Alec Soth's Archived Blog

February 28, 2007

The Body and The Wall

Filed under: goof,quotes — alecsothblog @ 1:32 am

Official portrait of former MN Gov. Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura (more info here)

There has been a lot of chatter online about the recent NYTimes profile of Jeff Wall (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), but I’m the first to make this connection:

  • You have to forget about the idea of the spirit of the place. It’s one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere. Jeff Wall
  • Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. Jesse Ventura
  • I’m a more affectionate person than I thought I was. I like trees or I like people’s faces. That’s one reason I think my work has changed. I realized I wasn’t interested in filtering my affection for things through certain levels of mediation. Jeff Wall
  • If I could be reincarnated as a fabric, I would come back as a 38 double-D bra. Jesse Ventura
  • The aesthetic norm of fragmentation implies that the avant-garde movements made a fundamental and irreversible break with the past. The art of the past is defined as “organically unified,” art that does not want to recognize its own contingent character, its own fragile illusionism. It wants to revel in the illusionism, for its own sake and for the sake of its audience, and it wants to seem to be inevitable and complete, the creation of magicians. This is what is called the “genius ideology.” Tearing apart the organic work of art was the accomplishment of the avant-garde, which revealed the inner mechanics of traditional illusionistic art, the stagecraft of the masterpiece. To a great extent, I agree with that process, and I like a lot of avant-garde art very much; it’s very important to me. But I feel that it’s an unfree way of relating to it to erect it as an absolute standard, against the aspects of the unified work which I like. I like the idea of the unified work because I like pictures, and there is always a sense in which a picture exists as [such] through its unification, [through] its precisely pictorial unification. I think the art of the past is not as unified as the avant-garde polemic needed for it to be, or[ made it] appear to be. There are always acknowledgments of contingency and a sense of alternatives in good work from earlier times, probably very far back in time. So, firstly, there probably is no completely unified work, outside some very specific limits, at least, none in the tradition that we’ve been talking about. But there is the phenomenon of unity in a work, the way it might be experienced as a unity, even if, when you look closer at it, it displays or at least indicates, or hints at, its own contingency. That phenomenon, that moment of appearance, that moment of the experience of the work’s unity, remains important. That moment, that instant, will always be there when we experience good art, even if we are experiencing a work which rejects the whole idea of unity, like in radical avant-garde or neo-avant-garde art. So, I see the unity of the work of art as an unavoidable moment of the making and of the experiencing of any work. There is a dialectic in all of this, not two antithetical forms, each complete in themselves, one coming after the other in time and rendering the first one “obsolete”–a favorite polemical term of the proponents of the new orthodoxy. And, just an aside, I would say that it was always my experience that the criticisms aimed against so-called pre-Modern art were not terribly accurate, and they were tendentious, in that by trying so hard to break away from the past, a lot of avant-garde artists and writers, critics let’s say, exaggerated the flaws or weaknesses of the art of the past so that they could get away from it. That’s just a rhetoric of the avant-garde, and the times made it necessary; OK., but let’s not live under that as some kind of law now. You look at so-called pre-modern art–I say ‘so-called’ because I don’t really think it’s un-modern’whether it’s Caravaggio or Botticelli or Durer, it’s not as unified as those writers made it out to be. The antithesis between avant-garde art and “museum art” is less pronounced than the avant-garde wanted it to be. Older art is much richer and more nuanced than a lot of the arguments give it credit for being. It’s kind of obvious by now, how adolescent a lot of avant-gardist attitudes were- the “burn the museum” attitude from the 20’s, from Dada through the 60’s. Jeff Wall
  • I asked him [Dalai Lama] the most important question that I think you could ask – if he had ever seen Caddy Shack. Jesse Ventura

February 27, 2007

‘art perseveres, wherever it may be found’

Filed under: editorial photo — alecsothblog @ 12:33 am


If you haven’t noticed, I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about fine-art photographers who dirty themselves in editorial waters. (Examples here, here and here). Yesterday I asked, “Why do they bother?”

Several people responded with knee-jerk cynicism: “money, money, money.”

Is everyone aware that the day rate for the New York Times Magazine is $400? (Half of that if you are using an agent). I don’t know Justine Kurland’s art prices, but I’d guess they are somewhere around $15,000. If she is hurting for cash, I’m sure she could change the price to $15,400. What about Rineke Dijkstra? $50,400.

Set aside your cynicism for a second and consider this – a lot of photographers actually like taking pictures for publication.

A couple of examples:

  • In 1998, Larry Sultan took an assignment from Maxim Magazine. Yes, Maxim. The story was called “A Day in the Life of a Porn Set.” Six years later, Sultan debuted The Valley at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
  • In 2003, Mitch Epstein photographed the dying power-plant town of Cheshire, Ohio for the New York Times. Next month Epstein will be debuting his latest project, American Power at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Sultan and Epstein are two of the best photographers working today. Both have had long careers. Both continue to surprise. I’d argue that their participation in the world of editorial photography has made them better.

I’d never suggest that editorial photography is the right choice for most photographers. But I hate to see it dismissed as mere money-grubbing. Some of the greatest photographers of all time rarely did anything else.

One of my favorites is Evelyn Hofer. I’ve only purchased a few photographs in my life and two of them are by Hofer. Both were made on assignment. In the current issue of Aperture, Vicki Goldberg reviews Evelyn Hofer’s recent retrospective:

Hofer’s pictures were generally taken on assignment, which she never looked on as a lesser task. So much for the disdain of commercial work that art photographers used to express. Art perseveres, wherever it may be found.

February 26, 2007

gun for hire

Filed under: editorial photo — alecsothblog @ 1:50 am

Several years ago I got talked into a job photographing a number of European telecommunications CEO’s. The pictures were some of the worst I’ve ever taken. Each subject had mastered the stale but stately CEO look. One man walked into the room, shook my hand, and held up two fingers. “Two pictures,” he insisted, “no more.”

I’ve since instituted the ‘No-CEO’ policy. I’m not interested in photographing powerful people whose only interest is to appear powerful. There are plenty of other photographers who can do a better job.

The best of all time was Avedon. He was notorious for being able to crack the façade. But even Avedon would sometimes fail:


Last month I photographed in Paris for the 2007 edition of Magnum’s Fashion Magazine. I broke my No-CEO policy a couple of times, but I’m happy with the pictures. The biggest challenge I faced was photographing models. I tried to make real portraits by photographing the models in their own clothes and apartments. But it seemed impossible to break through their model-ness. No matter how many times I told a model to stop posing, they still had the look. Even their eyes were professional.

This brings up the whole issue of artists doing editorial photography. In the last week I’ve encountered a few examples:

The Kurland pictures really got me thinking. In the same edition of the NYTimes, her work received a full-page profile. If the tables were turned, would Jeff Wall take editorial pictures of Kurland? Not in a million years.

So why does she bother? Years ago I asked this question to Robert Polidori. He told me that he used to play in a rock band. He said that editorial photography is similar to going on the road with a band. You find yourself playing an empty bar in the midddle of nowhere on a Tuesday night and ask yourself, “Why do I bother.” The answer, he said, is that all of these gigs make you stronger – more ready for the studio or the arena concert.

February 23, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 12:06 am

Christian is mocking my skirt adjustments, Eric is frustrated by the lack of unbridled purity in my fashion photography, and today Sarah told me that she never looks at the blog because all I do is copy poems. So, dear friends, this one is for you:

Dear friend, whoever you are, take this kiss,
I give it especially to you—Do not forget me;
I feel like one who has done work for the day, to retire awhile;
I receive now again of my many translations—from my avataras ascending—while others
doubtless await me;
An unknown sphere, more real than I dream’d, more direct, darts awakening rays
about me—So long!
Remember my words—I may again return,
I love you—I depart from materials;
I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

—- from So Long, by Walt Whitman

February 19, 2007

William T. Vollmann

Filed under: artists,quotes — alecsothblog @ 2:11 am

My recent quiz on celebrity photographers failed to mention William T. Vollmann. Vollman doesn’t have a website or, for that matter, use the internet or email. Not surprisingly, he isn’t a big fan of digital photography. In a recent interview in BookForum, he says:

I dislike digital photography because there is no guarantee of permanence as of yet. A compact disc or DVD has a very limited life. When I was photographing the street prostitutes in Sacramento, I used my 8×10 camera and made some platinum prints that should last hundreds of years. It makes me happy to think that these poor prostitutes, whom no one ever gave a damn about, whom people spat on and did terrible things to, will have a certain amount of immortality.”

Vollmann has traveled the world (and continues to spend time as a train hobo), written around sixty books (including a seven-volume, 3300 page treatise on violence) has a wife and child and still has time to mix in some painting and alternative process photography. He doesn’t pursue any of it lightly. One example here:

Q: As part of the research for The Royal Family, you smoked crack, by your own admission, about a hundred times. Is something like that simply a matter of wanting to be able to write from a more experiential perspective, rather than simply observational?

Vollmann: That’s exactly what it is. Otherwise, you really don’t know what you’re doing. If you want to write about somebody who’s a crackhead, you better understand firsthand the effect that crack has or it’s really going to be hard to do it right. That’s the easiest, simplest, best way. It’s like if you’re doing printing-out process photography–the best thing you can do is expose your negative in the sun. If you want to, you can have an exposure lamp, and it can be calibrated, but it won’t be as strong as the sun, or as even. You won’t give as much UV radiation. Why not just stick with what’s already there for you, instead of having to talk to a hundred people about how crack feels? Just do it once and you’ll know.

I’ve hunted around the web and can’t seem to find any of his photographs (can anyone help?). The only thing I found were some examples of his artwork:


February 15, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 11:22 pm

Rachel and I had our first date half a life ago – Valentines Day, 1986. In the four years we’ve had children, I’ve missed every Valentines Day. I blew it again this week. In honor of my sweet bride, here is a poem:

How My Wife Saves the Day
By Jorn Ake*

My wife says, little brick, wake up.
I make some coffee
and put on my pants
for one more day.

She says, my cow, paper’s here.
I drink my coffee
and spend too much time
on an article about dung beetles.

She says, sweet, backyard’s on fire.
I go outside
and stand in the center.

These are my flowers, I say,
red as they are
they are you.

I am your wife, she says, wave,
wave for my red camera.

*Jorn Ake is the author of a fantastic volume of poetry: Asleep in the Lightning Fields. Jorn is also a photographer. He is one of the few authors to have produced his own cover photograph:


February 12, 2007


Filed under: artists & family,filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 11:40 pm

Last weekend I finally got to see The Departed (highly entertaining, but not Best Picture material). After getting home from the theater, I popped in a DVD that a friend lent me. It was a documentary called Billy the Kid. There isn’t much point comparing Billy the Kid to The Departed. Martin Scorsese is a legend working with a huge budget and the biggest names in Hollywood. Jennifer Venditti is a first-time filmmaker working with a tiny crew and a shoestring budget. Apples and Oranges.

But here is the thing. A few days after seeing Billy the Kid, the movie is much more alive in my memory than The Departed. Isn’t it encouraging that someone working with a video camera and a tiny budget can make something as powerful as an Academy-nominated film?

Similar thoughts occurred to me recently while I watched the documentary Tell Them Who You Are. Made by Mark Wexler, the film starts as a profile of his father, the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler. But this rather boring biographical premise is quickly abandoned as father and son bicker about politics, family and filmmaking. (One of the most engaging scenes shows the two Wexlers yelling at each other about where to shoot an interview).

Wexler Sr. is an Academy Award-winning cinematographer. Wexler Jr. has made a minor TV documentary for National Geographic. His cinematography is weak. His premise is boring. But the resulting film is as engaging as many of the great films his father worked on.

The idea of making a film, however small, still seems hugely ambitious. I have a hard time trying to make a decent picture, much less ninety minutes of pictures. But the DIY spirit of documentary filmmakers is encouraging. If they can make movies that hold their own with the big boys, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.


Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 10:44 pm

Book covers designer (chip kidd) + book cover photographer (thomas allen) = book covers (james elroy)


Filed under: minnesota — alecsothblog @ 3:35 pm

Would some Wiki-specialist please work on an entry for Minneagraphers. I’m jealous of the Chicagraphers.

February 11, 2007

Gareth McConnell

Filed under: artists — alecsothblog @ 11:09 pm

Untitled (Bedroom Rainbow), 2003-06, by Gareth McConnell

Today’s New York Times Magazine featured portraits of actors. But more interesting than the actors was the diversity of photographers used. Along with the regular editorial heavy-hitters (Dan Winters, Richard Burbridge) there were fine art photographers (Rineke Dijkstra, Katy Grannan, Andres Serrano) fashion photographers (David Sims, Robert Maxwell) and even a photojournalist (Paolo Pellegrin).

One of the standouts in the portfolio is a lesser-known photographer: Gareth McConnell. Check out his his fantastic work here.

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