Alec Soth's Archived Blog

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

May 3, 2007

Adult Comedy Action Drama

Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 11:50 am

Speaking of Richard Prince, Christies has a pretty cool copy of Adult Comedy Action Drama in their upcoming photography book auction:


April 18, 2007

Original Titles

Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 9:30 pm

More title talk. More examples of original titles:

Original Title: First Impressions
Final Title: Pride and Prejudice

Original Titles: Mag’s Diversions, The Copperfield Disclosures, The Copperfield Records, The Copperfield Survey of the World As It Rolled, Copperfield Complete
Final Title: David Copperfield

Original Title: All’s Well That Ends Well
Final Title: War and Peace

Original Title: Stephen Hero
Final Title: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Original Titles: Fiesta, The Lost Generation, River to the Sea, Two Lie Together, The Old Leaven
Final Title: The Sun Also Rises

Original Title: Twilight
Final Title: The Sound and the Fury

My Favorite:

Original Title: Something That Happened
Final Title: Of Mice and Men

More on titles

Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 12:03 am

Following Kurt Vonnegut’s death and my recent post on titles, I’m reminded that Slaughterhouse-Five is actually an abbreviation of the full title:

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-Dance with Death By Kurt Vonnegut

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod [and smoking too much], who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors De Combat, As a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “The Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tell. This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from. Peace.

And did you know about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original title for The Great Gatsby?

If you walked into a bookstore and saw the title ”Trimalchio in West Egg” would you be seduced into grabbing it off the shelf? How about ”The High-Bouncing Lover”? Perhaps a bit more alluring and at least fathomable. Or ”Gold-Hatted Gatsby.” Closer maybe, but it doesn’t sing.

Finally, after much anguish, it became ”The Great Gatsby.” But according to a book about book titles,”Now All We Need Is a Title” (W. W. Norton) by Andre Bernard, Fitzgerald was still lamenting after ”Gatsby” was published that he had allowed himself to be talked out of ”Trimalchio.”

In a 1999 New York Times article, Martin Arnold discusses Trimalchio and other interesting anecdotes about book titles. I liked this passage:

E. L. Doctorow has what he calls ”working titles. They usually get used up during the course of the book.”

He said that these temporary titles give his work ”a propulsive capacity. They supply little bursts of inspiration and excitement. They exhaust themselves and are replaced by others. The last one is the one that works.”

April 16, 2007

The Ballad of Good and Bad Titles

Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 11:14 pm

Men might think about sex every seven seconds, but I think about project titles. There is no greater pleasure than lying on the couch, closing my eyes, and daydreaming about the perfect title.

I guess this isn’t much different from teenagers dreaming up names for their rock bands. While I suppose this sounds silly, I think it is actually worthwhile. Titles are important. When I review student work, one of the first questions I ask is “what is the title?” More often than not I’m met with no answer. This is remarkable. I’d have a hard time getting started on anything without having some sort of working title.

This need to wrap an idea in a few, well-chosen words isn’t limited to creative projects. I’m currently working with a non-profit organization that is putting together a large event centered on creative responses to life-threatening illness and death. It is going to be a great night with some legendary dancers and storytellers. But we’ve struggled to find the right name for the event. For awhile the working title was “Dance with Death.” But it started to leave a bad taste in the mouth. For some it was too corny, for others too bleak. And we weren’t sure if it was good marketing. The producer of “Death of a Salesman” once said the play would have had a much longer run on Broadway if ‘Death’ wasn’t in the title.

Titles are important. They affect the way people read the work. Take Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The title is so urgent and unexpected. Imagine if the book was just called ‘Downtown.’ I doubt we’d think of the book in the same way.

It is a shame when a great book gets a bad name. One of my favorites of the last few years was Jem Southam’s Landscape Stories. The title is generic and lifeless – just the opposite of his sensual and complicated pictures. (I much prefer the title of Southam’s latest book, The Painter’s Pool).

Sometimes photographers get corny. David Heath’s Dialogue With Solitude is an example. But I’d rather have a corny title than a boring one. I’m a sucker for DeCarava’s Sweet Flypaper of Life.

William Eggleston is the title champion. He has the trifecta with Eggleston’s Guide, The Democratic Forest and Los Alamos. I love them all in different ways. Eggleston’s Guide is funny and playful take on the generic author title (Diane Arbus by Diane Arbus). The Democratic Forest is good example of a title that suggests the photographic process (much better than Helen Levitt’s Ways of Seeing and Cartier-Bresson’s Decisive Moment). Finally, Los Alamos is sly and subtle. The pictures were taken all over America, not just Los Alamos. But rather than using the generic adjective ‘American,’ Eggleston chose the name of the town where the atomic bomb was developed.

American Photographs by Walker Evans and The Americans by Robert Frank are so iconic that it is hard for contemporary photographers to avoid using ‘American.’ As great as these books are, I don’t love the titles or the legacy they’ve created. With the exception of Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects (a great title), most of these names are a bore:

American Surfaces, Stephen Shore
In the American West, Richard Avedon
American Monument, Lynn Davis
The American Monument, Lee Friedlander
American Musicians, Lee Friedlander
American Music, Annie Leibovitz
Model American, Katy Grannan
American Cockroach, Catherine Chalmers
American Pitbull, Mark Joseph
American Color, Constantine Manos
American Bachelor, Michael Rababy

I’m not saying we should ban ‘American,’ but I’m encouraged when photographers come up with something different. One of my favorite recent books is Tim Davis’s My Life in Politics. What a great title – and what a relief he didn’t call it American Politics.

Ray’s A Laugh by Richard Billingham, Why Mister, Why by Geert van Kesteren, Yesterday’s Sandwich by Boris Mikhailov – these are titles that match the originality and excitement of the pictures inside. Great marketing? Perhaps not in the short term. But like Death of a Salesman, these titles burn into the brain over the course of time. Does anyone remember Eugene Richard’s book Americans We? What was it about? It might as well have been called Untitled (wait, that is another Arbus book). But then consider Richard’s recent monograph, The Fat Baby. If you are like me, you can instantly recall the whole thing – the weight of the book, the images and stories, the feeling.

I’m not suggesting that a title needs to be wordy and poetic. One of the most memorable titles is Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful. It’s so dumb that it is smart. It sticks. This brings to mind Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point. He offers up some good advice for those of us daydreaming about titles:

The hard part of communication is often figuring out how to make sure a message doesn’t go in one ear and out the other. Stickiness means that a message makes an impact. You can’t get it out of your head. It sticks in your memory. When Winston filter-tip cigarettes were introduced in the spring of 1954, for example, the company came up with the slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” At the time, the ungrammatical and somehow provocative use of “like” instead of “as” created a minor sensation. It was the kind of phrase that people talked about, like the famous Wendy’s tag line from 1984 “Where’s the beef?” … To this day, if you say to most Americans “Winston tastes good,” they can finish the phrase, “like a cigarette should.” That’s a classically sticky advertising line, and stickiness is a critical component in tipping. Unless you remember what I tell you, why would you ever change your behavior or buy my product or go to see my movie?

April 13, 2007

Erwitt notebooks

Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 1:51 pm

There are some juicy items in the upcoming Christies photography auction, but it doesn’t get any better than this:


March 13, 2007

Shakira in Iraq

Filed under: artists,books,media — alecsothblog @ 9:44 pm

Be sure to read Geert Van Kesteren’s poignant story about ‘music, my photograph and a good looking girl’ on the Magnum Photos Blog.

While you are at it, check out Van Kersteren’s Why Mister, Why?

February 12, 2007


Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 10:44 pm

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

February 11, 2007


Filed under: books,photographs (mine) — alecsothblog @ 9:01 pm

In a previous post I discussed book covers. Today’s New York Times Book Review had an article on the current ‘big book look’: large author name, large title, small icon.

While it doesn’t fit this profile, the Book Review has a full-page ad for Olaf Olafsson’s Valentines. I was surprised to see that this book features one of my pictures:


  • See the orginal picture here.
  • Karl Baden’s great site on book cover photography here
  • A good site on book cover design here

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