Alec Soth's Archived Blog

June 4, 2007

Tactile photography

Filed under: aesthetics,exhibitions (not mine),photo tech,sculpture — alecsothblog @ 11:42 pm

One of my frustrations with contemporary photographic technique, mine included, is the feeling of sterility. Digital processes have become so sophisticated that nearly every picture you see is dusted and anti-scratched to a state of frozen perfection. After awhile it all feels so airless.

So it was with pleasure that I observed evidence of a return to tactile photography at the recent Photo London exhibition. One of the best examples of this was the work of Stephen Gill. In his recent project, Buried, Gill took pictures in Hackney Wick and buried them in the same area. Gill writes about the process:

When burying my first batch of photographs, a passing man spotted me and asked what I was doing. Not only did I not want to give the location away of some of my buried pictures, but It just sounded a bit weird to say that I was burying photographs so replied that I was looking for newts. As soon as I’d said that I looked down and saw a newt at my feet.

Not knowing what an image would look like once it was dug up introduced an element of chance and surprise which I found appealing. This feeling of letting go and in a way collaborating with place – allowing it also to work on putting the finishing touches to a picture – felt fair. Maybe the spirit of the place can also make its mark.

While I’m not sure I even noticed Gill’s imagery, it felt good to experience a contemporary photograph that was overwhelmingly tactile:


I’m not sure how to deal with this hunger for photography that is physical and imperfect. Certainly only one photographer is allowed to bury his photographs. Is the problem photography itself? Maybe I just envy painting and sculpture.

On my recent trip to Tennessee I encountered two other artists who might share my envy. At the Knoxville Museum of Art, I saw Tim Davis’s flawless color photographs of the flaws and textures of painting:

A Passing Shower in the Tropics, by Tim Davis

And at the Powerhouse in Memphis I saw Matt Ducklo’s large C-Prints showing blind people touching sculpture. For me, these pictures were about photographic frustration:

Seated statue of Hatshepsut, 2005 by Matt Ducklo

Yesterday I visited Musee Rodin in Paris. On view was a fantastic exhibition, The Japanese Dream. Nearly half of the show was devoted to the Japanese dancer Hanako. Rodin made more sculptures of Hanako than of any other sitter. But these sculptures weren’t exactly portraits. Hanako was best known for expressionistic plays ending with her performing hara-kiri. With his sculptures, Rodin tried to recreate her expressions of sorrow and horror.

These works left me speechless. They were everything I’d been craving. I went to the museum bookstore to buy a catalogue. But flipping through the book, I was disappointed. While technically refined, the clinical reproductions failed to communicate the spirit of the work:


The most worthwhile images in the book were those by Edward Steichen:


Steichen’s photographs were able to get at the pain and sensuality of the original sculptures. Again I’m left with the question: Can contemporary photography find its way back to something physical?


June 3, 2007

Jeffrey Ladd & Peter Fraser

Filed under: artists — alecsothblog @ 2:23 pm

I recently discovered an absolutely fantastic new blog. Unlike my rambling entries, 5B4 focuses on a single subject – photography books. None other than John Gossage has called it “the best Photobook blog on the web.”

Overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of the posts, I wanted to know more about the author. But apparently he doesn’t want to be known. He doesn’t offer a profile and usually refers to himself as ‘Mr Whiskets.’

But after poking around I figured out that 5B4 is written by the photographer Jeffrey Ladd. I first came across Ladd’s work a few years ago. He is an artist of depth, sophistication and restraint. This last quality, I suspect, is why Ladd isn’t better known. Mr. Whiskets doesn’t beg for attention.

Though his work hasn’t found a publisher, Ladd channels his love of photography books into the production of his own artist books:


Ladd’s first post on 5B4 was on Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s two-volume History of the Photobook. Ladd notes the way in which this recent attention has intensified the photobook as commercial collectible.

Martin Parr recently gave me a copy of his new book, Parking Spaces. By signing the book on the cellophane wrapper, Parr forces a quandary: Which is more valuable, the signed collectible or the book itself?


A couple of nights ago I had dinner with Parr and his fellow arbiter of history, Gerry Badger. Sitting next to Gerry was the terrific photographer Peter Fraser:


Like Ladd, Fraser strikes me as a photographer of patience and modesty. His recent monograph (by Nazraeli press, with an essay by Gerry Badger) is complex, refined and understated.


My recommendation is to buy two copies. Enjoy one and keep the other in the cellophane.

June 1, 2007

Opening in London tonight

Filed under: lectures and exhibitions — alecsothblog @ 3:11 am

I wish I was biking all over town with Cindy Sherman, but this is a working trip. Meetings all day. If you want to say hi, I’ll be having an opening at HOST Gallery tonight from 6pm to whatever.

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 2:42 am

When I watch in-flight movies, I only choose comedies. There is something about the mix of confinement, cheap wine and comedy that just works. On yesterday’s flight to London I watched Music and Lyrics. The movie stars Hugh Grant as a washed up 80’s singer (like Andrew Ridgeley – other guy from WHAM!) who reinvigorates his career with the help of Drew Barrymore.

The best part of the movie is the music. The film perfectly captures the happy emptiness of pop songwriting. I remember listening to an interview with the writer/director Marc Lawrence on Fresh Air. While most of the songs were written by Adam Shlessinger from the band Fountains of Wayne, one of the tunes was written by the director’s 13 year-old son. Clyde Lawrence also wrote the theme song to Miss Congeniality when he was 8.

After the movie, I started reading J.M. Coetzee’s book Disgrace. Instead of a washed-up pop star, this book is about a washed-up professor. But the following passage had me thinking about pop music:

This year he is offering a course on the Romantic poets. For the rest he teaches Communications 101, ‘Communications Skills,’ and Communications 201, ‘Advanced Communication Skills.’ Although he devotes hours of each day to his new discipline, he finds the premise, as enunciated in the Communications 101 handbook, preposterous: ‘Human Society has created language in order that we may communicate our thoughts, feelings and intentions to each other.’ His own opinion, which he does not air, is that the origins of speech lie in song, and the origins of song in the need to fill out with sound the overlarge and rather empty human soul.

Is it any better if this song comes from Wordsworth than George Michael? Would I be a happier person if I put down the Coetzee book, ordered another wine, and watched Meet the Fockers?

All of this brings me to the Friday Poem. I was saddened to hear about the recent suicide of the poet Sarah Hannah. It seems that Hannah was always drawn to darkness. She wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Sylvia Plath. But just like my airplane movies, she clearly longed for something sweet and light:

The Colors Are Off This Season
By Sarah Hannah

I don’t want any more of this mumble—
Orange fireside hues,
Fading sun, autumnal tumble,
Stricken, inimitable—Rose.

I want Pink, unthinking, true.
Foam pink, cream and coddle,
Miniskirt, Lolita, pompom, tutu,
Milkshake. Pink without the mottle

Or the dying fall. Pink adored, a thrall
So pale it’s practically white.
A tinted room beneath a gable—
Ice pink, powder, feather-light—

Untried corner of the treble.
I want the lift, not the lower.
Bloodless pink stalled at girl,
No weight, no care, no hour.

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