Artist Study – Alec Soth

Alec Soth (b. 1969) is a photographer born and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has published over twenty-five books including Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), NIAGARA (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2015). Soth has had over fifty solo exhibitions including survey shows organized by Jeu de Paume in Paris (2008), the Walker Art Center in Minnesota (2010) and Media Space in London (2015). Soth has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship (2013). In 2008, Soth created Little Brown Mushroom, a multi-media enterprise focused on visual storytelling. Soth is represented by Sean Kelly in New York, Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, and is a member of Magnum Photos.

Hi most recent solo exhibitions were in Douglas Hyde Gallery (Dublin, Ireland) 2016 and
Scotiabank CONTACT (Toronto, Canada) 2016 with an upcoming one in FotoMuseum (Antwerp, Belgium) 2017. His most recent press review was in April 2012 by Decter, Joshua for the Sean Kelly Gallery. Soth is also a visiting artist lecture in 46 venues across America and Europe.

Customers waiting for Walmart to open on a Sunday afternoon. Williston, ND
Walmart. Williston, North Dakota, Songbook, Alec Soth, 

Alec Soth who was notorious for his more isolated portraits has recently turned his lens toward community life in the country. To aid his research, Soth assumed the increasingly obsolescent role of community newspaper reporter. From 2012-2014, Soth travelled state by state while working on his self-published newspaper, The LBM Dispatch. Whilst doing this, he was on assignment for the New York Times. From upstate New York to Silicon Valley, Soth attended hundreds of meetings, dances, festivals and communal gatherings in search of human interaction in an era of virtual social networks.

With Songbook, Soth has stripped these pictures of their ‘news context’ in order to highlight the longing for connection. Fragmentary, funny and sad, Songbook is a lyrical depiction of the tension between American individualism and the desire to be united. I find this a very inspirational project. I was unsure what I was looking at when I saw the exhibition last year and after an internship at Magnum, I feel my understanding of this project has deeply improved. My project is long term and of a personal nature which is why I will be looking at Songbook, in my last artist study.

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Facebook. Menlo Park, California, Songbook, Alec Soth, 

Below are my 3 key images for visual analysis.

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Execution. Huntsville Prison. Huntsville. Texas. Songbook, Alec Soth

Image 1

  • This is a brilliant image.
  • The lighting in this image is even – it was taken at night time, though the light reaches the subjects closer to the photographer (left hand side of the image).
  • The main focal point is the line of men in uniforms. The whole picture in focus allows the reader to picture the next parts of the story or even what happened before. Moreso, than a picture of an electric chair or a noose would.
  • The light in this image appears to be artificial  – flashgun or continuous lighting. The light enhances the message this photograph is sending.
  • This is a typical image by the photographer and lends itself heavily to his fine art approach to narrative photography.
  • I think it is a successful image with the viewer allowed to engage in the photograph to piece together a story from what is happening.
  • The composition of this image is quite interesting – an off centre rule of thirds approach combined with leading lines (the men and the cables above their heads) has been taken. Without the light illuminating the left hand side, the message of this image would not be as strong.
  • In addition, the whole image in focus with the foreground and background being filled adds to the narrative. These composition choices appear to be intentional.
  • This image tells a story, the story is strong as a series and on its own.
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The Key Hotel. Kissimmee, Florida, Songbook, Alec Soth

Image 2

  • This is one of my favourite images.
  • The lighting in this image is quite beautiful – possibly taken at sunset. The lighting draws attention to the top of this building and slowly the eyes fall to absorb what is happening in the picture.
  • The main focal point is the clouded skyline. The whole picture (the details of the building and parking lot) plus the woman going into the hotel, form part of this urban environment and this is justification for not blurring out the background or getting closer.
  • The light in this image appears to be natural – coming straight from the sky. The light enhances the message this photograph is sending.
  • This is a typical image by the photographer and lends itself heavily to his fine art approach to narrative photography.
  • I think it is a successful image with the subject matter insinuated cleverly – the theme of loneliness and vast surroundings – in nature and in the town/places in it.
  • The composition of this image is quite interesting – an off centre and slightly cropped. Without the skyline, or lady in the photograph, the message of this image would not be as strong.
  • In addition, the whole image in focus with the foreground and background being filled adds to the narrative. These composition choices appear to be intentional.
  • This image tells a story, the story is strong as a series and on its own.
Off Highway 23, ND (Williston Basin)
Near Williston. North Dakota. Songbook, Alec Soth

Image 3

  • This is my favourite image.
  • The lighting in this image is quite beautiful and idyllic. It frames the house more interestingly than an evenly lit photography would. The subject matter is clear by the emotion it connotes – loneliness.
  • The main focal point is the house. The whole picture (the details of the grass, skyline and the land around) form part of this country environment and this is justification for not blurring out the background.
  • The light in this image appears to be natural – coming straight from the sky. The light enhances the message this photograph is sending.
  • This is a typical image by the photographer and lends itself heavily to his fine art approach to narrative photography.
  • I think it is a successful image with the subject matter clearly indicated not by what is in the image but by the feeling it evokes. Getting closer, further away or changing perspectives would have utterly altered the image and its meaning.
  • The composition of this image is quite interesting – an off centre rule of thirds approach has been taken. Without the light illuminating the building, the message of this image would not be as strong.
  • In addition, the whole image in focus with the foreground and background being filled adds to the narrative. These composition choices appear to be intentional.
  • This image tells a story, the story is strong as a series and on its own.
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Brian. Williston. North Dakota, Songbird, Alec Soth

Artist materials and processes

Soth is quite a ‘slow’ car photographer. He uses large format cameras like Wista and sets up in spaces he feels curious about. He fits his personal work around his commissioned work and this gives him the freedom and flexibility to explore. In a Vimeo interview, he says “the great thing about photography is what it can communicate when you let it”. All he does is set up the parameters in which he will operate. He will go to a place he is curious about, go an knock on a door he wants to know what is going on behind and that, he says is when the rewards start to come.

He left the photography style quite open, there are close portraits where he considers spatial awareness between the subjects and then there are photographic ‘miracles’ like the picture with Jesus in the skyline or establishing photographs where the distance matters a bit more. When the images are placed together in a gallery, there is something for everyone to take away from it – the more alone pictures related to human instinct or the contextualised portraits (oil worker).

Key elements taken for my own practise

As a result of looking at Songbird, I will:

  • Become a bit more creative in my photography practise. I will not worry about the type of materials I am using or how I photograph things to the point of obsession. I will allow my curiosity and instinct to guide my documentary photography.
  • Consider how else I can communicate in photography – leaving the story wide open and at other times quite closed, say things by how the photographs make people feel as opposed to focusing more on visual arrangements?
  • Consider which other publications – besides a book, can used to present the story of the people and communities represented and initiate a positive change

info (no date) Songbook (First edition. First printing) by Alec Soth. Available at: http://mackbooks.co.uk/books/1057-songbook.html (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Gallery, F. (2016) Alec Soth: Songbook. Available at: https://vimeo.com/120211809 (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Soth, A. and LensCulture (no date) Songbook – photographs by Alec Soth. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/alec-soth-songbook (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Written and Davies, L. (2015) Alec Soth – songbook. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/03/alec-soth-songbook/ (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Testing Images

(reposted from a different section of my blog from over a month ago)

This is probably one of the the hardest aspects for me. I am not sure if others can relate or if this is a personal thing. So, I went out with my camera and took some photographs on location. I did not ‘chimp‘ and changed lenses a couple times (f/1.8, 50mm and f/5.6-6.3 50-250mm). I left the images for 2 weeks (yes 2 weeks) before I even looked at them on my computer. In that time I did extra research on other artists, photographs and some paintings (see my blog for relevant Artist Studies to follow).

When I did upload the images to my computer, I followed the process of proofing in Bridge then exporting to Photoshop etc. I work in BOTH digital and analogue but I am on a limited budget this year. I’ve been working with analogue material for almost 5 years now and this gives me a pretty good idea of the image aesthetics I am after. I followed a series of editing processes in Photoshop to get my digital work to resemble my film work.

Test series image
A test series image, Gabrielle Guy, 2016

One of my most striking images was similar to the one above but I had to reject it from the series – yes reject, and here is the reason why. No matter how striking the image was on its own, it is ultimately part of a series. When I was viewing it, it was ticking the boxes – a finished look, good composition, good tonal range and good exposure but it didn’t have the same message as a slightly similar image to it, nor did it speak the same visual language when it was grouped with other images from the series (click here for the Project post on arranging images in space). Editing your work is a brutal process but for every image you ‘reject’ your work becomes more refined and your thought process clearer. Ultimately, so does the message you want your photographs to tell.

Personal Photography Briefs decoded

When coming up with photographic ideas a personal photography brief is always a good starting point. It helps you describe your ideas/how you want your images to look before you have taken them. It can serve as a reminder for what you are doing, how you want to do it and sometimes, why. Once the shoot is over, you can reflect on this document to see what you followed or didn’t follow and why. It helps in your evaluation, and you find yourself growing a lot faster a photographer. Once you move forward from the previous project you become more intentional with how you work.

Sections to break your photography brief into:

  1. Aims & Objectives – what are you doing/going to do and why?
  2. Location – where are you shooting, why? Include sample images here.
  3. Equipment – list here
  4. Influence – who are your key influences and why, what are you taking from their work and injecting into yours? Include every element and use visual language. Include key images here to demonstrate what you wish to achieve.
  5. Light – how should it look in your images, mood and atmosphere you wish to create? How will you achieve it?
  6. Lighting diagram – use it to show your setup and consider your subject and location. Include any good test shots you have here.
  7. Look and feel – how would you describe your images in words – use descriptive vocabulary.
  8. Genre – what genre are you working in – how will this affect the way your work looks visually?
  9. Audience – where do you want your work to end up? Who will view it and how will you make money from this work? Will this affect how you complete your project and the decisions you make?

You don’t have to write paragraphs for any of these sections. aim to answer in bullet points. This will help you absorb what you are doing faster and make planning the consequent shoots/projects easier. I’ve included my example brief in another post.

Research & Development – Alec Soth

USA. Vasa, Minnesota. 2002. Charles
USA. Vasa, Minnesota. 2002. Charles
I fell in love with the process of taking pictures, with wandering around finding things. To me it feels like a kind of performance. The picture is a document of that performance. ”

 

Alec Soth b.1969 is a Magnum Photographer whose distinct style is documenting performance photography. When I first saw his images I felt like I was ‘waiting for the next scene’ almost like watching a movie. When I did some research into his photographic style the reason became clearer.

He photographs large geographical territories (Mid-West USA) with various subgenres – nature, people etc but has a way of making the process seem like an adventure and the photograph becomes the document. His photograph reminds me of childhood movies like Huckleberry Finn and bear a feel reminiscent of that story. He currently has a brilliant exhibition at the New Media Space, Science Museum – Gathered Leaves (review soon to follow) and was featured in the British Journal of Photography October 2015.

Below are some of his images I found interesting as well as a personal reflection.

Reflection:

I will be considering his technique of capturing a still and making it appear ‘as a scene/living picture’ in my personal practice. Sometimes a photographer is unable to translate a sense of movement without obvious tools such as shutter speed simply because one frame does not always tell the whole story. Instead of using this point of view I will consider how my ‘one shot’/series can tell the most exciting part of the story.

Another iconic thing that Soth has done is find the most ironic juxtapositions/locations for the relevant portraits [see above the Palm Sunday photography]. Whilst street photography should not be directed as such – locations and subjects will be carefully considered in my framing.

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