Photographer Alec Soth on the importance of being a beginner

Photographer Alec Soth on the importance of being a beginner

Playing Around, Trying Stuff Out — Huck editor Andrea Kurland catches up with great American documentarian Alec Soth about his impressive, constantly changing career, during his first UK retrospective at the Science Museum, London.

Alec Soth is sitting in the front row of the Imax Theatre at London’s Science Museum, hunched down low in his seat. His beard and brown worn baseball cap are the get-up of a man who wants to sidle by unseen, but they’re also his signature ‘thing’. There’s no escaping it. Everyone knows who he is. He rises to take his place on the stage, dwarfed by a screen so ridiculous in its panoramic scale it borders on futuristic satire, and for a second it looks like he may just run away. Like, out the door, past the rockets, towards a cave. But maybe that’s just me, projecting our last conversation onto a man who slips straight into a confident stream.

Two days prior. An echoey canteen on the Museum’s second floor. Two flimsy plastic cups of water. Alec Soth, beard but no baseball cap, has the air of a man who’s just stepped off a flight and is in need of a sandwich.

“I’m frickin’ fried all of a sudden,” he says.

For the next thirty-six minutes we play the interview game. I ask questions, making sure I reference Gathered Leaves – a mid-career gathering (“not a retrospective”) of four defining books: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2015) – while secretly probing for a more overarching ‘how’. How does a photographer get to where he is, on Magnum’s roster and gallery walls, with an audience that celebrates his every whim and fancy? How does he keep innovating – experimenting with self-publishing, collaborating with others, poking fun at himself on SnapChat – without veering from a voice that’s admired for its consistency? How can we all be a little more Alec Soth, I wanna shout, while shaking him by the shoulders into submission.

But that would be desperate. So I keep asking my questions, complete with not-so-subtle subtext, and Alec politely obliges, cringing when I overegg it – ‘So what’s the connecting thread?!’ – and apologising in case he comes off sounding pretentious. It’s an awkward first date. The meeting of two socially anxious minds. It’s everything I hoped it would be.

There is a group of people who are well-known within their world but would rather ‘do’ the thing than talk endlessly about their process. Alec Soth is one of them. But get him on a stage, have him flip through his work, and all the layers of philosophy and deep practise just spill out.

Alec in the canteen is laidback, affable and self-deprecating, and eager for the self-analysis to be done and dusted. Alec on stage is laidback, affable and self-deprecating and completely absorbed in a maze of his making; a career that ducks and dives with the boundless energy of a beginner who’s not afraid to begin all over again.

So, here are some things I personally learned from the two Alecs, in no particular order.

Frustration is fuel. So go with it.

Alec Soth has been losing himself since the early 1990s, covering great swathes of the United States, wherever serendipity guides him, chasing visions of what it means to be American. An early project called From Here to There morphed into his seminal book Sleeping By the Mississippi. Inspired by Huckleberry Finn, he explored hidden pockets of the Midwest – from pentecostal churches and Angola State prison to the boyhood home of Johnny Cash – leaving himself open to unplanned encounters. On stage he points to a quote used by Robert Frank in his Guggenheim grant proposal for The Americans, a 1950s survey of life in the States that set the tracks for Alec’s own discoveries: “The project I have in mind is one that will shape itself as it proceeds, and is essentially elastic.”


From Sleeping by the Mississippi.


From Sleeping by the Mississippi.

But there are links between the dots, stories behind the set-ups. A picture of a bare mattress left out to rot is in fact a window into history. “It was Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood bed, on a stoop overlooking the Mississippi,” says Alec about the pioneering aviator, the first man to fly from New York to Paris in a day, who spent his childhood dreaming of floating down the river on a raft.

“The subjects are leading this Middle-American existence but being creative with their lives.” Beds and mattresses became a motif, a symbol of freedom like Huckleberry’s raft, and as he photographed Alec asked his subjects to write down their dreams “as a way into the lives of strangers”. The Lindbergh bed connects, in Alec’s mind, to an image of a man holding toy aeroplanes. “I wanted to web surf in the real world,” he says, letting each image lead him to another.

Where Mississippi chased freedom, Niagara chased love. Driving – “never flying” – up to Niagara Falls, Alec’s “second album” unravelled a place famous for suicide and new love. “There’s this intensity of emotion that swirls around the Falls,” he says. Shooting cheap motels, newly-weds and honeymooner nudes, and inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s Niagara, Alec tried to access the dark contradictions of hope and heartache. But it didn’t always happen. “When there’s two people in the portrait, it gets complicated,” he says. “Where is the energy between them? I struggled to get at love.” His favourite portrait is of a bride called Melissa, which only came together after he removed the groom, and things only really fell into step when he started reading his subject’s love letters. “It was a way of accessing their voice.”


From Niagara.

But frustration, once it settles, can only go one way. For his next project, Alec peered over the brink into a creative abyss. “For a long period I stopped photographing altogether – I was really just looking for a cave,” he says. “I was tired of trying to make ‘great pictures’. I wanted to make dumb, straightforward pictures.” Ducking below the radar, he went into the wild in search of hermits, survivalists and monastic outsiders. The result was Broken Manual. “I was making a manual for men who want to run away from life,” he says, flipping through stark images that marked a conceptual departure, intertwined with diagrams that make no sense. “The idea of the manual is that it’s broken – it doesn’t work.” He pauses on a treescape that looks ordinary and mundane; it’s the view that Theodore John Kaczynski, the ‘Unabomber’, would have taken in while making his homemade bombs. “I became more interested in that – the idea of the picture, rather than the picture itself.”


From Broken Manual.

Was it a good exercise putting this show together, and having to look back at these separate projects as a whole?
Absolutely. My first two projects – Mississippi and Niagara – are stylistically very similar. And then I was kinda fed up and I made a big change to make Broken Manual. Then I got frustrated with that approach and made another big change to make Songbook. The relief is that I feel the consistency throughout.

How would you describe that voice? What’s the connecting thread?
I feel really pretentious trying to articulate what that thread is so I’m wary to go down that road. I mean there’s always this theme about social anxiety. The desire for people to be connected to people, and to be disconnected from people. Which, you know, is probably why I’m a photographer. Photography itself, as a medium, is so much about separation; as much as it’s about capturing a moment, it’s about separating that moment.

You don’t have to be one thing.

Alec Soth sees himself on a spectrum. “It’s not documentary, it’s not art – it falls in different places for different things.” After Broken Manual led him off-grid, towards more conceptual frontiers, he pulled back in the opposite direction. “It was verging on self-indulgent,” he says. “I wanted to go back out into the world and see different things.” In December 2011, he hit the road with writer and friend Brad Zellar on a mission to find stories, posing as a reporter for a fake newspaper called The Winter Garden Dispatch. “We even made business cards,” he says. With no set plans, Alec and Brad landed in Ohio and started gravitating towards community hubs – churches, dances, frat-boy lodges – anywhere people gathered. Soon, their fictitious rag became a real thing – a newspaper called the The LBM Dispatch, which they went on to produce from seven states, selling the paper in limited-edition runs and picking up partnerships along the way. “On these Dispatches we’d move along that spectrum, from one assignment to the next,” says Alec. “Each state had a new flavour. It was exciting. We were finding new ways of funding projects, not just waiting for a grant.”

The Dispatches became Alec’s notes from the road, a scrapbook of stories that, cut up and rehoused as Songbook, explored community in the age of virtual interactions. Texan cheerleaders, ravers in New York, solemn solitary figures – the images Alec captured spoke of a modern malaise; our desire to be individuals and part of something all at once. “It’s about nostalgia, a longing for the past, as well as an anxiety for the future,” says Alec, who came to see the images as his Great American Songbook, a collection of songs evocative of another time.


From Songbook.

Looking back over your career, before and after critical acclaim, do you feel like you have the same sense of fulfillment that you had in that first period?
I wouldn’t call it the same. Things definitely changed after because there was no sense of an audience. And of course there is something unsatisfying about that too – making work in this bubble for yourself. And it’s great having an audience but there’s also a different kind of expectation. And there’s also a market. So there’s no way it can be the same. There’s no going back, you know, it’s like you can’t be eighteen again. And it’s great being eighteen, and it’s horrible being eighteen. [Laughs] But it doesn’t really matter because I can’t be eighteen again.

A lot of young photographers must come to you for advice. What’s the question you always get asked?
They wanna know how to get their work out there. And very often the work is not ready to be out there. They have such a desire to succeed but they haven’t invested the time, and unfortunately it just takes a long time to find your voice. It’s tough because the only thing you can say is, keep working. Keep working.

Do you think it’s better, as an emerging photographer, to keep your folio focused, or show flexibility in how and what you shoot?
It depends what you’re trying to do with your life. I could have a stronger portfolio by showing one thing, but I didn’t want to set myself up for that so I intentionally figured out a way to have flexibility. If the goal is just success, then maybe it’s consistency. If the goal is an interesting life, it’s flexibility.

It’s good to begin again.

Alec Soth is spinning a wheel, the kind you see on 1980s game-shows. He’s reached that point in his sold-out talk where he’s happy to let serendipity take over. He has no idea where the little needle will land, or what project he’ll be forced to talk about. But that’s the whole point. “I’m really interested in the creative potential of live events,” he says. “We’re really hungry for moments, for live things.” The needle lands on ‘Your Choice!’, so he immediately turns to Little Brown Mushroom (LBM), his experimental publishing house in Minneapolis, which spits out zines, books, papers and prints made by him and an ever-changing roster of collaborators and friends that at times includes his kids. “It’s basically a playground,” says Alec. “I wanted to keep experimenting, but on lower-stakes.”

Alec Soth

From Niagara.

Alec Soth

From Sleeping by the Mississippi.

Little Brown Mushroom has become a holding pen where Alec’s theories play out in real life. “Images are functioning like digital music now, and that’s good,” he says. “They can have this other analogue life as a book – this treasured thing. But there’s this other live element; the exhibition is the live show. And then there’s this.” He points to us sitting in the dark. “I like the idea that photographs can be presented live.”

In March 2013, he brought together fifteen artists for The LBM Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers, a week of collaboration that culminated with live slideshows. “I was using them as guinea pigs, which is kind of what I’ve always done with the books,” says Alec. Thesis proven, he hauled out an old RV and created a hub for a new venture, an experiment that looks set to leave the biggest mark.

The Winnebago Workshop, freshly launched and looking for support, will allow young people to learn from storytellers of all kinds, not in the classroom but out in the real world. “It’s not about filmmaking or photography, it’s about how do you gather stories,” he says. “Driving around, having encounters. Using a classroom that’s more like my classroom.”

How did that first desire to do something outside of photography come about?
I first started blogging to play around with photography but without any sense of it being a commercial or conventional artistic enterprise. I just wanted to have a conversation with people online. I really enjoyed it, but the blog just kind of built up and turned into this business, so I abandoned it. Then for this project, Last Days of W, I decided to self-publish a newspaper as an experiment and I really enjoyed that process. That eventually turned into Little Brown Mushroom, self-publishing and collaborating with different artists in a very similar process where it built up into a business and then… I haven’t abandoned LBM as a container, but I’m less interested in publishing at the moment because I don’t want to fulfill expectations. So now I’m just starting on this education initiative. And again, it’s just playing around, trying stuff out. It’s important to keep things fresh over time so that even though I can’t be eighteen again, I can still play around. Try stuff.

Is it a conscious decision to be a beginner again?
Yes absolutely. I’m wary of making these huge moves, like declaring myself a filmmaker and saying I’m going to do that for the next ten years. But with mini projects, lower stakes – I play around, try stuff, so that I can fail and it’s not the end of the world, and learn from the process.

Some people may feel an obligation to keep something going beyond their satisfaction point. When do you know that something is coming to a natural end?
Thus far it’s been the point when it becomes about money. Money changes our relationship to things, especially when you feel other people wanting to make money off of it. And it’s not like I’m adverse to making money – I have different ways of doing that – but I don’t want experiments to be about money.

Does it become a source of anxiety at that point?
Yeah, it can be. I really love the entrepreneurial element of things – I think it’s quite creative. Planning and strategising. I think it would be fun to be an internet start-up person but I wouldn’t wanna be a CEO. If I ever did I would sell the thing and then start another one.

Are you driven to help kids find their storytelling medium because of the impact photography had on you?
Yeah. I mean, I had an art teacher who changed my life. He just opened up all sorts of possibilities. And my hope is with this workshop – not just with myself but with the other visiting artists – to open up exciting new possibilities. And that’s part of the reason for not doing it in the classroom, just making unexpected things happen and seem possible. There was a lecture when I was in college by road photographer Joel Sternfeld and I was like, ‘Oh! You can drive around and make pictures? That’s amazing!’ So much of what education is about is not giving a path, but opening up new ones.


From Broken Manual.

Are you a socially awkward storyteller?
Yeah. I think a lot of photographers become photographers because they weren’t, like, in theatre class but there’s this desire to engage with an audience. I was asked to lecture a lot and share my work. I’m not going to do a theatrical presentation so I thought, ‘How can I use my own awkwardness to my benefit, in some way?’ And it’s about learning that process. I continue to think that there’s a creative avenue in live engagement that’s possible.

Do you feel like there was a before and after, in terms of gaining confidence?
Ah, I mean I’m still going through it. Talk to me after [my presentation in the Imax theatre] tomorrow night. That’s a maturity thing too. Like, nerds in high school – it’s a disaster. But then, you know, you become Bill Gates – you have confidence. It’s a process of time and accepting who you are. I have not reached Nirvana of self-acceptance. [Laughs] Anyone who’s assisted me or worked with me can tell you, when I’m out shooting it’s crazy self-doubt.

What advice would you have for someone wanting to start their own projects, as you did with LBM and the Workshops? What gets you through self-doubt when you’re starting out from scratch?
In my own case, I think things tend to be cool when they’re not done for money. When you just really wanna do something and you’re just into it. You can just feel it when someone’s doing something to try to make money. And for bigger organisations it’s a problem because they’re in the job of making money. They think, ‘How can we make some money? Okay let’s make this cool thing.’ But it’s backwards. Getting rid of that is the beauty of being young. You just make something cool, and hopefully it will find an audience.

Gathered Leaves runs at the Science Museum, London, until 28 March, 2016.

This story originally featured in Huck 53. Want more like this? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.