Alec Soth's Archived Blog

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?

December 17, 2006

Playing with snow

Filed under: sculpture,snow — alecsothblog @ 8:12 pm

There is no way to have Snow Week on the blog without highlighting the work of the Swiss photographer Thomas Flechtner. In his monograph, SNOW, Flechtner depicts the frozen Swiss countryside with stunning clarity:

“Colder”, 1996-2000 by Thomas Flechtner

Flechtner has continued his investigation of snow by creating time-exposure performance photographs. Strapping lights to his skis, Flechtner traverses snowy hills in pre-planned routes for as long as fourteen hours.

Chli Rinderhorn, 1999, Walks, by Thomas Flechtner

This work reminds me of a couple of other artists who’ve combined photography, performance, sculpture and snow.

Originally trained as a sculptor, Tokihiro Sato uses a small flashlight at night (or a mirror during the day) to make pinpoints of light that chart his movement through space. On a couple of occasions he has worked within snowscapes.

#354 Hattachi, 1998 by Tokihiro Sato

Sato’s work is often described as emerging from the conceptual tradition of the earthworks artists. Many of these artists experimented with snow:

Dennis Oppenheim, Annual Rings, 1968

Richard Long, Snow Circle

Andy Goldsworthy has done a lot of work with snow and ice. (See the portrait I took of Goldsworthy here). The documentary on Goldsworthy, Rivers and Tides, shows him making this sculpture:


Perhaps my favorite Goldsworthy project is his Midsummer Snowballs:


I’d love to hear about other artists that don’t just photograph snow, but also play with it.

September 19, 2006

More on photographing sculpture

Filed under: sculpture — alecsothblog @ 9:23 pm

You might be wondering why I’m spending a lot of energy writing about sculpture. The truth is that in addition to being a failed painter (my first love), I’m also a failed sculpter. I never got under the influence of the European land artists (Long, Goldsworthy, Fulton, Nash). Here is a sculpture I made in college (1991 or so):


I still have a great fondness for this kind of work. In 2004 I had the pleasure to meet and photograph Andy Goldsworthy.


What is beautiful, of couse, is the impermance. I think this has a lot in common with photography. I’m reminded of a quote* by Henri Cartier-Bresson:

Actually, I’m not all that interested in the subject of photography. Once the picture is in the box, I’m not all that interested in what happens next. Hunters, after all, aren’t cooks.

Photography, for me, is about the process. It is about wandering. Looking. Digging. The product is fine. It does its job stopping time. But mostly it is a charming reminder of the hunt.

I’ve pretty much given up the idea of making sculpture. But now and then I still get an itch. A couple of years ago I balanced a stack of farmhouse rubbish and took this picture:


Later I realized it looks like the superior images of Peter Fischli and David Weiss. I guess I should just stick to taking pictures.


Vik Muniz vs. Gabriel Orozco

Filed under: sculpture — alecsothblog @ 9:21 pm

Muniz and Orozco should probably never meet in the ring. While both mix photography and sculpture, most people consider Muniz (b.1961) a heavyweight and Orozco (b.1962) a featherweight. Muniz is fun to watch (kids and grandparents love him), but swings too hard:

Vik Muniz, Self Portrait (Golden Boy) 2004, C-Print 100 x 80 cm

After awhile his work starts to feel like those corny digital photomosaics:


For me Gabriel Orozco is the champion. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee:

GABRIEL OROZCO, Cats and Watermelons, 1992, Cibachrome, 16 x 20″


Filed under: books,sculpture — alecsothblog @ 9:14 pm

I lust after this book by Hans Bellmer. It is being sold by Andrew Cahan.

Bellmer, Hans. LA POUPÉE. Traduit par Robert Valencay. Paris: GLM, 1936. Small 4to., (13) pp., with two illustrations from drawings by the artist and ten mounted silver gelatin photographs. Original printed wrappers, with a small tear to the paper wrappers at the spine, expertly restored. Housed in a newly made clamshell box of cloth and morocco, with paper labels of the spine and upper cover. A fine copy with the photographs showing full and rich tonal quality, and measuring approximately 31/8 x 4 5/8 inches, or the reverse. This copy is number thirty-seven of eighty copies with the text printed on rose paper, from a total edition of one hundred and five copies. This copy bears a contemporary ownership signature in pencil on the front blank endpaper dated 1937, Paris. One of the landmark Surrealist books, and one of the very few to be illustrated with original silver gelatin photographs. This is considered Bellmer’s most important and influential work. Therese Lichtenstein, (guest curator for the International Center for Photography 2001 exhibition “Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer”) writes: “Although Bellmer is generally classified as a Surrealist, he actually initiated his doll project with a specific political purpose: to oppose the fascism of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in Germany in the 1930s. After the rise to power of the Nazi Party in 1933, Bellmer, an established painter and graphic designer, declared that he would make no work that would support the German state. The unconventional or “degenerate” poses of his dolls were directed specifically at the cult of the perfect body then prominent in Germany. The dolls are represented in a constant state of mutation, multiplication, and recombination, often appearing contorted or bound, and occasionally lacking body parts or sprouting extra sets of limbs. These permutations echo autoerotic sensations rooted in the body. Bellmer’s work was also an attempt to destabilize representations of gender being widely circulated in contemporary mass culture.” $55,000.00

September 17, 2006

On photographing sculpture

Filed under: sculpture — alecsothblog @ 11:07 pm

The single most satisfying exhibition I’ve ever seen was Brancusi and Serra in Dialogue at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. The Pulitzer is the best place I’ve ever been to see art. Open only two days a week, the galleries are restricted to fifty visitors at a time. The building by Tadao Ando is perfect. Every space is designed for quiet contemplation. The work is allowed to soar.

And boy did it soar with Brancusi and Serra. You can see the installation online here. Of course the installation pictures don’t do the work justice. But we shouldn’t expect photographs to replicate the experience of seeing sculpture.

This is my problem with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s recent series of photographs, Joe. Sugimoto photographed Serra’s sculpture, also named Joe, in the Pulitzer courtyard (Serra and Ando collaborated on its placement). The sculpture is a masterpiece. It sounds cliché, but when I viewed the work last year I had the experience of being transported.

© Hiroshi Sugimoto

Sugimoto’s photographs attempt not to illustrate the sculpture or installation but to replicate the experience. They are monumental in scale and number. While I’m a big fan of Sugimoto, I find these pictures extraordinarily weak. Nevertheless, the’ve commanded a lot of attention. This Sunday they were profiled in this New York Times article.

Sugimoto’s pictures have me considering the issue of photographing sculpture. I think it can be done well. In fact, I saw some terrific examples at the Brancusi/Serra show. Brancusi’s sole subject as a photographer was his own sculpture. He didn’t try to mimic the experience of the work itself. He used his pictures to convey the spirit of the process. He photographed his studio, himself working, etc. Brancusi once said, “Why write [on my art]? Why not just show the photographs?”

The Studio, Constantin Brancusi, 1927

Brancusi’s photographs are stimulating documents. They evoke a feeling for the time and dirty work that went into his refined and seemingly timeless objects. The pictures add to the experience of seeing his work whereas Sugimoto’s pictures feel like high-end spin-offs (when did $75,000 photographs replace posters?).

I do think that photographers can work with sculpture. In fact, sometimes the photographs are better than the sculpture. Richard Long’s photographs are always more interesting than his mud and rock sculptures in real life. But for me the greatest example is David Smith. While I recognize that he is a tremendously important figure, his sculptures have never had as great an impact on me as these photographs by Dan Budnick:



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