Friday, May 2, 2014

Q & A with Alec Soth

Alec Soth is a photographer based in St. Paul, MN.

BA: You wrote recently on the relationship between popularity and quality. Do you think popularity can tell us anything meaningful about a photo or piece of creative content? If a song is #1, does that mean anything? Or is there a complete disconnect?

AS: I think we can learn a lot from analyzing popularity. Of course it doesn't mean something is "good." But it provides information.

Are there particular photos of yours that are popular which don't especially like? Does the popularity of certain ones over others sometimes puzzle you?

It's a very curious thing. When I finish a project, I have very little sense of (1) what is going to be popular (2) what is going to sell. Incidentally, these aren't exactly the same thing. When I did Sleeping by the Mississippi, I gave away contact prints of Charles (the guy with the airplanes) never thinking it would be popular or sell. The fact that it became my most known image delights me. One curious thing about that picture is that I made about five exposures. I'm pretty certain that if I'd chosen another exposure it wouldn't have been my signature image.

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002, Alec Soth

What does Charles think of that photograph of him?

Somebody did an interview with Charles a few years ago. He seemed vaguely annoyed.

Annoyed to be interviewed?

Annoyed by the fuss around the picture, I think. It's hard to say.

So he has no sense or interest in that photo's popularity?

No, he knows about the popularity. I'm projecting here. I don't really know how he feels. But I do know that this topic makes me a little uncomfortable. I've been asked to put people in touch with him and want to respect his privacy.

Popularity is history in process I think. The photos we'll remember in 50 years will be the ones which are most popular now, especially now with the flood of image out there. I think to get anywhere a photo needs eyeballs. Probably more than, say, 50 years ago.

There are a few really popular images of mine that baffle me.

Which ones?

One is of a French model. She's really pretty. People seem to like that. That is a picture that has sold really well. But I don't have a sense it is generally popular.

And do you like it?

I like it okay. But it is really far from being my favorite.

You used the pop song as metaphor in the Eggleston essay. Which pop songs do you like? Or which music in general?

I was a big fan of pop music in High School. I thought I was really cool because I was into R.E.M. before everyone else… that sort of thing. Then I got more arty. I was into John Zorn. Experimental music. 

Who in the photo world is the photographic equivalent of John Zorn? What about R.E.M.?

Baldessari and Zorn have a lot in common. William Christenberry is  R.E.M.-ish, but maybe that's just the kudzu. 

What's your favorite R.E.M. album?


Kudzu, Photo by Michael Stipe

Then I got older and got lazy. When CDs came in I was annoyed and stopped collecting music. Ever since I've been a less passionate fan. I'm not musically obsessed. However, I'm coming around again. I'm working on a collaboration with a singer (sorry, can't reveal details) and absolutely fascinated by the way music works.

CDs killed your interest? I don't follow.

I was a record collector, and I was annoyed that I had to buy things in a new format. I mean, vinyl is cool again. But back then it definitely wasn't. I didn't want to throw out my albums and buy everything on CDs. I just sort of lost interest. Around the time CDs came it, I was obsessed with photography and put most of my energy in that area.

I wish I hadn't gotten rid of those albums. I had some great stuff.

Bummer. What exactly happened to them? Did you throw them out? Or sell them? I think this connects to comments I've read by you about collecting things and photography being a non-zen activity.

I sold them all at once very cheaply. 

R.E.M. may have cursed themselves by debuting with a landmark album. Murmur became the standard against which their later albums were measured, and even today 30 years later, it's still the favorite of many including you.

You probably see where I'm headed with this. Sleeping By The Mississippi set a very high bar for you coming out of the gate, and created expectations for the rest of your career. Does that burden you? Or effect your current work somehow? Or is the opposite? Maybe you've safely made your mark early, clearing the way for experimentation? How did your early success manifest for you creatively?

I think about this issue, but I don’t think of it as a curse. Years ago I had a conversation with Martin Parr in which he talked about the first book phenomenon...the way a first book is often regarded as a photographer’s most influential work. I came away from that conversation agreeing with Martin. I don’t think there’s any denying that this is often the case. Similarly, as I wrote in a rather controversial post there’s no denying that, statistically speaking, most photographers produce their most influential work between 25-40. That doesn’t mean they produce their best work at that time, just their most influential work. 

Is Murmur R.E.M.’s best album? I have no idea and don’t really care. I love it because it is connected to a time in my youth when I discovered it. That’s true of many of the things I love the most. 

One music memory. A little embarrassing. When I first discovered my passion for art in 10th grade, I remember drawing while listening to The Smiths over and over. It was heaven.

That's not embarrassing. Everyone has a Smiths phase. I might still be in mine. What type of art were you making?

At the time I was drawing and doing collages. In some ways, I think most art making comes from that adolescent place. That is part of what I like about pop speaks to that adolescent part of us.

 That adolescent part of us. That might be code word for some essential part which we outgrow but actually don't. How would you describe your adolescence? Briefly. Don't get too heavy. But what do you recognize in 16 year old Alec that's still around?

I was a good candidate for Smiths fandom...super introverted. But I wasn't rebellious. I still know that person, but a lot has changed.

I think with musical taste, people sometimes take pride in liking outsider music. Being the first to like a certain band like R.E.M. or having a fondness for a band that everyone else hates. It's not just about the music, in other words. It's about the associations. This goes along with adolescent rebellion. I think it's probably true in photographic taste too. But that world is much less circumscribed and ordered. It's more like the Wild West.

Yes. We wear our various cultural tastes the way we wear is a fashion statement. That is what is interesting about popularity. It says a lot about what people want and how they want to project themselves. There was recently a survey of the #1 band in each state. The whole East Coast was Jay Z. At the time, Minnesota was Daft Punk. I think North Dakota was Eminem. Fascinating.

I wonder what one of those surveys would look like for the photographic landscape. Which photographers would be popular in which regions? Ansel Adams in California? Eggleston in Memphis? Who would be popular in Nevada?

Great question about regional photo popularity. 

People are doing great stuff with census data now. I saw a map recently of American counties colored by baseball fanbase. I'd love to see that with photographic taste. Who's popular where.

But here's the thing about popularity — a lot our feelings about that issue are born in childhood and are still expressed in adulthood. I heard the comic Marc Maron recently talking about Facebook... that feeling of waiting for the first "thumbs up." It is so high school-ish. PLEASE LIKE ME!

As far as liking outsider culture, I think there are some roots of that in your own work. Broken Manual of course. And the LBM Dispatches seeking out these little corners away from it all. And your life in general as a sort of art star living in Minnesota deliberately removed from pop culture's heart. In some interview I read you were the only Magnum photographer living between LA and NY. I'm not sure what my question is. But I sense a certain outsider strain in you and your work. 

It's a tricky thing to comment on without sounding douchy. Don't you hate politicians who are always calling themselves outsiders?

They all start as outsiders.

But nonetheless, living in Minnesota is a significant part of my identity. I was recently photographing in Milwaukee with some other Magnum photographers, and I found myself feeling defensive of the Midwest. And it really is true that I've had editors think that Milwaukee, or Montana for that matter, are a short drive away from Minneapolis. All those M places.

Talking about outsider culture, one other Magnum photographer comes to mind. Do you ever talk to Larry Towell about this?

No, I don't talk to Canadians.



Isn't Minnesota in Canada? Joking. But actually that addresses the point. He lives on a farm in Canada. He's out there. Do you ever compare notes?

I see the connection, but I don't talk to Larry about this. The thing is that the photography world that we are a part of is tiny. Jim Brandenburg will always be the most famous photographer in Minnesota...but I bet a lot of your readers don't know who he is.

I don't know Brandenburg. 

He's a good National Geographic photographer. I once did a job in Germany and my assistant was so excited about my being from the same place. Famous for photographing Wolves.

Like Kevin Love? 

What about Thomas Arndt. Isn't he big there?

Yes, he's well respected. He and Wing Young Huie are both highly respected in the street/documentary arena here. Just as David Goldes and Paul Shambroom are highly respected in the fine art arena. But Brandenburg trumps all. 

Photo by Jim Brandenburg

What is interesting about Instagram is that all of these various forms of popularity are present. And what you find is some no-name model from Bulgaria has 500,000 fans and Richard Prince has 10,000.

Are you on Instagram?

Yes. I'm a little hurt that you had to ask.

It's nothing personal. I don't look at any Instagram.

I was super resistant to it. I was even asked by the New York Times to engage with it but turned them down. It felt weird to be a photographer and to use photos in this way. But I've learned a ton. And I'm no longer dismissive of it.

So what do you get out of it? Do you consider your work there to be strong creative content with lasting impact? Or is it more socially geared? Or both?

It is easy to look down on people photographing their food or whatever. But it actually makes sense. Rather than writing a note to her sisters about what she had for lunch, my mom can just post a picture. It is incredibly efficient communication.

That part of it makes a lot of sense. It's a message board thing. But what about the photos themselves, outside that context?

My engagement with Instagram IS a bit different because I am a photographer. So I use the medium to think about the medium. The thing I am best known for are my 'unselfies.' These are self-portraits in which my face is obscured. This all started because, once on Instagram, I had a desire to photograph myself. Why? That was the big question. Why? Well, I said it earlier. I want to post a picture of myself so someone our there will "like me". Annoyed by this desire, I obliterated my face (but still want people to like me, of course).

Unselfie, 2014, Alec Soth

Why not just shoot that type of photo with normal equipment, whatever normal is? 

This is largely an issue of efficiency. Yes, you could use a DSLR. But then you'd have to download the files, process them, email them to your phone and upload them.

Do you ever print them or take them beyond Instagram?

It's an ongoing issue. I have requests for prints, books, even exhibitions. I'm dealing with the fact that I'm terrible about archiving my phone pictures. I don't treat them like my other pictures. Instagram is all about the phone. It is meant to be looked at on the phone. And, for me, it is meant to be made on the phone.

If we look at the daguerrotype era, the physical limits of that photography drove a lot of the content too. You had to be in a studio and sit still, and it worked well for portraits but not other things.

Exactly true. For better and often worse, photography is always linked to technology. So what is happening with the tools and platforms will dramatically shape the medium. I don't think this means one has to participate in that change.

I realize it's sort of a separate language and category. I am wrestling with how it fits into photography in general. It seems so dependent on platform, and I'm more curious about the content. But maybe I'm just coming from an old fashioned place. And a lot of it does seem like that Facebook urge. LIKE ME. So the popularity of certain styles and subjects might drive a lot of the content. And maybe that's fine. I don't know.

Yeah, it is a hard thing to understand without diving in. I didn't. I felt the same way about Twitter. I thought Twitter was the dumbest thing I'd ever heard of until I used it. Now I get it. I don't think it is great art anything, but I understand how it functions. 

I'm a Luddite. Not on Twitter either. But not antagonistic. I just have enough info stream without it.

Facebook is the thing I've always avoided. I have a fan page...because one has to have something, but I don't really engage with it.

Why not Facebook?

When it started, you remember, it was exclusive to the college or university you attended. The last thing I wanted to do was socialize online with those people in an exclusive environment. Then, after the Facebook gates were opened, I found the whole thing so shlocky. The blue interface with all of the ads looks like Walmart. But the nail in the coffin was the process of  "friending." I just couldn't bear to ask "will you be my friend?" I've still never done it. 

Looking for Love, 1996, Alec Soth

I'm on Facebook, but I have Luddite blood. I grew up in a house off the grid without electricity or water. 

Yeah, well you are the guy who insisted we do this interview via chat...some Luddite. I find it all fairly entertaining. I don't feel an obligation to keep up. But I'm happy to sit on my rocking chair, fiddle with phone, and imagine where it is all leading (I don't have a rocking chair).

I think I finally have my finger on my Instagram problem. It seems too self indulgent. It's sort of the apex of people looking inward and putting a bubble around their world. And capturing it. But the end result seems to circle in such a small orbit. Just around that individual. I guess all photos are a bit like that. But Instagram seems to draw us in the wrong direction. And maybe your unselfies are a comment on that.

My unselfies are often read that way. I get emails from people saying that they are glad I'm making fun of self-indulgence. But in fact this isn't my intention. I'm self indulgent. I mean, Jesus, I'm an artist...that is pretty much the definition of self indulgence. My wife is a nurse. She actually trained to take care of other people. That is impressive. If she wants to take a picture of her cat to share with her friends...what is wrong with that? It's like saying a postcard is self-indulgent. Did people used to protest against postcards...'that's not literature...and why are you constantly writing about where you traveled." It is informal communication.

If artists are the definition of self-indulgent, do you have adverse feeling about following that path? Guilt? Or is it all good?

Self-indulgence is embarrassing. If someone asks you what you do and you say "artist", you look like a pretentious ass. Saying you are a photographer at least partly masks the fact that you are a pretentious ass. 

Well said.

Yeah, for me [unselfies] are like taking a picture of myself and then scratching out my face in frustration.

Instagram meets Bellocq.

Ha, yes! Also, you might like my weekly contest: The Hump Day Headscratcher. I post a self-portrait by a photographer every Wednesday and people guess who took it. The face is always obscured (there are a million examples....photographers seem to like doing this).

I can't resist quizzes. I will take a look. Are they famous photos?

No, not famous. And I often crop in to make it more difficult. The first few weeks people got the answers within three minutes, so I really had to dig to find tough ones.

I stopped doing quizzes on my blog because images are so easy to research now. It's hard to come up with mysteries.


Gabriele Lopez photography said...

really interesting and funny interview to read...thanks!

David Simonton said...

An enjoyable and enlightening interview, beginning with the link to Alec's essay on "William Eggleston's Guide," which opens, "When talking about the medium of photography, I often like to speak by analogy." He then compares posting Instagram pictures to mailing postcards, which clarifies the practice considerably. Brilliant!

Soth's admiration of Jim Brandenburg's work is fascinating as well. The latter's "Chased by the Light" features a year's worth of pictures—the year being one in which he limited himself to making a single picture a day.

Soth concludes his essay, "Just about anyone can take a picture as good as Eggleston’s tricycle. But only a handful of people will ever make a book as good as 'Eggleston’s Guide.'"

Brandenburg did so by making one picture at a time—with care, consideration, great patience and respect for the medium. His "Chased" is an(other) enduring classic.

V. Roma said...

Enjoyable and enlightening interview as always. Much appreciated, Blake.

Giovanni said...

Lovely interview!
Not sure about the comparison between Instagram and postcards though...I belong to the "postcards generation" and I see them as a healthy parenthesis of self-indulgence inserted in a much broader and lively context. Being honest, I think of all the postcards I've sent in my life maybe 30-40% were sent out of self-indulgence...but the remaining were absolutely not self-centered, they were a sincere thought about the receiver. I can't help seeing something sick in Instagram and its likes, the indiscriminate flow of sharing as a desperate call for attention to fill that hole that comedian Louis CK has talked so wittily about.

CJ said...

I remember Brandenburg's "one picture a day" story in NG - pretty sure there were no selfies, but I did like the idea.

Lorenzo said...

Very interesting point of view :)
I agree with Giovanni about the fail of "need for attention" in instagram. Check our the last "popular" shots.... terrifing

Gordon said...

Yep. Thanks, Blake. Thanks, Alec.

Unknown said...

Jim Brandenburg is a superlative photographer, not just in Minnesota or the USA but in the world. Perhaps equivalent to Frans Lanning, today's Paul Nicklen, etc. This kind of photography requires knowledge of the external world, physical risk, often excursion-type resources and of course great photography know-how and artistic sensibility. It also involves images that show us something of the natural world that we could never see on our own. It has nothing to do with the MFA world that so dominates what passes for 'fine art photography'.