Arts Magazine: Alec Soth: Portraits

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Artist, subject, and viewer together create a triangle of experience.

The extraordinary photographs by Alec Soth testify to his great gifts as an artist. Soth has a remarkable photographic eye, and his perceptual and psychological discernment is on the mark. His work extends the formidable tradition of personal documentary photography made manifest by earlier great photographers such as Robert Frank and William Eggleston. The Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) presents a never-before-published selection of his work in a new exhibition “Alec Soth: Portraits,” in Cargill Gallery from March 4 through May 1.

Born in 1969, Soth has made the portrait the core of his artistic inquiry, but he is not limited or defined by any particular subject. He works easily across conventional lines, making powerful pictures of people, animals, domestic interiors, cityscapes, and landscapes. While his most recent photographs come about through large-format equipment, he also employs medium square-format cameras and digital technology.

Soth’s rise to critical acclaim can be traced through a breath-taking constellation of recent achievements: his photographic quest along the small towns and byways of the Mississippi River to create his epic series called “Sleeping by the Mississippi”; a book published in 2004 by the German publisher Steidl, featuring large-format chromogenic color prints of the river series; and participation in both the 2004 Whitney and Sao Paulo Biennials.

Today, Soth is nominated for membership in Magnum (a prestigious international photographic organization) and he works on regular assignments for publications such as the New Yorker, LIFE, Fortune. He exhibits independent projects nationally and internationally, with recent exhibitions at Pace MacGill gallery in New York, Wohnmaschine in Berlin, Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Santiago de Chile.

Soth’s latest work consists of a stunning array of large-format color portraits, drawn from all walks of his artistic life. These include Magnum editorial assignments, private commission work, personal projects including “From Here to Here,” “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” and “Love in Niagara,” and discrete images gathered during art-related travel. His subjects encompass everyday strangers, celebrated authors, and artist he has encountered throughout the United States and on recent travels to Iceland, Germany, Canada, Brazil, China, and the United Kingdom.

For Soth, the photograph is the record of the space between him and his subject. He creates a more dynamic, participatory kind of photography. He is most interested in shooting what is new to him. Rarely does the photograph friends, family, or familiar surroundings. Soth’s vision is driven by curiosity. He says his solitary right person, even in a crowd.

Soth is facile at getting the psychological read of his subjects. His pictures evoke their interior landscapes, places filled with creative longing, determination, or a brooding loneliness. In Slydney, Tallahassee, FL, 2004, Soth presents a dreamy, timeless picture of a little girl with pink hair, resting her head while she waits for the photo session to end. The girl’s haunting eyes are wise beyond their years. With a blue tablecloth in the foreground, the picture reads like a surreal landscape. This archetypal child embodies so much that we don’t need to know that she is dressed for Halloween. She could belong to the past or to the future. Soth’s photographs are the outward signs of inward grace, a revelation of the subject’s soul, unfettered by culture or time.

Certainly Soth’s old-fashioned, eight-by-ten-inch camera plays a role in shaping his subjects' experiences with him. Indeed, Soth may be under the camera cloth for a good twenty minutes setting up the shot. "I can really stare at the people under the cloth," he says. As the photographer lingers over the image in the lens, his subjects relax. Letting go of any initial need to perform, they truly become themselves.

Soth considers himself the protagonist in this process, comparing his work to that of Andy Goldsworthy. Like the famous earthwork artist, Soth arranges the temporary contextual elements until the right relationship between things is established. The photograph is the record of this interaction.

"For me, photography is about this very fleeting moment," he says. "With portraiture, you have this brief time with a subject, sometimes minutes, sometimes hours, but it is always brief. Inevitably you are battling the weather, the time of day, the mood. You scurry around trying to make the thing, snap the shutter, and it all begins to dissipate. It is profoundly temporal."

Soth sees what many people do not. Happily for us, he makes an enduring gift of his vision, giving witness to the beauty and complexity of human interactions. We perceive ourselves in his art. The space between the viewer and the photograph resonates with our recognition. In this triangle we are no more (or less) lonely, tragic, or heroic than any of Soth's subjects.

Cynde Randall is an artist and program associate for the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program, an artist-run Curatorial department of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which is made possible by generous support from the Jerome Foundation, in celebration of the Jerome Hill Centennial and in recognition of the valuable cultural contributions of artists to society.