Several years ago, photographer Wing Young Huie’s Lake Street Project, a series of photos taken in the neighborhoods abutting this south Minneapolis street, was displayed on billboards and store windows the length of the six-mile avenue. Walking the route, past tiendas, Vietnamese nail salons, and Mexican restaurants, I’d stop and pore over images of people who, if I moved a foot to the left to look into the hairstylist’s shop where the photo was displayed, might not be so fond of such wanton peering. That experience came to mind last month when I was interviewing another Twin Cities-based photographer, Alec Soth. In the course of our discussion, Soth talked about life after his inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, his new project Niagara, and the art of looking. In this Walker blog exclusive, that’s where we pick up the conversation:
Alec Soth: I just think about how wonderful it is to be a photographer, because it’s this permission slip that you’re given to go into the nail salon or to walk up to that person at the bus stop and say, “ Can I stare at you for 30 seconds?” It’s an incredible luxury. We could do this without a camera, but it’d probably be even more awkward… I used to joke that I was going to become a “ binoculographer.” I’d just go around staring at people with binoculars. Kind of performance art… I feel like a large part of photography is like a performance. And the photograph is like a document of this performance, of this encounter with the world.
Paul Schmelzer: What about–I guess the question is: what makes a good photographer, but I don’t really want you to answer that because I think it’s too big (and too subjective) of a question…
Soth: It’s a corny question, but it’s a good one. And suddenly I have an answer. I think what makes a good photographer is being willing to explore what you really want to explore. If you really want to photograph furry kitties, just do it. It’s ok
Schmelzer: But what about the in-the-moment nature of shooting? Is the good photographer–whatever that means–the one who just knows: this is something I want to photograph? Does it happen for you […] that there’s a surprise when you develop?
Soth: There’s plenty of discovery along the way. The fun part is discovering what it is I’m attracted to. I recently heard an interview with a writer who said, and you’ve heard this a million times in different ways, that they write to find out what they’re going to write. I’m interested in photographing to find out what I’m attracted to photographing. You end up learning something about yourself in that process.
Schmelzer: If you’re starting a new project, how does that work? Do you just start shooting and see where it takes you?
Soth: No. I did this project recently in Niagara Falls, and it started before I’d ever been to Niagara Falls. I had these pictures in my head of things I’d hoped to find. I have a list of things I want to shoot. One thing is “ men in pajamas.” I’ve yet to find a man in pajamas, but it’s something I’m looking for. Why is that? That’s the way I go out into the world, is looking for certain things.
Schmelzer: Do you have a picture of a man in pajamas in your head? Do you think visually like that?
Soth: Yeah. This is totally corny, but the way I think about it is I really close my eyes and I try to imagine an exhibition of pictures and see what kind of pictures–what is it I really want to look at?–and then go try to make those pictures. You never make those pictures, because they just don’t emerge that way, but it takes you on a path. Recently, I was in Georgia and it was the beginning of a commission. What did I want to photograph? Like, I’m interested in hermits. So I do a little Google search on “ hermits,” “ Georgia.” And I find this Greek orthodox monastery in rural Georgia, and I go there and have this amazing encounter with these people. Those pictures weren’t in my head–Greek Orthodox monks–but something developed and it took me on this crazy path.
Schmelzer: Keeping lists suggests that, yes, art is about innate talent and being visionary, but also research and process and development.
Soth: And just going out and doing it. It’s easy to make the lists, but the hard part is actually going out. And it’s scary. Driving up to the monastery in the woods, I was horrendously nervous about what’s going to take place and just trying to relax and go with the flow and seeing where you end up.
Schmelzer: I love this photo [above]. It’s just a fragment, but it’s rich with narrative. What were their stories?
Soth: This was in a sort of massage parlor, or what have you. A lot of the people I photograph, I ask them what their dreams are, and I have them write it down on a sheet of paper. “ ‘My dream is to be an RN,’ wrote Aja. Her mother, Julie, said that she had given up dreaming a long time ago.” I give these little nuggets of information discretely–these little footnotes for those who want it. I love that she wants to be an RN. It’s hopeful.
Schmelzer: It’s such a bodily picture–there’s so much flesh there, which connects to the RN thing in a way, in a more wholesome way, perhaps.
Soth: This picture, large, you can really stare at them, really stare at their flesh in a way that’d be highly uncomfortable in real life. It’s really that simple… We all like people watching. It’s just a sensual pleasure. Flesh is a sensual pleasure. It’s really that simple. One needn’t write essays about it.