Alec Soth's Archived Blog

October 18, 2006

FAQ: advice regarding MFA degree

Filed under: education,FAQ\'s — alecsothblog @ 10:06 am

In the last week I’ve been asked three times for advice about grad school. As much as I’d like to offer up some sage words, I know very little about that world. I didn’t get an MFA and haven’t taught at a grad school. I have some preconceptions about various programs, but I’m honestly pretty ignorant.

One should be wary of taking advice from Mark Kostabi, but this is how he answered the MFA question in his perversely calculating (but equally entertaining) Artnet Column:

Dear Mark: I am a sculptor living in New York and have an unusual background. “Unusual” meaning that I didn’t go to grad school. And without the proper connections in the art world, I have struggled. I missed out on the opportunity to benefit from the practice of “art studentism,” as you call it. But lately I have been invited to better and better shows and seemed to be on the verge of something, and I thought the pain was over. My good friend, who is a pretty successful artist, “confessed” to me she really thinks everyone thinks an artist with no MFA on the bio looks sloppy. I would love to go to grad school but I can’t afford it. Is there no other way?
signed ‘Anonymous’

Dear Anonymous: Sometimes I wonder if I had gone to grad school, would I now have billions, instead of mere millions, in the bank? But then I remember that I’m often asked to lecture to grad students, so in a way I am in grad school. I’m definitely not against formal education — I went to art school and loved it, but I didn’t get any kind of degree, except a high school diploma. I was taught, at Cal State Fullerton in 1980, that a degree didn’t matter to make it in the art world. So before finishing college, I left California and enrolled in the New York art world, which was like going back to high school, with all its cliques and social games about whom you’re seen with and what dinners and parties you’re invited to.

But that was then and this is now. Except for occasional reverent musings about guru John Baldessari at Cal Arts, few people in the 1980s ever talked about the importance of art school or which school you went to. That was contrary to the opulent ‘80s party mood. To put the words “Basquiat” and “Yale” in the same sentence would have been like writing gibberish in two completely different languages.

Today, however, I’d say that you should arm yourself with anything you can to make you, your art and your resume as impressive as possible. The climate has changed. Collectors and dealers now respond to words like “Yale,” “Columbia” and “Hunter.” But it’s not mandatory. Ultimately collectors are not hanging your diploma. It’s true we all know that John Currin went to Yale, but how many people can tell you what school Picasso, de Chirico or Caravaggio went to?

Artists are ultimately remembered for their original artistic achievement, not for the prestige of their degree. Art Studentism really isn’t the only way to enter the art market. Since you’re already in shows and can’t afford grad school, focus on those shows. Build on those relationships and the successes you already have. Talk to the people who are already supporting your art and let them know you’d like to work together to amplify the business — but not just for you — help them succeed with your work too.

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.

September 27, 2006

FAQ: How do you find your subjects?

Filed under: FAQ\'s — alecsothblog @ 11:10 pm

I try to keep the process fluid. Years ago I did a project called From Here to There. The idea was that one picture leads to the next. An example:

Boy with chicken

Young man with egg (and superman tattoo)

Superman suit

While working on this project I made a trip down the Mississippi River. After awhile I saw the river as a metaphor for this kind of improvisational wandering. I decided to make the river the explicit subject while continuing to play all of these games beneath the surface.

I still play these games. Now I usually have a list of subject I’m looking for. With Niagara, for example, this list included things like motels, love letters, couples, and so forth. I feel a bit lost if I don’t have anything specific to search for. But the list is just a starting place. It gets me involved in the landscape. Once I’m engaged any number of things can develop.


September 23, 2006


Filed under: FAQ\'s,studio — alecsothblog @ 9:23 am


Curious about my studio. Have a look here.

*pictured are Phillip Carpenter, Eric William Carroll, Linda Dobosenski, Brian Lesteberg and Josh Grubbs.

September 22, 2006

FAQ: Do I take pictures every day

Filed under: FAQ\'s — alecsothblog @ 12:17 pm

In my post asking for requests, Eric asks:

I’m curious about your photographic rhythms. Do you shoot every day with some kind of camera or do you go many days without touching a camera of any kind? If you take a break from your photography, do you find returning renews your energy and eye or slows you down while you try to recapture your rhythms?

I don’t come close to shooting every day. For better or worse, I don’t carry a camera with me everywhere I go. I liken my process to that of filmmaking. First I conceive of the idea. Then I do pre-production and fundraising. Then shooting. Then editing. Then distribution (books and galleries). As with most filmmakers, the shooting takes just a fraction of my time.

September 17, 2006

FAQ: How do you pronounce ‘Soth’

Filed under: FAQ\'s — alecsothblog @ 10:04 pm

Soth rhymes with ‘both.’

FAQ: Why do you use an 8×10 camera?

Filed under: FAQ\'s — alecsothblog @ 10:04 pm
For the record, I don’t always use this camera. But my two published books, Sleeping by the Mississippi and NIAGARA were indeed produced with an 8×10. At one point I looked at the photographers I loved and there happened to be an unusual number who use this format (Nicholas Nixon, Sally Mann, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Roger Mertin, Joel Meyerowitz). Since it worked for all of these people I figured it was worth a try. And as it turns out there is something special about the format. Beyond the resolution and tonal purity of the negative, the 300mm lens renders the world in a really unique way. But what I really love is the viewing process. The image on the ground glass is just so beautiful. While the format is pretty impractical, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to give up on the view.

September 11, 2006

FAQ: book dummies

Filed under: FAQ\'s — alecsothblog @ 11:29 pm

Art schools normally teach photographers to make work for the walls. But most of the fine art photography we see (especially if you don’t live in NYC) is in books. I’m a big believer in making book maquettes. It is pretty easy these days. I know Stephen Shore has cranked out a bunch of Apple ibooks. I just make inkjet prints and take them to a bindery. I use Campbell-Logan in Minneapolis. This was my dummy for Sleeping by the Mississippi:


Martin Parr and Gerry Badger will be including this homemade edition in their new book, The Photobook: A History. Vol II.

FAQ: Model releases

Filed under: FAQ\'s — alecsothblog @ 11:18 pm

I keep my release short and unthreatening:

In exchange for consideration received, I hereby give permission to Alec Soth to use my name and photographic likeness in all forms and media.

Since I don’t use my images for advertising I don’t need a release. But it is a good place to keep names and contact info. Years ago I used to tell my subjects I would send a print but usually didn’t do it. I have a lot of built up guilt. Now I’m pretty good about mailing a picture to everyone I photograph.

September 3, 2006

FAQ: Equipment (World’s worst photo interview question)

Filed under: FAQ\'s,photo tech — alecsothblog @ 11:19 pm

In one of the funniest blog posts I’ve ever read, the issue is raised about asking photographers about their equipment. It really can be annoying, but the truth is that a large percentage of the photgraphy audience is other photographers – and a large percentage of photographers are nerds. So, lemme get it over with:

For Sleeping by the Mississippi I used and R.H. Phillips and Sons 8×10 Compact with a Nikon 300mm lens. I continued to use this equipment with NIAGARA, but I also added a K.B. Canham 8×10, a Nikon 800 (convertible to 1200mm), and a 210 Super-Angulon. For Dog Days, Bogota I used a Mamiya 6. For most of these projects I used Kodak Portra NC (400+160). For my editorial work, I shoot with a variety of equipment (Making Parts, for example, was shot with a Phase-One Lightphase medium format back).

I don’t do a ton of lighting, but sometimes have to add some strobe (inexpensive White Lightning monolights) or hotlights (Lowel).

As for printing, I still have a conventional color darkroom with a Kreonite processor. I use this for proofs or small prints. For Sleeping by the Mississippi, I made traditional optical C-Prints at a lab in Minneapolis. For NIAGARA, I made digital C-Prints (both Lightjet and Lambda) at Laumont in New York.Whew. I hope that answers the dreaded question once and for all.One more thing. In case you want to know what computer I’m typing this blog on, it is an old 12 inch ibook:

August William Soth, 18″ (on 12″ iBook)

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