Saturday, April 27, 2013


A week afterward Alec Soth's lecture last Friday is still reverberating in my head. I'd been told beforehand that he never gives the same talk twice, that he's loose with structure, maybe even approaching ADD in his fondness for wandering. So I wasn't sure what to expect beforehand. Still, I don't think I'ver ever seen a lecture quite like that one. I'm not even sure if lecture is the right word. It was more of a one hour brainstorming session. The only thing missing were chairs pulled into a circle and mugs of herb tea.
Alec Soth lecture therapy (not in Portland), photo by Burn Away 
Soth set the stage with roughly 10 minutes of prepared remarks, but those few minutes were key. He explained that 1) The world is awash in photographs, and 2) He uses narrative to sort it all out. It wasn't a complaint so much as a strategy, one that's helped lay the framework for Sleeping By the Mississippi, Niagara, Broken Manual, the LBM Dispatches, all of his projects really. And it's served as a filter through which he can analyze other photo projects. If they don't follow a narrative he can set them aside. I don't know if that worldview works for everyone, but for him it does. To reinforce the narrative theme, Soth showed a few applications for his upcoming summer camp "Storytelling For Socially Awkward Artists" before opening it up to questions from the audience.

Many people lecture with the aid of a laptop nowadays, but it's usually implemented as a simple slide projector. Image 1, image 2, image 3, etc. Soth expanded this into a sort of meta-slide show. A large screen behind him displayed a continuous view of his computer desktop. We were shown inside folders and programs and given a full and free-ranging view of his thought process as he wondered out loud and looked for various files. It was a bit like a laptop therapy session, fully transparent and almost uncomfortably vulnerable.
Soth's card: Topics for discussion?
Soth loves lists. His former business card is one long list, and I think he uses lists to guide his photo projects, not exactly as checklists but as rough guides. So he opened the lecture with a list. I think it was called Portland Lecture 4/19 or something similar, though I don't remember exactly. There was The Eggleston Question. Robert Adams Vs. Weegee, John Cage and Ping Pong, Looking For Love, etc. There were about 15 items total but I could only write a few down before he was on to something else. Most of them remained unexplored. Each time someone asked a question it would trigger some brainstorm that he'd already considered. A folder on his desktop listed a few hundred of them roughly by topic. And inside each one were the bare bone graphics supporting a small train of thought. We'd watch him dig around through various files until he found the proper one, then launch into a 5 minute presentation. Adams/Weegee triggered one, as did Eggleston. We never got to John Cage and Ping Pong.

For someone so focused on narrative, the lecture came off as something approaching the opposite. It took its structural cue from narrative's enemy, Hyperlinking. That's the form of the web and the trending structure of much creative content. So it felt comfortable as an organizational form. But I'd never seen a lecture organized that way, and in such a relaxed and fluid fashion. If he gave the same talk the next night it might be completely different, just as every web surf has its own unique sequence.

Soth signed books afterward. The surrounding frenzy was more like a celebrity sighting than art talk. The sold out crowd bustled around his small table, jockeying for position, shooting snapshots and acting like the Beatles were in town. I talked to one guy who'd driven 6 hours to see him. I squeezed off a few frames from about 20 feet away, which was as close as I could get. Then I huddled with some friends and descended on a nearby bar where we tried to remember what was on that Portland Lecture list. I messaged Soth the next day to see if he'd send me a copy but never heard back. I guess I'll have to make up my own story about what was on it.

1 comment:

Hernan Zenteno said...

I don't understand well what is the relation of this list and photography. Like a topic themes to relate to images to do a narrative story? It sounds logic the points 1 and 2. I am pretty lost in what follow. Maybe I need to be in some that lecture but by now is impossible.