of containing Iraq, the world has become Iraq, a universal battleground of military control, security zones, refugee camps and warring tribal identities?”

But for all of the doom and gloom, Children of Men isn’t so much about a slow apocalypse as the slow reawakening of hope. There is light at the end of the tunnel. What Cuarón never makes clear is the nature of this light. Is it a baby? Christianity? Or is it the bright light of Hollywood?

January 5, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 2:40 am

Today some anonymous genius named Marissa emailed me the following: “When I read your first post about author/book jacket photos I immediately thought of the below poem by Dean Young, in which he mentions a photo of a translator on the back of a book. When I went back and reread it I realized that the poem wasn’t nearly so much about that as I remembered, only a line or two really, but I still felt compelled to send it to you anyway.”

Thanks so much for sending this poem Marissa. It made my day.

by Dean Young

It might have been midnight when last we talked
and now I’ve got this poem that keeps flying
apart which accounts under these xenophobic stars
for all force: gravity, magnetism wind, the ling-

ering of a kiss, a judo throw although
there’s yet to be a single formula for it.
Save us from single formulas. One room
smells like ash, another smells like fruitcake.

One cardinal sits on a branch, another under.
You’ve got to be a bird to understand any of this,
feathery and hollow-boned. You’ve got to be
a claims adjuster staring at a storm. You’ve

got to be entered by a shower of gold coins.
On the back of a Brazilian book of poems,
the translator looks haggard as if she’s chased
a mule cart into another century, the twentieth,

and suddenly she’s feeble in Pittsburgh in her
bunny furs. Imagine, suddenly Pittsburgh,
the handful of dust thrown up for the sun’s
haughty inspection, laughing its molecular

laugh, hungry again, dazzling again it its
stained satin pajamas like the memory of lost
love. I think we were walking though some woods
towards more to drink, up ahead the future

gesticulating wildly like a beggar who’d
scare us out of money, the future threatening
to isolate us like glum geniuses prowling
record stores, not getting a lot done,

mistaken for clerks with gum on our shoes. I’m
trying not to panic. I’m trying to find the center,
drive a nail through it like a mercy killing. I’m
letting myself be thrown around while Come at me

says the day to the night. Come at me says
the cloud to the moon dragging its terrible noose.
Come at me says L so she can show me what she’s learned
in martial arts and now some part of me can’t or

won’t get up, the ground husky with thaw, fall’s
idiot nomenclature garbled in the bramble. I’m
letting my back get soaked. I’m turning into wine.
I’m a broken kore, lips barely parted saying

what? I know suffering does not make us beautiful,
it makes us disappear like wearing black shirts
at midnight, like lying on the spinning earth
crying, Momma, Momma.

January 4, 2007

Quotes n’ Links

Filed under: quotes — alecsothblog @ 3:19 pm

“Life long ago pushed its wet nose between art’s legs and took a deep, doggy sniff.” Seattle Post Intellligencer art critic Regina Hackett surveys the landscape of newspaper art criticism on her lively blog

“How do you strip away the pretenses without being left in your metaphorical underwear?” American Photo surveys the landscape of blogs by photographers (including Zoe and yours truly).

“My favorite artists make art that is inexplicable, even to someone like me, who spends a lot of time specifically thinking about and looking at art.” Jenelle Porter’s Top 10 Contemporary Artists (including Zoe), “Each one underrecognized, female, and ineffably awesome,” in The Believer.

“What I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.” Alice Monro (an author I’ve recently discussed) is calling it quits. As reported in the Toronto Star, Monro announced that she is finished writing because she has used up all of her material and has nothing left to say.

“Is giving in to the photographer’s presumably natural impulse to compose and light well sometimes OK and not OK other times?” David Byrne questions the appropriateness of depicting tragedy as beautiful on his blog.

“We better get used to living without visual boundaries–and with the curiosity and flexible morality of the viewer as the only limit on what we can see–from now on.” Richard B. Woodward discusses the Saddam Hussein cellphone video and the YouTube era in today’s Wall Street Journal.

photo jacket photos

Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 2:55 am

In a previous post I touched on the topic of author photos. I find these pictures irresistible. Part of the appeal is their peculiarity. They don’t seem to function in the service of either commerce or art. Unlike book covers, author photos don’t have much influence over my book buying decisions. And I certainly don’t look at them for their artistry. They are a photographic anomaly. But they are also strangely satisfying. A dozen pages into a juicy novel, I invariably ask myself, “Who’s this voice in my head.” A quick flip to the back of the book and my curiosity is satisfied.

I suspect that most authors deplore these pictures. Certainly Dick Teresi didn’t express enthusiasm for them in the New York Times. “In short, author photos are awful,” he writes, “Is there something going on here beyond bad taste? Are publishers trying to make some sort of point?”

Teresi’s amusing article tries to answer this question by talking to industry insiders:

“There are no rules,” said Victoria Wilson (a vice president and associate publisher at Knopf), then immediately reversed herself. “Well, I have one rule: No cats.”…

One Knopf writer, Charles C. Mann says that he had his jacket photo rejected by the publisher. It showed him in an open-necked shirt. An editor (not Ms. Wilson) told him that serious nonfiction authors wear coats and ties and that they button their shirts to the top. His seriousness in doubt, Mr. Mann complied. “I would happily wear a coat and tie for my publisher,” he said loyally.

Houghton Mifflin’s editor in chief, John Sterling, confesses that there are indeed some unwritten yet very firm rules. These rules appear to forbid subtlety at any cost. “The investigative political writer should look tough,” says Mr. Sterling. “He dresses in a coat and tie, preferably in front of the Capitol. The commercial fiction writer, on the other hand, has a soft ‘Vaseline’ type of portrait.”

But again, who really cares about photographic quality. Jacket photos are the literary equivalent to baseball cards. They scratch an itch.

This itch isn’t limited to purely literary work. As a longtime fan of photography monographs, I often find myself wondering what the author looks like. But most photographers don’t want to sully their vision with a second-rate snapshot at the back of the book. I understand this desire for purity, but I’m grateful for the exceptions. My all time favorite book jacket photograph is on the back of Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light:


This picture makes me laugh. Like Cape Light itself, the photograph is unabashedly joyous. I suspect that like Alice Monro’s portraits (discussed in a previous post) this hasn’t helped Meyerowitz’s perception in the art world. But it suits his vision.

In Meyerowitz’s one directorial effort, the remarkably good documentary Pop (with cinematography by Sasha Meyerowitz) the Cape Light portrait is used for remarkably bad box-cover art:


Almost every Meyerowitz book comes with a new jacket photo. I love that his family makes most of these pictures:


Meyerowitz’s openness to the jacket photo isn’t surprising. He seems too comfortable with himself to worry about these pictures appearing déclassé. And he’s never been reluctant to put himself out in the public eye

I almost think of Robert Adams as the opposite of Meyerowitz. Meyerowitz = Northeast, color, outgoing, HP, joy. Adams = Northwest, black and white, reclusive, Nazraeli, sorrow. Nevertheless, Adams has repeatedly published jacket portraits with his books:


The fact that Adams is especially private makes these pictures all the more special. I’m fairly certain I haven’t seen any other photographs of him. And it was only while working on this post that I realized these three portraits are different. His expression is amazingly consistent. In a way this matches the consistency of his work. And I’d be lying if I said these pictures didn’t somehow affect the way I look at his work. When I look at an Adams picture – the trademark merger of deep sorrow and simple pleasure – somewhere behind my eye I’m seeing that face.

January 2, 2007

10 things I liked in 2006

Filed under: lists — alecsothblog @ 9:32 pm

The Walker Art Center asked me to come up with a top ten list for their blog. I decided to go with half photography, half other stuff:

Lobbyist in Green, by Tim Davis

1) Photography (book): My Life in Politics by Tim Davis
Tim Davis is too smart to be a photographer. But his eye is too good to be anything else. A great book.

2) Photography (exhibition): Peter Hujar at PS1
One of my favorite photographers at one of my favorite places to look at art – does it get any better? Actually, yes. Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces was exhibited across the hall.

Hymenoplasty Cosmetic Surgery, Professional Association, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The hidden patient in this photograph is a 21-year-old Arab woman living in the United States. In order to adhere to cultural and familial expectations regarding her virginity, she had her hymen reconstructed.

3) Photography (editorial): Taryn Simon: New York Times Magazine
Sometimes I come across work that is so good that it makes me downright jealous. This happened with the recent New York Times Magazine portfolio of new images by Taryn Simon from her project, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

4) Photography (website): Conscientious
Why does an astrophysicist in Pittsburg have the most comprehensive information on new photography? Assuming astrophysics is more demanding than being a Starbucks barista, where does Jöerg Colberg get the time?

When 2nd Lt. James Cathey’s body arrived at the Reno Airport, Marines climbed into the cargo hold of the plane and draped the flag over his casket as passengers watched the family gather on the tarmac, by Todd Heisler

5) Photography (single picture): Reno Airport by Todd Heisler
Heisler’s picture of a Marine being removed from a commercial plane beneath the gaze of fellow passengers was published in 2005 but not seen by most until 2006 when his project, Final Salute, won the Pulitzer Prize. This remarkable image is perhaps the best portrait of America in 2006 – the year we finally looked out the window (and in the mirror).

Storm, by David Bates

6) Painting: David Bates
In a year when dozens of fine-art photographers exhibited work from Katrina, the best art to come out of the disaster was made by a painter.

7) Radio: The David Johansen Mansion of Fun Show on Sirius Radio
I do a lot of driving. I listen to a lot of radio. The former New York Dolls singer David Johansen is the best D.J ever.

still from Sweet Land, by Ali Selim

8) Film: Sweet Land
Over the last year I only saw one movie in a theater…but it was a really good one. After 16 years of preparation, the Minnesota writer/director Ali Selim shot this film in 24 days. Unafraid of sentimentality with a real-life pace, this is a film to be savored.

9) Music: Solomon Burke, Nashville
Is Burke’s voice a moan, a wail, or a croon? Whichever it is, I understand why he sings in Valley of Tears, “People stand in line just to hear me cry.”

10) Fiction: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This year I listened to two audiobooks by Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2006) and No Country for Old Men (2005). In both books McCarthy takes the ‘thriller’ and strips it to the bone. The raw and urgent writing (along with the gravely voice of Tom Stechschulte) drives the listener into an almost subterranean universe. I don’t think I’ll ever get The Road out of my system.

  • See some other excellent Top 10 lists from the Walker here

Photos for writers

Filed under: editorial photo — alecsothblog @ 12:43 am

A couple of months ago a publisher approached my agency about using one of my photographs as a book cover. It was a snow scene with a houseboat and a laundry line (see the image here). “There is just one catch,” my agent told me, “they want to add a child running through the snow.” While I’m no purist, it just felt wrong. He asked me if I would just look at a couple of their layouts. I wish I could post them here. The Photoshop work was amazing. But I still said I couldn’t do it.

If it weren’t for the kid running in the snow, I’m sure I would have agreed. I like the use of photographs on book covers. I recently came across a website called Covering Photography that documents this phenomenon (whew, what a specialty). It is interesting to see which images work as book covers. Clearly a lot of people think this photograph by Nan Goldin makes a good cover:


One can’t help but wonder how much say the authors have in these covers. Did Dorothy Allison help select these images by Dorothea Lange, William Eggleston and Wright Morris:


Moreover, did Allison know how powerfully the Lange image would shape the perception of her book? The two seem inseparable. This probably has something to do with using a recognizable face on the cover. This is a rarity in fiction. But there are some notable exceptions. Like the Lange image, it is hard to separate Margaret Bourke-White’s image from the lead character in William Kennedy’s classic, Ironweed:

It is interesting how the flipped version on Ironweed seems so much gentler than Bourke-White’s original (from the book You Have Seen Their Faces).

Most covers go for atmosphere and avoid specificity. It is no accident that the very popular image by Goldin hides both faces. This is interesting given the fact that nearly every magazine cover shows a face looking at the camera. But it makes sense. By keeping things less specific, the reader is allowed to create the characters in their mind. But even with these more generic images, I wonder how much say the writer has in the selection. I suspect the writer Didier Daeninckx knows as little about me (and my picture) as I know about him:


I wonder if Spalding Gray helped choose the image for his novel Impossible Vacation. The book draws on Gray’s own life experience, including his mother’s suicide. Gray himself committed suicide 11 years after the publication of the book – by drowning. Did he help select this image by Ralph Eugene Meatyard:


It is interesting how the cover images affect our reading of the book. But equally influential is the author photograph. In discussing the under-appreciation of Alice Munro in the New York Times, Johnathan Franzen wrote, “her jacket photos show her smiling pleasantly, as if the reader were a friend, rather than wearing the kind of woeful scowl that signifies really serious literary intent.” Franzen makes a good point. Compare Monro’s portrait to his own:


This over-the-top image of Franzen was taken by

Marion Ettlinger. Ettlinger is so successful as a photographer that she has her own verb. “To be ‘Ettlingered’ means to have imparted to you an aura of distinction and renown, regardless of whether anyone besides your mother and your cat knows who you are,” wrote the New York Times.

For the record, Franzen has updated his portrait. Just as he avoided the Oprah Book Club, he now shies away from Ettlinger. I can understand why. Ettllinger is a good photographer. But there is something off-putting about her relentless effort to make authors look like, well, Authors. Others have been more blunt in their criticism.

Dennis Loy Johnson writes:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m not sure what words are behind Marion Ettlinger’s photographs, except perhaps “My shoes are too tight.” You could say her photos represent yet another discouragement of intellectualism in modern literature. Or you could say they just prove the power of faceless storytelling — the story about that emperor who wore no clothes, for example.

The New York Times

profile of Ettlinger suggests the problem with her pictures is that they were produced specifically to market books:

A portrait’s function is to have no function except the representation of the subject. Julia Margaret Cameron’s celebrated photographs of Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle are portraits. So are Bernice Abbott’s iconic pictures of James Joyce. The subjects of those pictures acquired, through their work — or through titanic expectation that became a kind of original work itself — reputations that had become larger than their writing. Thus their images could acceptably appear independent of a dust jacket. Ettlinger’s pictures, however, are made expressly to adorn book jackets. Their function is to be, as it were, purely functional — informative, curiosity-satisfying. They are absolutely dependent on the publication of the book, which is a one-time event.

I’m not sure I agree, but it is an interesting argument. It gets me thinking about the portraits I’ve made of authors:


This picture on the left of Patricia Hampl was made specifically for her dust jacket. The picture of Jim Harrison was made for a French literary magazine and was later used by his publisher for a book of poems. Which is the better portrait? How do these portraits alter the way we read the author? I’m not sure. All I know is that pictures change words as much as words change pictures.

One of the best places to watch this dynamic is in the pages of the New Yorker. I’m specifically interested in the way they combine photography and fiction. Much like book covers, the use of a single image within the largely photo-free magazine is seductive. It serves to draw readers into the story.

Also like most book covers, these images are found by scavenging editors rather than producers. Every couple of months I get an email from the editors of the New Yorker that go something like this, “Do you have a picture of an older woman in a damp, Eastern European setting, preferable not with her face showing. We are also looking for a picture of a monkey, possibly sitting on a suitcase….”

These emails always have me scrambling through my archives. I invariably come up dry. While I’ve done editorial work for the magazine a number of times, I’ve never fulfilled one of these fiction requests. But I’ve come close. One time I received a call from the New Yorker photo editor who explained that the illustrator

Maira Kalman had done a painting based on one of my pictures. They wanted to use the illustration with a fiction story. I agreed. I’m a huge fan of the New Yorker. If they asked me to work in the mailroom I would agree. I was also flattered that a painter was inspired by one of my images. This is how it looked:


Here is my original:


After the magazine came out, I received dozens of emails by people who were outraged that my picture was ‘ripped off.’ I explained that the illustration was like a music sample or cover song. What people couldn’t understand was that I wasn’t credited. I didn’t care, though I suppose it would have helped alleviate criticism.

As I now look back on that illustration from August 2004, I notice that the author of the short story was Richard Ford. Ford ended up writing an essay for my book NIAGARA. While it might have been nice to use my picture for his story, I’m much happier that his story was used for my pictures.

  • Along with Marion Ettlinger, the other legendary author photographer is Jill Krementz. More information
  • here

  • A related post by Christian Patterson on photographers and album covers
  • here

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