Alec Soth's Archived Blog

August 28, 2007

Why bother?

Filed under: vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 8:08 am

I took my SFAI class to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to see a show by Joachim Schmid. All of Schmid’s work is made with found photography. One of the questions raised by this work is how professional photographers – plagued by self-consciousness – can ever match the visceral power of vernacular photography.

Today I became aware of the fabulous Picture Australia archive. Searching on the topic of ‘new south wales police dept,’ I once again wonder why I bother with photography. It seems unfair that an anonymous police photographer can be as good as Avedon and Arbus:

  • this topic previously discussed here

August 19, 2007

‘Jump the Sandwich’ update

Filed under: goof,jump the sandwich,vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 11:59 am

I’m going to accept Sandwich Jumping assignments for another week. Entries should be posted at by Sunday, August 26th. Soon after I’ll announce the winner. Here is what I’ve seen so far.

photo by Mad_lips

photo by mph.silva

photo by Evephotographer

photo by Petermaxlawrence

This one scares me (I’m not sure I want this contest to be associated with the ‘Bloody Shots‘ pool):

photo by sam_252499

photo by dougphoto_com

photo by whileseated

Whileseated (Michael David Murphy) has the most popular ‘Sandwich Jump’ on Flickr. And while I’m a fan of Michael’s work (go to his website here) and I appreciate the technical prowess of both photographer and model, everything is a bit too perfect. I prefer the disorder of this picture:

photo by adrian1tyler1net

This picture reminds me a lot of Whileseated’s:

photo by LNpom

Again, this kind of virtuosity leaves me cold. But in her comments section, LNpom shows the picture without the post-processing:

photo by LNpom

This picture seemed much more alive. I wrote to LNpom to ask if I could have a full-sized version. In her reply, the French photographer described the challenges of making the picture: “It was not so easy because I did that alone and managing to be “flying” at the time of the flash AND in the frame AND looking at the camera is hard job. I usually don’t dress like that but I had in mind a flying pin up (like the american ones during the 50’s) with a sandwich.”

I also asked LNpom if she could send me a less ‘perfect’ exposure. The picture she sent gets at the spirit of the assignment. The ripples on the wall are a perfect example of Barthe’s idea of punctum. For me they evoke rubber rooms. Combined with LNpom’s pin-up idea, I imagine Marilyn Monroe if she’d been hospitalized before her suicide:

photo by LNpom

August 9, 2007

Stephen Shore responds

Filed under: vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 4:54 pm

Feeling that Stephen Shore’s comments have been blown out of proportion, I emailed him to get his take on things. He promptly replied with the following:

  • Thanks for bringing this posting to my attention and thanks for giving me an opportunity to respond. I was beginning to compose my response when I saw that you posted the full context of my comments. I think that helps clarify my meaning and I appreciate your posting it. That said, my original comment was a glib generalization that was unfair to a collection of images as heterogeneous as that on Flickr.

So enough of the Shore bashing please. If you want to go after someone, go after me. I took a small comment he made in conversation and broadcast it to a large audience to serve my own ends. It isn’t like Shore made these comments in his book on photography. None of us would feel great if all of our generalizations were cut and pasted into the echo chamber of the blogosphere.

One of the things I’ve always treasured about this blog is the thoughtfulness and civility of debate. Mr. Shore’s email goes a long way in reestablishing this quality. I urge you to respond in kind.

Shore, King & Street Fashion

Filed under: vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 10:30 am

I appreciate the flurry of Flickr commentary. I’ve learned a lot. But I’m worried that Stephen Shore has been unfairly criticized. If your read the full context of his comments, he is simply making a case for raw documentation:

There has to be on the web a treasure trove of brilliant untutored pictures. I’d seen the photographs that were made at the time of the London Underground bombing by people with cell phones in the Underground cars. And they have an energy to them, and an immediacy, that was pretty extraordinary. They weren’t structurally fine pictures, but, you know, this is a new world. This is people in a subway car that has just been bombed – they flip out their phones and start taking pictures. This is pretty amazing. So I thought, okay, I’m going to find a lot of great stuff and I went onto Flickr and it was just thousands of pieces of shit. I couldn’t believe it. It is just all conventional. It’s all clichés. It is one visual convention after another. Just this week a friend of mine sent me some pictures he’s been collecting on eBay. And they were fabulous. It is just stuff for sale. The difference is that on eBay the people are not trying to make art. They are just trying to show something. ‘This is what this bottle looked like. It is not silhouetted. I’m not going to do it at sunset. I’m just going to take a picture.’ That is the motive of most photographers – ‘This is something I find interesting in the world and I’m going to make it clear.’

The very anti-elitist Stephen King expressed a similar enthusiasm for raw documentation in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly. While watching The Ellen DeGeneres Show, he was exposed to this YouTube video of a man dancing in Best Buy:

The crazy guy dancing in Best Buy, be he fake or fact, demonstrates the real purpose of these things we write about — to cause a sudden burst of happy emotion, a sudden rush to the head, the feet, and what may be the truest home of joy: a butt that just has to shake its happy self…

It’s easy — maybe too easy — to get caught up in serious discussions of good and bad, or to grade entertainment the way teachers grade school papers. Those discussions have their place, even though we know in our hearts that all such judgments — even of the humble art produced by the pop culture — are purely subjective.

I don’t know if these things are art, and I don’t really care. All I know is that they make me want to laugh and dance in the aisle at Best Buy.

After reading King’s article, I tried to figure out what kind of photography gives me a similar experience. Putting aside the raw vernacular of cell phone cameras and eBay, one of the things I came up with was street fashion photography.

I’ve always liked looking at fashion photography. But as much as I enjoy the lavish productions of Steven Meisel, I’m often more taken with pure street fashion photography. My favorite site for this kind of work, Hel-Looks, specializes in street fashion from Helsinki:

Karita (20) by Hel-Looks

And who can deny the pleasures of the most popular street fashion blog, The Sartorialist:

by The Sartorialist

Both of these websites represent the work of professional photographers. The pictures are uniformly well produced. But what makes them so successful is (1) a lack of artistic pretense and (2) enthusiasm for a specific subject. A quick look at Flickr shows a lot of labored artistry and a lot of generic subjects. As I said in the original post, Shore’s generalization is understandable. But I know I’m grateful for having a couple hundred new ways to look at Flickr. In fact, one of the things I’ve found is a Flickr group devoted to street fashion:

by The Happy Hippie

August 8, 2007

Where are the great pictures on Flickr?

Filed under: vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 12:41 am

“I went on to Flickr and it was just thousands of pieces of shit, and I just couldn’t believe it. And it’s just all conventional, it’s all cliches, it’s just one visual convention after another.” Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore’s reaction to Flickr is understandable. The most popular groups like Catchy Colors (36,091 members) or Reflections (14,350 members) are brutal. I can’t say I even liked Squared Circle (5,188 members).

My guess is that the best photography on Flickr is hard to find. Good photography is rarely popular. I’m reminded of Bill Jay’s essay (pdf) on photographic fame:

I think we can agree that any definition of fame would include such phrases as “popular acclaim,” “known far and wide,” “public estimation and regard,” “household name,” and similar tributes. Now lay back and concentrate. Name an active living artist-photographer who is famous. . . . . . . (The dots represent time passing. Go ahead, think about it for as long as you like.)

Ready now? Good. Who did you come up with? Joel-Peter Witkin. Robert Mapplethorpe. Annie Leibowitz. Sally Mann. Who? Never mind – we have enough names for our purpose.

The next question is: how many people in the USA have heard of any one of these names? As I cannot hear you I will answer the question myself. Probably one thousand at any one time. More? OK, let us up the figure to five thousand although I think that is stretching it.

Here is the first conclusion: in a nation of 260 million even the higher figure does not represent “public acclaim”; it means that the name is recognized by only five persons in a quarter of a million. Now, compare. When a minor television sit-com actress of dubious talent declared her lesbianism she inundated every major news outlet for weeks, including the cover of Time plus seven inside pages, and her coming-out episode was watched by everyone in the universe except me. That is fame.

So forget about fame and membership stats. Tell me, where are the great pictures on Flickr?

August 7, 2007

Founding member

Filed under: photographs (mine),vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 12:19 am

Martin Parr might have 1300 members in his Flickr group, but I’ll always have mom:

Charles, by Roxanne Soth

Charter members

Filed under: photographs (mine),vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 12:18 am

Check out these Niagara motel photos by Scott Jackson, Alana Celii, Kevin Lamb, Irina Souiki, Mario Klingemann and Michael Veit. I wish I’d taken this towel picture by Michael Farley:

Windsor/Detroit Hotel by Michael Precid

August 5, 2007

Where art thou my BumDog?

Filed under: vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 11:34 pm

Because I have a blog, you might think I’m Internet savvy. I’m not. Not only am I clueless about HTML or RSS, I’ve barely spent any time on Flickr and YouTube.

But a couple of monhs ago someone told me about some videos of me on YouTube (here, here, here). This caused me to check out Flickr, where I was amazed to find an entire tour of my studio (here).

For a minute I thought I was hot stuff. Then I learned that there is an entire Flickr fan group devoted to Martin Parr (see the highlights here).

photo by Sirio Magnabosco

The photographer Jim Goldberg recently told me that someone had made a video about his book, Raised by Wolves, on YouTube. The video is made by a homeless man who calls himself BumDog007. He writes about his motivation for making the video:

I was in LA County jail for some offense (I think it was for battery). In the newspaper that they provided the cell, I saw a review of an exhibiton at the LA County Museum of Art called “Raised By Wolves” by a photographer named Jim Goldberg. The whole exhibition was photos of homeless teens living in Hollywood and San Fransisco. I realized imediately that that was the kind of photgraphy I was looking for to make “Like a Rolling Stone”.

When I got out I was living in an alley in Santa Monica. and it just so happened that right across from the parking lot I slept in there was this guy named Andrew, who I always used to say hello to coming in and out of his alley adjacent apartment. One day I struck up a conversation with him, and it turns out he worked on commercials and short art films. I told him the idea I had for “Like A Rolling Stone”, and he said he that he could actually help me realize it.

He in fact had what was known as then as a Ken Burns machine. The device Ken Burns made famous with his documenataries. It created motion with still photography. It costed $10,000 at the time. It really blew my mind that just by coinsidence I would be sleeping in the same alley as a guy who own such rare equipment.

So outta of the library I got a catalog book of the exhibition. and with stickies I marked out all the pictures that went with particular lyrics of the song, and gave it back to Andrew.

And outta of that he created a video of “Like A Rolling Stone”, directed by Bumdog. My first credit as a director. I was so proud. I sent it out to some people thinking maybe I could get some work as a video director with it but it came to naught.

Like a lot of photographer friends, Jim Goldberg and I share a bit of unspoken competitiveness. I’m happy that Jim recently won the HCB award, but I confess to being downright jealous of his homeless admirer. Will somebody out there be my BumDog?

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.

December 14, 2006

Holiday Cheer

Filed under: vernacular & Flickr — alecsothblog @ 4:32 pm

Andrew Cahan has a nice little selection of holiday cards from photographers for sale. I love the spirit of family togetherness that is communicated in Brett Weston’s card:


I also like that the Uelsmann’s used a picture called Apocalyse II to bring in the New Year:


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