main picture© Alec Soth Courtesy of Sean Kelly, New York
Like his photographs, Alec Soth is soft, unpretentious and endowed with extraordinary sensitivity and depth. He forges his own path bearing witness to his subjects without disrupting the scene as it unfolds. Very in tune with the moment, he sees invisible connections across time and space that allow us to understand who we are as a people and as individuals.
Combining verse and light, Soth creates sonnets, elegies, and odes to American life that engage both intuition and imagination. In 2018, Soth embarked on a journey following the route of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train from Washington DC to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, as a way to mourn the schism that tore this country in two – just as he did. did 160 years ago during the Civil War.
In 1865 the poet Walt Whitman stood along this same road and composed the elegy, When the lilacs last in the Bloom’d door yard. After realizing the need to broaden his scope, Soth was inspired by Whitman song of the open road and took a stream-of-consciousness approach to doing work, literally throwing a dart at a map to see where it would lead next. Over the next three years, Soth traveled the country, using his camera as a way to engage with the people and the landscape.
The result is A picture book, a monograph of Mac Books and exhibitions with simultaneous performances at Sean Kelly At New York, Weinstein Hammons in Minneapolis and Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco. The title was inspired by a Los Angeles salesman who sold photographs “by the pound”, a notion that resonated with Soth. “How much does a photograph weigh?” he writes in the book. “Nowadays, that question seems as absurd as measuring sunlight on a bathroom scale. But for those of us who have made light recording a life, there is mass to accumulate. Negatives, contact sheets, enlargements, books – a ton of thoughts.
A picture book is a window both to our world and to the Soth process itself. In each photograph, there is what we see and what is hidden underneath. In the same way, Soth answers our 50 questions with consideration, sincerity and just the right amount of playfulness.
1. What is the first work of art you have ever created?
I made a handmade book for my cousin when I was a little boy and I was so proud of it.
2. Where do you go for inspiration?
I try to enter. I close my eyes and sometimes imagine that I have a secret museum of my mind. I try to imagine going there and seeing what I see.
3. Where will you create?
I’m a homebody and an introvert, but for whatever reason I have to get out into the world to create.
4. What’s the happiest accident you’ve had while making art?
I shoot on film and you can accidentally double expose the film. Normally it’s a disaster but I had one that was magical and became one of the signature photos of my last project, I know how your heart beats furiously.
5. When did you feel successful?
When I received copies of Sleep on the banks of the Mississippi, the first book I published, because it was a tangible physical thing.
6. Who is your favorite poet?
William Carlos Williams.
7. Where do you go to renew your spirit?
8. What is your favorite time of day or night?
Early in the morning when it’s still quiet.
9. What is your favorite trip?
Always a road trip, always in a minivan, and I still love going along the Mississippi River even if I don’t work.
10. What music do you listen to during your road trip?
Very early on I discovered Low, a band from Minnesota, and recently they released a new album so I’m listening to them again.
11. What is your favorite meal at a rest stop or local restaurant?
It’s funny. While you’re talking, my daughter hands me a burger and fries, which isn’t my favorite dish. It’s an egg salad sandwich.
12. What is your favorite American tourist destination?
Graceland. I’ve been to Memphis so many times but didn’t because I was a snob against it – and then I loved it. It’s actually quite modest.
13. What is the most surreal city you have ever visited in the United States?
Nome, Alaska, in the summer. It is light all day.
14. What is the best discovery you have ever made while walking?
In a second-hand bookstore, I found a legitimately signed Andy Warhol book. It’s a metallic pop-up book and it’s super rare.
15. What is your favorite thing about Minneapolis?
I can live there quite anonymously. It’s very comfortable.
Where do you go to renew your spirit? “My library”
16. If we came to Minneapolis, where should we go?
All my go-tos have been demolished. It’s really painful. But yes, our most famous nightclub: First Avenue.
17. What’s the vibe like in Minneapolis these days?
It’s still quite unstable. It was terribly tumultuous.
18. What brings people together?
I’m in New York right now and just waiting in line for a Covid test. It was really cold outside and there was solidarity between us. It’s a shitty situation, but we’re all in the same boat.
19. How does photography help you overcome feelings of separation?
It forces me to engage with the world and it’s an excuse to wander into people’s lives, which allows me to connect with people.
20. What’s the last thing you took a picture of?
On Saturday there were a million pigeons in a parking lot. This man was feeding them and somehow buckets came out to feed them.
21. What makes a good photo?
About anything really special, there is no formula.
22. What is the last exhibition you went to?
Contemporary prints: 20 years at Highpoint editions at the Minneapolis Art Institute.
23. What do you collect?
I collect photo books of all kinds. One area of specialization is that of children’s books illustrated with photographs. I also collect vernacular ping pong photography – I think I have the definitive American collection.
24. What is your most prized possession?
I don’t collect much art but I have a more modern impression of August Sanders Three young farmers it is a precious good.
25. What is your favorite thing about the art/photography world?
I can make a living this crazy way. There is actually a structure that I can survive financially doing what I do.
26. What is your least favorite thing about art/photography?
Pairing creativity with commerce and keeping those two aligned – so the best thing about the art world is also the hardest thing.
27. What art jargon do you find most offensive?
I’m not really offended. I’m pretty easy going.
28. Which artist had the most impact on you?
John Cage. I discovered it as a teenager and I can continually continue to discover it.
29. Which work of art had the most impact on you?
by John Cage 33 1/3. You listen to the silence. I think the highest achievement of a work of art is that then you experience the world as a work of art. John Cage dedicated his life to making the world a work of art.
30. And what is your favorite moment in art history?
The Beat Generation is extremely romantic and exciting to me.
31. What are you most proud of?
32. What is the greatest compliment you have ever received?
Last night my daughter and I had dinner with Susan Meiselas. Then she texted me saying how great my daughter is, but also how great a dad I was. I’ll take that out of a million artistic compliments.
33. What is the best advice you have ever received?
Let go of your grip on the handlebars. You have to learn to ride a bike at some point.
34. If you could go back in time and say one thing to yourself at 18, what would it be?
You can’t tell someone to relax but at some point that’s the best advice and I would give myself that advice. Relax, you’ll be fine.
35. If you could have dinner with anyone, alive or dead, who would you choose?
John Cage. I always wanted to meet him.
What is your biggest fear? “Public Speaking… Naked”
36. If you could do anything else with your life, what would you do?
Neurology or something in neuroscience. The brain is so endlessly fascinating. I feel like the more art I make, the more I just try to understand consciousness.
37. What do Americans, wherever they come from, have in common?
We are all connected by television. When I go to Los Angeles, I feel at home.
38. What do music and photographs have in common?
Nothing really, they are very different.
39. Why do people like selfies?
The human face is a mystery, none more so than ours.
40. What do you think is the most overrated virtue?
41. What do you value most in your friends?
42. Who is your favorite fictional character?
Damiel, the angel by Wim Wenders wings of desire.
43. What book can you read over and over and over again?
The art of recklessness by Dean Young.
44. When and where have you been happiest?
Traveling on the Mississippi River.
45. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
No need to have a higher achievement.
46. What is your biggest fear?
47. Do you believe in life after death?
No, but the idea of heaven is programmed into me.
48. Do you believe in God?
49. What are you grateful for?
Almost everything. I have a crazy chance.
50. What makes a legend?
Alec Soth: A Picture Book is at Sean Kelly, New York (January 14 – February 26, 2022), Weinstein Hammons, Minneapolis (January 28 – March 26, 2022), and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco (February 3 – March 26, 2022).