Three Questions for Alec Soth

I first saw Alec Soth‘s photographs at the Whitney Biennial in 2004, and unlike the rest of the work I saw that day, I remember exactly where the prints were — in which gallery, on which wall. In October of last year, Soth gave a talk in San Francisco, and showed a video that quickly described his working style. Soth is shown trying to persuade a passerby to be his subject. There’s snow on the ground, and Soth’s trying to convince someone he’s just met to stand still while he readies his camera.

Most of Soth’s work is done with a large format camera, and as such, might seem outside of topics related to street photography, but if you spend time with his portraits, they seem to be aligned with a street tradition, be it Sander, Arbus, or even some of Sternfeld.

Alec Soth, from “Dog Days, Bogata

Soth is a busy man, and Joerg Colberg at Conscientious recently transcribed a wide-ranging interview. To follow-up, I thought I’d ask him three questions about tactics, and am pleased Alec was able to take the time to craft a response.

2point8 in bold:

Your portrait subjects aren’t necessarily (capital “O”) obviously interesting.  They come across as *people*, first and foremost, rather than “people with crazy tattoos,” or “people with weird hairdos.”  When you decide to photograph someone, is it because you’ve seen something deeper that you want the camera to reveal, or do you gamble and hope the processes of photographing will reveal something in your subject that you haven’t yet seen?

I just try to stay aware of what catches my eye and quickly analyze my reaction. I ask myself, “Am I attracted because of the hair and tattoos or is it something deeper?” What do I mean by deeper? Sometimes I use the analogy of ‘across a crowded bar.’ Why are two strangers attracted to each other across a crowded bar? Of course some of this is a surface attraction (hair and tattoos again), but there is something else going on beneath the surface. You just know it when you feel it. When I’m out looking for pictures, I’m really just looking for that kind of feeling.

Near its core, photography is about timing.  Whether or not a moment is perfect, it’s still a slice to be put on a slide and observed.  When you’re photographing people (on the street or inside) your choice of when to trip the shutter is a *serious* decision, considering what it takes to set-up a large camera.  How does that decision happen?  Do you look at your subject at the moment of exposure from beneath the cloth, or do you poke your head out and see what’s going on, eye-to-eye?

As much as I’d like to, I’m afraid I can’t hide under the dark cloth. When the exposure is made there is a film holder on the back of the camera. So I’m out in the open looking at the person, but I’m usually not looking them in the eye. I wouldn’t say I’m seeking a ‘moment’. I’m just waiting for everything to settle. I like things still and quiet. I like the subjects withdraw into themselves.

In learning about your approach to your work, it seems like you’re open to your project telling you what it’s about, rather than vice versa.  How much of your work is a learning experience, in that you have these photographic/experiential goals, and within those, things may happen that change your course and show you something new?  Or shorter, how does the element of surprise or newness influence your projects?

Oh man, that is the whole game. I hate having the whole thing planned out. I mean, yes, I generally have a working plan. But things change dramatically. Discoveries are made. I could never be a filmmaker working shot by shot through a script. The whole process needs to be fluid.

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