Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 26, 2007


Filed under: critics & curators,quotes — alecsothblog @ 9:09 am

“Give me a Rembrandt in a subway station toilet and a flashlight and I’m happy.” A profile of Peter Schjeldahl in the Village Voice (Schjeldahl previously discussed on this blog here, here, here, here, here).

“You are many things, but I wouldn’t count glamorous among them.” Jen Bekman talks to me about my fashion sensibility.

“Affluent Children Dressed by their Parents in Absurd Outfits, Already Displaying Scatterbrain Sexuality, Disdain, and Lust.” My pal Michael Silva gets himself a blog.

“Aren’t we all failed photographers?” A great blog on the life and times of an anonymous photo editor.

Who do you like better, Duane Michaels or Brian Ulrich?

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 11, 2007

Corking the camera

Filed under: baseball,quotes — alecsothblog @ 8:09 am

I’m a sucker for a good sports metaphor. The last two nights I’ve hung out with Todd Deutsch. Maybe because Todd is a baseball fan and Little League dad, I’m in the mood for a good baseball analogy. Batting, it seems to me, is a lot like photography. Whether you are a slugger like Gursky or a contact hitter like Erwitt, the rules of hitting are mostly the same. Perhaps these tips from Jack Aker might also apply to photography:

  • Have no fear — in order to hit you must stay in the box at a distance from the plate from which you can hit any pitch in the strike zone.

  • Have a balanced stance — if you are not comfortable and relaxed in the box, you will tighten up, which will keep you from swinging quickly and smoothly.

  • Keep your eye on the ball — this is not just a cliche. Try to see the ball while it is still in the pitcher’s hand, and follow it all the way to the plate. Try to see your bat hit the ball. When you take a pitch, or don’t swing, watch the ball all the way into the catcher’s mitt.

  • Grip the bat loosely — your fingers and hands should not tighten up on the bat until you are actually starting your swing. If you squeeze the bat while awaiting the pitch, you will tighten up your arms and shoulders and you won’t be as quick with your swing.

  • Don’t overswing — if you are thinking only about hitting home runs, your swing will be out of control, and you will probably pull your head away and take your eye off the ball. The result – you’ll strike out. Think only of making sharp contact and putting the ball into play.

  • Learn the strike zone — although a few pitches which are just out of the strike zone may be hit for base hits, most of your safeties will come on pitches which are in your strike zone. Every batter’s strike zone is different. Learn your strike zone. Be patient and swing at strikes only.

Or maybe photography is more like flyfishing. I’ve always loved this quote from Stephen Shore’s 1982 edition of Uncommon Places:

Color film is wonderful because it shows not only the intensity but the color of light. There is so much variation in light between noon one day and the next, between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon. A picture happens when something inside connects, an experience that changes as the photographer does. When the picture is there, I set out the 8×10 camera, walk around it, get behind it, put the hood over my head, perhaps move it over a foot, walk in front, fiddle with the lens, the aperture, the shutter speed. I enjoy the camera. Beyond that it is difficult to explain the process of photographing except by analogy:

The trout streams where I flyfish are cold and clear and rich in the minerals that promote the growth of stream life. As I wade a stream I think wordlessly of where to cast the fly. Sometimes a difference of inches is the difference between catching a fish and not. When the fly I’ve cast is on the water my attention is riveted to it. I’ve found through experience that whenever- or so it seems – my attention wanders or I look away then surely a fish will rise to the fly and I will be too late setting the hook. I watch the fly calmly and attentively so that when the fish strikes – I strike. Then the line tightens, the playing of the fish begins, and time stands still. Fishing, like photography, is an art that calls forth intelligence, concentration, and delicacy.

Or maybe photography is like cricket. The fantastic photographer Trent Parke (who just opened a show at the Alice Austen House Museum on Staten Island) is also a former professional cricket player. When I see Trent next week, I’ll ask him if he has any good cricket tips to pass along.

May 23, 2007

Why blog when you could be doing porn?

Filed under: artists,on blogging,quotes — alecsothblog @ 1:05 am

Yesterday came the question, “Why did I think I needed a blog?” Looking for an answer, my first Google search led to an evangelical bloggers Top 50 Reasons to Blog. Here is one:

This is what I’ve called the ‘Google Parable’: Reciprocal linkage helps all the boats on the (search engine) river rise. Actually, Jesus said it first, “Love one another; prefer one another”. But if we won’t listen to Jesus, perhaps the new-paradigm giant will convince us. Networks of ‘driven’ Christians can impact society more than individuals or self-serving churches.

But I’m not sure that either Jesus or the ‘new-paradigm giant’ is the right answer for me.

Next I turned to the Washington Post. In an article entitled Bloggers on the Reasons Behind Their Daily Words, this fellow was quoted:

Having lived with the same woman for nearly 20 years and learning from her that nothing I had to say was ever right, I discovered early that things worked best between us if I would just keep my mouth shut. Well, one can only imagine what it must have felt like after the kids were grown and we finally parted company. I could actually begin to write and speak my mind without the slightest fear of reprisal or being made to feel like an idiot. I understood what the freedom to speech was truly about.

That one doesn’t quite work either. I’m not looking for my blog to replace my wife. But I guess it does fulfill a certain kind of social need. “We read about the Cedar Tavern, and it sounds so romantic,” I said in a recent interview with ArtKrush, “but what if you live in Minneapolis with two kids? The blog is as close as I get to the Cedar Tavern.”

But the truth is that I can’t blame Minneapolis and the two kids. I’ll never forget going to one of the artist parties for the 2004 Whitney Biennial. I felt like I was in high school and had accidentally stumbled into the cool-kids party. I approached one well-established artist and introduced myself. She didn’t even respond before turning around and walking away.

One of the artists at that party was Zak Smith. We didn’t talk much, but he actually seemed smart and nice. Since that time, we’ve both acquired new hobbies. I’ve started blogging and Zak has started doing porn.

Smith’s motivation for his hobby doesn’t seem too different from my own. “I’m living off my paintings and have been for years,” he said in a recent interview, “I’m involved in porn mostly because the social life of the art world is like living death.”

Whatever you think about Zak Smith or his Zak Sabbath alter-ego, he is an engaging conversationalist. Read this exchange from a fantastic interview about Smith’s book, Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow:

Terri Saul: Gravity’s Rainbow is one of the most drug-ridden novels ever written. When considering your illustrations of it, I thought about Glenn Gould, a musician who experimented with both drugs and classical music. Do you ever use drugs while working?

Zak Smith: 1-Drugs are very popular among people who are interested in interesting things but are not themselves very interesting.

2-Drugs make your body do weird things–so they’re interesting if you’re in the performing arts.

3-Drugs make boring things seem interesting, so products created by people while they are on drugs are often really boring.

Glenn Gould is a pretty good example of all three of these propositions–his rendition of Webern’s piano opus–(23 or 28?)–is amazing, but when he sits down and writes his own stuff, he’s terrible and derivative.

What I do–and what most fine artists do–is not a performing art, so drugs just do to you what they do to everyone else: they make you suck and then waste everyone’s time pretending you sucked for some non-drug reason.

I mean, in art school if there was some minimalist who made like a 2 by 4 except it was purposefully off by a quarter-inch and that was their art, you knew that guy was either on speed or a big pothead. When you look at all that crap conceptual art from the sixties and seventies–drugs.

Anyone with half an eyeball knows Victor Moscoso is obviously waaaaaaaay better then Andy Warhol–unless you’re on LSD, in which case they’re both exactly the same–green next to magenta, fuuuuuuck duuuuude. Then you sober up and have to defend how much you liked it and well, Andy’s got some old photo of Jackie O in it so you pretend you like it because it was like socially relevant and shit and Victor Moscocco just has a cool picture of a dinosaur so you just pretend you never saw it.

Big muddy neo-expressionist art that looks exactly like every other big muddy painting anyone accidentally made ever? Cocaine.

The funny part is then the critics have to scramble back to their desks and write 80-page essays about why they think Andy Warhol is good that DON’T just say “Sorry, sorry, I was on drugs.”

Terri Saul: Gravity’s Rainbow is a book–at least in part–about how information can tend toward entropy. What is your view of our current information-saturated culture?

Zak Smith: Ok, here’s a view–in newspapers with huge circulations we got headlines saying the president is a felon who lies about pretty much everything all the time and doesn’t know where Sweden is and most people in his country either don’t vote or decide to re-elect him and I got a myspace page which says “Don’t send blind friend requests, explain who you are first” and I get blind friend requests every day.

Information is only information if people are not total morons–however, people are total morons. Therefore we do not live in an information-saturated culture, we live in a Brad-Pitt-and-whatshername-just-had-a-baby- saturated-culture where smart people who care can find what they need when they have to if they’re lucky and we always have and we always will.

Makes me wish Zak Smith had a blog. (A great example of how he would handle readers here). But, then again, maybe I should be doing porn.

April 23, 2007


Filed under: editorial photo,quotes — alecsothblog @ 4:13 pm

“Some people’s photography is an art. Not mine. Art is a dirty word in photography. All this fine art crap is killing it already.” Helmut Newton

March 11, 2007

Presiding over accidents

Filed under: quotes — alecsothblog @ 11:25 pm

You Can’t Win by Dolorean (album cover photo by Gus Van Sant)

I recently was sent a copy of Dolorean’s fantastic new album, You Can’t Win. On the Yep Roc Records website, Al James speaks about the making of the album:

We’d become overly predictable when we entered the studio, so I did my best to change things up. I stole an idea that I came across in Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young biography Shakey. Neil used to book studio time and shows for himself and Crazy Horse without rehearsing new songs with the band. I knew that we’d be up for a similar challenge so I booked three shows in three weeks during February. In between the second and third shows I booked three days at a local studio. I didn’t leave the band completely in the dark, but I didn’t reveal much. I had almost a dozen new songs and we went over the changes a couple times before the first show. The performances were raw, passionate, and loose – everything that we hadn’t been able to capture on previous recordings.

It is hard for solo artists to foster this kind of looseness, but it must be much more difficult in an ensemble setting. Orson Welles said that his job was to “preside over accidents.”

One of the greatest examples of this approach is Werner Herzog. His entire library is built on the idea of presiding over accidents. He once described it this way:

Coincidences always happen if you keep your mind open, while storyboards remain the instruments of cowards who do not trust in their own imagination and who are slaves of a matrix.

  • Listen to Beachcomber Blues by Dolorean here
  • Read the memorable New Yorker profile where Herzong describes “the daily grind of catastrophe” here
  • See Herzog get hit by a sniper on YouTube here.

March 8, 2007

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 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.

February 28, 2007

The Body and The Wall

Filed under: goof,quotes — alecsothblog @ 1:32 am

Official portrait of former MN Gov. Jesse ‘the Body’ Ventura (more info here)

There has been a lot of chatter online about the recent NYTimes profile of Jeff Wall (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here), but I’m the first to make this connection:

  • You have to forget about the idea of the spirit of the place. It’s one of the big, consoling myths of people who live nowhere. Jeff Wall
  • Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. Jesse Ventura
  • I’m a more affectionate person than I thought I was. I like trees or I like people’s faces. That’s one reason I think my work has changed. I realized I wasn’t interested in filtering my affection for things through certain levels of mediation. Jeff Wall
  • If I could be reincarnated as a fabric, I would come back as a 38 double-D bra. Jesse Ventura
  • The aesthetic norm of fragmentation implies that the avant-garde movements made a fundamental and irreversible break with the past. The art of the past is defined as “organically unified,” art that does not want to recognize its own contingent character, its own fragile illusionism. It wants to revel in the illusionism, for its own sake and for the sake of its audience, and it wants to seem to be inevitable and complete, the creation of magicians. This is what is called the “genius ideology.” Tearing apart the organic work of art was the accomplishment of the avant-garde, which revealed the inner mechanics of traditional illusionistic art, the stagecraft of the masterpiece. To a great extent, I agree with that process, and I like a lot of avant-garde art very much; it’s very important to me. But I feel that it’s an unfree way of relating to it to erect it as an absolute standard, against the aspects of the unified work which I like. I like the idea of the unified work because I like pictures, and there is always a sense in which a picture exists as [such] through its unification, [through] its precisely pictorial unification. I think the art of the past is not as unified as the avant-garde polemic needed for it to be, or[ made it] appear to be. There are always acknowledgments of contingency and a sense of alternatives in good work from earlier times, probably very far back in time. So, firstly, there probably is no completely unified work, outside some very specific limits, at least, none in the tradition that we’ve been talking about. But there is the phenomenon of unity in a work, the way it might be experienced as a unity, even if, when you look closer at it, it displays or at least indicates, or hints at, its own contingency. That phenomenon, that moment of appearance, that moment of the experience of the work’s unity, remains important. That moment, that instant, will always be there when we experience good art, even if we are experiencing a work which rejects the whole idea of unity, like in radical avant-garde or neo-avant-garde art. So, I see the unity of the work of art as an unavoidable moment of the making and of the experiencing of any work. There is a dialectic in all of this, not two antithetical forms, each complete in themselves, one coming after the other in time and rendering the first one “obsolete”–a favorite polemical term of the proponents of the new orthodoxy. And, just an aside, I would say that it was always my experience that the criticisms aimed against so-called pre-Modern art were not terribly accurate, and they were tendentious, in that by trying so hard to break away from the past, a lot of avant-garde artists and writers, critics let’s say, exaggerated the flaws or weaknesses of the art of the past so that they could get away from it. That’s just a rhetoric of the avant-garde, and the times made it necessary; OK., but let’s not live under that as some kind of law now. You look at so-called pre-modern art–I say ‘so-called’ because I don’t really think it’s un-modern’whether it’s Caravaggio or Botticelli or Durer, it’s not as unified as those writers made it out to be. The antithesis between avant-garde art and “museum art” is less pronounced than the avant-garde wanted it to be. Older art is much richer and more nuanced than a lot of the arguments give it credit for being. It’s kind of obvious by now, how adolescent a lot of avant-gardist attitudes were- the “burn the museum” attitude from the 20’s, from Dada through the 60’s. Jeff Wall
  • I asked him [Dalai Lama] the most important question that I think you could ask – if he had ever seen Caddy Shack. Jesse Ventura

February 19, 2007

William T. Vollmann

Filed under: artists,quotes — alecsothblog @ 2:11 am

My recent quiz on celebrity photographers failed to mention William T. Vollmann. Vollman doesn’t have a website or, for that matter, use the internet or email. Not surprisingly, he isn’t a big fan of digital photography. In a recent interview in BookForum, he says:

I dislike digital photography because there is no guarantee of permanence as of yet. A compact disc or DVD has a very limited life. When I was photographing the street prostitutes in Sacramento, I used my 8×10 camera and made some platinum prints that should last hundreds of years. It makes me happy to think that these poor prostitutes, whom no one ever gave a damn about, whom people spat on and did terrible things to, will have a certain amount of immortality.”

Vollmann has traveled the world (and continues to spend time as a train hobo), written around sixty books (including a seven-volume, 3300 page treatise on violence) has a wife and child and still has time to mix in some painting and alternative process photography. He doesn’t pursue any of it lightly. One example here:

Q: As part of the research for The Royal Family, you smoked crack, by your own admission, about a hundred times. Is something like that simply a matter of wanting to be able to write from a more experiential perspective, rather than simply observational?

Vollmann: That’s exactly what it is. Otherwise, you really don’t know what you’re doing. If you want to write about somebody who’s a crackhead, you better understand firsthand the effect that crack has or it’s really going to be hard to do it right. That’s the easiest, simplest, best way. It’s like if you’re doing printing-out process photography–the best thing you can do is expose your negative in the sun. If you want to, you can have an exposure lamp, and it can be calibrated, but it won’t be as strong as the sun, or as even. You won’t give as much UV radiation. Why not just stick with what’s already there for you, instead of having to talk to a hundred people about how crack feels? Just do it once and you’ll know.

I’ve hunted around the web and can’t seem to find any of his photographs (can anyone help?). The only thing I found were some examples of his artwork:


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