Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 26, 2007


Filed under: critics & curators,quotes — alecsothblog @ 9:09 am

“Give me a Rembrandt in a subway station toilet and a flashlight and I’m happy.” A profile of Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice (Schjeldahl previously discussed on this blog here, here, here, here, here).

“You are many things, but I wouldn’t count glamorous among them.” Jen Bekman talks to me about my fashion sensibility.

“Affluent Children Dressed by their Parents in Absurd Outfits, Already Displaying Scatterbrain Sexuality, Disdain, and Lust.” My pal Michael Silva gets himself a blog.

“Aren’t we all failed photographers?” A great blog on the life and times of an anonymous photo editor.

Who do you like better, Duane Michaels or Brian Ulrich?

July 15, 2007

That 70’s Show

Filed under: critics & curators — alecsothblog @ 10:43 pm

Joerg Colberg emailed to ask if I agree with Joel Meyerowitz’s assertion that many contemporary photographers, “burdened as they are with Photoshop additions and market driven ideas, and fake ‘reality’,” are making work that is “flimsy, empty, trendy.”

Yes, probably, but I think this has always been the case. I’ve recently been looking at Szarkowski’s book Mirrors and Windows. In the introduction, he writes that most arguments about contemporary photography “revolve around the distinction between ‘straight’ photography, in which the fundamental character of the picture is defined within the camera during the moment of exposure, and ‘synthetic’ (or manipulated) photography, in which the camera image is radically revised by darkroom manipulation, multiple printing, collage, added color, drawing, and other similarly frank and autographic modifications.”

Szarkowski included a large selection of this ‘synthetic’ photography in the book. But anyone looking at this work now, 28 years after its publication, will likely agree that much of it appears ‘flimsy’ and dated. All of that solarization just looks silly. (Read this post last September). But now and then some of the synthetic photography looks quite good. I particularly like Robert Cumming’s diptych:

Academic Shading Exercise, 1974 by Robert Cumming

And I’ve always had a soft spot (or is it a jaded spot?) for Leslie Krim’s staged photography:

Pregnant woman making large soap bubble, 1969 by Les Krims

Someday we’ll look back and see another list of names. Take the photographers chosen for the recent book, Vitamin PH. Whatever process they employ (synthetic, staged, straight, stupid) – how many of these artists will look worthwhile in thirty years?:

Armando Andrade Tudela, Alexander Apostól, Miriam Bäckström, Yto Barrada, Erica Baum, Valérie Belin, Walead Beshty, Rut Blees Luxemburg, Luchezar Boyadjiev, Frank Breuer, Olaf Breuning, Gerard Byrne, Elinor Carucci, David Claerbout, Anne Collier, Phil Collins, Kelli Connell, Eduardo Consuegra, Sharon Core, Rochelle Costi, Gregory Crewdson, Nancy Davenport, Tim Davis, Tacita Dean, Olafur Eliasson, Hans Eijkelboom, JH Engström, Lalla Essaydi, Roe Ethridge, Peter Fraser, Yang Fudong, Anna Gaskell, Simryn Gill, Anthony Goicolea, Geert Goiris, David Goldblatt, Katy Grannan, AES+F group, The Atlas Group/Walid Raad, Mauricio Guillen, Jitka Hanzlová, Anne Hardy, Rachel Harrison, Jonathan Hernández, Sarah Hobbs, Emily Jacir, Valérie Jouve, Yeondoo Jung, Rinko Kawauchi, Annette Kelm, Idris Khan, Joachim Koester, Panos Kokkinias, Luisa Lambri, An-My Lê, Tim Lee, Nikki S Lee, Zoe Leonard, Armin Linke, Sharon Lockhart, Vera Lutter, Florian Maier-Aichen, Malerie Marder, Daniel Joseph Martinez, Gareth McConnell, Scott McFarland, Ryan McGinley, Trish Morrissey, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Zanele Muholi, Oliver Musovik, Kelly Nipper, Nils Norman, Catherine Opie, Esteban Pastorino Díaz, Paul Pfeiffer, Sarah Pickering, Peter Piller, Rosângela Rennó, Mauro Restiffe, Robin Rhode, Sophy Rickett, Noguchi Rika, Andrea Robbins/Max Becher, Ricarda Roggan, Anri Sala, Dean Sameshima, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Markus Schinwald, Gregor Schneider, Collier Schorr, Josef Schulz, Paul Shambroom, Ahlam Shibli, Yinka Shonibare, Efrat Shvily, Santiago Sierra, Paul Sietsema, Alex Slade, Sean Snyder, Alec Soth, Heidi Specker, Hannah Starkey, Simon Starling, John Stezaker, Clare Strand, Darren Sylvester, Guy Tillim, Nazif Topçuoglu, Danny Treacy, Fatimah Tuggar, Céline van Balen, Annika von Hausswolff, Bettina von Zwehl, Deborah Willis, Sharon Ya`ari, Catherine Yass, Shizuka Yokomizo, Amir Zaki, Liu Zheng, Tobias Zielony

July 10, 2007

Ted Hartwell, 1933-2007

Filed under: critics & curators,psa — alecsothblog @ 10:10 pm

Ted Hartwell by Dan Dennehy, 2002

I worked for seven years at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts doing darkroom work and digital archiving. Now and then the photography curator Ted Hartwell would pop his head into our studio. I think he missed the smell of the darkroom. Ted started working in the same studio in 1962. Like nearly all museums of that time, the MIA didn’t have a curator of photography. So Ted did double duty and started putting together small shows. By the time he officially became curator of photography in 1972, he’d mounted major exhibitions and developed the foundation for a world-class photography collection.

I loved Ted’s visits to our studio. Where else in Minneapolis could I talk to a guy who hung out with Richard Avedon and Henri Cartier-Bresson? Despite traveling in those circles, Ted was utterly approachable. For all of his curatorial achievements, he was still doing double duty – he still loved the life of photography: making pictures, hanging out, chewing the fat about the new Nikon.

Like Ted, I eventually graduated from the old studio to larger pastures. He showed me love and encouragement every step of the way. Last year he led a MIA group to my studio. He spoke about me with almost parental pride:

Ted Hartwell at Soth Studio, 2006 by Greg Jansen

A proper obituary for Ted should talk about his incredible achievements. But right now I can only talk about the man. Ted Hartwell was a good, good man. He will be greatly missed.

  • Read the Star Tribune obituary here.
  • Mary Virginia Swanson’s tribute here.

Szarkowski stories

Filed under: critics & curators,psa — alecsothblog @ 10:50 am

Read Gerry Badger and Karl Baden’s stories and then post your own here.

July 9, 2007

John Szarkowski, Curator of Photography, Dies at 81

Filed under: critics & curators,psa — alecsothblog @ 10:59 am

John Szarkowski, New York, 1963 by Jacques Henri Lartigue

read the story here

April 23, 2007

This American Backlash

Filed under: critics & curators — alecsothblog @ 12:10 am

Have you noticed the brewing This American Life backlash? Along with Jen Bekman’s recent tirade and an Onion spoof, Nancy Franklin has a negative review in the New Yorker. Like Bekman, she begins her piece with an apology:

“One wants very much to like “This American Life”—to love it—because the people who make it are so obviously thoughtful, intelligent, and respectful of their subjects.”

Franklin struggles to pinpoint her frustrations. “A certain amount of smugness comes through,” she says, “though it is hard to locate precisely.”

I’ve spent much of this weekend thinking about This American Life and the nature of cultural backlashes. A few theories:

  • We quickly tire of anything highly original that is produced within a conventional context
  • Aficionados want to destroy anything that becomes popular
  • It is culturally beneficial to limit the influence of highly influential work.

But maybe the problem with This American Life is the formula. In the New Yorker review, Franklin quotes host Ira Glass on the structure of the show:

There’s an anecdote, that is, a sequence of actions where someone says ‘this happened then this happened then this happened’—and then there’s a moment of reflection about what that sequence means…It’s the structure, essentially, of a sermon; you hear a little story from the Bible, then the clergyperson tells you what it means.

I’ve spent way too much time on this lovely Sunday trying to come up with a sermon on cultural backlashes. I don’t know what they mean. You tell me.

January 18, 2007


Filed under: critics & curators — alecsothblog @ 5:58 am

Today I’m off to Los Angeles. Since this has become Schjeldahl Week, I’ll share a story from his 1981 essay, L.A. Demystified! Art and Life in the Eternal Present:

Rusha dates starlets, always has. Once when I went to lunch with him at a restaurant near the Paramount lot, various angelic forms seemed to throw themselves at him out of the air. “Oh, Ed!” Bashful, smiling, folksy (from Oklahoma), Ruscha wears soft casual, terrific clothes and, always, terrific shoes. (Once, seated between two of the town’s top veteran artists at a dinner party, I heard absolutely nothing all evening but cars and shoes. Were they trying to drive me crazy?)

The reason I’m going to LA is to give a lecture (more info here). Like Schjeldahl, I hail from Minnesota. (Oklahoma natives are much more sophisticated). I don’t have soft casual clothes. I don’t date starlets. Please come to the lecture, but don’t laugh at my shoes.

January 15, 2007

Mr. Cotter

Filed under: critics & curators,education — alecsothblog @ 11:24 pm


It is not exactly Rosie vs. Trump, but critics Tyler Green and Regina Hackett have tried to suggest a philosophical difference between NYTimes critic Holland Cotter and myself. For the record, Mr. Cotter gave me one of my first national reviews. It was a good one. I forever kiss his critical feet. If he wants art to be educational, I’m ready to be his Vinnie Barbarino.

All joking aside, I don’t think there is a big battle between beauty vs. education. To quote another critic, Peter Schjeldahl, “Beauty is not a concept. It is the animal joy of the mind.”

The End

Filed under: aesthetics,critics & curators — alecsothblog @ 1:07 am

Just like Pat Robertson (watch this), I’ve got apocalypse on the brain. My Top Eleven for 2006 included two depictions of the End Days (The Road, Children of Men). Pat and I aren’t alone. “Apocalypse is on our minds,” Kurt Anderson wrote in New York Magazine, “Apocalypse is … hot. “ But Anderson goes on to say that this trend is nothing new:

Apocalypticism has ebbed and flowed for thousands of years, and the present uptick is the third during my lifetime…but this time, it seems, more widespread and cross-cultural, both more reasonable (climate change, nuclear proliferation) and more insane (religious prophecy), more unnerving.

The art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl spoke about these waves of nihilism in his 1978 essay, The Hydrogen Jukebox, Terror, Narcissism, and Art:

The present widespread disarray and morbidity of the arts in Western civilization represent, it occurs to me, a long-term toxic effect of the atom-bomb terror of the last three decades…Most insidious of the terror’s by-products is what I’ll call the no-future effect. Conditioned to living on the eve of doomsday, we have lost the ability to conceive of a future stretching farther than our own most distant personal goals or responsibilities.

Schjeldahl goes on to explain how this has changed the role of the contemporary artist:

The personality type of our time is the narcissist. Obsessively self-regarding, self-referential, self-consuming, the narcissistic personality finds authenticity only in the moment-to-moment convincingness of bodily sensations and mental events. The narcissistic artist or poet offers to a shadowy public evidence of the dramatizations of these sensations, inviting that public to join in the self-contemplation. Anger, at world or self, alternates with a husky or antic seductiveness, a siren song of love and death or sexy fun, and with abject complaining, the cries of the abandoned baby within.

Nearly thirty years after Schjeldahl’s essay, not much has changed. Along with plenty of terror, narcissism in the arts is alive and well (note my recent post on Snow & Koh). But do artists have a choice? “Deprived of the anchor of the past and the rudder of a future,” writes Schjeldahl, “the new personality is as helpless as a paper boat on the ocean.”

December 3, 2006

more Bill Jay

Filed under: critics & curators — alecsothblog @ 1:40 am

A thought provoking interview with Bill Jay found on YouTube here. The interviewer (cryptically named appleport) also has interviews with Christian Boltanksi and Edward Burtynsky.

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