Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Lonesome Roads: An Interview with Alec Soth

Exit Magazine

I've interviewed numerous artists, musicians and fashion designers over the years. Since most of my interviews are for print magazines I'll share some here, so you can read them online.

Here's my Exit Magazine interview with the American photographer Alec Soth:

Alec Soth. 
Pigmented ink print, 2005. Gagosian Gallery.


Alec Soth has established himself as a prominent photographer through his distinct and subtle portrayal of places and characters from his journeys through America. Soth uses an old-fashioned 8 x 10 field camera, which takes long enough to set up to ensure the subjects are relaxed and the shots are deliberate. He shoots real people along forgotten roads, weathered landscapes, and colourful interiors. The photographs peel back perceptions of people, showing their individuality and a glimpse into their personalities. His gaze is empathetic, curious and friendly while keeping a respectful distance.
Alec Soth’s work is part of numerous collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Soth has also exhibited at the 2004 Whitney Biennial and the Gagosian Gallery. 
This month EXIT spoke to Soth about escape, American culture, and the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

You've documented numerous individuals who have retreated from society. Have you ever escaped in a similar manner?

No, I’ve never retreated in any serious way. It’s just a fantasy. When I was a little kid, maybe six years old, I planned on running away from home. I packed my mom’s small suitcase and headed down the road. I probably only made it half a mile before my parents picked me up. The funny part of the story is that the suitcase was filled with books.
Most of my escape attempts nowadays are like everyone else’s: movies, books, booze. 

There are echoes of Thoreau, O’Connor and Twain in your work. Who is your favourite author? To what extent does literature inspire your photography?

Flannery O’Connor was a big influence. In the beginning, in fact, the project was titled after a phrase from O’Conner…Black Line of Woods. I loved the way she described this line where culture ends and something raw begins. She has this really dark vision I’m attracted to.
But while this kind of serious literature informs the work, I’d say this project was even more inspired by popular literature. I’m a sucker for cheap paperbacks that play on this idea of the man on the run.

What do you think is the most interesting aspect of American culture?

Wow, that’s a huge question. I guess interests shift from one project to another. With Broken Manual, I was really attracted to the idea of the cowboy, the lone man who doesn’t need other people to survive in the world. There was something similar at play with Sleeping by the Mississippi, but it was less about self-sufficiency than this very general and confusing American hunger for ‘freedom.’

My mother grew up in Missouri and I've gone to visit relatives there many times. What attracts you to the banality of Middle America?

I don’t find it banal. I find the middle of America to be as rich and nuanced as any other place. I prefer to photograph in America because I understand it. I speak the language of the place. And while the language may not be flowery or steeped in history, I wouldn’t call it banal.

You used to have a list on the back of your business card and you've blogged about To Do Lists. Do you think people who write lists get more done?
While I’ve talked about the importance of lists for me, I probably haven’t emphasized the importance of brainstorming – just letting your thoughts run wild and seeing what comes out.  Most of the lists I made are just a form of brainstorming. And the truth is that most of the ideas I jot down go unphotographed. But the list gets me out the door and moving in otherwise unlikely directions. And every once in a while I get lucky. Is there anything more satisfying than checking something off of a list?

I read this quote on your blog: the photograph “does its job stopping time. but mostly it is a charming reminder of the hunt.” What are you hunting for?

It really is a hunt. On one level it is a hunt for pictures. On another level it is a hunt to come to terms with my own longing. With Sleeping by the Mississippi, it was my longing to be a boy. With Niagara it was my longing for new love. With Broken Manual it was my longing for escape.

Who is the most fascinating person you have ever met? Did you have the opportunity to photograph that person?

I don’t want to sound corny, but most people are pretty interesting once you get down a few layers.  Of course people with fantastic life experiences are fascinating. They can tell you about how they’ve traveled the world, eating exotic fruits and so on. But the person who has avoided all of that, who’s chosen to live in the suburbs and live a conventional life – they aren’t necessarily boring. You just need to dig.
One of the most fascinating people I’ve met was a fellow named Garth. He lives in the California desert. He is a sweet and gentle man. He told me that “in this life, God happened to make me gay.” He also told me that he’s never been with another man for more than a week. This, to me, is fascinating. And I did photograph Garth. But the picture of him wasn’t great. Photographs aren’t very good at telling these kinds of stories.

What is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?

When talking about this kind of intense beauty, it is impossible not to link it to youth – to “the first time.” I remember photographing my girlfriend naked when I was 16. I remember being on a train in Provence during a very rare snowfall when I was 20. Great beauty is usually seeped in longing and nostalgia.

Words: Margo Fortuny

Alec Soth is currently exhibiting Songbook at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (through April 4th 2015).

You can read about  Soth’s upcoming exhibitions here. 

The Voyageur, Alec Soth. 2004. Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery.

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