Alec Soth at UPenn Friday, April 17th, 2009
After seeing Zoe post about Alec Soth [rhymes with 'both'] being in town and giving a talk , I cleared my already unobstructed schedule and made my way across the way to UPenn's Meyerson Hall. Soth is one badass photog and is a member of the Magnum elite [no, not the Zoolander Magnum]. Soth began his talk by explaining the title: a paralyzed cyclops in the democratic jungle. He broke down the title into two parts. First the "paralyzed cyclops" which is a quote by the British artist David Hockney who once said: Photography is alright, if you don't mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops â€“ for a split second.
Second, the "democratic jungle" is an ode and critique of William Eggleston'sDemocratic Forest, published 1989. Soth talked about Eggleston (the man credited with making color photography a fine art form) and the notion of everything being worthy of being photographed (yes, he also brought up Garry Winogrand, who died with thousands of undeveloped rolls of film). Soth discussed, in depth, his frustration with photography in the few years. The proliferation of digital cameras and the internet results in 4,000,000 images uploaded to flickr every day. He sees so much similarity in single, fragmented photos that he can pick random images and put them on the screen next to ones shot by Eggleston, Richard Prince and others. He specifically noted the 2 billionth flickr upload and how it looks just like an Eggleston photo – just something. But how were all these random images different from those of accepted masters? The rise of the amateur photograph pushing news stories leads to the question of the absolute need for dedicated pros. Soth pointed to two images made by fellow Magnum photog Elliott Erwitt. One was a famous photograph of Richard Nixon shoving his index finger into the chest of Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. The other photo was one shot just a few months ago during Obama's inauguration with the Obamas greeting a sea of peoples' digicams and cellphones. All you see is a sea of bluish LCD screens. Soth asked: Do you really need Elliott Erwitt there?. Further pressing the argument, he presented two more amateur photos. Thetwitpic of the Hudson River plane crash landing by Abu Gharib hooded detainee photos. The photos that report the news first have increasingly been taken by amateurs with their cellphones. It's almost impossible to compete. But instead of competing, Soth spoke of two mediums where the photographic narrative – something fragmented shots don't show – shines: the slideshow and the photo book (preferably without text).
Soth traced back his photographic lineage back to his roots in Minneapolis, MN and college at Sarah Lawrence (right around where I grew up). He pointed to a photo lecture he attended (didn't catch the name of the photographer) where the photographer traveled the country in his car taking photos and during the slideshow, he showed a photo of a landscape of just-turning-to-fall foliage, mountains and a parking lot. In the lot was the photographer's car. Soth realized that he too could just get into his car and drive. So he did. During spring break one year, he drove from Minnesota to Memphis, TN and made some photos. He told of how he used to be scared of taking photos of people right through college. He's obviously gotten over that, but it took time. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, he had a job in a lab which resulted in him being in bars a lot late at night. It was here where he first started taking photographs of people in depth, strangers at that. Those bar photos launched him into his "From Here to There" series where each photo he took connected, admittedly ham-fistedly, to the next. A photograph of a kid with a chicken leading to a guy with an egg who has a Superman tattoo which lead to a photo of a Superman outfit on a hanger. But the leaps were too literal. He switched mediums to color photography and his leaps became larger with more of a story to them, more of the narrative he was seeking. A photograph inside a church in Alabama, the World's Smallest Church, actually. The next photograph in the series took him to Iceland (what is it about Iceland that attracts photographs like a moth to a fire?!) where he photographed another World's Smallest Church [cue laughter]. He started using the internet, the very thing he feels is killing photography to an extent, to find his subjects. A photograph of Sunshine, a lady sprawled on a Memphis bed with blue painted fingernail (about halfway through this set) leads to a man in Israel who photographs fetish fingernails. Soth is intrigued and tries to learn about "fingernail fetish" photography. Which leads him to Kym (10th photo in same series), who had never left Minnesota except for a single trip to Alabama. Kym tells Soth that she took a trip there and took lots of photos, but forgot
her camera in the cab to the airport back home. Soth tells her he'll go to Alabama and retake those photos for her and launches his next series: "Sleeping by the Mississippi" – all this through wandering through free association jumbling. He described his photographer-subject relationship as such: I don't live with these people for weeks to find out who they are. I'm like a bird who circles and circles and then [snap] swoops down to grab a fish… It's kind of crass. He showed a short video of how he frantically uses hand gestures to talk a subject, standing on the side of a snowy highway, to pose for him and his 8×10 view camera complete with dark cloth. He notes that during his fiddling with his equipment, the subject gets to think about other things like what he's going to eat for lunch or if Soth is ever going to actually take a photo. This way, the subject doesn't stress so much about how he looks. I'd argue that the opposite might very well be happening most of the time. Soth was asked about how his travel has affected his family. He summed up by saying, "It's hard" and that it was a constant struggle. He doesn't bring his family along in a car like Robert Frank shows in his final image of The Americas: a shot of his wife and son in the front seat of the car while traveling to Texas. Soth exclaimed "I hate photography and I'm ruining my family. All part of the cheery lecture series!" It was an interesting talk given by a contemporary photographer I was somewhat familiar with, but not to the extent I want to be after hearing him talk. I'm quite interested in his work now. His switch from large format (his begrudgingly "signature" look) to digital. His struggle to find the narrative work giving a set of photographs a true body. He's been up to a few projects recently which have rekindled his faith including a 2.5 week stint in the Republic of Georgia. But he still feels the immense weight of the internet and the digital age loaded on his shoulders. The disconnect from image to image. The constant shutter clapping to nowhere perhaps reinforced by what I'm assuming to be a Penn student clicking away from
about 5' for the entire 1.5h hour talk â€“ that was annoying for us all.
Soth [at right] gladly stayed in the auditorium after the talk to take questions and talk to those who came by. I quickly snapped a few frames for this post. Top photo by Alec Soth from his Dog Days, BogotĂĄ series.