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.”

April 23, 2007


Filed under: editorial photo,quotes — alecsothblog @ 4:13 pm

“Some people’s photography is an art. Not mine. Art is a dirty word in photography. All this fine art crap is killing it already.” Helmut Newton

Letter to the editor

Filed under: editorial photo — alecsothblog @ 8:59 am


March 27, 2007

Regarding W

Filed under: editorial photo,photo tech,studio — alecsothblog @ 10:37 am
Some answers to reader questions here

March 25, 2007


Filed under: editorial photo,minnesota,Paris, MN,photographs (mine) — alecsothblog @ 9:07 pm

Ronald, 2007, by Alec Soth

What happens when haute couture comes to Minnesota? See my 26-page spread in the current issue (April) of W Magazine.

March 19, 2007

LaChapelle & Greenberg

Filed under: crying & flying,editorial photo — alecsothblog @ 1:36 am

LaChapelle & Greenberg / Commercial & Fine Art

photographs by David LaChapelle

photographs by Jill Greenberg

February 27, 2007

‘art perseveres, wherever it may be found’

Filed under: editorial photo — alecsothblog @ 12:33 am


If you haven’t noticed, I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about fine-art photographers who dirty themselves in editorial waters. (Examples here, here and here). Yesterday I asked, “Why do they bother?”

Several people responded with knee-jerk cynicism: “money, money, money.”

Is everyone aware that the day rate for the New York Times Magazine is $400? (Half of that if you are using an agent). I don’t know Justine Kurland’s art prices, but I’d guess they are somewhere around $15,000. If she is hurting for cash, I’m sure she could change the price to $15,400. What about Rineke Dijkstra? $50,400.

Set aside your cynicism for a second and consider this – a lot of photographers actually like taking pictures for publication.

A couple of examples:

  • In 1998, Larry Sultan took an assignment from Maxim Magazine. Yes, Maxim. The story was called “A Day in the Life of a Porn Set.” Six years later, Sultan debuted The Valley at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
  • In 2003, Mitch Epstein photographed the dying power-plant town of Cheshire, Ohio for the New York Times. Next month Epstein will be debuting his latest project, American Power at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Sultan and Epstein are two of the best photographers working today. Both have had long careers. Both continue to surprise. I’d argue that their participation in the world of editorial photography has made them better.

I’d never suggest that editorial photography is the right choice for most photographers. But I hate to see it dismissed as mere money-grubbing. Some of the greatest photographers of all time rarely did anything else.

One of my favorites is Evelyn Hofer. I’ve only purchased a few photographs in my life and two of them are by Hofer. Both were made on assignment. In the current issue of Aperture, Vicki Goldberg reviews Evelyn Hofer’s recent retrospective:

Hofer’s pictures were generally taken on assignment, which she never looked on as a lesser task. So much for the disdain of commercial work that art photographers used to express. Art perseveres, wherever it may be found.

February 26, 2007

gun for hire

Filed under: editorial photo — alecsothblog @ 1:50 am

Several years ago I got talked into a job photographing a number of European telecommunications CEO’s. The pictures were some of the worst I’ve ever taken. Each subject had mastered the stale but stately CEO look. One man walked into the room, shook my hand, and held up two fingers. “Two pictures,” he insisted, “no more.”

I’ve since instituted the ‘No-CEO’ policy. I’m not interested in photographing powerful people whose only interest is to appear powerful. There are plenty of other photographers who can do a better job.

The best of all time was Avedon. He was notorious for being able to crack the façade. But even Avedon would sometimes fail:


Last month I photographed in Paris for the 2007 edition of Magnum’s Fashion Magazine. I broke my No-CEO policy a couple of times, but I’m happy with the pictures. The biggest challenge I faced was photographing models. I tried to make real portraits by photographing the models in their own clothes and apartments. But it seemed impossible to break through their model-ness. No matter how many times I told a model to stop posing, they still had the look. Even their eyes were professional.

This brings up the whole issue of artists doing editorial photography. In the last week I’ve encountered a few examples:

The Kurland pictures really got me thinking. In the same edition of the NYTimes, her work received a full-page profile. If the tables were turned, would Jeff Wall take editorial pictures of Kurland? Not in a million years.

So why does she bother? Years ago I asked this question to Robert Polidori. He told me that he used to play in a rock band. He said that editorial photography is similar to going on the road with a band. You find yourself playing an empty bar in the midddle of nowhere on a Tuesday night and ask yourself, “Why do I bother.” The answer, he said, is that all of these gigs make you stronger – more ready for the studio or the arena concert.

January 28, 2007

La Belle Vie

Filed under: Cat,editorial photo,Paris, MN,portraiture — alecsothblog @ 4:26 pm

Some of you are getting very close to solving my celebrity photographer quiz. Meanwhile, I’m busy photographing celebrities. Longtime readers of this blog will appreciate this snapshot:

Photographing Cat Power, Paris

January 2, 2007

Photos for writers

Filed under: editorial photo — alecsothblog @ 12:43 am

A couple of months ago a publisher approached my agency about using one of my photographs as a book cover. It was a snow scene with a houseboat and a laundry line (see the image here). “There is just one catch,” my agent told me, “they want to add a child running through the snow.” While I’m no purist, it just felt wrong. He asked me if I would just look at a couple of their layouts. I wish I could post them here. The Photoshop work was amazing. But I still said I couldn’t do it.

If it weren’t for the kid running in the snow, I’m sure I would have agreed. I like the use of photographs on book covers. I recently came across a website called Covering Photography that documents this phenomenon (whew, what a specialty). It is interesting to see which images work as book covers. Clearly a lot of people think this photograph by Nan Goldin makes a good cover:


One can’t help but wonder how much say the authors have in these covers. Did Dorothy Allison help select these images by Dorothea Lange, William Eggleston and Wright Morris:


Moreover, did Allison know how powerfully the Lange image would shape the perception of her book? The two seem inseparable. This probably has something to do with using a recognizable face on the cover. This is a rarity in fiction. But there are some notable exceptions. Like the Lange image, it is hard to separate Margaret Bourke-White’s image from the lead character in William Kennedy’s classic, Ironweed:

It is interesting how the flipped version on Ironweed seems so much gentler than Bourke-White’s original (from the book You Have Seen Their Faces).

Most covers go for atmosphere and avoid specificity. It is no accident that the very popular image by Goldin hides both faces. This is interesting given the fact that nearly every magazine cover shows a face looking at the camera. But it makes sense. By keeping things less specific, the reader is allowed to create the characters in their mind. But even with these more generic images, I wonder how much say the writer has in the selection. I suspect the writer Didier Daeninckx knows as little about me (and my picture) as I know about him:


I wonder if Spalding Gray helped choose the image for his novel Impossible Vacation. The book draws on Gray’s own life experience, including his mother’s suicide. Gray himself committed suicide 11 years after the publication of the book – by drowning. Did he help select this image by Ralph Eugene Meatyard:


It is interesting how the cover images affect our reading of the book. But equally influential is the author photograph. In discussing the under-appreciation of Alice Munro in the New York Times, Johnathan Franzen wrote, “her jacket photos show her smiling pleasantly, as if the reader were a friend, rather than wearing the kind of woeful scowl that signifies really serious literary intent.” Franzen makes a good point. Compare Monro’s portrait to his own:


This over-the-top image of Franzen was taken by

Marion Ettlinger. Ettlinger is so successful as a photographer that she has her own verb. “To be ‘Ettlingered’ means to have imparted to you an aura of distinction and renown, regardless of whether anyone besides your mother and your cat knows who you are,” wrote the New York Times.

For the record, Franzen has updated his portrait. Just as he avoided the Oprah Book Club, he now shies away from Ettlinger. I can understand why. Ettllinger is a good photographer. But there is something off-putting about her relentless effort to make authors look like, well, Authors. Others have been more blunt in their criticism.

Dennis Loy Johnson writes:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, I’m not sure what words are behind Marion Ettlinger’s photographs, except perhaps “My shoes are too tight.” You could say her photos represent yet another discouragement of intellectualism in modern literature. Or you could say they just prove the power of faceless storytelling — the story about that emperor who wore no clothes, for example.

The New York Times

profile of Ettlinger suggests the problem with her pictures is that they were produced specifically to market books:

A portrait’s function is to have no function except the representation of the subject. Julia Margaret Cameron’s celebrated photographs of Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle are portraits. So are Bernice Abbott’s iconic pictures of James Joyce. The subjects of those pictures acquired, through their work — or through titanic expectation that became a kind of original work itself — reputations that had become larger than their writing. Thus their images could acceptably appear independent of a dust jacket. Ettlinger’s pictures, however, are made expressly to adorn book jackets. Their function is to be, as it were, purely functional — informative, curiosity-satisfying. They are absolutely dependent on the publication of the book, which is a one-time event.

I’m not sure I agree, but it is an interesting argument. It gets me thinking about the portraits I’ve made of authors:


This picture on the left of Patricia Hampl was made specifically for her dust jacket. The picture of Jim Harrison was made for a French literary magazine and was later used by his publisher for a book of poems. Which is the better portrait? How do these portraits alter the way we read the author? I’m not sure. All I know is that pictures change words as much as words change pictures.

One of the best places to watch this dynamic is in the pages of the New Yorker. I’m specifically interested in the way they combine photography and fiction. Much like book covers, the use of a single image within the largely photo-free magazine is seductive. It serves to draw readers into the story.

Also like most book covers, these images are found by scavenging editors rather than producers. Every couple of months I get an email from the editors of the New Yorker that go something like this, “Do you have a picture of an older woman in a damp, Eastern European setting, preferable not with her face showing. We are also looking for a picture of a monkey, possibly sitting on a suitcase….”

These emails always have me scrambling through my archives. I invariably come up dry. While I’ve done editorial work for the magazine a number of times, I’ve never fulfilled one of these fiction requests. But I’ve come close. One time I received a call from the New Yorker photo editor who explained that the illustrator

Maira Kalman had done a painting based on one of my pictures. They wanted to use the illustration with a fiction story. I agreed. I’m a huge fan of the New Yorker. If they asked me to work in the mailroom I would agree. I was also flattered that a painter was inspired by one of my images. This is how it looked:


Here is my original:


After the magazine came out, I received dozens of emails by people who were outraged that my picture was ‘ripped off.’ I explained that the illustration was like a music sample or cover song. What people couldn’t understand was that I wasn’t credited. I didn’t care, though I suppose it would have helped alleviate criticism.

As I now look back on that illustration from August 2004, I notice that the author of the short story was Richard Ford. Ford ended up writing an essay for my book NIAGARA. While it might have been nice to use my picture for his story, I’m much happier that his story was used for my pictures.

  • Along with Marion Ettlinger, the other legendary author photographer is Jill Krementz. More information
  • here

  • A related post by Christian Patterson on photographers and album covers
  • here

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