Alec Soth's Archived Blog

March 9, 2007

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry,portraiture — alecsothblog @ 8:00 am

By Louise Gluck

A child draws the outline of a body.
She draws what she can, but it is white all through,
she cannot fill in what she knows is there.
Within the unsupported line, she knows
that life is missing; she has cut
one background from another. Like a child,
she turns to her mother.

And you draw the heart
against the emptiness she has created.

March 8, 2007

Rego & Hare

Filed under: portraiture — alecsothblog @ 2:29 pm

Playwright David Hare chose Paula Rego to paint his portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. Hare was going to choose Lucien Freud but “didn’t want to be stark-bollock naked lying next to a whippet.” Rego is a genius, but this was an unusual choice. Rego mostly paints women. Robert Hughes has called her “the best painter of women’s experience alive today.” Moreover, Rego normally doesn’t accept portrait commissions. Her wild mix of mythology, sexuality and magic realism don’t seem suited for the task.

Nevertheless, Rego took on the Hare commission:


Hare wasn’t thrilled with the result. “I looked mad as a hatter,” he said, “It isn’t a portrait of someone I’d necessarily want to meet – or at least be very close to. I was very shocked when I saw it. It’s very distressing. It’s a portrait of someone in a great deal of distress.”

Rego disagreed. “On the contrary! It’s an affectionate picture, a picture of a man of the theatre. It’s not at all shocking. He just looks handsome. He’s thinking, he’s introspective.”

a quote for Portrait Week

Filed under: portraiture,quotes — alecsothblog @ 1:36 pm

“A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth.” John Singer Sargent

John Singer Sargent (1865-1925) in his Paris studio with his famous painting Madame X, a portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau. Madame X created a scandal at the Salon of 1884. French society was shocked by her deathly white pallor, hennaed hair, and provocative dress. Sargent kept the painting in his Paris studio, and later in his London studio. More than twenty years after the Salon, he exhibited Madame around the world and finally sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916. More here.

March 7, 2007

Milton Rogovin

Filed under: artists,photographs (mine),portraiture — alecsothblog @ 12:58 pm

Milton Rogovin, 2004. Photograph by Alec Soth.

Milton Rogovin was just named the 2007 recipient of the ICP Cornell Capa Award. Nobody is more worthy of acknowledgement. Rogovin has dedicated his life to photographing ‘the forgotten ones.’ His portraits are consistently made out of affection and empathy.

One of Rogovin’s greatest achievements has been documenting the lives of his Buffalo neighbors. He often re-photographed the same subjects multiple times over the decades. In 2002, Sound Portraits producers Dave Isay and David Miller joined Rogovin to interview these subjects. The results were remarkable. Here is one example of Monica “Kiki” Cruz:


I was three in this first picture. I remember my mom was so excited–she felt like a movie star because Milton was coming over. She hurried to get me dressed, bathed–everything! She didn’t even have time to do her own hair, so she threw on that floppy old hat. Even after Milton left, she was happy that whole afternoon. And her being happy made me happy. Every time Milton came, my mother was happy, because she loved Anne and Milton. She’s not here no longer [crying]…but she was a wonderful lady and she is greatly missed. Me and my mom went through trials and tribulations, but she was my best friend.


That second picture was at my grandmother’s house. I wasn’t living at home at the time, and I just went over to visit. And my mother said, “You came in just in time, because Milton’s taking another picture of us!” And I said, “For real?” And when he took that picture I was sitting there thinking, “I don’t believe I’m doing this again!” Because that was the worst time in my life. My mother got with somebody that beat her, and I couldn’t take it. So I started sleeping in LaSalle Park, on the benches. Then when I was fifteen I went through the court system and became an emancipated minor, so I was able to live by myself as an adult. And at the time of the picture I was running with an older crowd–much older–and got addicted to drugs. I mean badly. Cocaine. Until one day I just woke up and said, “No. This isn’t me.” And I never touched it again.


In the third picture–I was happy there. I was working at my mom’s bar, the Golden Palm. Me and my mom had a real good relationship then. As a matter of fact we were living together, right across the street from there, and she was so happy that day. My mom used to live for the days that Milton and Anne would take her picture, but a little while after that, things got bad again. My mom actually drank herself to death. Because she felt alone [crying]. She felt like she didn’t have nobody, nobody loved her, nobody needed her. So she just gave up. And she died on July 10, 1998, from cirrhosis of the liver.


  • Listen to a few of the interviews here.
  • Visit Rogovin’s website here.

March 6, 2007

Portraits and mug shots

Filed under: portraiture,quotes,vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 2:50 am

Zoe Strauss recently asked, “What makes a great portrait?” In response, Zoe posted an essay by Richard Avedon (Henry Kissinger’s Portrait) that includes this definition:

A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happening, and he has a certain real power over the result. The way someone who’s being photographed presents himself to the camera and the effect of the photographer’s response on that presence is what the making of a portrait is about.

I agree with this definition, but it is a little misleading. It suggests that a portrait session is always charged with the dueling ambitions of subject and sitter. While this is undoubtedly true with Kissinger and Avedon, it isn’t true of every good portrait. In fact, many of the great portraits are made when the subject loses ambition.

Anonymous mug shot, from Bruce Jackson’s Mirrors

In the preface to his collection of found portraits of Arkansas prisoners, Mirrors (1914-1937), Bruce Jackson writes,

Second only to a coroner’s photographs of the newly dead, police and prison identification photographs are perhaps the least merciful and most democratic and anonymous photographs of all. The lighting is the same for everyone. The people being photographed have no interest in the photographs being made; the people making the photographs have no interest in the photographs they have made.

Avedon was undoubtedly familiar with this kind of apathy between photographer and subject. He began his career shooting ID portraits for the Merchant Marines.

In 1960 Avedon produced real mug-shots while shooting Dick Hickock and Perry Smith from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood:


Most of the In The American West pictures share the same, mug-shot feeling. Look at this portrait by Avedon next to an anonymous picture from the book Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots:


As much as I admire Avedon’s supercharged portraits, most of his great images occur when the subject has let down her guard. This isn’t limited to non-celebrities. One of the greatest Avedon pictures is his 1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Vince Aletti discusses this picture in a 2002 Village Voice article:

After several hours of being flirtatiously, professionally “on,” the actress finally sat down in a corner and switched off. Though she was not unaware of being photographed, she allowed Avedon a glimpse of something sad, anxious, and terribly fragile: a star momentarily dimmed. Only a few of Avedon’s subjects have Monroe’s iconic zap, even in repose, but many of them are caught, like her, looking not at the camera but inward. Pinned before that stark white seamless, their self-consciousness hasn’t vanished, but the performance has wound down and they’ve lowered their guard enough to appear wistful or reflective or simply, frankly preoccupied.


While Avedon is correct that the subject is sometimes ‘implicated in what’s happening,’ more often than not the photographer holds all of the cards. To his credit, Avedon was honest about this power. In a 1984 interview, he said:

I used to think that it was a collaboration, that it was something that happened as a result of what the subject wanted to project and what the photographer wanted to photograph. I no longer think it is that at all. The photographer has complete control, the issue is a moral one and it is complicated.

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

September 30, 2006

John Sonsini

Filed under: artists,painting,portraiture — alecsothblog @ 10:35 pm

Gabriel, 2002

I’m a big fan of Sonsini’s painting. For several years he painted the same model, Gabriel. In a 2000 interview in Art Connoisseur magazine, Sonsini describes how he rediscoverd painting:

Q: Your collaboration with Gabriel began with a camera, correct?

Sonsini: Yes, I was photographing Gabriel. We’d done, I think, six sessions at the time and then he was here one day and I was bored with photographing. I was thinking, “Well, what will we do today?” Then, I had an idea. The most absurd things in my mind came together that afternoon. One was painting from a live model, and the other, even more absurd, was to pull out the easel I bought for who-knows-what-reason a year before. So, to paint somebody in that manner felt like I had never painted before. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had in my studio.

AC: After all of these hours, how are you able to keep painting Gabriel?

Sonsini: I still find his image unreal. How many times can I paint that foot on the ground and every time I look at it, my feeling is, “Oh, good lord in heaven, that is a human foot, right there, right next to me.” I love that.

Sonsini later moved on to paint Latino day laborers. His process for finding subjects, always men, is an interesting mix of both erotic and political interests. You can read a couple of good articles on Sonsini in Art in America and LA Times. Click here to see more of his work.

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