The more interviews we do, the more I find myself straying from the familiar, from the photography I grew up noticing. Alec Soth is far afield from the portraiture I’ve previously been drawn to, but the skill with which he crafts his photography books is undeniable.
The potency of his work lies in the emotions his books are able to bring out in the viewer, both from the single images and the sum of those images sequenced just so. His work really turned me on to the ability of a photography book to serve as more than just a collection of photos, but as a propulsive tool through which a visual theme can be evoked.
And the guy was just great to chat with. Very open and light-hearted, you’re gonna dig it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
I’m by no means a purist in this way, so I…the way I usually describe it is being like, when you take a family portrait and like “okay, let’s go over here by the tree and then Johnny take off your hat,” you know? It’s like…I work the scene, there are pictures that are completely as they happened, and then there are other things that are more formal, and more set up. I’m not, like, telling people to dance or whatever, but there’s a kind of spectrum of approaches I take towards that and I feel like in personal work, I don’t have rules. It’s different if I’m working for the New York Times or something.
It’s just a different beast and Songbook is a collection of these things, but you know, for example: The bulk of the work was made with this thing, the LBM Dispatch. And the Dispatch was great because it was like doing editorial work but without a boss. So yeah, it was definitely more liberating, for sure.
Yeah, I mean, so much has changed. It’s hard to analyze what’s related to technology and what’s related to me. Because I’m a different photographer than I was 10 years ago. A different person and it’s different equipment. I mean, the funny thing is that I made work that bears quite a resemblance to this (Songbook) before Sleeping By The Mississippi, a book that got published called Looking for Love and so I don’t know, it’s hard to analyze these things, because it’s a mish-mash of different changes.
Like anybody…the people who work at my studio, they’re all photographers, and they all have to come to work for me and then they have to figure out, in their spare time, how to do it and I think that phase is really important, because it’s where most people fall away and maybe they’re doing it for other reasons or it’s too much work or whatever it is, it’s a long slog to find your voice and also to just endure, there’s an element of endurance to the thing that kind of separates you out, after a time. And how did I do it? Just like everybody else, slogging away, trying to find time. I mean the big revelation for me was that I needed to travel, I didn’t know I needed to travel, but I later learned that I thrive on that and I was a bit…my development was stymied because I was staying close to home.
Primarily, I got a grant that enabled me to do that, and it’s an important thing, and I haven’t really talked about arts funding but it’s a significant element. Minnesota has really great arts funding and that seed money just did so much for me and I’m forever grateful to those people, the Knight Foundation, they gave me that first big grant to go out and make work. Because it’s really hard to do it. In retrospect, I could’ve been less conservative and just managed to do it anyway, but I wasn’t thinking that way at the time.
The big trip was a three month trip. It was cut short because of a death in the family but it was about two months, something like that, and that was the biggie. And then more work followed, and more grants followed.
That was really surprising, I was a person who always had to have a job, I was just raised that way or whatever, so the idea of leaving my job, I found really stressful. Exciting, of course, but, like, “can I sustain this?” And I didn’t have a graduate degree, so it’s not like I could just dive into teaching, it was a bit of a gamble, at that point. And that’s actually why I started doing editorial work, it was like a back-up, and yeah, it was nerve-wracking, but really great. But it wasn’t like I suddenly walked into a candy store, that was the good thing about being a bit older, too, I had some maturity, and sort of knew that in order to sustain this I’d have to be responsible and not go off the deep end.
So about halfway through the project…first of all, Songbook came together from a lot of different but related threads, I’d been collaborating with Magnum photographers on one project, of course I’d been working with Brad (Zellar) on Dispatch stuff, and I’d been intentionally doing editorial work that kind of fit along the same lines, so it was about mid-way through the process, I saw how this was taking shape and I knew that a book would come out of the Dispatch work with Brad, eventually. And there was some talk of timing them simultaneously, but there was no way to do it. That’ll happen later, in the future. But I wanted this place for the pictures that was separated from the text and yeah, I knew it halfway through, it was emerging, it wasn’t called Songbook in the beginning, but I knew the themes and the feeling that I wanted and then it just took its course.
Heh…no. Always my struggle with photography is with narrative…you know what I’ve gotten good at…this is like bubbling up for the first time, it’s like…
…Hahahaha…I’ve gotten good at finding an outlet for narrative that’s sort of outside of the work. Like…because I know that inherently photography isn’t very good at narrative but I long for narrative, so I’ve been able to incorporate narrative but outside of the project a little bit. With the early projects I would do it with these footnotes, with Broken Manual there were these filmmakers following me around, with Songbook it’s the Dispatch. And I’ve been able to have the narrative but elsewhere.
As a supplemental! Exactly. Which is good, because it satisfies the need that I have for it, but without making truly narrative work. And I’m still interested in narrative, I’m doing something right now, just a little tiny project that’s incredibly narrative and will be presented in front of an audience, but I like doing those things, but in the end, the most significant work that I do is fundamentally non-narrative.
You know, lyrical, whatever. I make this analogy a lot, between poetry and fiction, it’s more like poetry. There’s elements of narrative in it, and it’s suggestive of a story, but it’s not…there’s no plot. And I’ve always been envious of that, because it’s so powerful to have that. But photography’s just not that great at it.
There are books, I think that Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home is the quintessential narrative photography book, it’s just perfect to me, so I think there are great achievements along those lines, and again it’s another spectrum thing, just like poetry…there’s narrative-ish poetry, and then there’s totally fragmentary experimental poetry and there are times when I want to be more one or the other, and I think there are photographers that are succeeding more one way than the other but total storytelling in the way that you put on a movie where there’s a plot and a resolution, that thing just doesn’t really happen in the same way with photography.
Yeah, exactly, and that’s where the poetry analogy really works, it’s about rhythm and meter and flow and especially beginnings and endings are important. And then finding some rhythm in between and there can be a suggestion of narrative I think, but I’ve never been able to sequence pictures like “this happened, then that happened and that happened,” you know, although, I kind of am doing it in this live slideshow format I’ve been working with, which is kind of something different.
It’s an interesting phenomenon, because I can get frustrated in films when they lack that narrative pulse and that was the interesting thing working with those filmmakers is that they were jealous of me because I was free of all that. And I was jealous of them because they had the power of it.
Interesting…I don’t think I had a natural inclination to it, like; I’m not a storyteller. I’m not sitting around the table telling family stories, I don’t come from storytelling people…
…Hahaha, so I don’t think necessarily, I just think just in the culture at large, it is just the most powerful thing there is and so I’m just aware of its power, I choose not to become a filmmaker and go that route in part because it does seem burdensome to have to do that and to sort of get character from point A to point B just seems tedious to have to do it, and then you have to work with like 20 different people to do it and figure it out and, yeah, I like the act of being a photographer. But I’m sure poets are really jealous, “wow, 500,000 people read that novel and are moved to tears by it, and there are, like, 30 people that read my poetry book, even though I’m a famous poet, and they’re all other poets.” so I think it’s a similar sort of frustration.
Hehehehe…no. I came from the art side of things, totally, so I wanted to be an artist. But I also interned in New York…it just seemed impossible to be a successful artist, so I thought I would pursue it as seriously as I could, and maybe someday something would happen, but I didn’t realistically think I would make a living at it. I fantasized about it, and the context in which I fantasized about it would be that sort of museums and shows and stuff like that, but not Magnum photos, not working as a photographer, lecturing, and all that kind of stuff.
No, I’d be lying if I said that.
Heh, no, I mean, it would sound great and noble, but I was frustrated and I was unhappy with the work that I was doing, because it was low paid in terms of actual day to day life and frustrated that it’s not getting out there and frustrated that I hadn’t really found my voice, all that kind of stuff. And I was, every year I was like, “should I go to graduate school or not go to graduate school?” Those questions, like everybody else, so it was fairly typical in a lot of ways. But what happened, real life started kicking in and just, family issues or whatever, and I could feel myself getting too old to go to graduate school, if I’m gonna have kids, the responsibilities were piling up and then I got lucky! Hahahaha!
I find real joy in the process, it’s not the same kind of joy, I mean I think about that first trip, and that was complete joy, a real innocent joy, but then also I think about the work I did before that, I was really frustrated. And I find moments of great joy, but it’s definitely different now, because there’s an economy that surrounds it. All the people that are dependent on the work, my family, my employees and whatnot, so it’s different, but I still find great joy in it.
Oh the process, yeah, the result is pleasurable, but so fleeting, yeah, it’s the process.
Mmmmm, I usually don’t just go out go out, I need some quality to go for, but I like being surprised, but that was the great thing about The Dispatch, it sort of set up a structure which enabled us to be surprised over and over again. So we were sort of looking for something but were surprised by all sorts of other things and that’s really what photography’s great about doing, surprising you with the reality of the world out there.
No, it ran its course, for lots of reasons, partly because of the economics of things, it started in this sort of DIY way and just got bigger and bigger and required lots of fundraising and all this kind of stuff and by the end it was too big and needy. And that’s kind of a repeating pattern I have, too, with Little Brown Mushroom and other things, where if I feel like it’s becoming too much of a business then I need to put a stake in it.
There’s a danger of losing the creative impulse, so that you’re serving the economy of it, rather than the art of it.
Oh yeah, definitely, I mean, that’s a big part of how I’ve set up my life, is to preserve what’s good about creative work and part of the thing about doing other work is so that I can preserve some of that creativity. So by teaching or lecturing or photo jobs, it’s like, how I keep that other thing pristine.
It’s something I’ve really been working towards, finding my footing in that world. I did this summer camp thing in our studio, it had the elements of a workshop, and it was super-fantastic and life-changing.
For me, yeah. It was all about this slideshow idea that I’ve had, this live storytelling, it was a way to explore that, it was free, which is a really important part of it, and I just thought, wow, there’s tons of energy there, so I took that idea, and with Brad Zeller we taught a class at the university of Wisconsin and it went…okay, but it was within a university context and, suddenly, something was lost in that process. So I realized that was a misstep. So now I’m in the process of…I got this grant, we have to find this matching money, but we get to work with teenagers and it’s taking that same idea again, but trying to keep control of it, do it out of my studio, have it be free for the participants, but definitely outside of the bureaucratic structure of a university.
Bureaucracy just sort of sucked the life out of the creative impulse. It’s like anything else, I don’t really do public art, I did one sort of thing, and it’s like, committees of people with all their opinions and in the case of university, I think there’s tons of great stuff that happens, but I find the, “what’s my grade gonna be?” that whole…all those issues, they’re tedious to me, and it just gets in the way of what I want to do. And there are people that are great teachers that can navigate that stuff and they’re professionals and that’s what they do and I’m not a professional teacher, I don’t want to make that my life’s ambition, but I still want to have an effect on people’s lives, so using the infrastructure I have here, I can carve out a little space to work on that kind of stuff, not make it my life’s work, but do something.
It would be…I’m really not interested in teaching photography, per se. And one of the great things, now, is that it’s so easy, so I’m more interested in…people can use their smartphones or whatever, I’m interested in this element of live storytelling, because that has worked again & again, in fact it worked in the university setting as well, so it falls outside of that structure, I’m interested in pursuing this avenue that hasn’t really been explored anywhere, for me the whole idea is…the photo book is a semi-narrative structure, right? But I’ve always thought, “wow, the slideshow is itself a narrative structure,” the family slide show, you go on a trip, you come back, you show what happened, and it really hasn’t been explored as a creative medium, but I do it over and over again, because I’m asked to, you know, but I don’t use it creatively.
Yet. I’ve been trying to, I’ve been adding creative pieces, and I just see huge potential for it. So that’s what I’ve been working towards and I think teenagers could bring a ton to this, also because they’re so fluid with the tools, so you don’t have to think so much about whether it’s audio or video…
Oh yeah. That’s one of the big changes.
I do marvel at it. Sort of tied into this whole educational thing is that in a week and a half I’m going, I’m spending a week with my old high school teacher and his students and it’s really amazing to think about where I was in high school and where I am now, and how different that is. And, you know, I couldn’t raise my hand in school; I was so shy, so yeah, it’s wild.
Yeah, definitely. I think I always wanted that, this high school teacher I owe Everything to, and I thought, yeah, I want to do that for someone, and I dabbled in teaching early on, and I just wasn’t ready for it, personality-wise, and also experience-wise. I think I have more experience now, more I can bring to the table, and…yeah, that’s definitely where I’m at, but it’s so big, that territory, like anything, you start getting interested and you realize how vast it is and that you have to find your way through it.
It’s definitely not teaching, like, “here’s the list of things I’m going to give to you”, it’s more like helping people find their own voice. It’s really, it’s not about “okay, here’s how you become a professional photographer” it’s like, rather, it would be like, “wow, there’re so many ways to be creative with the way you live your life” and sort of opening up the possibilities of that. It’s interesting, my daughter is 12, and she recently said she wants to go into “business”, hahahahaha!
She’s traveled the world, she’s seen all these things, had all these creative opportunities, and she wants to go into business? And I’ve been talking to her about that and then she’s like, “what is business anyway?” She didn’t even know what she was talking about. And we ended up talking because she actually got a tour of the New York Times from the photo editor there and I was like, “you could work in that arena,” there’re so many possibilities, kind of what I was saying, when I was younger and not understanding the need to travel. Just open up other avenues of how to be creative in your life, is what I’m most interested in.
No. That’s the kind of thing you can’t…there’s an element where it’s just time, that’s just time. I think it’s true in any medium, so that if you’re a musician, you just have to practice for 10 years or whatever it is. So no, I don’t think you can teach that. But you can sort of…I just think it’s opening doors. And then “go down this avenue,” and then maybe you find your eyes. But again, I’m not so interested in photography, specifically, in that way.
It’s a good one! Although, in reality it’s not so functional because when you go out to do it, it doesn’t look like that, and you’re confronted with the reality of the situation.
Yeah, hahahaha, exactly. I mean, I like that dynamic, to me, introspection, deep introspection, and then going out in the world to face the realities of the world out there, and that kind of tension.
Yeah, I definitely imagine that’s the case. And in the case of photography…at least, if you’re not doing staged photography, it just doesn’t look like that! Everything’s always different, the light is always different, yeah. But sometimes, better. You just have to be open for it.
Hahahahaha…not so much. No. But there are more stagy things, more constructed things that I’m interested in, but not to that level. Then I’d just make a movie!
It’s a funny…I mean, I know how he came to that line, but what’s really staggering about that article, and one other one that was published around the same time in the UK, were the headlines. And I know the writer doesn’t write the headlines, generally, and they were like, “DEATH IN THE AMERICAN COMMUNITY” or something like that, wow, that is not what I was saying at all. But what’s fascinating is that both of those came from the UK, and it did feel markedly different, and there is darkness, for sure, but it’s not like, I don’t think it’s that bleak, really, but I’m fascinated by those different responses, those different readings, and that’s happened over & over again with my work. And then my own take which tends to be, yeah, really different from everyone else’s.
It’s much more optimistic. But then, I like sad & lonely things. I thought Sleeping by the Mississippi was really joyous in its own way, somber also, and I had the same feeling with Songbook. Niagara, I think, was officially dark, it did go down a dark path. And Broken Manuals was pretty dark, as well.
Yeah, there’s that, and there’s comedy in all the work, it’s just not always obvious. A lot of that’s my doing, I could change the tone to be more celebratory or what have you, and it’s my taste, I tend to like things that are on the darker side of the spectrum. So I understand when people don’t pick up on it the same way, but it’s curious.
Yeah. But that’s one of the treats of having work go out and have an actual audience is that you get these different reactions. And sometimes I definitely disagree with them.
I mean that’s…you could take it on many different fronts, with Sleeping by the Mississippi, I’m just fascinated by prison life, by prison culture. The show Oz, there’s nothing more terrifying to me than prison. So…I’m not a prisoner, I’m likely not going to prison, I’m just curious about that world. And you could say in a similar way, I’m not on Tinder…
…Hahahhaha, but when a colleague of mine pulls out the Tinder app, I’m really curious about what’s going on, there. So photography is a great vehicle to explore your curiosity.
Yeah…because in a way, it’s more nuanced, I know more interesting things to look for, it was kind of generalized curiosity…it was like, Prison was something I was curious about. Now it’s more specific curiosity.
Hehehe, yeah, I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever do a prison project, because that is a fascination for me, I’m just so horrified by it.
Yeah, definitely. That’s the whole thing for me. I’ve never been obsessed with the single image, I’ve always been obsessed with a great book. That’s fundamentally what I want to do, and I’m trying more and more to make really good shows, but that’s not my primary motivation either, because they don’t last, but the book kind of lasts. But it’s a real balancing act, because it still requires those moments, those great pictures. But finding a rhythm throughout it…yeah, I always say, “a monkey can take a great picture,” it’s easy. But a book, a great book, is a real achievement.
Yeah yeah! That’s the photographer thing!
Huh…that’s interesting, because I’m asked a lot about music when I’m out driving, which is not, curiously, it’s not a big part of my life in that way, but for actual editing…maybe it does come into play…I shouldn’t say this, but…I use alcohol, sometimes, in editing, to relax and, you know, it’s kind of a rare moment for me, the shooting’s done, and trying to get into this flow, and I think music…but I think alcohol more than music, which is a weird thing to tell you!
Sometimes a little heroin!
Yeah, because the editing process, you kind of have to let go of the backstories and things like that, that’s the great struggle, knowing the picture has all this other meaning, but here, okay, you’re gonna let go of that, and then it’s, “does it feel right in the sequence?” and getting that feeling is like dancing or something, you have to be in the moment. What you’re saying about music, it’s like why people drink at the night club, so you can relax and dance…(Alec Soth, via video Skype, does a classic White Man Dancing routine in his chair) yeah, that’s my editing process, white man dancing!
In the editing process, not necessarily, no…actually…no. It is a bit project-dependent. But, curiously, for Songbook it wasn’t the music I was referencing, it’s more like, I went through a big Lucinda Williams phase, it’s not one to one, though.