Alec Soth Artist Talk

In celebration of the Magnum Contact Sheet Exhibition, Magnum and Milk Gallery hosted a talk by Alec Soth that was as innovative, genuine, and sarcastic as the photographer himself. Born and raised in Minnesota, Soth became a Magnum photographer in 2008 and started his own publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, the same year. He is a man of the land; his work focuses on the American spirit and experience, mainly in the midwest. Soth has published numerous books and shown his work in galleries and museums all over the globe, including the Whitney and Sao Paolo Biennials.

Soth let the audience shape the course of the talk. The loosely-structured presentation started off with Soth discussing his earlier works on contemporary American narratives, compiled in From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. He then launched into an audience-driven question and answer session. Soth, a lecture veteran, even prepared a slide of plausible questions to guide the audience. To his surprise, the audience members were interested in his specific works and projects rather than more general questions, which allowed Soth to give a detailed account of his artistic process and product.

One such project is his seven part LBM Dispatch series, a collection of zines that explore off-the-beaten-path narratives in selected American states, like Colorado, Ohio, and Michigan. The seventh installation, Georgia, will come out soon as Soth travels south. His book, Niagara was also discussed at length. This work juxtaposes the natural power of the falls with the often hopeless and dreary conceptions of love that surround it. Part of this series includes portraits of couples living and staying in the area, some images taken by the falls and some in the privacy of hotel rooms. To connect with subjects, especially strangers, is a skill in itself. Soth believes that portraiture is not about capturing the personality of the subject, but about the space in between photographer and subject. This approach balances tension and intimacy in a way that informs much of Soth’s work.

And of course, the talk took a turn towards social media, a topic a contemporary photographer can’t avoid. Soth’s presence on Instagram in particular has made an impact on his fan base. Initially, Soth was anti-Instagram and declined an Instagram-based project offer from The New York Times. Now, Soth has warmed up to the medium, but uses it in his own cheeky and subversive way, like with his "un-selfies," in which he takes a spin on the typical selfie by obscuring his face with pixelation, a well-placed basketball, or even a painting composed of peanut butter and jelly. He still grapples with the boundaries between "serious" work and the playfulness of Instagram, and the way his fans engage with both.

Known for his carefully devised titles, Soth was asked about how he integrates images with text. He commented on the power of words and their ability to completely change the meaning of a photograph. Maintaining a less-is-more approach, Soth favors sparse text. He references Rich and Poor, the work of fellow Magnum photographer, Jim Goldberg, as an effective and understated marriage of words and image.

Though his work is structured around geographic destinations and key themes, his process is adventurous and bold. As Soth embarks on his new project, Georgia, we can’t wait for Soth to unearth the untapped, yet brimming, wealth of cultures unexplored. At the end of the talk, it was clear: Soth is honest in both creating and discussing his work. He photographs what he cares about: people, places, and the space in-between.

Check out the Milk store for books and contact sheets by Magnum photographers, featured in the Magnum Contact Sheet Exhibition.

Co-written by Zoe Kase and Ashwini Natarajan.

Photos by Zlatko Batistich.

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