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.”

September 17, 2007

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

September 15, 2007

Documenta, children, sexuality, Barnes & Noble

Filed under: aesthetics,artists,exhibitions (not mine) — alecsothblog @ 12:40 am

Yesterday I went to Documenta. Along with feeling under the weather, I am getting to be too much of a curmudgeon to walk though a half dozen museums of Scotch tape, toothpicks and wall text. But there was the occasional gem. I’m always a fan of Kerry James Marshall. He took the prize for best painter:

In the sculpture catagory, I liked Lukas Duwenhögger’s ‘Celestial Teapot:’

And in photography I was happy to discover the vintage photograms of Bela Kolárová:

more by Kolárová here and here

But the most thrilling experience was watching ‘Who is Listening 1,’ a video by the Taiwanese artist Tseng Yu-Chin.

This video powerfully addressed an issue that has been on my mind. As mentioned yesterday, I recently spent time with the photographer Jock Sturges. Jock is famous for photographing naked children. In 1990, the FBI raided Jock’s studio. After a year, Sturges successfully defended himself on child pornography charges.

Jock and I had a long talk about his work and the way it is received. He convinced me of his good intentions. But I still struggle with how his work functions in the world. For years it seemed like the only photo books the local bookstores carried were crisp new books by Anne Geddes and pawed-over books by Jock Sturges. Why are these books so popular and who is the intended audience?

Sturges agrees that it is problematic. “That dichotomy between the public consumption of the work and my intent and practice in making it is an uneasy one for me, on occasion,” Sturges said in an interview.

The thing that is so fantastic about Tseng Yu-Chin’s video is that it powerfully challenges our ideas of age and sexuality. In the video, the camera is focused on the sweet face of a young boy or girl. Music is playing and a gentle wind blows the child’s hair. All of the sudden, a stream of yogurt is shot on the child’s face and he/she reacts with surprise and pleasure. The same act is then repeated with numerous children.

When I first started watching the video, I was totally entertained (a real relief from Documenta). The children are cute and their reaction is hysterical. In the audience I saw young children barely containing themselves as they waited for the next yogurt blast. I also saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair with an ear to ear grin. But the more I watched, the more I became uncomfortable. “Does this suggest what I think it suggests?” I looked around at the audience. Others looked uncomfortable too.

Along with being a stunning piece of work, the video functions as a kind of Rorschach test. Will you view this like an innocent child or like a suspicious adult?

Poking around online for more information, I came across a text by Yu-Chin that he uses as a statement for the work:

I liked walking in large strides when I was young, freely moving my hands, feeling the air piercing through the gaps between my fingers. It’s comfortable.

But it was ruined by a woman. A stranger. A nameless woman. That one afternoon, when I still walked with my hands moving freely, I cheerfully crossed the street with my mother I lifted my head, without realizing that a woman was coming towards us from the other side. My hand coincidentally collided with her private part. Of course, it was through the cover of fabrics. Honestly, I had yet to realize the significance of sex. I was going to simply apologize. However, I was treated as someone blinded by sexual desire. The woman stared at me with resentment. Full of moral judgment and anger, her lips were pressed so tightly as if she is grinding her teeth behind them. As if I had been slapped mercilessly, my ears rung with endless chatter, and my head filled with cold murmurs, as if the world had frozen over to look at me and my embarrassment, pointing at me with accusation, buzzing over my behavior. And my mother’s figure trembled far ahead. I ran over to hold her hand. Her hand was warm, yet cold at the same time. I didn’t know what to feel. My mother was a woman, too.

I did not know what the stranger was thinking, nor did I know what burden she had placed upon me. At that moment, I felt only the gliding air between my fingers, and not the part of her body that she was taught to believe to be a controversy. I remembered the air becoming suffocating, and those eyes that pierced the stifling space. The zipper on those jeans feels cold, and warm, at the same time. It takes a variety of manners to remind you, that your body had once remained in the naiveté.

It might be that Yu-Chin and Jock Sturges have very similar motives. But context matters. Documenta isn’t the same as Barnes and Noble. Or is it?

    • Watch a clip of Who is Listening 1 here
    • Watch other clips by Yu-Chin here and here
    • Read articles on Tseng Yu-Chin here and here

September 11, 2007

Richard Barnes

Filed under: artists,exhibitions (not mine),the sentence — alecsothblog @ 7:54 am

One of the best parts of my teaching gig at SFAI was bringing in visiting artists. Along with valuing what they could add to the class, this provided me with an excuse to hang out with some cool Bay Area artists.

The first person I invited, Richard Barnes, recently left San Francisco for the East Coast but was in town for a group exhibition at the Yurba Buena Center for the Arts. The show, Dark Matters, has a lot of fantastic work. But for me the highlight was seeing Barnes’ pictures in person. These sumptuous images of starling migrations in Rome made a deep impression when I first saw them in the New York Times Magazine (pdf).

Mumur 1, Nov. 15, 2005 by Richard Barnes

The Times has a nice interactive presentation of these pictures here.

Not long ago Richard Barnes also did a series on bird nests:

from Grid of Nests, 2000, by Richard Barnes

But these bird photos are just the tip of Barnes’ rich and eclectic career. One of the reasons I invited Richard to the class was because of his untraditional career path. After receiving a B.A from Berkeley, he has supported himself as a working photographer. This has principally been in the field of architectural photography, but along the way he has received numerous commissions. Much of this commissioned work deals with the architecture of preservation:

from Animal Logic by Richard Barnes

from Animal Logic by Richard Barnes

For all his great work with birds and museums, Barnes is best known for his pictures of a small house. Nearly ten years ago, the New York Times commissioned Barnes to photograph the cabin of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. By mixing clinical minimalism with such loaded subject matter, Barnes created a frightening and iconic image that only gets more meaningful with time:

Unabomber Cabin (Sacramento), 1998, by Richard Barnes

As regular readers know, I have a fascination with ‘the sentence’ – the shorthand summation everyone uses to describe a particular person. Some are easy (“He’s the guy that photographs Weimaraners). But Barnes is a tricky case. I doubt people would remember ‘He’s an architectural photographer who’s done fine art projects on birds, museums and the Unabomber.’ Whatever the phrase is, Barnes was able to sum up his achievements with a remarkably elegant sentence: “My work is all about containment.” He went on to say that he’d only made this connection in the last few years.

For me this was the ultimate lesson that Barnes brought to the class. While it may not always be great marketing, artists should be free to explore whatever quickens their pulse. Over the long haul they will inevitable find a thread that unifies their vision. Finding this revelatory thread (and not the stupid ‘sentence’) seems to be one of the most meaningful experiences to come from a life making art.

  • An exhibition of Richard Barnes’ work will open on this Saturday, September 15th, at the Hosfelt Gallery in New York.

September 6, 2007

Quiz: Name the senior

Filed under: artists,education,quizes & assignments — alecsothblog @ 3:11 pm

Back to School week continues with a pop quiz. Name this senior:

Charles H. Traub’s Do’s and Don’ts of Graduate Studies

Filed under: artists,education — alecsothblog @ 6:22 am

by Charles H. Traub from the ‘The Chicago Years’ (1970-1977)

The Do’s and Don’ts of Graduate Studies: Maxims from the Chair
from the book The Education of a Photographer
by Charles H Traub, Chair of photography at SVA

The Do’s

  • Do something old in a new way
  • Do something new in an old way
  • Do something new in a new way, Whatever works . . . works
  • Do it sharp, if you can’t, call it art
  • Do it in the computer—if it can be done there
  • Do fifty of them—you will definitely get a show
  • Do it big, if you cant do it big, do it red
  • If all else fails turn it upside down, if it looks good it might work
  • Do Bend your knees
  • If you don’t know what to do, look up or down—but continue looking
  • Do celebrities—if you do a lot of them, you’ll get a book
  • Connect with others—network
  • Edit it yourself
  • Design it yourself
  • Publish it yourself
  • Edit, When in doubt shoot more
  • Edit again
  • Read Darwin, Marx, Joyce, Freud, Einstein, Benjamin, McLuhan, and Barth
  • See Citizen Kane ten times
  • Look at everything—stare
  • Construct your images from the edge inward
  • If it’s the “real world,” do it in color
  • If it can be done digitally—do it
  • Be self centered, self involved, and generally entitled and always pushing—and damned to hell for doing it
  • Break all rules, except the chairman’s

by Charles H. Traub from ‘Indecent Exposure’ (1980’s)

The Don’ts

  • Don’t do it about yourself—or your friend—or your family
  • Don’t dare photograph yourself nude
  • Don’t look at old family albums
  • Don’t hand color it
  • Don’t write on it
  • Don’t use alternative process—if it ain’t straight do it in the computer
  • Don’t gild the lily—AKA less is more
  • Don’t go to video when you don’t know what else to do
  • Don’t photograph indigent people, particularly in foreign lands
  • Don’t whine, just produce

by Charles H. Traub from ‘About’ (2003-2006)

The Truisms

  • Good work sooner or later gets recognized
  • There are a lot of good photographers who need it
  • before they are dead
  • If you walk the walk, sooner or later you’ll learn to talk the talk
  • If you talk the talk too much, sooner or later you are probably not
  • walking the walk (don’t bullshit)
  • Photographers are the only creative people that don’t pay attention to their predecessors work—if you imitate something good, you are more likely to succeed
  • Whoever originated the idea will surely be forgotten until he or she’s dead—corollary: steal someone else’s idea before they die
  • If you have to imitate, at least imitate something good
  • Know the difference
  • Critics never know what they really like
  • Critics are the first to recognize the importance of that which is already known in the community at large
  • The best critics are the ones who like your work
  • Theoreticians don’t like to look—they’re generally too busy writing about themselves
  • Given enough time, theoreticians will contradict and reverse themselves
  • Practice does not follow theory
  • Theory follows practice
  • All artists think they’re self taught
  • All artists lie, particularly about their dates and who taught them
  • No artist has ever seen the work of another artist (the exception being the post-modernists who’ve adapted appropriation as another means of reinventing the history)
  • The curator or the director is the one in black
  • The artist is the messy one in black
  • The owner is the one with the Prada bag
  • The gallery director is the one who recently uncovered the work of a forgotten person from his or her widower
  • Every galleriest has to discover someone
  • Every curator has to re-discover someone
  • The best of them is the one who shows your work
  • Every generation re-discovers the art of photography
  • Photography history gets reinvented every ten years
  • New galleries discover old photographers
  • Galleries need to fill their walls—corollary: thus new talents will always be found
  • Galleriests say hanging pictures is an art
  • There are no collectors, only people with money
  • Anyone who buys your work is a collector—your parents don’t count
  • All photographers are voyeurs
  • Admit it and get on with looking
  • Everyone, is narcissistic, anyone can be photographed
  • Photography is about looking
  • Learning how to look takes practice
  • All photography, in the right context at the right time is valuable
  • It is always a historical document
  • Sooner or later someone will say it is art
  • Any photographer can call himself an artist,
  • But not every artist can call himself a photographer
  • Compulsivness Helps
  • Neatness helps too
  • Hard work helps the most
  • The style is felt—fashion is fad
  • Remember, its usually about who, what, where, when, why, and how
  • It is who you know
  • Many a good idea is found in a garbage can
  • But darkrooms are dark. . . and dank, forgidaboudit
  • The best exposure is the one that works
  • Expose for the shadows, and develop for the highlights
  • Or better yet, shoot digitally.
  • Cameras don’t think, they don’t have memories
  • But digital cameras have something called memory
  • Learn to see as the camera sees, don’t try to make it see as the human eye sees
  • Remember digital point and shoots are faster than Leicas
  • Though the computer can correct anything, a bad image is a bad image
  • If all else fails, you can remember, again, to either do it large or red
  • Or, tear it up and tape it together
  • It always looks better on the wall framed
  • If they don’t sell, raise your price
  • Self-importance rises with the prices of your images on the wall
  • The work of a dead artist is always more valuable than the work of a live one
  • You can always pretend to kill yourself and start all over.

July 31, 2007

Kohei Yoshiyuki (and nine other reasons I love Yossi)

Filed under: artists — alecsothblog @ 11:52 pm

from the series The Park, 1973, by Kohei Yoshiyuki

I’ve made a point of not writing about the art business on this blog. But I have to make an exception for Yossi Milo. Here are just ten of the reasons I love Yossi:

  1. Because he shows one of my favorite established photographers: Nicolas Nixon.
  2. Because he shows one of my favorite young photographers: Allesandra Sanguinetti
  3. Because he doesn’t care about labels. For all of his success with Loretta Lux and Simen Johan, he still shows documentary work.
  4. Because on October 25 he’ll be debuting Taj Forer’s sweet and understated photographs.
  5. Because he included one of my pictures in his June Bride exhibition
  6. Because he’s always good to the Minneagraphers (Katherine Turczan, David Goldes)
  7. Because he shows my friends Lise Sarfati and Eirik Johnson.
  8. Because he is just so sweet.
  9. Did I mention he shows Nicolas Nixon?
  10. Because he keeps unearthing great stuff. The latest is the work of Kohei Yoshiyuki. Taken with infrared film and flash in various Tokyo parks, these pictures show people gathering for furtive sexual encounters, both heterosexual and homosexual. More strange than the sex are the spectators:

from the series The Park, 1973, by Kohei Yoshiyuki

Along with exhibiting Yoshiyuki’s work (September 6 – October 20), Yossi will be publishing his book, The Park, this fall. The original version of the book, Document Park, was published in 1980 with an introduction by Nobuyoshi Araki:

In The Photobook, A History, Vol. II, Parr and Badger write that Document Park “is a brilliant piece of social documentation, catching perfectly the loneliness, sadness and desperation that so often accompany sexual or human relationships in a big, hard metropolis like Tokyo.”

July 25, 2007

Baby Eyes

Filed under: artists,circles n\' bunnies — alecsothblog @ 3:00 am

Rinko Kawauchi

Her photographs are almost always square, but Rinko Kawauchi makes me think of circles. They say that newborns see the world upside down. I wonder if it sort of looks like Kawauchi’s world.

AILA(86), 2004, by Rinko Kawauchi

“People often say that I have a child’s eye. For example, I stare at ants gathering around sugar, or when I seek shelter from the rain, I gaze upon snails. These are things which you often do when you are a child aren’t they? I have a very similar sensibility to that.” Rinko Kawauchi

Rinko Kawauchi

“I prefer listening to the small voices in our world, those which whisper. I have a feeling I am always being saved by these whispers, my eyes naturally focus on small things. Even when I walk around Shibuya, I find myself running towards a little batch of flowers. I find comfort in them. I think this is a very normal sensitivity, on the contrary to what people may think, I think its sound.” Rinko Kawauchi

Untitled (from the series “Cui Cui”) 2005 by Rinko Kawauchi

She has also photographed bunnies in a circle:

Rinko Kawauchi

  • Visit Kawauchi’s site here
  • Read interviews with Kawauchi here and here

July 15, 2007

Verburg retro

Filed under: artists,minnesota — alecsothblog @ 11:49 am

WTC (Sunday), 2003 by JoAnn Verburg

Amid all of the sad news about Szarkowski and Hartwell, some might have missed the news that the terrific photographer (and Minnesotan) JoAnn Verburg’s retrospective opened earlier this week at MoMA. Fortunately today’s NY Times has a big profile of JoAnn. There is also an audio slideshow by Philip Gefter.

I recently mentioned my belief that there are book photographers and wall photographers. JoAnn is certainly of the latter group. For this reason, I’m waiting to write more about her work until it comes to the Walker Art Center in Januray. But you can read what I wrote about JoAnn last October here.

July 3, 2007

Bernard Plossu & Tom Sandberg

Filed under: artists — alecsothblog @ 12:00 am


Shane, New Mexico, 1983 by Bernard Plossu

Most of my photographic education has come through American publications. It is only within the last few years that I’ve begun to dip into the vast sea of European photography. (I’m saving Japan for my retirement).

Upon the recommendation of Mr. Whiskets, I recently purchased a copy of Conversations with Contemporary Photographers. One of those conversations is with Bernard Plossu. Plossu spent years living in Taos and seems to have served as a critical link between American and European photography in the 70’s and 80’s. Even though he has published numerous books, his pictures have never crossed my eyes until now:

Mexico, 1966 by Bernard Plossu

Le Mauritanien endormi, 1976 by Bernard Plossu

Plossu was born in 1945 in South Vietnam. At thirteen he traveled with a Brownie across the Sahara with his father. Ever since, he has been fascinated with deserts. But Plossu is equally drawn to the energy of the city. In the Conversations interview with Juan Manuel Bonet, he talks about this contrast and how it affects his photography:

Bernard Plossu: To take photographs one has to be like a monk, to achieve a maximum degree of concentration, like with meditation, and at the same time possess a delirious disposition. This is why I say that photographing is a meeting place for that sort of delirium and absolute peace. Photography is made up of those two moments. They combine to create dynamite.

JMB: Although there are works of yours in which I can see that combination there are others where it is the calm that predominates. Maybe it is with your urban landscapes where a dose of chaos is more noticeable. It’s in the city where the delirium counts more than the calm for you, no?

Bernard Plossu: Absolutely. There is no peace. But I do believe that the two experiences complement each other, the experience of nature and those of the city.

Villa Noailles, 1997 by Bernard Plossu

Mexique, route d’Acapulco, 1965 by Bernard Plossu

See more of Bernard Plossu’s work here and here


Untitled, 2004 by Tom Sandberg

The work of Bernard Plossu reminds me a bit of Tom Sandberg. Sandberg (b. 1953) lives and works in Oslo, Norway. I learned of his work earlier this year at an exhibition at PS1.

Untitled, 2003 by Tom Sandberg

Sandberg has been working for thirty years in large-format, black and white. His subjects include an eclectic mix of aerial views, close-up portraits, nudes and still life. But the work is all unified by a quality of muted elegance. He talks about this in an interview with The Morning News.

TMN: Very little, if not none, of the material world shows up in your work. How do you find your way to these pictures? Surely you turn on the television now and again.

Tom Sandberg: A Norwegian art historian who came by my house shockingly remarked that I was looking at the television and listening to rock music at the same time. Then suddenly everything turns still. Movement plays an important role in the way I live and work.

TMN: What are you working on now?

Tom Sandberg: At the moment I am very into people just hanging around, doing nothing, or standing there looking—these in-betweens that define the human experience. I have always been interested in what goes on in the sky above our heads, and lately have worked a lot with the stars. Flying often, I am excited about the radiations from the big cities and the ocean meeting outside my window. It makes me both humble and hungry.

Untitled, 2002 by Tom Sandberg

Untitled, by Tom Sandberg

See more of Tom Sandberg’s pictures here and here

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