Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 3, 2007

Careers in Photography

Filed under: career,education — alecsothblog @ 10:19 pm

Today is the first anniversary of this blog. I’m happy to have made it this far, but I’m feeling a little guilty. With an average of 2,000 unique visitors per day (and 220,000 visitors in total), I fear I’ve squandered the opportunity to provide much of a public service. Too many of my 310 posts have been devoted to subjects like Erotic Baseball Photography, Pamela Anderson, Rabbits n’ Circles, Jesse ‘the body’ Ventura and, of course, Sandwich Jumping. So in hopes of doing some good for the photo-blog community, I’m posting something that might be helpful:

December 11, 2006

Q: What is your sentence

Filed under: career,photographs (mine),the sentence — alecsothblog @ 9:06 pm

In the discussion regarding my recent post on the sentence used to describe an artist, Zoe asked: “Alec, do you have a sentence in mind for yourself?” I don’t. I just have a laundry list of things I don’t want it to be. I’m reminded of a picture I took a long time ago:


This picture won a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair Art Show! It was published in a book. I sold prints. I became worried. The picture is a one-liner. I don’t want to be a one-liner photographer. I don’t want to be ‘that guy that took the picture of the cop and the clown.’

There are a lot of things I don’t want my sentence to be. Unfortunately I don’t have the clarity, or maturity, to say what I do want it to be.

December 10, 2006

The sentence

Filed under: career,media,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 11:35 pm

NPR’s On The Media aired an excellent piece on how the popularity of penguins has turned them into political pawns. First anti-abortionists praised March of the Penguins saying, “Almost every scene and narrative verified the beauty of life and the rightness of protecting it.” Now liberals are being criticized for co-opting the penguin with a pro-gay children’s book And Tango Makes Three and a pro-environment animated film Happy Feet. I haven’t seen any of these productions, but it has been interesting to watch both sides spinning penguins.

This mix of penguins and propaganda got me thinking about Bruno Penguin Zehnder – the Swiss penguin photographer who died in a blizzard in 1997. While I don’t really know Zehnder’s pictures, I’m fascinated by his legacy. Zehnder is the ultimate example of a photographer who is directly linked to a single subject. When anyone brings up Zehnder’s name, people respond by saying ‘He’s the guy that photographed penguins.’

I have a theory that no matter what kind of photographer you are, everyone will end up saying one sentence about you. It is a kind of cultural shorthand. Some examples:

  • He took celebrity portraits with a white background
  • She took pictures of freaks and committed suicide
  • He took picture of Parisian architecture at the turn of the century
  • She makes creepy digital pictures of kids with big eyes
  • She takes large-format pictures of her wealthy family and friends

Zehnder embraced his sentence so much that he changed his middle name to Penguin. This biographical fact, along with his death in a blizzard, has actually become part of his sentence. (For an example read his Time Magazine obit here).

Biographical details often make their way into the sentence: ‘She was Arbus’s teacher’ (Lisette Model), ‘He was Edward Weston’s son’ (Cole & Brett).

Some artists have a sentence that is tied to a single picture: Iwo Jima Flag Raising (Joe Rosenthal), Piss Christ (Andres Serrano), Couple Kissing in Paris (Robert Doisneau).

While artists aren’t usually as blatant as Penguin Zehnder, most work to shape their sentence. In the recently discussed interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, he downplayed his early interest in Surrealism but repeatedly described himself as ‘an anarchist.’

I admire the way Paul Shambroom has shaped his sentence. On the front page of his website he writes: “Artist/Photographer Paul Shambroom’s work explores power in its various forms.” I’ve heard Paul repeat the same thing during his lectures. Repetition, after-all, is what makes the sentence.

But while photographers can help shape their sentence, they can’t control it. No matter how many times Cartier-Bresson called himself an anarchist it would never make the sentence. And if Paul Shambroom ends up taking a picture of George Bush’s assassination, that will be his sentence. Unless you change your name, the sentence can only be shaped, not controlled.

Hmmm, Power Shambroom does have a ring to it.

October 25, 2006

What if Jim Dine had Alzheimer’s?

Filed under: artists,career — alecsothblog @ 10:57 pm

My pal Karolina Karlic sent me a link to a fascinating article in the New York Times. William Utermohlen painted self-portraits of his decent into Alzheimer’s:


This is a truly remarkable group of images. But if you forget about the Alzheimer’s, the work looks a lot like Jim Dine’s self-portraits:


Maybe it would help Dine’s perception in the art world if he had Alzheimer’s. Dine is reviled almost as much at Botero. I’ll never forget reading Richard Polsky’s Artnet column recommending collectors sell Dine:

The truly great artists don’t rest on their laurels. They take risks and continue to explore new possibilities. Imagine what would have happened if the great artist Philip Guston had played it safe by sticking with his Abstract Expressionist style. Instead, he chanced everything by painting his now-famous quirky representational subject matter.

For whatever reason, Dine has never felt compelled to endure the painful soul-searching that Guston must have faced. Almost 40 years after painting his first heart and robe, he continues to crank out variations of the same images. This is not to be confused with the example of Gorgio Morandi and his wonderful still lifes. In Morandi’s case, his humble bottles and objects were painted over and over, with an ever greater sense of meaning and spirituality. Dine’s paintings lack that sort of depth. They are what they are — attractive depictions of a limited personal vocabulary.

I don’t know if it is fair to say he has played it safe. Certainly he has experimented. For example, Dine has spent a significant amount of energy producing photographs:

Singing Daily, 1998

But experimentation is not the same as struggle. The art world consensus is that Dine, like Botero, hasn’t struggled enough. Assuming Dine doesn’t aquire Alzheimer’s or commit suicide, what should he to do?

This is similar to the question raised in an earlier post about William Wegman. Whether an artist is successful for dogs or bathrobes, how do you sustain a career? Another recent post discussed the work of Bas Jan Ader. Ader’s entire oeuvre is about twelve minutes long. Much of the Ader legend is built on his disappearance while making In search of the miraculous. Might Wegman be just as highly regarded as Ader if one of the Weimaraners had snapped at his owner’s jugular? In other words, can an artist sustain critical credibility over the long-haul without biographical myth-making?

October 16, 2006

FAQ: advice for emerging photographers

Filed under: career,FAQ\'s — alecsothblog @ 10:26 pm

Emerging photographers often ask, ‘How do I get my work out into the world?’ My two cents are actually two names:

Jen Bekman has a fab gallery with a terrific competition for emerging photographers called Hey, Hot Shot. The next deadline is November 7th. Jen also has a must-read blog.

Mary Virginia Swanson has worked in museums, galleries, stock agencies, magazines and universities. She knows every inch of the photography world and is passionate about sharing her knowledge with emerging photographers. Find out about Mary and her workshops on her website.

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