Alec Soth's Archived Blog

September 23, 2007

This post is not about sex machines

Filed under: artists,artists & family,editorial photo,education,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 12:57 pm

Not every photographer finds his or her subject through moody introspection. One of the goals of my recent SFAI class (‘Finding Your Subject’) was to show students the possibilities of assignment photography. While I would never say it is right for everyone, editorial work can be useful in exposing photographers to new subjects. I often use the example of Larry Sultan. After he made his brilliant book Pictures From Home, Sultan did an assignment for Maxim Magazine that led to his book, The Valley.

One of the photographers I invited to my SFAI class was Timothy Archibald. Archibald makes his living almost exclusively through commercial and editorial photography. Perhaps because he is removed from academia, Archibald spoke to the class with a rare mix of honesty and enthusiasm.

Archibald explained that a lot of his editorial work focused on middle-class, domestic life. Inspired by one assignment that had him photographing a man in his garage who’d invented a new kind of foosball table, Archibald began looking for other kinds of inventors. This led Archibald to the subject of his book, Sex Machines.

After publishing this provocative book, Archibald’s “sentence” was pretty much carved in stone. This seems to be one of the side effects of photographing something especially juicy. (“He’s the guy who photographed Christ in piss,” etc). Don’t get me wrong. Sex Machines is a remarkable book. I urge you to learn more about it (here, here, here). But this isn’t the only thing you should know about Timothy Archibald.

I’m pretty sure that Archibald agrees. If you go to his website, you won’t find a single reference to Sex Machines. But then, Archibald’s website seems pretty much geared to getting jobs. While the pictures on his site are well produced, it all feels pretty slick. To get the good stuff, I recommend going to Archibald’s blog. In an inversion of Sultan’s trajectory, Archibald’s new work is about his family.

As with his class presentation, Archibald writes about his work with honesty:

So what is with all these weird images of my kid?

I’m not sure myself. I do feel like I’m trying to create, with photographs, a map, a diagram, a sentence that somehow communicates all the stuff that arises when dealing with my 5 year old boy. Wonder, discovery, emotional chaos, and a feral sense of physical randomness are the words I use when trying to describe the project to myself or others. The pictures may be communicating something else…I just don’t know yet.

Archibald is clearly in the early, experimental stages of this work. But he is getting some interesting results:

With this image, Archibald writes: “My eldest son was sick last week for 48 hours. He found a stick and bent it in three places, making a perfect square. Yesterday I found a message I wrote to my wife on a post it note.”

Again, there is something thrilling in this honesty. Archibald isn’t afraid to explore the emotional ambivalence involved in mixing photography and parenting. In a post that I definitely relate to, Archibald recently wrote:

It’s kind of tricky to switch gears from days in which my only obligation is to take photographs and stick a fork with food in my mouth, to these days at home that involve waking up with the kids, getting them what they need emotionally and physically, having a relationship with Cheri, with the kids, and dealing with all the real relationships that exist outside of the bubble of the long, on-the-road photo shoot. Its an adjustment, and I find myself anxious for the simplicity of the photo shoot: someone is there to work out the details, food is always around, the subjects are new and we are all fascinated with each other….we are all in love with each other for the bubble of the shoot, and then it’s time to go. Then home, the adjustment starts. It takes a few days home for the pleasures and satisfactions of all the rich stuff, the complex emotions that are what home is about to really sink in.

The reason I brought Timothy Archibald to my class was to promote the possibilities of assignment work. I believe it can be a good source of inspiration. But Archibald taught me something else. As the cliché goes, genius is 1% inspiration. It really doesn’t matter what you do for a living. Whether you teach, sell furniture or produce commercials, the important part of making art is digging into “all the rich stuff, the complex emotions.”

September 11, 2007

Richard Barnes

Filed under: artists,exhibitions (not mine),the sentence — alecsothblog @ 7:54 am

One of the best parts of my teaching gig at SFAI was bringing in visiting artists. Along with valuing what they could add to the class, this provided me with an excuse to hang out with some cool Bay Area artists.

The first person I invited, Richard Barnes, recently left San Francisco for the East Coast but was in town for a group exhibition at the Yurba Buena Center for the Arts. The show, Dark Matters, has a lot of fantastic work. But for me the highlight was seeing Barnes’ pictures in person. These sumptuous images of starling migrations in Rome made a deep impression when I first saw them in the New York Times Magazine (pdf).

Mumur 1, Nov. 15, 2005 by Richard Barnes

The Times has a nice interactive presentation of these pictures here.

Not long ago Richard Barnes also did a series on bird nests:

from Grid of Nests, 2000, by Richard Barnes

But these bird photos are just the tip of Barnes’ rich and eclectic career. One of the reasons I invited Richard to the class was because of his untraditional career path. After receiving a B.A from Berkeley, he has supported himself as a working photographer. This has principally been in the field of architectural photography, but along the way he has received numerous commissions. Much of this commissioned work deals with the architecture of preservation:

from Animal Logic by Richard Barnes

from Animal Logic by Richard Barnes

For all his great work with birds and museums, Barnes is best known for his pictures of a small house. Nearly ten years ago, the New York Times commissioned Barnes to photograph the cabin of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. By mixing clinical minimalism with such loaded subject matter, Barnes created a frightening and iconic image that only gets more meaningful with time:

Unabomber Cabin (Sacramento), 1998, by Richard Barnes

As regular readers know, I have a fascination with ‘the sentence’ – the shorthand summation everyone uses to describe a particular person. Some are easy (“He’s the guy that photographs Weimaraners). But Barnes is a tricky case. I doubt people would remember ‘He’s an architectural photographer who’s done fine art projects on birds, museums and the Unabomber.’ Whatever the phrase is, Barnes was able to sum up his achievements with a remarkably elegant sentence: “My work is all about containment.” He went on to say that he’d only made this connection in the last few years.

For me this was the ultimate lesson that Barnes brought to the class. While it may not always be great marketing, artists should be free to explore whatever quickens their pulse. Over the long haul they will inevitable find a thread that unifies their vision. Finding this revelatory thread (and not the stupid ‘sentence’) seems to be one of the most meaningful experiences to come from a life making art.

  • An exhibition of Richard Barnes’ work will open on this Saturday, September 15th, at the Hosfelt Gallery in New York.

July 12, 2007

Papageorge interview

Filed under: interviews,Papageorge,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 2:10 am

I interviewed Tod Papageorge on July 11, 2007

Alec Soth: The day after I started writing about your work online, we all learned of the death of John Szarkowski. At first I felt awkward about continuing to dig into your work and life. But in a way Szarkowski’s death makes it all the more meaningful. Your generation is so closely identified with Szarkowski. Can you talk about how he shaped you specifically?

Tod Papageorge: It’s difficult to untangle the past, of course. The easiest thing would be to suggest that John showed me, and other photographers, a kind of way to go, but, in fact, we were already going there, pushing and jamming each other, riding out, most immediately, the possibilities that Robert Frank’s great book had pointed to. What John really did was give the greatest imaginable sanction to all of this by throwing the weight of the most powerful art institution in the world—and his inimitable eloquence—behind us, and then expanding our sense of the possible through the remarkable shows that he put together.

Individually, his gift was to understand at some incalculable level what each of us was trying to do: just imagine, for example, this guy from the Minnesota woods tracking into Manhattan and being faced with the work, and person, of Garry Winogrand. And then through some emotional/intellectual identification—how? with what magic?—recognizing the radical brilliance and promise of Winogrand’s pictures. It’s still astonishing to me—and the list grows from there. In my particular case, the fact that he could look at a portfolio of my photographs and unfailingly pick out what I thought was, or might be, the most interesting or challenging, etc. of the group, thus allowing me to gather my underdeveloped thoughts to a greater focus, was a tremendous help, but this is what he did for everyone I knew who was bringing work into MoMA.

The fact, too, that he invited me to curate an exhibition, complete with catalog and essay, at MoMA was a tremendous affirmation for me. And I don’t doubt that that essay was instrumental in establishing me at Yale.

I think that slightly younger photographers such as Stephen Shore or (who I imagine was your teacher) Joel Sternfeld, would have a different take regarding the arc of John’s influence, in that they were just that much more distant from Frank, and therefore that much more open to the possibilities of the view camera, and then color, that John began to explore more regularly in his exhibitions of the early 70s.

AS: Recently Szarkowski began receiving attention for his photography. What is your opinion of this work?

TP: “The Idea of Louis Sullivan” is, I think, a great book, wielding text and pictures extraordinary well. Because it has cities, and shadows, all through it, it also strikes an entirely different set of chords than, say “The Face of Minnesota,” or John’s landscape work in general, does. In any case, because I’m blackhearted to some degree, I respond to that darkness more than I do the beauty of John’s landscapes, as gorgeous and full-hearted as they are.

AS: One of the things I recently learned about Szarkowski was his fascination with apples. Somehow this further enlarged my picture of the man. It sounds corny, but I’m wondering if you have any hobbies?

TP: Reading and listening to music: Mozart is my god, Haydn his tribune, Bach the god THEY worship, and Beethoven their sullen charge.

AS: Do you still read and write poetry?

TP: I’ll occasionally look at poets I already know, and try to read “The Oddessy” every year. But I don’t write any kind of poetry now.

AS: You’ve said that you see photography as ‘at least as close to writing as the other visual arts.’ Are you talking about a specific kind of writing (poetry, journalism, fiction)?

TP: Poetry, because it and photography can both be similarly condensed.

AS: Photography that aspires toward a literary experience seems to benefit from been seen in a literary context – namely, the book. I often say that there are ‘wall photographers’ and ‘book photographers.’ I’ve only seen one of your photographs in the flesh. It was lovely, but I’m still certain that you are a book photographer. Would you agree?

TP: Yes, I love the book—but you should have seen my recent exhibition in NY while you were there: the prints glowed (not through MY efforts, of course, but those of my printer, Sergio Purtell). After all, why bother to use a 6 x 9 cm. camera if you’re not going to make beautiful prints w/it?

AS: Which photographic books stand out for you as an example of literary photography?

TP: There are only a few, but, of course, they are also the usual suspects: “American Photographs,” “The Americans,” and, combining pictures and text, John’s “Idea of Louis Sullivan and Strand’s “Time in New England,” a great book.

As you’ve indicated here in this blog, I’ve tried to do something that I think is new in “Passing Through Eden,” and that is to follow an established narrative through the long opening of the book, and then trace out the residual ‘literary’ energies of that narrative through the rest of it.

AS: Just out of curiosity, what do you think of Bruce Davidson’s Central Park book?

TP: I think it reflects a commercial enterprise. (And I admire the recent Steidl book of his early work in the British Isles.)

AS: Unlike a novel, a series of photographs rarely tells a complete story. There isn’t the engine of narrative suspense pushing you from beginning to middle to end. I’m wondering if this was a frustration as you began assembling your Central Park pictures.

TP: No. As a reader of pictures, one wants the experience to be open-ended, I think, even in the face of some kind of narrative impulse.

AS: When was the editing complete? Did you make changes at the last minute?

TP: After months of ceaseless noodling with it on my part, Michael Mack, my editor on the book, and I got together (he was in from England) and finished it up. I’d pretty much completed the ‘Biblical’ section to our mutual satisfaction, and from there it was a case of clarifying a few knotty groups of pictures later in the book. It was a great, and invaluable, few hours.

AS: Now that it is in print, do you have any regrets?

TP: I WOULD change a few things in the sequence if I could, and also the small mistakes of copy editing in the text.

Central Park, 1989, by Tod Papageorge (click to enlarge)

AS: There is one specific image I wanted to ask you about. The man with the eye chart (p.20) is unbelievable. Do you remember taking the picture? Do you know what was going on?

TP: It is what you see. Who knows? It’s New York, after all. I have no idea why he had the chart there.

But let me add something here apropos of some recent discussion in this blog:

I have no real argument against so-called set-up photography, at least as a process. The fact that I’ve had many successful students doing it in different ways I think makes my case. I also think that the reason they’ve felt free enough to work in this way at Yale is because I profoundly believe in—and teach—the proposition that photography is inherently a fiction-making process. Don’t speak to me of the document; I don’t really believe in it, particularly now. A picture’s not the world, but a new thing.

That said—too briefly—my argument against the set-up picture is that it leaves the matter of content to the IMAGINATION of the photographer, a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis. That’s all. Remember, T. S. Eliot made the clear, brutal distinction between the art that floods us with the “aura” of experience, and the art that ‘presents’ the experience itself. ANY artist, I feel, must contend seriously with the question of which side of that distinction he or she is going to bet on in their work. Obviously, I’m with Eliot—and Homer—in this, believing that the mind-constructed photograph almost necessarily leads to a form of illustration, the very epitome of aura-art.

All of which is to ask: what imagination, what choir of angels, what souped-up computer, could come up with that eye-chart and its desperate chartist?

AS: In 1974 you wrote, “Photography investigates no deeper relief than surfaces. It is superficial, in the first sense of the word; it studies the shape and skin of things, that which can be seen.” Do you still believe this to be true?

TP: How else can the photograph begin, but there? It’s this discursive descriptiveness that makes photography unique, and gives it whatever place it might have in art-heaven. We can follow all of this descriptiveness to emotionally moving places, of course, but we have to begin where and how the lens begins, literally tracing the lineaments of things.

AS: In the essay to Passing Through Eden you mention being particularly taken by a Brassai retrospective: “I felt the palpable presence of bodies and things.” You talk about how this led you toward using a medium format camera. But I’m also wondering if it led you to a particular subject matter. Brassai’s work had a lot to do with sexuality and temptation. During this time I understand you photographed at Studio 54. And certainly Passing Through Eden involves sexuality and temptation.

TP: In another essay somewhere, T. S. Eliot (and I haven’t had occasion to mention him like this, or nearly this often, in decades) coined the phrase “the disassociation of sensibility” to describe what he understood to be the separation, or even abyss, between feeling and intellect in John Doone’s poetry. What I felt I saw in Brassai’s photographs was a remarkable integration of those two things; in other words, a superb intellect (read his “Conversations with Picasso,” for example) unselfconsciously married to a profoundly sensuous apprehension of the world that expressed itself, in his photographs, as a perfect union of form and (dense literary) content. THAT’s what captivated me about his work, not sex per se, or sex perverse, but his great-hearted/great-minded reading of the physical world. I might add that, after seeing an exhibition of mine in Paris, his wife wrote to me to say that Brassai saw in me a “fils espiritual,” his spiritual son–a remark that I treasure.

Central Park, 1981, by Tod Papageorge

AS: You like to photograph beautiful women.

TP: Well, why not? Although I can’t really say that I like to do it: I have to. If you accept the idea that photographers, or some of them, are actually artists, then you have to look at their work less as a document of something than as a personal vision of the world. And my imaginary world, informed by music and books, as well as photography, is one in which beauty and some notion of ravishment are central. What more eloquent ‘objective correlative’ (Eliot again) for me, a man, to express that than women?

I’ve always felt that an artist is some kind of holy fool who is willing to be misunderstood in service to the larger goal of fully investing him or herself in their work. In other words, the issue is much less woman, or attractive women, or (dread word) voyeurism, than shaping an artistic vision suggestive, in many different directions—not just women, of course—of how rich and extraordinary beautiful the world might be.

Central Park, 1987-88, by Tod Papageorge (click to enlarge)

AS: Talk about the upside down pictures. When did this idea come about? How was it received? Did you exhibit these pictures?

TP: Well, speaking of ravishment, there it is, encountered with a man, a woman, and two couples. And that’s exactly what I was trying to get to, an almost-angelic transcendence coming on the heels of everything else before returning to a relatively wrung-out world.

Additionally, I wanted these pictures to ‘teach’ readers of the book—if they hadn’t learned the lesson already—that, “yes, this whole book has been willed into shape, it’s a made thing, a self-conscious artistic object where a picture might even be reversed to make a poetic point crucial to the meaning of it.”

AS: How were these pictures received?

TP: Generally, people have been disconcerted by these pictures, but that’s just a first reaction. I hope that, in time, they’ll come to be seen as organic to the whole book.

AS: I believe that no matter who you are, most people are going to say one sentence about you. “He’s the guy who photographs Weimereimers.” I think your sentence used to be “He’s the guy who hung around Winogrand.” Now it is “He’s the guy who runs the Yale program.” Or maybe, “He’s the prick who runs the Yale program.” Do you agree? Do you care? What do you want to be your legacy?

TP: Well, of course I dislike the one-sentence sum-up, as anyone would, or should: it leaves too much out. Garry Winogrand and I were close friends, not a god and his hanger-on. Sure, I direct the Yale program, but what does that mean apart from whatever the person saying it thinks about the Yale program—which will be incomplete and uninformed if they haven’t been through it? So, no, while I ultimately don’t really care, I’d also point out the obvious—that “the sentence” is a pernicious and profitless way of looking at things.

As for a legacy, I hope it becomes clear with time that everything I did—in my work, my writing, and even my teaching—was done passionately, out of a love of photography, to the furthest degree I could accomplish it.

AS: I know that you have a new book coming out from Aperture. Are there another dozen books planned after that?

TP: I have a completed maquette of work I made in Paris over the years, mostly in the 90s; also a group of early pictures from New York. Then there are California pictures, and any number of other projects.

AS: Are you shooting new work?

TP: As for current work, given the exigencies of teaching, family, and life, I photograph for the most part during the summer, primarily at Lake George, Stieglitz’s old stomping ground. Want to lend me your view camera?

  • permanent link to this interview here

December 18, 2006

Meerkats & Snowflakes & Trappist Photographers

Filed under: aesthetics,snow,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 10:59 pm

According to yesterday’s New York Times, penguins are passé. With two high-budget documentaries in the works, Meerkats are going to be the anthropomorphized stars of 2007.

This can’t be good news for Richard Gere. Since 2003, Gere has been trying to produce “Emperor Zehnder,” a biographical portrayal of Bruno Penguin Zehnder (previously discussed on this blog here).

I think Gere should drop the penguins. That ship has sailed. If he wants to portray a monomaniacal photographer, might I suggest Snowflake Bentley.

Wilson A. Bentley

In 1885, when he was twenty years old, Wilson A. Bentley was the first person to photograph a snowflake. For the next 46 years, Bentley devoted himself to the snowflake. “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty,” he wrote, “and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others.” Bentley shared this appreciation by producing over 5000 photographs of snowflakes.

But as with many passionate people, Bentley was considered an eccentric. In a profile on Bentley (The American Magazine, 1925), Bentley talks about the way he was viewed by his neighbors in Jericho, Vermont:

I guess they’ve always believed that I was crazy, or a fool, or both. Years ago, I thought they might feel different if they understood what I was doing. I thought they might be glad to understand. So I announced that I would give a talk in the village and show lantern slides of my pictures. They are beautiful, you know, marvelously beautiful on screen. But when the night came for my lecture, just six people were there to hear me…I think they found my pictures beautiful. I doubt, though, they have changed their opinion of me. They still think I’m a little cracked. I’ve just had to accept that opinion and try not to care. It doesn’t hurt me–very much.

Bentley’s passion paid off. Because of him, every school child is taught that ‘no two snowflakes are alike.’ While we’ve come to take it for granted, this really is a remarkable discovery. For Bentley it was a revelation, “Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated.”

Collage and self-portrait by Wilson Bentley

But like many revelations, Bentley’s discovery was touched by sadness. “When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost,” he wrote, “Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.” While he took great pleasure in capturing a snowflake on film, he truly despaired at all of the ones that got away:

We had one storm last winter which brought me perhaps the most interesting snow crystal I have ever seen: a wonderful little splinter of ice, incredibly fragile. That was a tragedy! In spite of my carefulness, the crystal was broken in transferring it to the slide. It makes me almost cry, even now.

This is the sadness of photography. There is something futile, almost pathetic, about the photographic quest to possess beauty.

I’ve always found it interesting that so many people try to link Zen and photography. Photography is anti-Zen. Photography is an attempt to stop time and possess the world. Zen is an attempt to live in the moment and relinquish the desire to possess. The two seem completely incompatible.

I recently discussed this with Brother Paul, a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky. Brother Paul is an avid photographer. His teacher, the legendary Thomas Merton, was also a photographer.

Thomas Merton

Brother Paul helped remind me that the great thing about Merton is his acceptance of paradox. He knew his life as a prolific writer was at odds with being a monk. “An author in a Trappist monastery is like a duck in a chicken coop,” Merton mourned, “and he would give anything in the world to be a chicken instead of a duck.”

Merton could have been a ‘chicken.’ He could have given himself over entirely to the life of the monastery. He could have lived in the moment. But that would require putting aside the typewriter and the camera. Instead, Merton accepted the joy and despair of paradox. In the preface to a collection of his essays he wrote:

I have had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing far the fact, even to myself. And perhaps this preface is an indication that I have not yet completely learned. No matter. It is in the paradox itself, the paradox which was and is still a source of insecurity, that I have come to find the greatest security. I have become convinced that the very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me; if only because someone so complicated and so prone to confusion and self defeat could hardly survive for long without special mercy.

Instead of Zen Photography, I suggest the pursuit of Paradox Photography. To make meaningful work there seems to be an inevitable encounter with success and failure, joy and despair.

This doesn’t necessarily mean epic drama. To be successful one needn’t die in a blizzard (like Penguin Zehnder) or from pneumonia after walking home in a blizzard (like Snowflake Bentley). One needn’t cut off an ear. But I don’t think successful art can be made without encountering the joy and despair of paradox.

Speaking of joy and despair, while writing this post I started humming the title (Meerkats & Snowflakes & Trappist Photographers) to the tune of My Favorite Things:

Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things

But even in a corny song like this, we can’t be satisfied with pure appreciation. Appreciation is always rooted in sadness. The song ends:

When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad


Snowflake Bentley’s work will be exhibited until December 22nd at Davis & Landale in New York.

For more information on Bentley, go here or here.

There is an exhibition of Thomas Merton’s photos, A Hidden Wholeness: The Zen Photography of Thomas Merton, at Loyola University until January 15, 2007

See a terrific portrait of Thomas Merton by Ralph Eugene Meatyard here

December 15, 2006

Friday Poem

Filed under: poetry,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 12:27 am

After putting the kids to bed I considered writing an essay on the different ways photography resembles poetry. Too much work. Besides, I’d just end up whining about how both so desperately fail at storytelling. I watched TV instead. But while I brushed my teeth I remembered that I needed to come up with a Friday Poem. I decided to use one of my favorites by Lynn Emanuel. While searching for the poem online I came across an interesting interview with Emanuel.

Q: Is there a question I haven’t asked that you would like to be asked?

Emanuel: Yes, I’d like to be asked why I am wary of interviews.

Q: Why are you?

Emanuel: Because interviews can be used like the sentence, “This is the last picture that Van Gogh painted before he killed himself.” Interviews can caption poetry and make poems illustrations of the facts in interviews.

Q: So why did you agree to this interview?

Emanuel: Well, I suppose I console myself with the belief that, even in an interview, a fact can be an act of invention.

It is late. I need to go to bed. I really don’t have time to write an essay on photography and poetry. But if were to write it, I’d probably say that a fact can be an act of invention. I’d say that photography, like poetry, doesn’t provide the pool of narrative, just the diving board. And I’d end my essay with this poem:

The Politics of Narrative: Why I Am A Poet
by Lynn Emanuel

Jill’s a good kid who’s had some tough luck. But that’s
another story. It’s a day when the smell of fish from Tib’s hash
house is so strong you could build a garage on it. We are sit-
ting in Izzy’s where Carl has just built us a couple of solid
highballs. He’s okay, Carl is, if you don’t count his Roamin’
Hands and Rushin’ Fingers. Then again, that should be the
only trouble we have in this life. Anyway, Jill says, “Why
don’t you tell about it? Nobody ever gets the poet’s point of
view.” I don’t know, maybe she’s right. Jill’s just a kid, but
she’s been around; she knows what’s what.

So, I tell Jill, we are at Izzy’s just like now when he
comes in. And the first thing I notice is his hair, which has
been Vitalis-ed into submission. But, honey, it won’t work,
and it gives him a kind of rumpled your-boudoir-or-mine look.
I don’t know why I noticed that before I noticed his face.
Maybe it was just the highballs doing the looking. Anyway,
then I see his face, and I’m telling you–I’m telling Jill–this is
a masterpiece of a face.

But–and this is the god’s own truth–I’m tired of
beauty. Really. I know, given all that happened, this must
sound kind of funny, but it made me tired just to look at him.
That’s how beautiful he was, and how much he spelled T-R-
O-U-B-L-E. So I threw him back. I mean, I didn’t say it, I say
to Jill, with my mouth. But I said it with my eyes and my
shoulders. I said it with my heart. I said, Honey, I’m throwing
you back. And looking back, that was the worst, I mean, the
worst thing–bar none–that I could have done, because it
drew him like horseshit draws flies. I mean, he didn’t walk
over and say, “Hello, girls; hey, you with the dark hair, your
indifference draws me like horseshit draws flies.”

But he said it with his eyes. And then he smiled. And
that smile was a gas station on a dark night. And as wearying
as all the rest of it. I am many things, but dumb isn’t one of
them. And here is where I say to Jill, “I just can’t go on.” I
mean, how we get from the smile into the bedroom, how it all
happens, and what all happens, just bores me. I am a concep-
tual storyteller. In fact, I’m a conceptual liver. I prefer the
cookbook to the actual meal. Feeling bores me. That’s why I
write poetry. In poetry you just give the instructions to the
reader and say, “Reader, you go on from here.” And what I like
about poetry is its readers, because those are giving people. I
mean, those are people you can trust to get the job done. They
pull their own weight. If I had to have someone at my back in
a dark alley, I’d want it to be a poetry reader. They’re not like
some people, who maybe do it right if you tell them, “Put this
foot down, and now put that one in front of the other, button
your coat, wipe your nose.”

So, really, I do it for the readers who work hard and, I
feel, deserve something better than they’re used to getting. I
do it for the working stiff. And I write for people, like myself,
who are just tired of the trickle-down theory where some-
body spends pages and pages on some fat book where every-
thing including the draperies, which happen to be burnt orange,
are described, and, further, are some metaphor for something.
And this whole boggy waste trickles down to the reader in the
form of a little burp of feeling. God, I hate prose. I think the
average reader likes ideas.

“A sentence, unlike a line, is not a station of the cross.” I
said this to the poet Mark Strand. I said, “I could not stand to
write prose; I could not stand to have to write things like ‘the
draperies were burnt orange and the carpet was brown.'” And
he said, “You could do it if that’s all you did, if that was the
beginning and the end of your novel.” So please, don’t ask me
for a little trail of bread crumbs to get from the smile to the
bedroom, and from the bedroom to the death at the end, al-
though you can ask me a lot about death. That’s all I like, the
very beginning and the very end. I haven’t got the stomach for
the rest of it.

I don’t think many people do. But, like me, they’re either
too afraid or too polite to say so. That’s why the movies are
such a disaster. Now there’s a form of popular culture that
doesn’t have a clue. Movies should be five minutes long. You
should go in, see a couple of shots, maybe a room with orange
draperies and a rug. A voice-over would say, “I’m having a
hard time getting Raoul from the hotel room into the eleva-
tor.” And, bang, that’s the end. The lights come on, everybody
walks out full of sympathy because this is a shared experi-
ence. Everybody in that theater knows how hard it is to get
Raoul from the hotel room into the elevator. Everyone has had
to do boring, dogged work. Everyone has lived a life that
seems to inflict every vivid moment the smears, finger-
ings, and pawings of plot and feeling. Everyone has lived un-
der this oppression. In other words, everyone has had to eat
shit–day after day, the endless meals they didn’t want, those
dark, half-gelatinous lakes of gravy that lay on the plate like
an ugly rug and that wrinkled clump of reddish-orange roast
beef that looks like it was dropped onto your plate from a
great height. God what a horror: getting Raoul into the ele-

And that’s why I write poetry. In poetry, you don’t do
that kind of work.

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

Q: What is your sentence

Filed under: career,photographs (mine),the sentence — alecsothblog @ 9:06 pm

In the discussion regarding my recent post on the sentence used to describe an artist, Zoe asked: “Alec, do you have a sentence in mind for yourself?” I don’t. I just have a laundry list of things I don’t want it to be. I’m reminded of a picture I took a long time ago:


This picture won a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair Art Show! It was published in a book. I sold prints. I became worried. The picture is a one-liner. I don’t want to be a one-liner photographer. I don’t want to be ‘that guy that took the picture of the cop and the clown.’

There are a lot of things I don’t want my sentence to be. Unfortunately I don’t have the clarity, or maturity, to say what I do want it to be.

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.

November 6, 2006

Stephen DiRado

Filed under: artists,interviews,the sentence — alecsothblog @ 8:56 pm

Lights Out, Dinner Table Series, Chilmark MA, July 7, 1998 ©Stephen DiRado

Until last week I wasn’t familiar with Stephen DiRado. A couple of folks had mentioned his name in regards to the discussion of underrated photographers. I looked up his website and was bowled over. While I don’t claim to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, it is inconceivable that work of this quality and consistency hadn’t penetrated my consciousness sooner. Had I just spaced out or is Stephen DiRado the most underrated photographer in America? Within fifteen minutes of seeing his website I emailed Stephen in hopes of answering this and other questions regarding his remarkable work. Stephen responded with the same generosity of spirit that you can see in his pictures.

Alec Soth: My first question is about this issue of being underrated. Do you see yourself, your work, as being underappreciated in art and photographic circles?

Stephen DiRado: In my twenties I had the good fortune to show in a number of New England museums and galleries. People in the business of art appreciated my work, added with a few museum acquisitions, all helped gain me access to start new projects. Over the years however my primary concern has been the making of work rather than the marketing of it; this partially due to the manner in which it has evolved into very long term, ongoing, series, and partially due to my kind of obsessive commitment to my practice. From one perspective, I’d acknowledge having fallen off the circuit of what might be described in curatorial terms as “successful”. Thanks however to a few loyal collectors, as well as support from grants and fellowships, and my income from teaching, I have been able to continue producing new work without the constant chasing of gallery shows. In short I have been protective of my work and show infrequently. I will however be having a forthcoming exhibition of my JUMP series this winter at the DeCordova Museum. A project 6 years in the making that I feel with confidence is finished and ready for prime time.

Alec Soth: I’m wondering how much you think about the audience for your work. Is your audience yourself, your friends, Worcester, New England? How much do you care about having a larger audience?

Stephen DiRado: For the longest time I felt I was making photos that were accessible for just about any audience; pride myself that they work on many levels, and yes nation wide. There is something for my art historian friends, and something for my neighbor to identify. Today I’m not sure about that, I’m not sure about anything other than there is this obsession to keep making the photos, and along the way ask myself less questions before making the photo. In other words I’m not caring much about any audience, now I’m making photos for me.

Alec Soth: I’d like to know more about your obsessive practice.

Stephen DiRado: I am so happy when photographing. Making art is like piecing together an endless puzzle. The fun is always getting there. My wife, day one (30 years ago) understood that my projects are my love affairs. …My wife is very special and an angel to understand.

Alec Soth: The portrait on your website shows you with a group of students. I’m guessing that your role as a teacher is a large part of your identity. Can you talk about how teaching has shaped your development as an artist?

Stephen DiRado: I love my students. They keep my practice honest and in many ways they are my teacher. I’m also of proud the fact that they enjoy my practice without finding the need to imitate it. I truly feel if the day comes that I stopped making photographs, I in turn have no business teaching.

Alec Soth: In thinking about different approaches to photography, I often create dichotomies (with grayscales). For example, I think there are ‘book photographers’ and ‘wall photographers.’ While most photographers function in both realms, they have a tendency toward one approach or the other. Where does your approach fall on this spectrum?

Stephen DiRado: I’m very much in agreement with the notion of functioning in both zones. For most of my career I would have to say that I identify myself as a ‘wall photographer’: sticking firmly to the gallery wall as my primary point of contact with the viewer. Since the advent of digital imaging and (stable) printers, despite a continuing and resolute adherence to the 8 x10, silver gelatin, B&W tradition, I have become very interested in small run artists books. These started out simply as a way of explaining my practice to possible portrait subjects; but have now developed into more formal artist’s books which I produce in limited editions and pass onto my collectors. Or in the case of one specific project, Jacob’s House, Photographs 1987-1994, I made a limited edition of 250 books, hand bound. It is photo essay in honor of a deceased friend and primitive artist Jacob Knight. The book is broken down into 4 sections; Portraits of Jacob, images of his yard and house, and finally my still lifes using many items he collected throughout his tenure at this house. This was a love ode to a dear friend and I will never take on such a labor intense project again.

Alec Soth: Another dichotomy I use is ‘travel photographers’ vs. ‘home photographers.’ Clearly your work falls into the latter category. Worcester Magazine said, “”If you had to name only one photographer synonymous with Worcester, it would have to be Stephen DiRado.” Did you know early on that you were a ‘home photographer?” What is your feeling about this distinction?

Stephen DiRado: This is a complex question in my case and not sure I can make a distinction. It is impossible for me to make travel photos. I know, I tried and miserably failed. I come to realize throughout the years that if I’m not part of something then I have no business photographing it. I use my camera as a conduit to connect; to a community, a location or an idea. That can be said for my dual residency on Martha’s Vineyard and Worcester, frequent trips to see my father in a nursing home, and wherever dinners are shared with my community.

Alec Soth: There has been a good deal of discussion on my blog about dealing with the oft-conflicting commitments of photography and family. While I think travel photography exacerbates the problem, it is certainly not limited to travel photographers. Can you tell me a little about your family and how you’ve dealt with this issue?

Stephen DiRado: My family and wife do not know of a time in our history where my camera is not present. Because I work very quietly with the 8×10 and I’m somewhat invisible. I rarely set up shots but instead pause activities ever so briefly to make the photograph. For years I made photos at dinners at the beginning of the meal. Not a good thing, even a slight pause allowed foods the get cold. So now all my photos are made during and after the main course of a dinner. A long term subject and friend said once, “A dinner without participating in a DiRado photo, is a meal not quite complete. The presence of the camera, DiRado focusing under the cloth, a slight motion to direct a subject to the right, or maybe to the left, DiRado rearranging items on the table, film in, slide out, flashbulbs exploding; all affirm another dinner shared by all. ”

In the sad case of my father, residing in an Alzheimer’s unit at a nursing home, the camera is the last connection between the two of us. He recognizes the camera and poses for it. But only on good days.

Alec Soth: As a medium, photography is very limited. Because it is not time-based like literature or film, it is not good at explaining ideas or telling stories. The strength of photography seems to be its ability to be either scientifically precise or lyrically evocative. This is another dichotomy with yet another spectrum. Documentary work, for example, falls on the scientific side while Pictorialism would suggest a more lyrical approach. Part of the appeal of your work seems to be the seamless mixture of both sensibilities. I’m wondering where you see your work on the spectrum between precise documentation and romantic evocation.

Stephen DiRado: To this day elements of my work undoubtedly document the world around me: it’s not possible for example for me to direct the position of the celestial bodies I photograph, despite my decision to photograph them as they pass over the region in which I live. It is true that Bell Pond and Mall are comfortably within the definition of the documentary; portraits, capturing primarily the youth in the 1980s in a Central New England city. JUMP, was designed day one to be about the appearance of an individual’s body (poised or in motion) and expression (void of vanity) during the millisecond before or during a jump off of a bridge into the waters below. Not a documentation in the traditional sense but instead sort of a micro-document of a specific and repeating act.

A part of my narrative in all of my other series are time based. In the case of the nursing home, you can follow my father’s physical decline. My point of view; perspective, focus and choice of lighting are all emotionally charged elements reflecting my personal connections, or disconnections, towards my father throughout this time. Beach People are constructed in a similar fashion but of course resulting in less weighed imagery.

Dinners, the most complex narratives, work on many levels. The cast of characters are my immediate family, my extended and academic family, and people I meet whose appearance interests me in one way or another. Without a doubt this work is time based; styles, foods, aging subjects, changing environments date each image. But that is their only point of contact with any notion of documentary. More than any other project I am playing the role as director. Not only do I watch and react to the events that unfold at each table setting, I’m a participant. If there is one decisive moment (or duration of time) that best expresses the gathering, I will stop all activities to make the photo. I mostly turn towards films, film noir specifically, for inspiration when it comes to lighting. The drama is the easy part, it simply needs to be contained with my frame.

Alec Soth: I have a theory that everyone will say one sentence about an artist. “He’s the guy that photographs Weimaraners.” “She was one of Crewdson’s students at Yale.” “She took disturbing pictures of her children.” Etc. What do you think that one sentence is for you?

Stephen DiRado: Probably, “He’s the guy who photographed people naked.” I know, it is silly. But so many people seem preoccupied by the fact that hundreds and hundreds of people have posed naked for me throughout the years. I would love to be remembered for my dinner series. My hopes are they survive hundreds of years in a museum archive so people can look back at our culture and see how we lived, conversed and ate.

Alec Soth: No matter how many great pictures you take, you’ll probably only be remembered for one or two. If you died tomorrow, which of your images do you think will be remembered?

Stephen DiRado: If you are from Worcester, without a doubt, it is the gallery poster image used for Bell Pond 1983; three kids posing ankle deep in water at dusk. New England wide, more likely the image on the poster for my show at Worcester Art Museum in 1986. It depicts a young woman putting on make up in a mall setting. Both are early works. But I guess first impressions are indelible. Personally, I don’t think I’ve made that one decisive image as of yet. I can only hope.

Worcester Galleria, Venus, Mall Series, Worcester, MA 1986 ©Stephen DiRado

  • see Venus at the Mall 19 years later here
  • visit DiRado’s website here

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