Alec Soth's Archived Blog

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.”

July 19, 2007

Fathers & Sons

Filed under: artists & family — alecsothblog @ 12:49 am

A couple of years ago I saw Joel Meyerowitz’s wonderful documentary film, POP, about his father with Alzheimer’s disease. The cinematographer for the film was Meyerowitz’s son Sasha. (I previously mentioned the film here).

Tonight I saw Mitch Epstein’s wonderful documentary film, DAD, about his father’s declining real estate business. The soundtrack credited Erik Friedlander, son of Lee Friedlander. This morning’s New York Times had a nice profile of Erik.

What’s next, Stephen Shore’s wonderful documentary film, FATHER, with cinematography by Winston Eggleston and music by Pablo Frank?

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.

October 9, 2006

Two films (by photographers) about fatherhood

Filed under: artists & family,filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 2:10 am

Danny Lyon has continued to produce autobiographical material alongside his social documentary work. While I’m a big fan of his photographs, I’ve never seen his films. On his website,, you can see a clip of Born to Film (1982). The film intersperses footage of his young son with film shot in the 1930’s by Lyon’s father, a doctor who immigrated from Germany.

Joel Meyerowitz describes his outstanding documentary film, Pop:

In November 1995, my son Sasha and I flew to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to pick up my father, Hy, who has Alzheimer’s disease. We took him on a slow, back road journey up to New York City, where he was born. Although I could articulate the purpose of the trip before it began, the depth of the experience and its real meaning became clearer to me as the trip unfolded. This was to be an odyssey. Three men, three generations of the Meyerowitz family–my father, a retired salesman, myself, a photographer and filmmaker and my son, also a filmmaker, each of us exactly 30 years apart–would travel together from Florida to New York City–to the Bronx actually–where my father had lived most of his life and where I was born. Our quest was to see if along the way the adventures and experiences we would have could stimulate his now rapidly failing memory.

October 6, 2006

Raymond Meeks

Filed under: artists,artists & family — alecsothblog @ 12:28 am

I like getting mail. Not email. Mail. I also like getting magazines. The New Yorkers pile up and I’m lucky if I get to the cartoons, but it makes me happy to find it in the mail. My favorite mail is actually a catalogue. The folks at Photo-Eye are doing such a fantastic job with their Booklist. Beautiful printing, excellent (and surprisingly honest) reviews, and my favorite subject – photography books. What could be better?

The current issue of Booklist profiles Raymond Meeks. Meeks has been producing beautiful one-of-a-kind books by combining his own pictures with secondhand books. Minna and Myself combines Meeks images of his daughter with the poetry of Maxwell Bodenheim:


In an interview with Darius Himes, the editor of Booklist, Meeks talks about his process:

My process is like the proverbial “roadmap in the wilderness”; it’s not really a conscious one and I have lots of help from my son, Adam, who did the layout and sequencing for Sound of Summer Running. Adam was 12 at the time and I continue to frustrate him with my anal retentive design choices – centering images on a page – where he would take a more whimsical, less predictable approach to layout.

October 5, 2006

Flat Daddy

Filed under: artists & family,goof — alecsothblog @ 9:04 am

W. Eugene Smith daddy

I’m still traveling and don’t have much time to post, but I did want to quickly mention the ‘Flat Daddy’ phenomenon. If you haven’t heard about it, these are cardboard cutouts that families are using to replace loved ones that are in Iraq. Perhaps this could be the answer to the traveling photographer dilemma? Learn how to make your own here.

Trent Parke & Narelle Autio

Filed under: artists,artists & family — alecsothblog @ 9:02 am

Jem, 6am ©Trent Parke

My buddy (and fellow Magnum associate) Trent Parke and his wife Narelle Autio are photographers doing fantastic work in Australia. Trent and Narelle have one child, Jem, and another on the way any day.

Last June at the Magnum annual meeting, Trent showed me a book dummy for his new project. It is absolutely stunning. But what is even more remarkable is that he took most of the pictures while his child tagged along.

Trent recently wrote me about his experiences as a photographer/parent:

I used to shoot pretty much every day or any spare moment. Narelle and I gave up any social life we had to be able to continue doing our personal work. Being a street photographer means you never really stop taking pictures. And when I’m not shooting, Narelle is shooting. When Jem came along it changed everything. Both our parents and families live in different states and as we don’t have any friends with children here, there is no real day off (we cant afford the ridiculous prices of childcare). So there was only one real option if I wanted to keep taking pictures and spend time with my son. Push a stroller as well as take pictures.

Jem hates our two bedroom dogbox flat and loves being outside, so when the light gets right we head out. I spend an hour or so shooting and when the light goes we head to the nearest park. He gets a tour and then gets to play somewhere different at the end of it so it works out ok. I’ve missed some great pictures along the way, but I have also managed to knock a few good ones off that I wouldn’t have had any chance of taking had we been at home. It has completely changed the way I work. But I actually think it’s for the better.

September 30, 2006

Advice from the spouse of a photographer

Filed under: artists & family — alecsothblog @ 8:04 am

“Don’t worry about the ‘Bridges of Madison County’ scenario.”

On Doug Plummer’s blog, his wife Robin shares her thoughts on being married to a photographer.

September 28, 2006

Maria Friedlander and William Gedney

Filed under: artists & family — alecsothblog @ 11:54 pm

Maria Friedlander, New City, New York, 1971 (Lee Friedlander)

In response to my recent post on photography and parenting Brandon Sorg mentioned Maria Friedlander’s foreword to What Was True, The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney. While I’ve long treasured this book, I’d never read the foreword. What a shame. Maria Friendlander’s prose is pure and honest and worthy of a lengthy excerpt:

Most of the time we spent with Bill [William Gedney] was in our own home. He seemed content and comfortable in our family setting and, in fact, began to express a growing interest about our particular domestic style. Specifically, Bill began to question me about what it was like to be married to someone as focused on his work as Lee is. How did I handle Lee’s lengthy trips away from home? What was it like to rear our children within this framework? Even as he questioned, I had the sense that Bill already had romanticized my role in my marriage. He often expressed his feeling that to be a truly committed artist one had to be free to pursue one’s work, and the fact that Lee was able to do it while involved in a full family life must mean, according to Bill, that I was some kind of perfect wife for an artist. I told Bill it was not that simple. Photography was the fulcrum of Lee’s life and I had accepted that for myself and for the children. It was an interesting life, I told Bill, one that could be so traditional and then way out there in the world – exciting and also very lonely. I had discovered that it was calmer and more fun at times for me to stay home with Erik and Anna than to accompany Lee on his working trips. On my own with them, I was free of the pressure to behave and make the children behave in ways to accommodate Lee and his work. I could experience a sense of freedom when I didn’t have to deal with Lee’s self-absorption, but I could also be angry with him for being away and miss him in equal measure. I told Bill that’s what life was like, all of the above, sometimes all at one time. But I had the feeling Bill preferred the myth of Saint Maria

How brave of Friedlander to write so honestly for a book introduction. This intimacy is a perfect match for the Gedney’s own diary entries. Here is something Gedney wrote in his notebook on March 27th, 1969:

Go to a dinner for Edward Steichen. I do not relate to the affair or the people, dull speeches, pompous, etc. I sit next to Mrs. Harry Callahan. She is nice, a homebody I suspect, totally uninterested in art outside of her husband’s work. She works as a secretary. Her husband when they were first married attempted to get her interested in photography but she had no interest; she said she never held a camera in her hand. I bet she is a perfect artist’s wife and good mother.

Appearantly Gedney had some strong feelings about wives and mothers. Thanks to the wonderfully rich Duke University website devoted to Gedney, I was able to find a few of his unpublished pictures that hit on this topic. As usual, Gedney’s images are emotional yet restrained glimpses of real human tenderness:

Mother standing with son in doorway, 1964

Mother giving son a haircut, 1964

Roy Harris and wife, 1967

Friday Poem

Filed under: artists & family,poetry — alecsothblog @ 11:45 pm

Along with being one of my all-time favorite poems, this perfectly addresses the recent topic of art and family:

Danse Russe
by William Carlos Williams

If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,–
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
“I am lonely, lonely.
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!”
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,–

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

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