Alec Soth's Archived Blog

July 17, 2007

Reflections in the helmet shield

Filed under: aesthetics,photo tech,quotes — alecsothblog @ 10:27 pm

On the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair is a typical bland celebrity photograph. The only interesting element in the picture is the reflection in the helmet:

I’m glad I didn’t have to take this picture. All of that equipment looks like a drag.

In the current issue of PDN, Joseph Kudelka talks about making pictures. “For me photography is playing,” he says, “I go out and I play and I try to discover.” Later in the interview he tells this story of showing pictures to John Szarkowski.

My sister lived in Canada. I was on my way to visit my sister because my mother had gotten permission to go there. I brought with me little prints that, when I traveled, I would show. I missed my plane and went over to Elliot Erwitt’s place. He said, “You are here, so why not show your pictures to this guy from the Museum of Modern Art who once published one of your photographs, John Szarkowski?” I went there and said I have some pictures that I was going to show my sister and mother so they could see the places I’ve been, and he looked through them and John said – this I’ll never forget – “I feel I’d like to go out and take pictures again. And I would like to make your show.”

In Szarkowski’s 1979 book/exhibition, Mirrors and Windows, he divides photographic practice into two categories. On the one hand there is romantic or self-expressionistic work (mirrors), on the other there is realist or more purely descriptive work (windows). As an example of romantic work Szarkowski cites Minor White and the early years of his publication Aperture. As an example of descriptive work he uses Robert Frank’s book The Americans.

Looking through Mirrors and Windows, I often find myself disagreeing with Szarkowski’s classifications. In fact, I’ve always believed that The Americans is as much an act of romantic self-expression as it is a commentary on America. The key is in the last picture of the book. Here Frank shows his own wife and child in an automobile. In giving us this moment of reflection, we see all of the preceding pictures a little differently:

US 90, en route to Del Rio, Texas by Robert Frank

Whether you are Minor White or Robert Frank, almost every photograph starts with an act of pure description – a window. But every now and then you catch a glimpse of the photographer’s reflection. The mirror is just another function of the window:

New Orleans, 1968 by Lee Friedlander

Along with the Koudelka interview, the current issue of PDN interviews Gregory Crewdson about his lighting technique. The article includes this diagram of his lighting setup:

Untitled (Sunday Roast), 2005 by Gregory Crewdson

As with the VF cover, this doesn’t make me want to run out and take pictures. But this isn’t always the case with Crewdson’s work. In 1996, after the collapse of his first marriage, Credson left New York and spent a summer in a log cabin photographing fireflies. The process looks like a lot of fun:

Untitled, 1996 by Gregory Crewdson

Photography is a frustrating medium. Fragmentary, frozen and mute – photographs can never match the immersive pleasures of film or music. So why bother with film sets and lighting crews? The simple process of making pictures is rich enough. “I always wanted to be a photographer,” said Lee Friedlander, “But I never dreamed I would be having this much fun. I imagined something much less elusive, much more mundane.”

  • See more of Crewdson’s Fireflies here.

June 4, 2007

Tactile photography

Filed under: aesthetics,exhibitions (not mine),photo tech,sculpture — alecsothblog @ 11:42 pm

One of my frustrations with contemporary photographic technique, mine included, is the feeling of sterility. Digital processes have become so sophisticated that nearly every picture you see is dusted and anti-scratched to a state of frozen perfection. After awhile it all feels so airless.

So it was with pleasure that I observed evidence of a return to tactile photography at the recent Photo London exhibition. One of the best examples of this was the work of Stephen Gill. In his recent project, Buried, Gill took pictures in Hackney Wick and buried them in the same area. Gill writes about the process:

When burying my first batch of photographs, a passing man spotted me and asked what I was doing. Not only did I not want to give the location away of some of my buried pictures, but It just sounded a bit weird to say that I was burying photographs so replied that I was looking for newts. As soon as I’d said that I looked down and saw a newt at my feet.

Not knowing what an image would look like once it was dug up introduced an element of chance and surprise which I found appealing. This feeling of letting go and in a way collaborating with place – allowing it also to work on putting the finishing touches to a picture – felt fair. Maybe the spirit of the place can also make its mark.

While I’m not sure I even noticed Gill’s imagery, it felt good to experience a contemporary photograph that was overwhelmingly tactile:


I’m not sure how to deal with this hunger for photography that is physical and imperfect. Certainly only one photographer is allowed to bury his photographs. Is the problem photography itself? Maybe I just envy painting and sculpture.

On my recent trip to Tennessee I encountered two other artists who might share my envy. At the Knoxville Museum of Art, I saw Tim Davis’s flawless color photographs of the flaws and textures of painting:

A Passing Shower in the Tropics, by Tim Davis

And at the Powerhouse in Memphis I saw Matt Ducklo’s large C-Prints showing blind people touching sculpture. For me, these pictures were about photographic frustration:

Seated statue of Hatshepsut, 2005 by Matt Ducklo

Yesterday I visited Musee Rodin in Paris. On view was a fantastic exhibition, The Japanese Dream. Nearly half of the show was devoted to the Japanese dancer Hanako. Rodin made more sculptures of Hanako than of any other sitter. But these sculptures weren’t exactly portraits. Hanako was best known for expressionistic plays ending with her performing hara-kiri. With his sculptures, Rodin tried to recreate her expressions of sorrow and horror.

These works left me speechless. They were everything I’d been craving. I went to the museum bookstore to buy a catalogue. But flipping through the book, I was disappointed. While technically refined, the clinical reproductions failed to communicate the spirit of the work:


The most worthwhile images in the book were those by Edward Steichen:


Steichen’s photographs were able to get at the pain and sensuality of the original sculptures. Again I’m left with the question: Can contemporary photography find its way back to something physical?

March 27, 2007

Regarding W

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

November 27, 2006

‘responsive to my desires’

Filed under: photo tech — alecsothblog @ 11:25 pm


A recent post discussed the need for photographic equipment to mature from toy to tool – to become second nature. I recently came across a quote from Edward Weston that humorously addresses this issue. He is speaking of 1924 portrait he made of Tina Modotti:

I drew close – I whispered something and kissed her – a tear rolled down her cheek – and then I captured forever the moment – let me see – F.8-1/10 sec. K 1 filter – panchromatic film – how brutally mechanical and calculated it sounds – yet really how spontaneous and genuine – for I have so overcome the mechanics of my camera that it functions responsive to my desires….The moment of our mutual emotion was recorded on the silver film – the release of those emotions followed – we passed from the glare of sun on white walls into Tina’s darkened room – her olive skin and somber nipples were revealed beneath a black mantilla – I drew the lace aside…”

November 26, 2006

Toy fatigue

Filed under: photo tech — alecsothblog @ 10:56 pm

Before leaving for Thanksgiving vacation with family in Colorado I made a trip to the computer store. I wanted extra storage space for my digital pictures. On a whim I decided to spend a bit more money and buy an iPod. This decision went against my recent ‘less pocket crap’ philosophy. Over the years I’ve owned a Minidisk player, a Palm Pilot and a half dozen pocket sized digital cameras. In each case I became exasperated with all of the cords, charges and docking stations. I succumbed to the iPod because of its elegance. Four buttons. One cord.

Before leaving for the Rocky Mountains (dial-up country), I downloaded a bunch of music and podcasts. I gave myself over to the new toy. Here are my reactions. First, I can hear the collective ‘duh’ when I say the iPod is great for music. More specifically, it is great for sound. I’m a big fan of audiobooks. I downloaded all seven CD’s of the current book I’m listening to – Larry Watson’s Orchard. It is a treat to have the whole thing in one small place.

My feelings about the podcasts are a bit more mixed. First let me say what I like. Unlike a web browser, the iPod is good at ‘containing’ information. When I look at podcasts on a browser, I never feel like I’m fully present. A momentary curiosity will have me checking email, news, and so on. Because everything on the web is linked, I feel like nothing is contained. By downloading it on my iPod, I’m a little less distracted.

With the iPod I was able to watch every Magnum in Motion podcast. I’d seen a handful before but always became web-distracted. But seeing these programs on the iPod brought up some other problems. First, the image is ridiculously small. Most of the Magnum images were too rich and complex for the tiny screen (The exception was Thomas Dworzak’s ‘7/7 The Longest Week‘ which seemed to have been shot for the iPod). My second problem was with the brevity of the programs. On the web all you want is a little teaser. It is all you have time for. But with the containment of the iPod I wanted a fuller experience. The Magnum programs were too short. I searched the web looking for video and slideshow podcasts that would give me a more complete artistic experience; I looked for programs that could immerse me in their small-screen world. My search was unsuccessful.

Of course the era of the podcast is still quite young. So perhaps great artistry will emerge. But this is where I really get frustrated. I don’t think it has time to emerge. Next year the iPod will have a bigger screen. The year after that it will have a web browser. And the year after that it will be obsolete as some new unforeseen technology takes over. The medium only has time to be a toy. It never has time to mature into a tool.

This is the same problem I have with digital photography. The potential is always remarkable. But the medium never settles. Each year there is a better camera to buy and new software to download. The user never has time to become comfortable with the tool. Consequently too much of the work is merely about the technology. The HDR and QTVR fads are good examples. Instead of focusing on the subject, users obsess over RAW conversion, Photoshop plug-ins, and on and on. For good work to develop the technology needs to become as stable and functional as a typewriter.

After hours spent playing with my new iPod, I set it aside to read a book. While I thought the iPod was elegant, nothing beats the book. No downloading. No batteries. No cords. No ads. No links. No distractions. The format is so elegant that it becomes transparent. It is the perfect container for art.

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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