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).