Alec Soth Interview – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: When did you first start taking photographs? When did it all begin?

Alec Soth: In high school, I had this experience that a lot of people have. I had a great teacher that woke me up. In that case, he was a painting teacher. He did a little session, once, on photography, and I wasn’t particularly drawn to it. But I knew that I wasn’t a painter, deep down.

So I did other things. I made sculptures outdoors, and stuff like that. I went to school thinking I’d be some sort of painter or installation artist. While I was in school, I discovered photography in a new way, partly through photographing these sculptures I was making outdoors.

JB: This is at Sarah Lawrence?

AS: Sarah Lawrence. Correct.

JB: You studied with Joel Sternfeld?

AS: Yes. Joel taught there, but it was impossible to get a class with him. He was too popular. So I took two different summer courses in photography, while I was home in Minnesota. One was at the University of Minnesota, and the other was at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

I got excited about photography, and then finally got into Joel’s classes. I took two classes with him, and it was amazing and fantastic.

JB: What were some of the core concepts that embedded in your young artist consciousness when you worked with him?

AS: It’s curious. At that time, when I fell in love with photography, I was a typical American who was influenced by American things. I was really influenced by that American tradition of photography, in which Joel was a major player.

You know, that whole MoMA, Stephen Shore, Eggleston to Walker Evans trajectory. And I was in love with that. Road photography. The standard stuff.

The curious thing about Joel, as a teacher, he was adamant that people not mimic him. He’s interested in a lot of different things. This was, at the time, 1990 or so. Post-modern, Cindy Sherman, staged photography was the rage. He really encouraged that.

The truth is that I did that sort of work back then. And I didn’t do work like him, or straight photography much at all, at that time. But I wanted to. I just felt that it wasn’t right to.

His influence is a peculiar one. I loved his work, I loved him, but almost out of respect, I didn’t want to work like him. It was only when I was away from school that I started dealing with his influence, and the influence of that generation of photographers.

JB: Do you now feel comfortable seeing your work in that continuum? It’s funny that you mention MoMA, because I was just there, and there was one wall in the permanent collection installation that was totally insane. It has one of Joel’s pictures, and then the Bechers, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Eggleston, and then below it were all the Ed Ruscha artist books. It was like 200 square feet of real estate that captured the fantasies and wet dreams of tens of thousands of American photographers.

AS: (laughing.)

JB: So next time MoMA hangs something like that, if one of your pictures is up there next to those guys, what does that do to your head?

AS: (pause.) I don’t know. First of all, with all respect to MoMA, it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. It’s a different world. Without a doubt, my work, whatever its quality, falls in that historical lineage. There’s no getting away from it. That’s cool. I’m an American photographer.

I don’t want to be limited strictly to that. Hopefully I’m not just covering old ground. But I’m fine with that comparison.

JB: You dodged the whole ego question, about people putting your work in that pantheon, which is cool. But I think it’s easy to differentiate you, as it’s easy to differentiate the time in which we’re living. One of my little catchphrases, because as a blogger, it never hurts to have a catchphrase, is I love to talk about the 21st Century Hustle. I’ve got to trademark it one of these days.

AS: (laughing.)

JB: The idea is that today, the old traditions and the old business-models are gone. It seems like most everyone who’s having any success is hybridizing, these days. I’m mostly familiar with your photography, as is everyone. But in addition to being a photographer, you’re a writer, a professor, a publisher, a lecturer, and a camp counselor, if the LBM blog is to be believed. That is the 21st Century hustle, dude.

Was that the plan? Did you build it piecemeal, or did you have a vision to do as many things as possible, both for your creativity, and to pay your bills?

AS: No. It was not a vision. Going back, when I left college, I had a general Bachelor’s degree. No speciality. But I had photographic skills, which were somewhat marketable. I worked in darkrooms, did different things, and ended up working in an art museum. Et cetera.

But the notion of making a living as an artist seemed very unrealistic, particularly living in Minnesota. At a certain point, I thought, it’s just not going to happen. It’s important to tell you, also, that despite going to Sarah Lawrence, I was never a bohemian wild-child type.

I thought it’s always important to have a job. I always feel a sort of responsibility to do the things that Middle-Americans are supposed to do. So I was living a fairly, (not politically conservative,) but conservative lifestyle.

JB: Except for the fact that you were sneaking prints from your job out the back door inside your pants.

AS: (laughing) Exactly. OK. But that’s fairly normal as well.

JB: So that was the exception? No late-night drunken brawls? Just a bit of mild theft that we’re only discussing now because the statute of limitations is up.

AS: Exactly. Mild theft. And there was definitely drunkenness, but it was lonely drunkenness. Not angry drunkenness. Just sad, blubbering-by-myself drunkenness.

The point is that I really didn’t know how to make a living outside of conventional means. Now, I know many other things. If I was twenty again, I’d do things very differently.

JB: You’re actually stealing questions from down my list. I’m trying to be polite, and I don’t want to interrupt your thoughtful responses, but that one’s not supposed to come up until later. But what the hell, I’ll just cross it off the list. What advice would you give your younger self? What are the do-overs?

AS: I’ll get to that.

JB: All right. We’ll keep it going in a natural way. Please continue.

AS: What I’m getting at is, this diversification, I didn’t have a vision for that. My vision was, you need to have an employer, and you have a job, and you go forward. Like that. And I would do my work on the side. So then, once my life changed, (and we can talk about that later,) and I had all sorts of opportunities in the art world, I felt distrustful that that could sustain itself.

I felt a need to have a backup plan. Since I didn’t have a Master’s Degree, and teaching didn’t seem like a real possibility at the time, I started doing editorial photography. And then I started doing blogging. That was not as a commercial activity at all.

I didn’t have a real art community, and I was dealing with the art world mainly through the economics of the art world. I wasn’t having art conversations, so I used blogging to do that. These pieces have been added on over time pretty organically. It wasn’t planned out at all.

How that relates to when I was twenty, and what I’d do over again? I just feel really strongly now that being a creative person means being creative with your life. It doesn’t mean being creative with this one particular activity that you do. Now I see that running a business is a creative activity. How you organize your daily schedule is a creative activity. You can be creative and entrepreneurial in all sorts of different ways.

I think art students should be thinking about that. It’s not just that I go to graduate school, become a teacher, and there’s this formulaic pattern. Be creative.

JB: I like that we went non-linear there, because it’s gorgeous advice. I’m really curious how you’ve done it, because, unlike most of our readers, I wasn’t really familiar with all the different aspects of what you do.

AS: I don’t think most people are familiar with it. We’re in a tiny bubble. Most people, if they’re aware of you, they’re aware of one thing. Sometimes, people that really know my work only know one thing.

It’s a real struggle to communicate Little Brown Mushroom, and what that means.

[Part 2 tomorrow]

Bonnie (with a photograph of an angel) Port Gibson, Mississippi 2000

Harbor Marina Memphis,Tennessee 2002

Frankie Ferriday Louisiana 2002

Sunshine Memphis,Tennessee 2000

Charles Lindbergh's boyhood bed Little Falls, Minnesota 1999

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 7 Comments On This Article.

  1. Charles Billings

    Thanks, Jonathan. This AS is living the American (wet) Dream of many of us photographers… a rumor I heard in NY said that he’s producing crummy work these days just to see what kind of crap he can get away with, but I don’t believe that. I think his work is good, and modern in its way, and I applaud wholeheartedly the series of newspaper’s he producing.
    Do you know how that fits in with Magnum, or his fine art, or indeed how he puts that all together? Geez, the more you think about it, the more you realize just what stardom he has achieved.
    That he seems to be a really really smart, articulate guy can’t hurt.
    thx

  2. Donnor Party

    He was right to be worried about making it as a full time artist, and to diversify. Its only clear now that Niagra and Mississippi are very serious, in the American photo/art pantheon. I’m not all that familier with his newer work, just some Magnum snaps and his (really good) editorial work. I wish him the best!