Alec Soth Interview – Part 2

[Part 1 is here]

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: You’ve got a publishing company, LBM, that you started in 2008. Is that right?

Alec Soth: Correct.

JB: It’s based in Minneapolis. You built a team of collaborators, and a print studio. How did that come about, and where is it going?

AS: It’s related to how my blogging activity came about. I started the blog around 2006, and did it because I wanted to have these conversations with people. I was hungry for art talk, and there was a new way to do that. One person could just do it.

It was a blast, but it became all-consuming. I felt like I needed to keep feeding this machine. So I quit.

Then, in 2008, I was having a show of work that was basically produced in the previous eight years: “The Last Days of W.” It was election time, and I wanted to mark this moment in time, so I self-published this newspaper. I made 10,000 copies, so I could make it as cheaply as possible. Like so many people do, I found that experience of self-publishing to be thrilling.

I threw this little name of Little Brown Mushroom on it, which has some special meaning attached to some other stuff. I didn’t really know that I was going forward with it.

JB: Is that a little nod to your psychedelic phase?

AS: Not at all.

JB: Truffles, porcinis? Where are we going with this?

AS: None of the above. I never had a psychedelic phase. Like I said, I’m of a pretty conservative background. The name comes from different things. There’s this character in my life, Lester B. Morrison, and his initials are LBM, so I was looking for LBM.

In researching different LBM’s out there, LBM is a mushroom hunter’s term for a Little Brown Mushroom, which is mushroom that is incredibly common, but you can’t identify it because it’s so common. I liked that meaning: making these little average things that are unidentifiable.

JB: Is that Mid-Western humility?

AS: Honest to god, it’s not true any more, but as a kid, I used to say my favorite color was brown. Is that humble, or is that just pathetic? (laughing.) I don’t know.

JB: Peculiar. We’ll go with peculiar instead of pathetic. I’m not going to be the guy to call you pathetic in print. It won’t be me. Idiosyncratic? How about that?

AS: Idiosyncratic. That works. More important was Lester B. Morrison, at the time that I was doing this. I created this name, Little Brown Mushroom, and I thought, that’s fun, I’ll do some more stuff, and get some other little ‘zines. This was all just me doing it myself: my own design, everything.

Then, I got interested in story-telling, and thinking about how children’s’ books are such a great way of combining text and image. I wanted to use that format, so I ended up finding this designer named Hans Seeger, who was excited to work with me on this. I had the idea of using the Little Golden Book structure.

We did one of these with the Australian photographer Trent Parke, and that was hugely successful. It sold out in five days, and was just a thrill. The act of creating a website, and selling this thing… it only cost $18, but it was not my own. It was another artist, and another designer. To be involved with that, and to sell that was just exhilarating. As exhilarating as making my own work.

I wanted to have a place to play with that stuff, but I was really adamant that I didn’t want it to be a grown-up business. I didn’t want the success of the first book to become intoxicating. Like, for the next one, we have to get a bigger name artist, and sell more copies.

The goal has always been to break even; to not lose money. And to have this experimental, fun place. I can try out new stuff, and the stakes aren’t so high.

JB: I noticed that a lot of the things you’re offering through LBM have sold out, including the tote bags and baseball caps. Have you ever considered giving people what they want? If they want more, sell them more? Or is it too much extra work to reproduce things? Have you thought about that? Being able to make money because people want to buy your stuff?

AS: I’ve thought about it a lot. We re-printed one thing, which is “House of Coates,” because Brad, who was the writer on that, really wanted it out there. He wanted more people to have the opportunity to read it. So I did it.

Generally, I have not wanted to do it. The primary reason is that it’s a pain in the ass. Like I said, there’s this enormous thrill about getting together with an artist and designer and making this thing. It is not thrilling, however, to receive the boxes, to put them in little containers, to put them in the mail. It’s full of problems and returns and hassles.

Re-printing an old thing, and trying to promote an old thing, it’s just not exciting. Very simply. With my limited time, I’m not that excited about spending it that way.

JB: We’re talking about Little Brown Mushroom at present, but the initial question reflected the fact that you’re a highly successful artist, and you’re lecturing around the country, constantly. It sounds like it would be enough of a job for anybody.

Are most or all of the folks at LBM based there with you in Minneapolis? I’ve heard a lot of great things about the photo community there. Did you always plan to stay there, or did you ever consider moving to New York or LA?

AS: First of all, not everyone is here. The main designer is in Milwaukee, which is not at all close to here. Another designer is based in Philadelphia, and one in New York. But most of us are here.

In terms of being here, it is a great photo community. It always has been, based largely on good support for the arts in Minnesota.

JB: Some folks actually move there to be able to qualify for the McKnight Fellowship?

AS: Yeah. That is true. I always thought I was going to live in the Bay Area, because it’s…

JB: Insanely nice?

AS: Yeah, it’s insanely nice. And there’s a great photo community.

JB: They’re pretty hot right now, too.

AS: I have a lot of friends out there. I thought that was going to be the case, but real life circumstances kept me here for a variety of reasons. When I had some art world success, I confess that I flirted with the idea of New York. And then, I came to my senses on that one. For a moment I thought about it, and I’m so grateful I didn’t do that.

In terms of staying here, it’s not Paradise. I don’t want to over-romanticize it, at all. It’s freaking April 17th, and I’m looking at snow right now. So it’s ridiculous. But as I travel around, it’s a pretty good place.

JB: And you guys have Kirby Puckett. (pause.) No, that’s right. He died.

AS: (laughing.) Yeah, we no longer have Kirby Puckett.

JB: See that. Even my attempt at topical sports humor crashed because I remembered Kirby Puckett died a while ago.

AS: Not only did he die, there was a big sex scandal before he died, so it’s even more depressing.

JB: Oh my god. I didn’t know that. I read an article a couple of years ago in Sports Illustrated that rattled off the litany of Walter Payton’s indiscretions. He shot some guy. That one crushed any of my childhood sports idealism that was left. If Sweetness was a prick, there’s nobody left to respect.

AS: (laughing) One quick thing, though, I’m not super-engaged with the local community. I don’t want to give that impression. We have a lot of interns from the local schools, but I travel all the time.

When I’m here in Minnesota, I’m either at the studio, or I’m with my family. There’s not much else. But it’s a good place for that, because I don’t have to socialize all the time. If I lived in New York, I’d have to go to a freaking opening every weekend.

JB: We’re clear. If people move to Minnesota to get a McKnight, they should not plan to hang out with Alec Soth all the time.

But as far as bringing people to town, you’re having a camp for introverted storytellers?

AS: Socially awkward. Introverted is your word. If that’s your definition of socially awkward.

JB: I totally pulled that word off the website description. Don’t make me Google it right now.

AS: (laughing) OK.

JB: I know the deadline for submission will have passed by the time this is published, but where did you get the idea to set up a camp?

AS: In the last year, I’ve been doing this project with Brad Zellar, and he and I are doing these road trips. For every one of these, we work with a student assistant. They’ve been incredible encounters. And I like to think we have potentially changed people’s lives.

As I told you at the beginning, I had a teacher who changed my life. So I really want to be a part of that experience. I feel like the traditional educational structure is a way to do that, but it doesn’t have to be the only way to do that.

JB: That structure is in massive flux in 2013 anyway.

AS: Yeah. There are things that can be done with it. I am outside of that structure, but I’m hungry to have that be a part of my life. Doug DuBois is a good friend of mine. He and I teach together one week out of the year in Hartford.

JB: They have a low-residency MFA program there. Is that the term?

AS: Limited residency. Doug teaches at Syracuse, full time, and goes to Hartford for a week. He is clearly one of the great educators. A couple of years ago, Doug was awarded the SPE educator of the year. This parade of students came on stage, one by one, talking about his influence in their life. It was so powerful.

Wow, I thought. It’s such a meaningful thing to do. I want a piece of that. I want to engage with people in that way. So, how to do that?

I thought, why not do something here? I’m invited to do workshops all the time, but it’s always a pain for me, because I travel too much. It’s hard to justify it to my family, to go away, again, for something else.

I thought, why not have people come here, and do it entirely on my own terms, so I can make it what I want to make it. The fact that it’s free was a big part of that, for a number of reasons. One is I didn’t want the expectation of anything. I feel like if you charge $2000 for a workshop, it needs to be officially certified in some way.

JB: You start judging yourself by value added.

AS: Yeah. And it’s also going to attract different people. This is just a big experiment. It’s hard to talk about, since I haven’t done it yet. But I’m really excited about it.

And I continue to be excited about working with these students on the various “Dispatch” trips.

JB: Good luck with it. It sounds exciting.

AS: Thanks.

JB: But we’re deep into this interview, and I realize we haven’t been able to talk about your big career news, that is relatively hot off the presses. By the time we publish this, it will be slightly less fresh. But you were just given your first Guggenheim Fellowship.

AS: Yeah. And last, because I think you can only get it one time now.

JB: Congrats, on behalf of our disparate global band of photo geeks. What project did you propose?

AS: I’m really committed to this “Dispatch” project. To explain what that is, it’s a collaborative, self-published newspaper. Brad Zellar and I do a two-week road trip, in a certain geographical location; usually a state. We tackle whatever issues and topics we feel are pertinent to that area. We’ve done four so far: Ohio, Upstate, (which is Upstate New York,) Michigan, and Three Valleys. (Which is in California.)

JB: San Joaquin, Death Valley, and Silicon Valley?

AS: Right. And then next month, we’re doing Colorado.

JB: Just up the way from here.

AS: We considered doing the Four Corners, but ended up doing Colorado.

JB: I just drove across the state yesterday. I left Jersey, where it was 65 degrees and sunny, and I landed in an actual blizzard in Denver. It was pretty horrendous. Back to the topic though…

AS: We’re continuing that project, and we’re using the Guggenheim funds to expand it in difficult-to-fund regions. We’re doing Texas, and it’s easier to get funding there, than some place like Idaho. It’s a very expensive project because there are three of us traveling, and I pay Brad. Then we produce the newspaper.

It’s a pretty epic project, and the Guggenheim is going towards that. I’m also fund-raising in other ways, for the project, which I’ve never really done before. I just believe in it really strongly.

JB: I can’t wait to see how it evolves. You’ve been so generous with your time, so I know we have to wrap this up. Are there any exhibitions coming up that some of our readers might be able to see?

AS: No.

JB: (laughing) I try to end this with the most average, softball question anyone could ever ask, and I get a one word answer that totally subverts my intentions. That’s awesome. It’s a great ending right there, unless you want to say “Goodnight, Gracie.”

AS: This new work that I’m doing, I talked it over with my galleries, and I’m not selling any of it right now. I want to wait. That’s part of the Guggenheim, and other funding that I’m getting as well.

I’m using it to give myself some space to produce this work without showing it, and selling it, and doing all of those things, until it’s done. It’s like the way one would do with a movie. I’ll release it when it’s time to be released in its entirety. Happily, I don’t have any big shows on the schedule.

Billy. Ironwood

Cade and Cody. Au Gres-Sims High School Wolverines. Au Gres

Facebook main campus. Menlo Park

Highway 15, near Daggett.

Jesse Reese. American Legion Post 205. Dover Burial Park. Dover, Ohio

Martin Etchamendy, Basque shepherd. Outside Bakersfield

Miguel, ten months old. Woodville Farm Labor Camp. San Joaquin Valley

Near Kaaterskill Falls

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 7 Comments On This Article.

  1. blake andrews

    Thanks for the fun interview, Jonathan. I have one question for Alec which I haven’t yet seen addressed anywhere: Why the return in recent years from color to b/w?

    • Hi Blake and Stan,
      I received the photos on Monday, well after our interview took place. So, unfortunately, I can’t answer the question for you. Perhaps Alec will chime in at some point? Otherwise, you’ll have to patiently wait to find out the next time he’s interviewed.
      Thanks,
      jb

    • In a couple of lectures I’ve seen on youtube he sort of addresses it by referencing Weegee and just classic small town newspaper style photography in general. If I remember correctly his comments weren’t explicitly in regards to the aesthetic but it seems to me that the aesthetics go hand in hand with the whole idea of the dispatch newspapers.

  2. Yes, good as it was, the B&W “issue” does need addressing- a major player like Soth imbibing in monotone (as potently as evidenced here) has the distinct possibility to influence others in photo land, and therefore, just possibly, spark and unleash the primordial, primeval power of the long dormant (and dare I even speak its name)… Great Late B&W Revival!

  3. Here’s a vote for B&W! AS we all know sometimes less can say so much more..and as Stan B notes above..there is a primordial power in B&W..long my it reign!

  4. I heard a lecture, or maybe it was an article, where Soth mentioned not wanting to always be the ” large format color guy”. Wanting to push himself into new territory both with the subject matter, and the style in which it was created. Artistic experimentation, progression.