Exhibition Essay: Alec Soth: Portraits

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

by Cynde Randall

The extraordinary photographs of Alec Soth testify to the gifts of a great artist. Soth’s remarkable eye – his perceptual and psychological discernment - is super-charged. Born in 1969, Soth’s work extends the formidable tradition of personal documentary photography made manifest by earlier greats such as Robert Frank and William Eggleston.

While portrait work has been at the core of Soth’s artistic inquiry, it is significant that he is not limited or defined by any particular subject. He moves easily across conventional lines, making powerful pictures of people, animals, domestic interiors, cityscapes and landscapes. And while his most recent photographs come to being 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 breathtaking constellation of recent achievements: his photographic quest along the small towns and byways of the Mississippi to create his epic series called “Sleeping by the Mississippi”; a book published (2004) by the German publisher Steidl featuring large-format Chromogenic color prints of the series; with selected works from “Sleeping” featured in both the 2004 Whitney and the Sao Paolo Biennials.

Today, Soth is a Magnum nominee who works on regular assignment for publications like the New York Times, Life, and Fortune. He exhibits his independent projects nationally and internationally, with recent exhibitions at Pace MacGill in New York, at Wohnmaschine in Berlin, Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Santiago de Chile.

Soth’s latest work - a stunning array of never before published large-format color portraits – are featured in “Alec Soth: Portraits,” an exhibition, presented by the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts from March 4 through May 1, 2005. The portraits are drawn from all walks of Soth’s artistic life – from Magnum editorial assignments, private commission work, personal projects including “From Here to There”, “Sleeping by the Mississippi” and “Love in Niagara” and as discrete images gathered during art-related travel. His subjects include everyday strangers to celebrated authors and artists who Soth has encountered throughout the U.S. and on recent travels to Iceland, Germany, Canada, Brazil, China and the U.K.

Much has been said about the transparency of the straight photograph or the idea that the photographic image could never exist were it not for the referent object bouncing light back to the camera. But for Soth the photograph is the record of the space between the subject and himself. This is a more participatory definition of photography, wherein the identity of the photographer is apriori to the photograph.

Soth is most interested in shooting what is new to him. Rarely does he photograph friends, family or familiar surroundings. Soth’s vision is driven by curiosity. He credits the solitude of his wandering for heightening his awareness – for his ability to spot the right person, even in a crowd. On a recent assignment in China, Soth waited at the entrance of a subway. “I probably watched 500 people pass by the tunnel entrance. I knew the instant that I saw this one young man that I wanted to take his portrait,” Says Soth.

Soth describes the experience of meeting Odessa (Odessa, Joelton, TN, 2004) while on assignment for Life magazine in Tennessee: “Odessa was visiting her boyfriend while he played war games in Joelton. I was attracted to her the second I saw her. The attraction is not unlike falling in love at first sight. It is a physical, not cognitive reaction. I became interested in the “idea” of her. Soth wondered what her story was. “But this isn’t the point. I’m interested in the beauty of the mystery. I’m standing here; she’s standing there. In the space between there is a gulf, a mystery, and for me, an attraction.” This is what Soth seeks to behold and to capture. It is this invisible gulf (the space that connects us, holding everthing together) that charges Soth’s work.

Soth is so facile at getting the psychological read of his subjects, his pictures also evoke interior landscapes - places filled with creative longing, determination, or brooding loneliness. In “Sydney, Tallahassee, FL” 2004 Soth presents a dreamy, timeless picture of a little girl with pink hair, resting her head while she waits for the session to end. The girl’s haunting eyes, wise beyond their years, are poised above a blue tablecloth that reads as much like a surreal landscape. Like an archetypal child, Sydney embodies so much that we don’t need to know that she is dressed for Halloween - she could be from the past as much as the future. It doesn’t matter, because we are suspended there with her. Pictures like this inspire us to consider that 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 8” x 10” camera plays a role in shaping his subjects experience with him. Physically cumbersome, requisite in its complexity, the large-format camera slows down time. Indeed, Soth may be under the camera cloth for a good twenty minutes setting up the shot. “I can really stare at people under that cloth,” says Soth. As Soth lingers over the image in the lens, his subjects relax - letting go of any initial need to perform, they become fully incarnate, as themselves.

Considering himself to be the protagonist in this process, Soth likens 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 New York Times Magazine recently hired Soth to photograph Goldsowothy while he worked on a commission for the rooftop of the Metropolitan Muesum of Art. Soth photographed him while he prepared for the project in Ithaca and during the installation in New York City. “The first day I met with Goldsworthy, he produced this temporary sculpture with icicles. Since this really had nothing to do with the commission, the image wasn’t used in the story. But I think this practice of making small, temporary sculptures is closer to the heart of Goldsworthy’s work. For me, photography is also about this very fleeting moment. 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 etc. You scurry around trying to make the thing, snap the shutter, and it all begins to dissipate. It is profoundly temporal. And the photograph serves as a document of this encounter,” says Soth.

Soth’s most humorous portrait features Boris Mikhailov. “While in Berlin, I tracked down Boris, the great and gritty Russian photographer, who now lives in Berlin. One of things I love about Boris is that he exposes himself on film (both literally and figuratively.) Of course, it was different when he posed for me. At first he was reluctant. But then he took off his shirt and pressed his skin to show me his pacemaker. But he seemed most himself when he stuck the carrots in his ears.”

Soth’s uncanny ability to connect with strangers, even people who do not share his language, is well evident in “Boy with Flowers, Beijing, 2004” and in “Allesandra, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2004”. Soth captures the strength of adolescent sexual power in “Young Woman, Beijing, 2004” a remarkable picture of an alluring but defiant young woman whose ensemble - black laced boots, halter top, denim hotpants, and orange belt slung low on her hips – makes a stunning play off of the black rabbit fencing behind her that supports two climbing roses in peak bloom, their magenta flowers floating like a halo around her head.

Of the many interesting characters that Soth encountered on his magical journey along the Mississippi, “Peter, Winona, 2002,” is one of three never-before- published portraits featured in the current exhibition. “While working on Sleeping by the Mississippi, I would often ask people to describe their dream. I would have them write this down on a sheet of paper. Peter is an artist who has been living on a houseboat on the Mississippi for 25 years (a picture of his houseboat is one of the signature images in Sleeping by the Mississippi).While most of the people I photographed wrote their dream down on a white sheet of paper, Peter found a big poster to write on. Like a good photograph, his dream is both incredibly concrete (running water) and simultaneously poetic”.

Alec Soth sees what most 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 our selves and the photograph resonates with our recognition. In this triangle we are no more (or less) lonely, tragic or heroic or than any of Soth’s subjects.

Cynde Randall is an artist and program associate for the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program, an artist-run curatorial department of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts made possible by generous support from the Jerome Foundation.