7 Year Old Exhibits Her Work At Photo Biennial

- - Art

Seven year old Carmen Soth will be exhibiting her work at the Brighton Photo Biennial, October 2– November 14 2010. The Biennial, entitled New Documents is curated by Martin Parr.

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Of course there’s more to it than that, but I thought I’d bait you with a sensationalist lead. Carmen is the daughter of Alec Soth and while she is the author of the photographs, many were taken under his direction. He also edited the 2000 frames she took in Brighton, into a cohesive body of work.

It all came about after he was told by customs officials in Heathrow that he could face up to two years in prison if he was caught taking photographs without a working visa. If this seems like a giant FU to the UK for not allowing him to work Alec isn’t saying so, but instead asserts that “working with Carmen reminded me that the greatest photography is vernacular. Sometimes, not being professional can be an asset…” In the gravity defying art world I tend to agree with him on that. In The Guardian, where the story on all of this appears (here), he was asked if her photographs are any good to which he replied “Yes, I think they could stand alongside any other professional work.”

Personally, I would have preferred to find out the work was shot by a 7 year old after the exhibit had started and the reviews had come in. That would have been a fascinating experiment.

There Are 72 Comments On This Article.

  1. “Personally, I would have preferred to find out the work was shot by a 7 year old after the exhibit had started and the reviews had come in. That would have been a fascinating experiment.”

    Agreed. That would be interesting and the images would have received a much more honest assessment. But this has been done before art exhibitions—Dateline NBC did this experiment one time and peopled swooned over art that was actually painted by a kindergarten class. The joke was on the “experts” when Dateline revealed the paintings were done by 4 year old. Each X-pert was like a deer in the headlights with all those cameras pointing at each on of them.

    On the other hand, I doubt these images would even be showing if this 7 year old girl wasn’t Sloth’s daughter. Just like politics, the photography industry is swirling with nepotism. And unlike what other websites are saying, I don’t see the genius behind what Sloth did, even though his work is excellent.

    I think this event is a great example of how the very famous photographers of this industry can do whatever they want, and the sheeple will automatically bah, saying how great the work is or how genius the stunt was?

    Has anybody actually seen his daughters images yet? They could be terrible, but that probably won’t be the reaction to them—they’re gonna be genius no matter what.

    • @discarted, Exactly – like when Richard Misrach gets away with shooting his Katrina project / book with a crap 4MP point and shoot. He’s only allowed this because he’s canonized. No one would be talking about it, had it been done in exactly the same way by a lesser-known photographer.

      • @Joseph,

        I have some images from obama’s inauguration in one of my books that I shot with a “crap 4mp point and shoot” (whose battery died in the cold after only 20 minutes).

        Number of people who give a damn: 0

      • @Joseph,

        Whether a photographer shoots with a 4MP point and shoot or a Tahichara/Hasselblad/Leica/whatever is irrelevant.

        The equipment a photographer uses has nothing to do with the merit of his work, any more than the brand of paintbrush a painter uses.

        It’s the photograph itself that matters.

        • @David S,

          Sorry – I disagree. It’s an age old argument over content vs. form and I admittedly lean to the form side a wee bit but you can’t completely discard it. My point is that a lesser known photog having done the exact same thing in the exact same way wouldn’t be taken seriously. He gets away with it because he’s been canonized.

    • @discarted, hello, did you read the article? ‘many were taken under his direction. He also edited the 2000 frames she took in Brighton, into a cohesive body of work.’

      • @ivan,

        Yes, I did.

        And great remark David S.

        TWO THOUSAND IMAGES taken under “direction” (what the hell does “direction” mean anyway), and edited down to a cohesive body of work is not “genius”. Nor is the above image worthy of an exhibition despite who took it.

        Any orangutan could’ve been let loose with a camera in London and done the same exact thing and then had their two thousand images edited down to form some kind of cohesive body as well.

        But like David S wrote…

        “My point is that a lesser known photog having done the exact same thing in the exact same way wouldn’t be taken seriously. He gets away with it because he’s been canonized.”

  2. This is super-disheartening. How many photographers would love to be in the BB, but this is just like a big F-you to lesser known, but committed photographers, in the constant rewarding of the cult of personality. Nothing against Soth’s own work, of course, just the methodology on this one. I could care less that he “curated” it.

  3. Bravo! This is such a Duchampian gesture – a particular Duchamp quote i love is:
    “You know exactly how I feel about photography. I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.” This supposedly was written in letter to Alfred Stieglitz from Duchamp.

    I often think about the language, the composition of photography and the current trend in contemporary photography to shoot/create snapshot inspired work rather than the more beautifully composed and formal images of the modern period of photography. But regardless everyone has been influenced and informed…except children…although the media may still play a small role in how they frame their world. I highly doubt a seven year old is thinking…mmm…how will Eggleston frame this?

    I mean ANYONE can shoot a photograph. Period. It is true however as Soth commented, “It’s the most democratic art form, but it’s painfully difficult to be good at it.”

    • @Sandra L. Dyas, Just for the record, I think it was Martin Parr who said that (about photography being the most democratic art form) — not Alec Soth.

    • @Sandra L. Dyas,

      It’s amazing how people engulf the belief that children aren’t influenced by anything and are simply innocent creatures who see the world differently than adults and anything that they create comes solely from their uncorrupted little brains.

      So at what point do children lose their innocence and start being influenced by the 24/7 world surrounding them?

      I’m presuming it’s not age 7 because a 7 year can’t be influenced by anything at that age…THEY’RE ONLY A CHILD FOR GOD’S SAKE!

      What the child decides to photograph or how she chooses to frame the picture is certainly not influenced by anything whatsoever…not even their world famous photographer dad, or the pictures hanging around the house. Nope. She just mindlessly aims the camera and clicks the shutter without any motivation/reason behind the action.

      On the other hand, I do know that my 2 year old nephew (who already uses a digital camera because of seeing the family using them) is influenced by such things as adults, television, books, music, pictures, and other kids every day. He may not know who Eggleston is, but there is definitely something influencing his picture taking as well as his normal behavior.

  4. Which takes us back to the point that fine art photography is a bunch of BS, or at least the snobs who think they can review and critique this stuff. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Do you like it? Then it’s good. Piggy-backing on discarted’s comment, I saw the same thing with paintings by elephants at the zoo.

  5. Darrell Eager

    I think Alex very smart and solved his dilemma in a very interesting way. Martin Parr seemed to be OK with it and he’s the curator. So I guess the proof will be in the pudding.

  6. Recently there was a story about Time running a cover using a picture they purchased from someone’s Flickr page for around $15. I recently was told by a designer that the client’s cousin had a digital camera and would shoot the job. Now we have a photographer handing the camera to his seven year old so she can shoot images for the show.

    They should send the seven year old daughter to jail for two years…that’ll teach him!!!

    I thought you were going to write that the two dogs in that first shot actually shot the images…whew!

    • @Jon DeVaul, Alec is quoted.. “working with Carmen reminded me” so he has been working in the UK anyway and clearly needs locking up.

      I am kind of surprised that no-one fixed the visa problem for him though – I would imagine Larry Gagosian knows some pretty sharp lawyers who could have made that problem disappear fairly fast.

  7. Well you have to admire the effective use of passive aggression. Alec ran into a silly UK rule and he found a work-around solution that not only got the job done but rubs the UK government’s nose in it at the same time.

    The point about the innocence of shooting subjects without prior knowledge of what is considered “art” is interesting. It’s hard not to be influenced by the volumes of images we see by other photographers — especially the ones that are hailed as brilliant. It is very difficult to see things that just catch your eye without seeing them in context with the work of others. I think Alec is right — you can’t erase all the stuff that is already in your head. But it might be worth trying to see things without context occasionally.

    I’d like to see the actual images from the Carmen/Alec collaboration.

    • @Tom, “Alec ran into a silly UK rule” that seems a bit harsh as USA will have exactly the same rules. I seem to remember a UK journalist who hadn’t gotten a work visa was denied entry to the US a year or so back. The fact is really that if Alec was here to work then he should have got a work visa…

  8. There is a point being missed here, and it has nothing to do with the age or parentage of the person exhibiting at the Brighton Photo Biennial in Alec Soth’s place.

    In England there is currently a really serious issue with international artists who, even when they have fulfilled the incredibly complicated formalities necessary for entering the UK, find themselves denied entry – see http://www.manifestoclub.com/visitingartists.

    To give US readers a point of comparison, in July of this year a Columbian journalist was denied then, after a bit of fuss, was granted a visa for his yearlong fellowship at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University (http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/newsitem.aspx?id=100140). And when I describe this as a ‘fuss’, I mean it was controversial enough for me to have become aware of and remember, even it from all the way over here, in the UK.

    As I pointed out in the comments of the Guardian article linked to above, Brighton Photo Festival were otherwise successfully able to commission work by US artists Zoe Strauss and Molly Landreth – so why not Alec Soth also?

    I’m beginning to suspect that the Guardian article is a bunch of lovey spin covering up an administrative cock up on the part of the Biennale, and a cock up that is being – with such upbeat creative ingenuity! – transformed into a statement exhibition by the artist’s daughter.

    Whatever. Even if I get to see Carmen Soth’s contribution to Brighton Photo Biennial, which is highly unlikely, I doubt I’d be able to really see or care about it when the focus, for me, would be: why was her father threatened with expulsion or imprisonment if, though officially invited to, he came to work in my country?

  9. Interesting. I just saw Soth’s show at the Walker in Minneapolis (good show, see it if you can). For me, this is simply another way he is exploring the medium of photography. He’s famous for his 8×10 colour work but, as seen in the Walker show, he explores many other ways of making photographs and describing the world (the show included video, sculpture and constructions). The unfortunate accident of the British bureaucratic procedures forced him to explore another way of making photographs – using his daughter as a cypher. As an artist (and this was an artistic event so the images need to be viewed from an artistic not a commercial viewpoint) this is a fascinating approach. Whether you “like” the images or not, well, that’s in the eye of the beholder. I see these as almost conceptual in nature – perhaps more like a Ed Ruscha project, someone who would never call himself a “photographer” but had a huge influence on contemporary photography.

    The other story here is the disgusting way the UK Border Agency (equivalent to Homeland Security) is now treating artists of all stripes (read the link to the Guardian article). As an Englishman, I’m appalled and embarrassed at the way the UK is treating artists. As working creatives and as artists or patrons of the arts we need to put pressure on ALL our countries to stop this persecution and lack of creative trade across borders (no country is immune from bureaucratic border regulations that inhibit exchange of ideas and culture).

  10. If people want to see “real and uncrafted” then it should be no surprise if 7 year olds are to be taken seriously as artists. Maybe this story has little to do with the work of a child and everything to do with the audience that actually takes it seriously.

  11. Initial reaction to reading this: uncomfortable feeling in gut.
    Delayed reaction to reading this: really uncomfortable feeling in gut. and sadness.

  12. Im afraid I don’t see how Mr. Soth circumvented any UK regulation as asserted by some of the previous writers. How many art directors, businesses, photo editors or other actual clients are hiring his daughter (or any other children for that matter) to shoot their assignments? That he got his own daughter’s snapshots exhibited in a prestigious venue only proves his personal connections and influence with the curator. Nothing more.

  13. Good job, Carmen! Did you get to pocket the commission? If not, you need to have a chat with dad. And if you did, I hope the good chaps over in the UK don’t throw you in jail.

    • @Matt Niebuhr,

      Children also don’t have petty, pedantic discussions on “is it art?”, or the sour grapes of failed photographers who take themselves too seriously.

      • @craig, yes – with age and experience it seems we tend to put many filters between us and the image – for example, being more concerned with the “by whom” in this case, than trying to be as receptive as possible to the potential to see something with “fresh eyes” or “another perspective”… Frankly, I don’t care who takes the picture, I want to see the image…

  14. Alec got caught out by a silly British law. But I would of rather seen an exciting emerging photographers work than that of a seven year old.

    I really like Alec Soth’s work, but this is to much.
    A lot of photographers seem to think they can do this once they are established. It may go down with the art critics looking for a fresh blog entry or column, but amongst the people who count, the photographers I like to think we can see through this.

    I dont dig.

    • @rupert, he was coming to the UK to WORK on a commission. Why should an artist be treated differently to any other worker? All he had to do is get the correct visa in the first place. And it’s even tougher to get into to the US. An artist going the other way would find it no easier to get in with the wrong visa and would probably get a cavity search for their troubles.

  15. Alec isn’t a mechanic who was hired to fix the Queen’s Rolls Royce, but had his daughter look under the hood instead. He’s not a surgeon, with Carmen pulling out the scalpel. He’s a photographer, an artist, and art is 1.) completely and totally subjective, and 2.) fun. It doesn’t always take training, there is no “right” way to do it, and whether it’s “good” or not is a matter of personal opinion. It’s not so serious as many people seem to make it. I’ve seen a few images from the BB selection around the web and they look great to my eyes.
    To all those complaining about connections or nepotism, look at the photo above, and the one at the top of the page of the original article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/sep/19/alec-carmen-soth-brighton-biennial . Do you like these photographs, or not? Whatever one decides is fine, but, in my opinion, that should really be the only question.

  16. the main point is a hardworking, emerging artist has missed out on a show at the expense of the work of a seven year old girl.

    Doesn’t make sense.

    It’s a brave thing to do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct.
    It’s all about names. Alec Soth is know for his 10 x 8 large format colour work of the everyday american landscape for which we love, he is not known for off the cuff conceptual artworks, The idea is totally out of character and not his style which makes it all the more strange.

    If it were Ruscha I’d understand, then again he probably wouldn’t be fussed about the show either way.

    • @rupert,

      actually i’m totally unsurprised by this. If you’ve ever spoken to alec before you’d realize how full of shit he thinks the art world is and i think this move is merely a game for him to see what he can get away with. he is definitely interested in challenging ideas and he also has very strong ideas about photography.

      If you can, try to catch a lecture of his. you will see his work is becoming more and more conceptual. he has been working in video and, as mentioned above, his show at the walker is not simply photography.

      “It’s a brave thing to do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s correct.”

      why is it wrong? everyone’s only pissed cause they’re jealous.

    • @rupert,

      I don’t think that’s really accurate. There was a spot in the show reserved for Alec Soth. He chose to make his submission the work of his seven-year-old daughter (with his guidance and editing). It’s not like some other photographer was bumped out of the show because of Alec’s daughter.

      I think anon is right — it’s all very Alecesque. As I said earlier, I admire the creative thinking. I’m not sure what I would have done if faced with same circumstances.

  17. I am really chuckling over this one. It isn’t Carmen Soth’s vision or voice in the work, so how is it that she is the creator of the work other than she pushed the release? I am not intending on saying that she isn’t creative, kids to me are more creative than most adults.

    I think the show is a iconic thumbing at the British government for the trite issue of a work visa or lack there of. If we (the U.S.) did the same thing for all those who worked without the proper visa, we would have to build numerous new jails to house them all if there was true policing of the millions of visitors we have every year.

    I find the ingenuity of using his daughter as a mechanism creative enough that I would like to see the work. Not that I think it will be crap, but I would like to see it because of the mechanism used to create it.

    I was rereading,editing my comment and some questions came to mind, why was it stated to Mr Soth that he shouldn’t work without the proper visa? Did he say that he was going to work? Did the customs agent know of him? How is it the whole conversation came about?

    It has been a while since I traveled out of the country on unofficial military business, and wonder have the rules changed so drastically? I know that you have to declare the intentions of your trip and the duration. If I am on vacation in France and I bring my gear with me to take some photos of the trip, is that considered work because it is what I do for a living?

    Ah I’m off the real subject. I this again, it really isn’t the daughters vision in the work she is just the mechanism used to render it.

    • @Ed Hamlin,

      I can think of some musicians I know who ran into the same problem coming to the US and were turned back around at customs.

      Problem is when you arrive with professional equipment. In their case, microphones. With cameras this gets difficult because who’s to say you’re a pro or a rich amateur.

      Perhaps refrain from making statements like “I am Mr. Big Photo guy on assignment for Pretentious Travel Magazine”

      • @craig, I agree, you just have to be smart about what you say when it is your turn in line. Customes agents are cynics anyways, mostly because they have to be to prevent us from earning a living and not bring anything illegal into their country.
        At least that’s what I learned when going through East German check points during a visit to Berlin in 1974.

  18. What do you mean you need a visa to take pictures on assignment in Europe? American photographers fly in to Europe all the time and do assignments without a visa. With a US passport you can stay for 3 months without a visa. Interestingly though, unlike passport stamps from mainland European countries, the stamp in passport from the airport in London two weeks ago does say that I am not allowed to work in the UK. I always thought that meant being employed in the UK though. If I fly in on assignment I would assume I could still work. . .

    • @Davin Ellicson,

      If you fly in on assignment and are being paid by an American company, sure you can shoot. Alec Soth was shooting (I believe) in England for an English commission which needs a work visa.

      • @Victor John Penner, ok, right, but why Soth would tell the customs official what he was doing? He could have just said that he was in the UK to shoot for himself on holiday.

  19. Got everyone talking didn’t it. Has the BB ever received so much attention? The name Soth is for sure going to pull a crowd, but it does get into the sticky area of being seen as an cheap promo… Pictures are nice tho. Good work Carmen.

    As for arguments that an emerging photographer missed out, well I don’t really but that. If an emerging photographer did get the space, there would still be another one who missed out regardless. Any way, if the phantom emerging photographer did miss out, he/she would put on their own exhibit if they were passionate enough.

    Making art/photos is only part of the game. Getting it out there is a whole notha’ battle in itself.

  20. From The Guardian: ‘A customs official had other ideas. “He told me I had no work visa,” says Soth, 40. “After threatening to put us back on the plane, he finally allowed us to stay, but said if I was caught taking photographs I could face up to two years in prison.”‘

    I can’t help it but make a connection between Soth’s introduction to this work and Trent Parke’s intro to his recent work The Christmas Tree Bucket.

    “It was there,” Trent Parke says, “while staring into that bright red bucket, vomiting every hour on the hour for 15 hours straight – that I started to think how strange families, suburbia, life, vomit and, in particular, Christmas really was…”

    Considering the two photographers have been working closely recently with the publication of Bedknobs & Broomsticks (http://littlebrownmushroom.wordpress.com/2324-2/), it is interesting to see that the back story to this new work by Alec and his daughter plays an important role in it’s introduction.

    I am seeing more and more examples of work being presented with a ‘lead-in’ story that sets the viewer in a certain mind set before seeing the work. I much prefer to see the work without such influencing back stories and just look at the images for myself.

  21. Reminds me of a German photographer who did a shoot in LA for Mercedes. The images were created at night, with one assistant, and without any permits. Overall fairly impressive, likely under budget, and quite nice images. I doubt that photographer told customs he was in LA for work.

    So there is a moral issue of whether one should disclose why one is visiting a country. We might not like the rules, or consider them unfair, but should we simply be dishonest? Obviously our profession is embattled on many fronts, so I think what Alec did was a creative approach to an unusual problem.

  22. Louisa Penfold

    Any photographer who has worked internationally will have at some point been asked the “are you intending on working question?”, so this entire scenario is rather silly and masks either self indulgence or incompetence. Whilst using a child behind the camera is hardly brilliant, as every local council with a box of disposable cameras and a community centre will contest, it is in keeping with the UNICEF estimate that 1 in 6 children are used as child labour.

    If Alec were a photographer from a country that meant it was impossible for him to get into, or even to the UK and circumnavigated the problem of photographing Brighton by attaching cameras triggered via the internet to taxis, buses and pedestrians, that would be brilliant.

    I’m sure the work will be rather good, after all Lartigue was a child. A colleague of mine did a project with blind school kids which actually came out quite well. The artist of course in their direction and editorial skill plays a part, but I honestly believe the power of the vernacular is inherent to the medium.

    I appreciate the feeling that it would be better to see some new talent in Alec’s place, rather than his 7 year old daughter, but an art festival is supposed to be about the big names, with the emerging talent clinging like barnacles to its hulk. The cult of the persona is nothing new, Baudelaire’s review of the Paris Salons show that. If an unknown photographer had done what Soth had, we would have paused briefly, then moved on to the next thing. In the digital age one can follow an artist’s whole career through the arbitrary portal of the screen, so the the only connection the work has to any semblance of aura or authenticity, is its creator’s name. Therefore I think that whilst there is every reason to grumble, I’d argue that as a society we have painted ourselves into a corner where it is the persona not the work, that we admire.

    As a photographer myself I am delighted that photography has gained such currency and have no problem with the Soths and Parrs of the world, they are good ambassadors for the medium. Of course most of the benefits and attention go to the few, but in what field of endeavor is this not the order of the day?

  23. Having worked on jobs a number of times in places including India, China and Thailand, generally on tight notices and only for a week or two, I found it easier to just go the tourist visa way. Sometimes getting work visas for short stays is just not worth the trouble.
    It seems this event was turned to a good opportunity to get some desired attention. Of course had Mr Soth taken the prison option, publicity could have been exponentially greater..

  24. I hope Alec does not get in trouble with the UK authorities for violating child labor laws!

    Earlier this year when entering the UK, apparently like Alec, I naively said that I was there to help my colleagues at my UK-based company for a week. I was threatened with denied entry because I did not have a UK-issued work visa. But the agent relented, gave me a stern warning and a special note in my passport that if I was caught again I would be denied entry from the UK forever. The lesson learned is ALWAYS say you are on holiday.

  25. Whatever happened to “good old lying”.

    Them:”Are you here to work?”

    Me: “Why no my good man…I’m here as a tourist. I am hoping to have a spot ‘o tea with the Queen, and maybe get a couple of snapshots”

    Them: “Then why do you have so much equipment?”

    Me: “I take great snapshots!”

  26. “working with Carmen reminded me that the greatest photography is vernacular.”

    I remember not too long ago, Alec asking where all the good photos on Flickr were on his blog. Convenient little statement he makes when it suites him now. He and Martin Parr both made digs… Neither is a champion of photography you can count on…

  27. I have to agree with aprevious post that this is a very disheartening piece – so many people would kill to be in that show. What a drag.

  28. [asked if her photographs are any good to which he replied “Yes, I think they could stand alongside any other professional work.” ]

    I think that says a lot about the current state of “fine art” photography.

  29. Here in Seattle we have a famous photographer cat. A cat whose work has been in galleries all over the country. It has a camera attached to its collar and takes a picture every 2 minutes all without the benefit of a famous father as director. This cat’s exhibition was reviewed citing its talent for composition and daring use of space. The show sold out, proving the quote credited to P.T. Barnum, “There is a sucker born every minute.”

  30. Exceptional post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Thanks!