Olga Bubich managed to get in touch with the renowned master and story-teller and address him a few questions about his vision of contemporary photography
It is not by chance that Alec Soth is considered to be one of the most “atypical” «MAGNUM» photographers. His creative works combine the paradoxical beauty and poverty, the folklore of the American countryside and nostalgic tenderness towards «one-storeyed America». The stories of «loners and dreamers», accidental characters of Soth’s, attract us due to their naïve simplicity, but it is this very chemistry which does work even for the most skeptical viewer. Alec is both simple, open and laconic when speaking about photography – actually he is famous for comparing his approach to it with a bird’s “swooping in and grabbing the fish”.
Alec Soth is the author of a number of photobooks published by serious publishers and with his native «Little Brown Mushroom». Today his photographs can be found in large public and private collections, among which the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Walker Art Center.
Olga Bubich finally got lucky and managed to get in touch with the renowned master and story-teller and address him a few questions about his vision of contemporary photography. Other topics for discussion have been freedom and determination of the viewers’ interpretations of photography, the link between texts and images, books, wall and paradoxes.
Bleek Magazine: I would like to start with a question about your “From Here to There” method of connecting pictures. When building this chain of “leaps” from one image to another what serves most often as a linking association for you?
Alec Soth: When I started working in this way, I was quite literal about the process. I would use some detail in the picture (an image on a T-shirt, an object in the background) to link to the next image. But this was too much of a gimmick. Later I loosened up and made free associations. The process is a little bit like day dreaming. I like to take the reality of the world and use it as a springboard for the imagination.
Bleek Magazine: As I get it from your projects, the underlying association can be very subjective and unclear, thus not always obvious for the viewer. How can the photographer keep the balance between not being too obvious, on the one hand, and not becoming too vague and blurred, on the other? Or, basically, this fact should not bother the photographer at all, leaving the process of “decoding” of the images exclusively for the viewer?
Alec Soth: This issue is of concern for me. I do not want to make pictures just for myself. I want to communicate. But in the end, I do not think there is a fixed answer. I think of myself as working on a spectrum. On one end I do very personal, introspective and free-associate work. On the other I do more serious, formal documentary work. I tend to move up and down this spectrum. But my best work, I think, is usually somewhere in the middle.
Bleek Magazine: In your talk with George Slade at “Walker Art Center” in 2010 you said that “photography is very much about allowing viewers to fill in the gaps”. Does it matter to you what the viewers would fill in these gaps with? Should the photographer care at all about his “message” being read the way (s)he had intended?
Alec Soth: Usually I try not to become overly concerned with how viewers fill in the gaps. If I present a portrait of a person, a big part of the meaning of that portrait is created by the viewer. That said, this kind of subjectivity is a bit ethically problematic. The subject of the portrait, after all, is a real person. So she might feel exploited by functioning as a blank slate for an audience’s projections. These issues do concern me, but in the end, it is this openness that I crave in art.
Bleek Magazine: What definition can you give to “seeing” at all when it comes to contemporary photography? Is it the act of mind or of emotions? Is it about rational looking for clues in the photo stream presented? Or is it more about feeling and letting your associations and visual experience get “tuned” with those of the photographer?
Alec Soth: There is simply too much variety in contemporary photography to give a blanket answer. But if we are talking about seeing, what are we really talking about? The image a person actually sees when looking at the world is upside down. The brain then flips the image much like the mirror of a camera. In other words, the brain actively processes the image and thereby changes it. Seeing and thinking are forever linked. Emotions and thinking are also linked of course. This is big tangle of wiring which I am in no position to untangle.
Bleek Magazine: These questions also bring us to your dilemma of “whether to tell the tale” – again mentioned by you in the talk with George Slade. You said that the extent to which the “tale” is presented within an exhibition and a book are quite different. Which format would you sincerely prefer now? Why?
Alec Soth: The appeal of photography is the way it can function well in so many platforms. I do not only work in books and exhibitions. I also do work online, in magazines and create live slideshows. This is all a part of my practice.
The thing I like about books is their longevity. But then the images in books can lack the power of a large print, the spontaneity of a live presentation or the accessibility of magazines and the web. While it is true that I tend to think in terms of the book first, I try to consider all of the various forms of distribution.
“Little Brown Mushroom” was definitely not created out of frustration with my publishers. I have huge admiration for what they do and continue to do my serious books with serious publishers. The reason I created “LBM” was to create a place to collaborate and play on a small scale. Now, in fact, I am no longer using it for publishing. Instead I am using “LBM” as a place to play with live events and educational activities.
Bleek Magazine: In your artist talks you say that when working at “Niagara” project you felt that your photography lacked voices so you started to introduce texts in it (by means of collecting love letters and presenting them as a part of the series). How can you comment on the growing popularity of the role the text plays in contemporary photography? Maybe you might give a few examples of photoprojects where you believe the ratio and relations between the visual and the textual components to be rather successful and intricate?
Alec Soth: Historically text has always played a huge role in photography. If you look at the various books being published on the history of the photobooks, you will see countless examples where text is essential to artistic success of the book. But as photography began to find its foothold in the art world, a sort of anti-text sentiment developed. There seemed to be an embarrassment of photography’s link with commercial publishing and an emerging belief in the purity of the image.
I love the pure image, but I also love what happens when images are shaped by their relationship to text. As with the book/wall issue, I don’t think it is an either/or proposition. For several years I collaborated with a writer and published seven issues of “The LBM Dispatch”. But then I took many of these same pictures and published and exhibited them without text. This is not any different than Walker Evans.
There are countless examples of the success of using text. But I am particularly fond of the publications of Jason Fulford and his press “J&L”. One of my all time favorite books is “Stuff I Gotta Remember Not To Forget” by Darin Mickey (J&L). The text is subtle but perfect.
Bleek Magazine: It is extremely interesting how the text and the image play together in your book “The Loneliest Man in Missouri”, the poem by T.S.Eliot put into an unexpected context of being read to a stripper by that very “loneliest man” creates very sad paradoxical environment of routine absurdities we somehow got used to.
Borrowing the metaphor of an image seen as a text, how would you define your way in photography? Can it be compared with a sort of Joyce’s steam of consciousness? A surrealistic poem by Arthur Rimbaud’s? Or an endless hunt on Moby Dick?
Alec Soth: Photography can be compared to literature, sure. I usually compare photography to poetry rather than the novel. But this comparison only works up to a point. Keep in mind that I more often compare photography to fishing. But in the end, photography is not Moby Dick or fishing. Photography is a unique pursuit with its own mix of variables.
© Bleek Magazine. Interviewer: Olga Bubich.