Alec Soth's Archived Blog

January 4, 2007

photo jacket photos

Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 2:55 am

In a previous post I touched on the topic of author photos. I find these pictures irresistible. Part of the appeal is their peculiarity. They don’t seem to function in the service of either commerce or art. Unlike book covers, author photos don’t have much influence over my book buying decisions. And I certainly don’t look at them for their artistry. They are a photographic anomaly. But they are also strangely satisfying. A dozen pages into a juicy novel, I invariably ask myself, “Who’s this voice in my head.” A quick flip to the back of the book and my curiosity is satisfied.

I suspect that most authors deplore these pictures. Certainly Dick Teresi didn’t express enthusiasm for them in the New York Times. “In short, author photos are awful,” he writes, “Is there something going on here beyond bad taste? Are publishers trying to make some sort of point?”

Teresi’s amusing article tries to answer this question by talking to industry insiders:

“There are no rules,” said Victoria Wilson (a vice president and associate publisher at Knopf), then immediately reversed herself. “Well, I have one rule: No cats.”…

One Knopf writer, Charles C. Mann says that he had his jacket photo rejected by the publisher. It showed him in an open-necked shirt. An editor (not Ms. Wilson) told him that serious nonfiction authors wear coats and ties and that they button their shirts to the top. His seriousness in doubt, Mr. Mann complied. “I would happily wear a coat and tie for my publisher,” he said loyally.

Houghton Mifflin’s editor in chief, John Sterling, confesses that there are indeed some unwritten yet very firm rules. These rules appear to forbid subtlety at any cost. “The investigative political writer should look tough,” says Mr. Sterling. “He dresses in a coat and tie, preferably in front of the Capitol. The commercial fiction writer, on the other hand, has a soft ‘Vaseline’ type of portrait.”

But again, who really cares about photographic quality. Jacket photos are the literary equivalent to baseball cards. They scratch an itch.

This itch isn’t limited to purely literary work. As a longtime fan of photography monographs, I often find myself wondering what the author looks like. But most photographers don’t want to sully their vision with a second-rate snapshot at the back of the book. I understand this desire for purity, but I’m grateful for the exceptions. My all time favorite book jacket photograph is on the back of Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light:


This picture makes me laugh. Like Cape Light itself, the photograph is unabashedly joyous. I suspect that like Alice Monro’s portraits (discussed in a previous post) this hasn’t helped Meyerowitz’s perception in the art world. But it suits his vision.

In Meyerowitz’s one directorial effort, the remarkably good documentary Pop (with cinematography by Sasha Meyerowitz) the Cape Light portrait is used for remarkably bad box-cover art:


Almost every Meyerowitz book comes with a new jacket photo. I love that his family makes most of these pictures:


Meyerowitz’s openness to the jacket photo isn’t surprising. He seems too comfortable with himself to worry about these pictures appearing déclassé. And he’s never been reluctant to put himself out in the public eye

I almost think of Robert Adams as the opposite of Meyerowitz. Meyerowitz = Northeast, color, outgoing, HP, joy. Adams = Northwest, black and white, reclusive, Nazraeli, sorrow. Nevertheless, Adams has repeatedly published jacket portraits with his books:


The fact that Adams is especially private makes these pictures all the more special. I’m fairly certain I haven’t seen any other photographs of him. And it was only while working on this post that I realized these three portraits are different. His expression is amazingly consistent. In a way this matches the consistency of his work. And I’d be lying if I said these pictures didn’t somehow affect the way I look at his work. When I look at an Adams picture – the trademark merger of deep sorrow and simple pleasure – somewhere behind my eye I’m seeing that face.

November 3, 2006

printed page

Filed under: books — alecsothblog @ 12:23 am

Been catching up on the pile of magazines. Rather than reflect, I thought I’d just pass along a handful of obliquely related quotes:

Martin Parr as quoted in PDN:
Ultimately it’s the book that lives on and keeps the images going. If I had to choose one , the book would be it.

Bill Jay in Lens Work:
A major core characteristic of the medium since its inception has been its democratic nature, its ability to produce an unlimited number of identical copies, its very ordinary, everyday anti-art aspects.
I remember … (here we go again, the old fart in his dotage remembering the good old days)… when photographs were treated with love for what they depicted, for their love of life, not of cash value.
Now we are at the opposite extreme, and I cannot adjust. There is no way I could work in a museum and invest photographs with the necessary preciousness. I would love the images, but would not / could not care, beyond basic steps, about their multimillion dollar price tags. I would prefer to see them in a book.

Vince Aletti on Steven Meisel in Modern Painters:
It’s become apparent that Meisel isn’t concerned with exhibition prints or artworld exposure; his work is conceived for the printed page, and that’s where nearly all of it has stayed. (I doubt that he has more than a drawerful of what other artists call “personal work.”) He knows his place, occupying it with such assurance and authority that nearly everyone else looks like an upstart.

Vince Aletti on Annie Leibovitz in The New Yorker:
Annie Leibovitz has never been particularly good at translating her work from the printed page to the gallery wall. No matter how smashing her celebrity portraits may appear in Vanity Fair or Vogue, they tend to look merely clever in exhibition, at once overblown and oddly deflated.

Tod Papageorge in an interview in BOMB:
Why no book until now? I don’t photograph for exhibition, but to engage in this process of understanding photography itself. … We all have to deal with our strengths and weaknesses, and while I guess my strength is my willingness to engage repeatedly with this deeply difficult problem of making coherent pictures, my weakness is an equally strong tendency to want everything in my pictures to be part of a perfect web—not a very healthy or often-satisfied ambition when trying to clarify such complex chunks of the visual world.

October 29, 2006

Photobook essays

Filed under: books,critics & curators — alecsothblog @ 9:26 pm

Today’s New York Times Book Review praises new books by Patricia Hampl and Richard Ford. I’m lucky to have had both authors write for me. I know that most photo book enthusiasts skip these essays. But I assure you these pieces are worthwhile. Taking a cue from Raymond Carver’s essay in Bill Burke’s Portraits, I urged the authors to refrain from specifically addressing my work or even mentioning my name. Can anyone think of other photo book essays that serve to enlarge the work rather than explain it?

(P.S. Maybe Holly Myers should look at Bill Burke).

September 19, 2006


Filed under: books,sculpture — alecsothblog @ 9:14 pm

I lust after this book by Hans Bellmer. It is being sold by Andrew Cahan.

Bellmer, Hans. LA POUPÉE. Traduit par Robert Valencay. Paris: GLM, 1936. Small 4to., (13) pp., with two illustrations from drawings by the artist and ten mounted silver gelatin photographs. Original printed wrappers, with a small tear to the paper wrappers at the spine, expertly restored. Housed in a newly made clamshell box of cloth and morocco, with paper labels of the spine and upper cover. A fine copy with the photographs showing full and rich tonal quality, and measuring approximately 31/8 x 4 5/8 inches, or the reverse. This copy is number thirty-seven of eighty copies with the text printed on rose paper, from a total edition of one hundred and five copies. This copy bears a contemporary ownership signature in pencil on the front blank endpaper dated 1937, Paris. One of the landmark Surrealist books, and one of the very few to be illustrated with original silver gelatin photographs. This is considered Bellmer’s most important and influential work. Therese Lichtenstein, (guest curator for the International Center for Photography 2001 exhibition “Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer”) writes: “Although Bellmer is generally classified as a Surrealist, he actually initiated his doll project with a specific political purpose: to oppose the fascism of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in Germany in the 1930s. After the rise to power of the Nazi Party in 1933, Bellmer, an established painter and graphic designer, declared that he would make no work that would support the German state. The unconventional or “degenerate” poses of his dolls were directed specifically at the cult of the perfect body then prominent in Germany. The dolls are represented in a constant state of mutation, multiplication, and recombination, often appearing contorted or bound, and occasionally lacking body parts or sprouting extra sets of limbs. These permutations echo autoerotic sensations rooted in the body. Bellmer’s work was also an attempt to destabilize representations of gender being widely circulated in contemporary mass culture.” $55,000.00

September 11, 2006

Christopher Morris

Filed under: artists,books — alecsothblog @ 12:52 pm

© Christopher Morris

When I was working on a book at Steidl last winter, I saw a very good mock up for a book by a photographer I’d never heard of. The work stayed with me. It turns out that the photographer is Christopher Morris and the book, My America, is now out. He also has a show at Hasted Hunt.

« Previous Page

Blog at