Alec Soth's Archived Blog

August 2, 2007

two-exclamation-point limit

Filed under: media — alecsothblog @ 2:19 pm

I was on a walk with my one year old when a passerby told me about the Mississippi River bridge collapse. First thought: call my wife. Second thought: should I go make pictures? TV helicopters were already hovering, news photographers were on the scene and hundreds of citizens were snapping away with cellphone cameras. What could I add? First thought: I could make myself look like a Serious Photographer. Second thought: I could make money for Magnum.

I didn’t take pictures. But Zuma Press was on the scene. In an excellent blog post, PDN describes their press release:

When a news story breaks somewhere where cameras are present, we can usually anticipate the emailed press release we’ll receive a few hours later from Zuma Press, announcing that they have photos of the event—often through a licensing deal the agency signed with the newspaper closest to the scene. Even if the announcements reach us hours after the photos have been moved, they’re written in a tone of salivating excitement. And sometimes that’s, well, unseemly.

Here’s their announcement about yesterday’s tragic bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Note the punctuation:

Breaking News!

EXCLUSIVE IMAGE! Freeway bridge collapses into Mississippi River during rush hour in Minneapolis, with at least six people are dead, dozens more are injured, some critically. The Interstate 35 bridge, under repair between St. Paul and Minneapolis, breaks into several huge sections and falls into the water with vehicles. An estimated 50 vehicles plunged into the water and onto the land below.RESTRICTIONS: USA Tabloid RIGHTS OUT! Mags and TV Call 949.481.3747 For Price !!

A total of five exclamation points. People died, many are injured. Doesn’t decorum demand a two-exclamation-point limit?

April 23, 2007


Filed under: media,quizes & assignments — alecsothblog @ 10:31 pm

Textbooks covered in blood, Photo by Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty


#1) The photograph above was taken following the brutal murder of dozens of college students and professors. Where did this horrific event take place?

A) Blacksburg, Virginia
B) Baghdad, Iraq

#2) For whom did George Bush recently order flags to be flown at half-staff?

A) The 33 victims of Seung Hui Cho
B) The 3312 U.S. troops that have died in the Iraq war and the 337 in Afghanistan.


#1) B. In January, Baghdad’s Mustansiriya University sufferred a double suicide bombing that killed at least 70 people, including students, faculty, and staff. A month later, another suicide bomber struck at Mustansiriya, killing 40.

#2) A. Today an Army sergeant complained about the U.S. flag being flown at half-staff at the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan for those killed at Virginia Tech. The same honor has not been given to fallen U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

March 14, 2007


Filed under: media — alecsothblog @ 7:05 am


I’ll be traveling for the next week and the blog might be a bit quiet. But since I’m going to Los Angeles, I though I might do a celebrity photographer update.

  1. Mikhail Baryshnikov is showing his project Dominican Moves at the Edwynn Houk Gallery through March 31st.
  2. “I have asked Jessica [Lange] if taking pictures is a kind of release for her,” writes Mary Ellen Mark in the current issue of Aperture, “She says: ‘Absolutely. It’s a way of being able to work completely alone without having to depend on anyone else. Because acting is collaborative, you have to depend on so many others.’”
  3. In last month’s Vanity Fair there is an article promoting the new book, Photo by Sammy Davis Jr. Here is one passage: When Sammy started taking pictures, as a teenage performer in the 40s, he used a Brownie and whatever inexpensive camera came his way. “We were in Florida and I was at the Beachcomber. [Singer] Steve Lawrence was down there. He was in the army, doing a show, and he came to the dressing room, and then we went to my hotel and hung out. He said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a Polaroid, the new Polaroid. I just got some stock in that. You ought to buy some, too.’ “I said, ‘Stock? What stock?’ He said, ‘I bought it for two dollars a share.’ ‘Two dollars? For a piece of paper?…I got a Polaroid so I can take pictures of chicks’ boobs.’”

March 13, 2007

Shakira in Iraq

Filed under: artists,books,media — alecsothblog @ 9:44 pm

Be sure to read Geert Van Kesteren’s poignant story about ‘music, my photograph and a good looking girl’ on the Magnum Photos Blog.

While you are at it, check out Van Kersteren’s Why Mister, Why?

January 7, 2007

Polidori and people pictures

Filed under: media — alecsothblog @ 11:31 pm

A month ago I wrote a post entitled Where Are the People. Among other things, I discussed the fine art photographs of the Katrina disaster. Regarding the work of Robert Polidori, Chris Jordan, Katherine Wolkoff and others, I wrote:

I think these are all terrific photographers. And they’ve done admirable work. But after awhile I find the absence of people in the pictures a little frustrating.

Katrina is a good example of why I often defend the efforts of photojournalists. Certainly photojournalism has numerous faults, but I admire the attempt to connect the subject (in this case Katrina) to real people.

Today Robert Polidori responded to this post. (Read the full response here). Most of his comments are a defense of his photographic practice. Just to be clear, I never said that Polidori (or the others) did anything wrong. I didn’t criticize the use of beauty and certainly did not suggest a moral failure.

My point was quite simple. “While it is worthwhile to see the architectural devastation of New Orleans,” I wrote, “I also want to see the people – the lives actually living in this mess.”

I was tempted to let Polidori’s response stay lost in the blog archives. I have no beef with him or his work and don’t want to fan any flames. But along with Polidori’s defense of his practice, he made one particular comment that was just too juicy to leave alone:

What more are you really going to learn from having a person there? My belief is that you should take stills of what doesn’t seem to move, and take movies or videos of does. It’s my opinion that people come off better in movies.

It is an interesting opinion. While I won’t claim that portraits capture the ‘soul life’ (as he says of his interiors), I would certainly argue for their relevance.

Jeremiah Ward wears makeshift shoes after he was rescued from the Ninth Ward, photo by Irwin Thompson / Dallas Morning News

Polidori asks what we learn from pictures of people. In the case of the image above, one might say something about cigar boxes or improvisation or resiliency – but is art really about learning? I’m much more comfortable with the pursuit of beauty.

Would the feet be more beautiful if they were on video or described in prose? Or would this photograph be more beautiful if we didn’t see the feet?

Polidori makes a good point about a certain kind of fine-art portraiture. Had he or I (or the other artists mentioned above) attempted to photograph the victims of Katrina, they might have appeared “like stick figure props in front of their house.”

But this just gets to the crux of my argument. If we are going to have images from events like Katrina in our galleries, museums and libraries (as I think we must), I hope they aren’t limited to stiff, large-format photography. Those pictures absolutely have their place. But so do Jeremiah’s feet.

December 11, 2006

He took the last picture of Lennon

Filed under: media,the sentence,vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 10:08 pm

If you think Bruno Penguin Zehnder went a bit far in connecting with a single subject, take a look at Paul Goresh. Goresh was a John Lennon stalker. On one occasion he lied his way into Lennon’s apartment. But after a long period of pestering him, Lennon eventually became friendly with Goresh. He even used one of his pictures for his single Watching the Wheels.

But the one sentence they’ll always say about Goresh is that he took the last picture of Lennon alive – the picture of Lennon signing an autograph for his assassin, Mark David Chapman:


You can watch a program about Goresh on YouTube: Part 1 , Part 2

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.

December 3, 2006

Where are the people?

Filed under: media — alecsothblog @ 11:47 pm

In the current issue of the New Yorker, there is a profile of the legendary 96-year-old architectural photographer Julius Shulman. The article discusses Shulman’s disapproval of the way most architectural photographers only photograph empty buildings:

“Why is there such a fear of using people? Richard Neutra was always furious if I used people in pictures of his houses – he was afraid they would overpower the architecture. But my photographs show babies and cats and dogs and children. Why not? It makes it interesting to connect it with the life.”

Case Study House #21, 1958 by Julius Shulman

Fine art and documentary photographers often appropriate the techniques of architectural photography. Perhaps the most notable example in the fine art arena has been Andreas Gursky. I think Gursky is a great photographer (I sense a backlash against him amongst other photographers, but I think this is largely due to overexposure and outrageous auction prices).

I enjoy Gursky’s clinical, god’s eye view. And I like the work of his contemporaries Thomas Struth, Peter Bialobrzeski, Candida Höfer, etc (are they all German?). But a little goes a long way. After awhile I get hungry to see people in the pictures. Instead of Gursky’s iconic 99 cent II Diptychon (which recently sold at auction for 2.48 million… ironic), I might want to look at, say, Brian Ulrich:

Chicgo, IL by Brian Ulrich

Luc Delahaye is another photographer I greatly admire. He maintains Gursky’s god’s eye view, but the view often includes people. A few years ago Delahaye created controversy when he exhibited this image at the Ricco-Maresca gallery:

Taliban Soldier by Luc Delahaye

The controversy had to do with commercialism. The image was printed large and sold for approximately $15,000 (a drop in the Gursky bucket). Why are people so uncomfortable with this kind of photography depicting real life and real death? As Shulman asked, “Why is there such a fear of using people.”

Of course one of the other reasons that Delahaye got into trouble was because he was applying journalistic imagery to a fine-art context. But so what? Are we supposed to erase images of people to make photographs palatable for the art market? I suppose people are disturbed by the idea of, in the words of Shulman, ‘using people.’ It is disturbing. Photographs of people use people. It makes us uncomfortable. But it is also what makes the medium so potent.

I’ve been thinking about this issue in relation to the spate of fine-art images from Katrina: Robert Polidori, Chris Jordan, Katherine Wolkoff and others. I think these are all terrific photographers. And they’ve done admirable work. But after awhile I find the absence of people in the pictures a little frustrating.

Katrina is a good example of why I often defend the efforts of photojournalists. Certainly photojournalism has numerous faults, but I admire the attempt to connect the subject (in this case Katrina) to real people. Along with all of the images of destroyed homes, don’t we also need to see pictures like this:

15 days after Katrina hit New Orleans, Edgar Hollingsworth, 74, is rescued from his Broadmoor District home, photograph by Bruce Chambers/Orange County Register

“It makes it interesting to connect it with the life,” said Shulman. Of course! Architecture isn’t some frozen box, it is a home, a place where life is lived. While it is worthwhile to see the architectual devastation of New Orleans, I also want to see the people – the lives actually living in this mess.

Architect Richard Neutra was afraid that pictures with people would overpower the architecture. I sometime wonder if the contemporary art world is afraid that pictures with people will overpower the art.

November 12, 2006

W vs VF

Filed under: media — alecsothblog @ 11:46 am


Two major national magazines have ‘Art Issues’ this month. VF was nearly disqualified in round one for punching below the belt by using a Brad Pitt cover image without Pitt’s permission. While VF tried to put up a good fight with Todd Eberle’s portraits of artists, W won in a landslide. The contemporary art world is so closely tied to the fashion world that a more general magazine like VF really doesn’t have a fighting chance.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this quote by Jeffrey Deitch in VF. I think it pertains to my recent post on ‘perv humor.’

Great things get lost through the cycles of the art market. Take Anselm Keifer, who in the late 80’s was probably the most desired artist of that generation in the art market. Nowadays, one is even cautious about putting up a major Kiefer at auction because you don’t know if there will be enough people there to buy it. So a major, major Kiefer might be well sold at a million dollars, whereas Lisa Yuskavage [a 44-year-old painter whose provocative works toy with soft-core porn] might get the same price.

Sex sells. People want sexy images. This goes back to the old masters, to French 19th-century academic painting. You know, Cabanel, or 18th-century painters like Fragonard, Boucher. They’re sort of excuses for people to have high-class pornography in their homes. This is nothing new. Go back to the Italian Renaissance with the nude male and female figures. They’re religious subjects but have lots of prurient interest, too – for people who are in circles where they cannot have Playboy calendars pinned up to their walls.

October 29, 2006

Marden-mania at the Times

Filed under: goof,media — alecsothblog @ 4:05 pm

Dear New York Times editorial staff, I enjoyed reading Roberta Smith’s review of the Marden retrospective last Friday. As you might remember, I also enjoyed reading about Marden’s paper towel preference in last week’s fashion section. But enough is enough. In today’s Art Section I read: “On a bright fall day last month, the artist Brice Marden piloted his black Range Rover across a Hudson River bridge in the kind of late afternoon sun that he cherishes.” The New York Times has the most valuable real estate in arts journalism. Do you really need to use the front page of the Sunday Arts section to profile Marden’s four extravagant residences? (What about mine?)


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