Alec Soth's Archived Blog

February 12, 2007


Filed under: artists & family,filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 11:40 pm

Last weekend I finally got to see The Departed (highly entertaining, but not Best Picture material). After getting home from the theater, I popped in a DVD that a friend lent me. It was a documentary called Billy the Kid. There isn’t much point comparing Billy the Kid to The Departed. Martin Scorsese is a legend working with a huge budget and the biggest names in Hollywood. Jennifer Venditti is a first-time filmmaker working with a tiny crew and a shoestring budget. Apples and Oranges.

But here is the thing. A few days after seeing Billy the Kid, the movie is much more alive in my memory than The Departed. Isn’t it encouraging that someone working with a video camera and a tiny budget can make something as powerful as an Academy-nominated film?

Similar thoughts occurred to me recently while I watched the documentary Tell Them Who You Are. Made by Mark Wexler, the film starts as a profile of his father, the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler. But this rather boring biographical premise is quickly abandoned as father and son bicker about politics, family and filmmaking. (One of the most engaging scenes shows the two Wexlers yelling at each other about where to shoot an interview).

Wexler Sr. is an Academy Award-winning cinematographer. Wexler Jr. has made a minor TV documentary for National Geographic. His cinematography is weak. His premise is boring. But the resulting film is as engaging as many of the great films his father worked on.

The idea of making a film, however small, still seems hugely ambitious. I have a hard time trying to make a decent picture, much less ninety minutes of pictures. But the DIY spirit of documentary filmmakers is encouraging. If they can make movies that hold their own with the big boys, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

November 28, 2006

Art for your iPod

Filed under: filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 2:11 pm

Eight artists, including Jesper Just, have contributed video art for free on the site artPOD

November 27, 2006


Filed under: filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 12:37 am

One addendum to my post on toy fatigue. I’m not a Luddite. And I do think there is remarkable work being done on the web. I’m particularly fond of digital slideshows. I think this has been a significant advancement in the storytelling possibilities of the medium.

Slideshows have always been a powerful format. But with analog slideshows the audience was severely limited. After years of reading about Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, I didn’t actually see the slideshow until a couple of weeks ago (at the Chicago Art Institute as part of the terrific exhibition So the Story Goes).

The granddaddy of the digital slideshow is Pedro Meyer’s heart breaking, I Photograph To Remember. It was first released as a CD-Rom around 1991. What I loved about the CD was that it was a contained experience. I wasn’t surfing when I watched it. Needless to say my computer can no longer open it. Nevertheless it is available for free on the web here and Meyer is testing a podcast version of it here.

One recent development in the slideshow format has been the incorporation of digital flipbooks. The best example that I’ve found is Christopher Anderson’s Bolivian Elections. Tim Hetherington has also been doing interesting work. I recommend you look at it on the site foto8. Hetherington’s personal site,, is a perfect example of what I dislike about looking at work on the web.

I’d appreciate any links to significant photographic essays that incorporate slideshow and/or flipbook features.

November 4, 2006

Haunted Houses & Slideshows

Filed under: filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 11:11 pm

Carmen Soth being stalked by a Walker guard. “No pictures in the galleries!”

Today my family and I visited the Walker where we saw Thomas Hirschhorn’s stunning installation, Cavemanman. Going with my daughter made me consider how much installation work is built on the model of the haunted house. This isn’t the first time I’ve had this thought. Last year I had to wait half an hour in the cold for my daughter to fall asleep in her stroller before seeing Mike Kelley’s scary Day is Done show. The exhibition was essentially a haunted house for grown ups traumatized by high school.


I don’t mean to be derisive in this comparison to haunted houses. I sometimes think art is best when it mimics more vernacular forms of expression.

One of the great things about photography is that it is a popular and democratic medium. This makes it easy for fine-art photography to maintain close ties to its popular usages (family snapshots, legal documentation, etc). One of the most powerful vernacular forms used to be the slideshow. The use of this form within the art world was well documented in last year’s Slideshow, an exhibition organized by the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Kodak may have quit making slide projectors, but the medium is still alive. Years ago I bought I CD-ROM of Pedro Meyer’s I Photograph to Remember. I used to turn out the lights and show it to my classes. When I turned the lights back on there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Though my computer can no longer read the CD-ROM, the piece is available for free online.

Now, of course, there is a lot of sophisticated software allowing these presentations to incorporate video, interactivity, and so on. All of this is fine, but there is something to be said for staying close in spirit to the vernacular precedent. Installation art can be like haunted houses. Digital presentations can be like slideshows.

  • see Thomas Hirschhorn lecturing at the Walker here
  • see Mike Kelley working on Day is Done here
  • listen to an NPR story on Slideshow here

November 3, 2006

Magnum filmmakers

Filed under: filmmaking,Magnum,psa — alecsothblog @ 9:49 pm
The Berlin Film Festival is going to feature films made by Magnum photographers. Read the press release here. If anyone is in Berlin next February, I’d love to hear your reviews.

October 23, 2006

Jesper Just & Bas Jan Ader

Filed under: filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 12:46 am

still from Something to Love, 2005, by Jesper Just

Earlier today I saw an exhibition by Jesper Just entitled Black Box at the Hirschhorn Museum in D.C. The show included two of his films, No Man is an Island II and Something to Love. I particlularly enjoyed No Man…, but thought Something to Love was also worthwhile. This was my first time seeing Just’s work in the flesh. As the New York Times stated last Friday in a review of his current exhibition at Perry Rubenstein, “Mr. Just’s work has rightly been celebrated for its high production values and seductive noirish ambience.” What was peculiar was seeing such production values in a museum context. While I’ve seen high-end Mathew Barney videos, they always include the requisite props, carpets, flags, etc. But Just’s exhibition, like the title of the show, is simply a black box. I couldn’t help wondering why I wasn’t watching these films in a theater. When I entered the gallery one of the films was nearing completion (thus spoiling the suspense when watching the beginning of the film ten minutes later). I was also aware of visitors (myself included) stumbling through the dark looking for a seat. While I’m not asking for popcorn, the experience would have been better if it had been given start times and the routine of the cinema.

I’m too sad to tell you, 1970, by Bas Jan Ader

This is, of course, an old gripe about video art. I guess it is on my mind because of something else I encountered last week. Someone sent me a link to a lecture and documentary movie by Rene Daalder on the film art of Bas Jan Ader. In the lecture, Daalder says (I’m paraphrasing):

You walk into these shows and its just atrocious how all these art institutions deal with the moving image. Unless there are big installations – that is the only way they can deal with it – it can’t be commodified. I have by and large given up on the art world. It is completely absurd. Every artist has to resort to weird installation framing because that will give it value. That way you can charge $30,000 for your DVD. Not everybody has always done this wrong. A lot of people know Brahkage, Kenneth Anger and the New American Cinema. These guys said to hell with the art world, we’re going to distribute our movies like movies.

Another of the Daalder’s frustrations is that it is so difficult to see Bas Jan Ader’s films. Fortunately you can see a tiny RealPlayer version (along with Daalder’s film) by clicking here.

October 20, 2006

Jerome Liebling

Filed under: filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 1:05 pm

In my post about photographers who’ve made films, I neglected to mention Jerome Liebling. Liebling taught at the University of Minnesota for twenty years. During that time he made several award-winning documentaries with filmmaker Allen Downs (Pow Wow, The Tree Is Dead, and The Old Men). But his lasting impact in Minnesota seems to have been with photographers.

After leaving Minnesota to teach at Hampshire College, Liebling appears to have stopped making films. Nevertheless, he had an enormous influence on a generation of documentary filmmakers at Hampshire, most notably Ken Burns. This influence is discussed in yesterday’s New York Times:

“The essential DNA of all my films issues from still photography,” Mr. Burns said. But Mr. Liebling’s influence on his work, he said, reached much deeper, to a personal and ultimately philosophical level that has guided many of his choices of subject and approach.

In this brief little video you can tell that Liebling is an excellent teacher. I nearly went to Hampshire College (my parents thought it was too hippie-ish). I can only wonder how my work and life would have been different if I’d experienced Liebling’s influence first hand.

October 12, 2006

Laurel Nakadate

Filed under: artists,filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 11:13 am

video still from “I WANNA BE YOUR MID-LIFE CRISIS”

A critic once observed that my photographs of men are often comical whereas the pictures of women are more reverant. He might be onto something. I suspect the pictures of men have an element of self-portraiture.

Laurel Nakadate’s fantastic videos and photographs are the flip-side of this equation. She often photographs herself in the presence of awkward men. In a review of her 2005 show, the New York Times wrote:

For her notorious project ”I Wanna Be Your Mid-Life Crisis,” Laurel Nakadate invited middle-aged men who tried to pick her up to collaborate in videotaped performances. A three-channel video in this exhibition continues in that vein. One segment shows the young, exceptionally charismatic Ms. Nakadate and one or another of her down-at-the-heels partners crawling on the floor pretending to be cats. In another she and a balding man listen to each other’s chests with stethoscopes and hear the Righteous Brothers singing ”You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”

The men in these and other scenarios look both amused and bemused, and the overall effect is both sad and comical. Ms. Nakadate may be asserting feminist self-empowerment and satirizing seamy sexual dynamics, but you can’t help feeling sorry for the apparently harmless and lonely men whom she teases.

Read a long and juicy interview with Nakadate in the current issue of The Believer. And see her work in NYC. She has an opening on October 19th at Danziger Projects and will be in a group show at Mary Boone uptown that opens on November 2nd.

October 10, 2006

Robby Müller

Filed under: filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 11:31 pm

In my post on photographers as filmmakers, numerous folks mentioned Wim Wenders. Someone else mentioned the importance of cinematographers. This got me to thinking about Wender’s cinematographer, Robby Müller. The two have worked together since 1969. Along with his outstanding work with Wenders, Müller has put unforgettable images for several great directors. I’m particularly fond of the images he has produced with Jim Jarmusch:

Down by Law

Mystery Train

Dead Man

In a 1999 interview with The Gaurdian, Jarmusch was asked about working with Müller:

I loved Robby Mueller’s work and I asked Wim Wenders in 1980 how I might meet him. I was going to the Rotterdam Film Festival to show my first film, Permanent Vacation, and at that time in Rotterdam the people who visited the festival stayed on a boat that was harboured there, it had a bar in it, and Wim said, “Just go on the boat and in the bar next to the peanut machine, Robby Mueller will be sitting there.”

So I went to Rotterdam, I went on the boat, I went in the bar, and next to the peanut machine Robby Mueller was sitting there. (Laughter) Seriously. So I sat down next to him and started talking to him. And we hung out quite a bit at the festival and he saw my first film, and he said to me eventually, “If you ever want to work together man, let me know.” That was a big thing for me. I made my next film Stranger Than Paradise with my friend Tom DiCillo, because Tom was working then as a director of photography, but he really wasn’t interested in shooting films, so when I wrote Down By Law, I immediately called Robby Mueller.

The beautiful thing about Robby is that he starts the process by talking to you about what the film means, what the story is about, what the characters are about. He starts from the inside out, which is really, really such a great way. I’ve learned that you find the look of the film later after you’ve found the essence of the film, what its atmosphere is, what it’s about and then you look at locations together, you start talking about light and colour, about what film material to use and the general look of the film, and we’ve worked together a lot now, so we don’t have to discuss as many things as other people might because we understand each other.

He considers himself to be an artisan in a way. I remember, especially in Dead Man, the crew and I were joking a lot by saying, “He’s Robby Mueller, but don’t tell him that!” He considers he has a lens, he has film material and he has light. Sometimes crew members would mention some modern piece of equipment, “We could do that shot with a lumacrane,” and Robbie would say, “What is a lumacrane?” I think he’s like a Dutch interior painter, like Vermeer or de Hoeck, who was born in the wrong century.

October 9, 2006

Waco, TX

Filed under: filmmaking — alecsothblog @ 2:11 am

This might explain the recent posts on filmmaking…


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