Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 30, 2007

The mystical moist night-air

Filed under: poetry,psa — alecsothblog @ 10:33 pm

I’m hitting the road and hanging up the blog. Join me for a non-virtual visit in Memphis (Oct. 5th) and Atlanta (Oct. 11th). Otherwise, send me a letter – I’m sick of email.

I’ll leave with a poem:

When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

September 28, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 4:24 am

Last week while I was traveling my wife had to put down our sweet dog Charley. Charley wasn’t named after the Steinbeck book, Travels with Charley (he came with that name from the Humane Society), but he was as worthy of adoration as Steinbeck’s poodle.

Though Charley usually came to the studio with me, I never took him on the road. I probably wasn’t as good of a companion as Steinbeck. One of Steinbeck’s previous dogs, an Irish Setter named Toby, chewed up half of the only existing manuscript of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck wrote to his agent, “The poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

I’ve spent a lot of time this last week looking for the perfect dead dog poem. Most of them are pretty terrible. (I’ve posted eight here). But this one by Gerald Stern feels about right:

By Gerald Stern

What I was doing with my white teeth exposed
like that on the side of the road I don’t know,
and I don’t know why I lay beside the sewer
so that the lover of dead things could come back
with his pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper.
I was there for a good two hours whistling
dirges, shrieking a little, terrifying
hearts with my whimpering cries before I died
by pulling the one leg up and stiffening.
There is a look we have with the hair of the chin
curled in mid-air, there is a look with the belly
stopped in the midst of its greed. The lover of dead things
stoops to feel me, his hand is shaking. I know
his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping.
I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror
of smell—and sight—is overtaking him;
I know he has that terrified faraway look
that death brings—he is contemplating. I want him
to touch my forehead once again and rub my muzzle
before he lifts me up and throws me into
that little valley. I hope he doesn’t use
his shoe for fear of touching me; I know,
or used to know, the grasses down there; I think
I knew a hundred smells. I hope the dog’s way
doesn’t overtake him, one quick push,
barely that, and the mind freed, something else,
some other, thing to take its place. Great heart,
great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me,
give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember,
the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive
the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity.
How could there be enough? I have given
my life for this, emotion has ruined me, oh lover,
I have exchanged my wildness—little tricks
with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is a parrot’s,
I am a rampant horse, I am a lion,
I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth—
as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely.

September 26, 2007


Filed under: critics & curators,quotes — alecsothblog @ 9:09 am

“Give me a Rembrandt in a subway station toilet and a flashlight and I’m happy.” A profile of Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice (Schjeldahl previously discussed on this blog here, here, here, here, here).

“You are many things, but I wouldn’t count glamorous among them.” Jen Bekman talks to me about my fashion sensibility.

“Affluent Children Dressed by their Parents in Absurd Outfits, Already Displaying Scatterbrain Sexuality, Disdain, and Lust.” My pal Michael Silva gets himself a blog.

“Aren’t we all failed photographers?” A great blog on the life and times of an anonymous photo editor.

Who do you like better, Duane Michaels or Brian Ulrich?

September 24, 2007


Filed under: Cat,goof — alecsothblog @ 10:55 pm

Last June I went to a party in New York. Alex Majoli was there and he said to me, “there is a guy here who looks exactly like you.” I forget his name, but this Cuban fellow really did feel like my Doppelgänger. I remember that when I looked at him, I couldn’t help but cover my own face:

A friend recently saw the movie 2 Days in Paris and told me that Adam Goldberg reminded him a lot of me:

But today takes the prize. A reader sent a link to a picture of the singer Devendra Banhart. When I first saw this image, I thought it was bad Photoshop fakery. (It isn’t, see the source here). Holy Crap! Is this guy my Bizarro Doppelgänger:

Yep, that is Chan

September 23, 2007

This post is not about sex machines

Filed under: artists,artists & family,editorial photo,education,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 12:57 pm

Not every photographer finds his or her subject through moody introspection. One of the goals of my recent SFAI class (‘Finding Your Subject’) was to show students the possibilities of assignment photography. While I would never say it is right for everyone, editorial work can be useful in exposing photographers to new subjects. I often use the example of Larry Sultan. After he made his brilliant book Pictures From Home, Sultan did an assignment for Maxim Magazine that led to his book, The Valley.

One of the photographers I invited to my SFAI class was Timothy Archibald. Archibald makes his living almost exclusively through commercial and editorial photography. Perhaps because he is removed from academia, Archibald spoke to the class with a rare mix of honesty and enthusiasm.

Archibald explained that a lot of his editorial work focused on middle-class, domestic life. Inspired by one assignment that had him photographing a man in his garage who’d invented a new kind of foosball table, Archibald began looking for other kinds of inventors. This led Archibald to the subject of his book, Sex Machines.

After publishing this provocative book, Archibald’s “sentence” was pretty much carved in stone. This seems to be one of the side effects of photographing something especially juicy. (“He’s the guy who photographed Christ in piss,” etc). Don’t get me wrong. Sex Machines is a remarkable book. I urge you to learn more about it (here, here, here). But this isn’t the only thing you should know about Timothy Archibald.

I’m pretty sure that Archibald agrees. If you go to his website, you won’t find a single reference to Sex Machines. But then, Archibald’s website seems pretty much geared to getting jobs. While the pictures on his site are well produced, it all feels pretty slick. To get the good stuff, I recommend going to Archibald’s blog. In an inversion of Sultan’s trajectory, Archibald’s new work is about his family.

As with his class presentation, Archibald writes about his work with honesty:

So what is with all these weird images of my kid?

I’m not sure myself. I do feel like I’m trying to create, with photographs, a map, a diagram, a sentence that somehow communicates all the stuff that arises when dealing with my 5 year old boy. Wonder, discovery, emotional chaos, and a feral sense of physical randomness are the words I use when trying to describe the project to myself or others. The pictures may be communicating something else…I just don’t know yet.

Archibald is clearly in the early, experimental stages of this work. But he is getting some interesting results:

With this image, Archibald writes: “My eldest son was sick last week for 48 hours. He found a stick and bent it in three places, making a perfect square. Yesterday I found a message I wrote to my wife on a post it note.”

Again, there is something thrilling in this honesty. Archibald isn’t afraid to explore the emotional ambivalence involved in mixing photography and parenting. In a post that I definitely relate to, Archibald recently wrote:

It’s kind of tricky to switch gears from days in which my only obligation is to take photographs and stick a fork with food in my mouth, to these days at home that involve waking up with the kids, getting them what they need emotionally and physically, having a relationship with Cheri, with the kids, and dealing with all the real relationships that exist outside of the bubble of the long, on-the-road photo shoot. Its an adjustment, and I find myself anxious for the simplicity of the photo shoot: someone is there to work out the details, food is always around, the subjects are new and we are all fascinated with each other….we are all in love with each other for the bubble of the shoot, and then it’s time to go. Then home, the adjustment starts. It takes a few days home for the pleasures and satisfactions of all the rich stuff, the complex emotions that are what home is about to really sink in.

The reason I brought Timothy Archibald to my class was to promote the possibilities of assignment work. I believe it can be a good source of inspiration. But Archibald taught me something else. As the cliché goes, genius is 1% inspiration. It really doesn’t matter what you do for a living. Whether you teach, sell furniture or produce commercials, the important part of making art is digging into “all the rich stuff, the complex emotions.”

September 22, 2007


Filed under: Cat,goof — alecsothblog @ 3:49 pm

Yesterday I got home from a ritzy junket business trip to LA. My plane was late so my wife and I didn’t have much time to celebrate our 11th anniversary. Back at the house, Rachel gave me a card. “You’re more than just a funny, smart and lovable guy,” it said, “you’re mine.” Inside she wrote:


Beverly Hills, 9/21/07

September 21, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry — alecsothblog @ 1:43 am

The Flooded Grave 1998–2000 by Jeff Wall. See details here

In an interview with ChicagoPostmodernPoetry.Com, Graham Foust is asked to name his poetic influences. I love his answer:

More often than not, these lists get boring rather quickly, perhaps more for the maker than for the reader. I don’t know. Am I moved by someone or something that someone might assume wouldn’t move me? I’ve always found Louise Glück to be a fine poet. I love Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl.” I collect found photographs and the limbs of action figures that have seemed to litter the streets of the places I’ve lived. But maybe this is all old news.

I emailed Graham and asked him if photograpy has ever influenced his writing. He sent me the following poem from his first book, As in Every Deafness:

THE FLOODED GRAVE (after a photograph by Jeff Wall)
by Graham Foust

In what’s become this room
we are hostless
for the most part.

There is infinite glitter.
There is earth.

An open grave,
let’s say–not automatically
the not saying “raining”
in what is now this room.

We tune and we fade,
not undetermined upon bloom.

We shatter that way.
We don’t and then we do.

Here is another of Graham Foust’s excellent poems:

Retarded Artifact
by Graham Foust

Give me reasons not to be
oblivion, irony.
Like something in Wisconsin,
I am all the dirt I know.
Having come to in someone
else’s boredom, I’m alive—
and it’s an all-new boredom,
a boredom of cathedral
proportion. Empty as folk,
I just make up, make over
everything. Lately, I don’t
even want a piece of me.

September 19, 2007

Image Makers / Image Takers

Filed under: books,education — alecsothblog @ 6:34 am

When I assemble reading lists for photo classes, I prefer to use texts by other photographers. My all-time must-read essay for students is Robert Adams’ ‘Making Art New’ from Beauty in Photography. I’m also crazy about David Hurn and Bill Jay’s conversation, ‘Selecting A Subject’ from On Being a Photographer (free PDF here).

There is a great new book featuring a huge number of photographic voices. The author, Anne-Celine Jaeger, selected twenty photographers to interview. The diverse group includes William Eggleston, Eugene Richards, Mario Sorrenti, Rineke Dijkstra and yours truly. You can read Thomas Demand talk about Titian and read me talk about, um, sweating:

Q: How did you overcome your fear of photographing people?

Soth: I started out with kids because that was less threatening. I eventually worked my way up to every type of person. At first, I trembled every time I took a picture. My confidence grew, but it took a long time. I still get nervous today. When I shoot assignments I’m notorious amongst my assistants for sweating. It’s very embarrassing. I did a picture for the The New Yorker recently and I was drenched in sweat by the end and it was the middle of winter.

Did I say that? Is there a publicist (or dermatologist) out there that help me?

In addition to the photographers, Jaeger interviews 10 professionals from the world of photography. I was particularly happy to read Jaeger’s interview with Gerhard Steidl. After talking about his experience as a printmaker for legendary artists like Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik, Steidl talks about why he gave up his own photography:

After printing for several years, I looked at what I’d done and was never really satisfied with myself. I thought I wasn’t talented enough and didn’t want to end up as a third rate artist in some Hicksville town and only ever look up to others better than me. I thought it would be much more exciting to work with and for those great artists…

I see myself as the artist’s servant. I help the artist turn his vision into reality by offering the technical know how…Every book is produced a la carte and developed individually according to the artist. I’m not interested in knowing how much a book costs; I just want to do it the best possible way.

Too good to be true? Nope. As my friend Donovan Wylie said, being a photographer at Steidl right now is like being a musician at Stax Records in the 60’s.

How do you get a book published by Steidl? Anne-Celine Jaeger asks Gerhard Steidl this very question. The great thing about Image Makers / Image Takers is that Jaeger isn’t afraid to ask the simple things you want to know. “What advice would you give a young photographer,” she asks Stephen Shore. “Is it hard to balance personal work with editorial work,” she asks Mary Ellen Mark. “What advice would you give to photographers who would love to see their work published?” she asks Kathy Ryan.

Want to know the answers? Buy the book here.

September 17, 2007

Dog Days Done!

Filed under: books,photographs (mine) — alecsothblog @ 5:25 pm

Pre-order at Photo-eye, Amazon, and Steidlville

Teenage Lust

Filed under: aesthetics,artists — alecsothblog @ 4:33 am

This weekend I went to the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin to see a show that included the work of Larry Clark. After recent discussions on this blog (here and here) it was interesting to see Clark’s pictures from Teenage Lust. He shows a girl who is tripping on acid being raped, male hustlers, a brother with an erection tying up his sister in bed. Clark was in his thirties and early forties when he produced this work. In several pictures we see him naked with the teens. It is disturbing stuff. But seeing it in the safe confines of a museum, I somehow find all of this ‘acceptable.’ Again, it comes down to context. If I saw Teenage Lust in the waiting room of my kid’s doctor, yeah, I’d have a big problem. I’d also be troubled if Clark’s pictures were turned into ads. Remember those banned Calvin Klein spots from the 90’s. (Watch them here). Yeesh.

But should context be a safe-haven? Is it fair to disparage Jock Sturges because his books are sold in Barnes & Noble instead of Printed Matter? Does Clark use the prestige of high art to protect his own Neverland Ranch?

  • Larry Clark has an exhibition of new work here
  • 5b4 has a great review of Clark’s new book here
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