No sooner had Alec Soth’s email appeared in my inbox than I was overthinking how performing as a stand-up comedian and storyteller had transformed my idea of a successful story — and not just because overthinking things is how I usually kill time. For once I wasn’t avoiding new work, new audiences and/or new doubts. The photographer and publisher had emailed to ask me to think (and then talk out loud, egads) about comedy and performance for Little Brown Mushroom’s “Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers.” (Previous media coverage here, here, here and here. Soth’s camp recap here. Camper Julian Bleecker’s recap here.)
My problem, why I was having to remind myself to inhale and exhale, was that it had been months since I’d last wandered onto a stage to make people laugh. It might as well have been forever ago. Typically, this wouldn’t have bothered me, but suddenly I was feeling out of my element on every level. Maybe because I really know only one thing about photography: what I like.
I own the complete collection of Little Brown Mushroom’s Dispatch series pairing photos by Soth with texts by writer Brad Zellar, as well as their House of Coates collaboration. My tiny photo book collection also includes a copy of From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America (the exhibition catalog for the Walker Art Center’s 2010 survey), Lost Boy Mountain (a zine-ish little book attributed to Lester B. Morrison) and another rare trio of zines (Lonely Bearded Men, Library for Broken Men and Lester Becomes Me) culled from Soth’s hermetic Broken Manual project. William Eggleston’s Guide and a William Wegman coffee table book of dog Polaroids round out my collection, even though I prefer the oddness of Wegman’s early short films and recent paintings.
What terrified me most of all as I prepared was the idea of showing up at his camp like some fawning Soth fanboy, out of my depth, struggling to present what I do (when I do get up on stage) as an art form. Oh, and I was also supposed to make myself helpful somehow. Campers would be looking to me, I was told, for help figuring out what to say during slideshow presentations for what they’d been up to during their week at camp — an event that I’d also agreed to emcee, mostly because I like doing stuff at The Soap Factory.
Then I remembered I had another column due soon, too, and the panic seizing my chest ratcheted up a notch. Hyperventilating a little, I fired off a quick email.
A THREE-QUESTION INTERVIEW WITH ALEC SOTH
What inspired Little Brown Mushroom’s “Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers” in the first place?
I’m regularly approached to teach workshops in places like Cuba and Spain. But the idea has always made me queasy. For starters, these workshops are expensive. I’d be worried that the students would feel cheated. And since most of my photography is defined by its Middle-American-ness, I don’t know how I could help people navigate these exotic locales.
But I am hungry to be involved in education. I had a teacher who totally changed my life. I’m not saying I can do that for anyone else, but I want to at least be involved in some sort of educational dialog. So rather than jet off to Rio, I decided to bring the workshop to me. And by making it free, I was able to make it more experimental and dampen some of my anxiety about the participants feeling ripped off.
The whole idea behind Little Brown Mushroom is that it is a sandbox to informally collaborate and make things. This workshop seems to fit with that idea.
What has photography taught you about the value of storytelling?
Like a lot of people, I’m trying to figure out what it means to call oneself a photographer in the era of Flickr and Instagram. When I was a student, it was considered an achievement to make a decent exposure and then be able to finesse the print in the darkroom. My six-year-old can do that now. It isn’t nearly enough to make good pictures. The challenge is to string pictures together in a meaningful way. One way is to tell stories.
But photographs are limited in their storytelling capacity. They are so fragmentary — so specific — that they tend to suggest stories more than tell them. So I was interested to see what happened when I combined words with pictures. That has been the primary aesthetic goal of Little Brown Mushroom: to experiment with the way that words and images can be combined to tell stories.
Unlike painting, photography can magically reshape itself in different contexts. I’ve never thought my photographs have had a fixed meaning, so I enjoy watching the meaning change as the contexts change. One of the exciting things about this camp experiment was to see how the meaning of images shifts when presented in front of a live audience.
Why were you interested in having a stand-up comedian (of sorts) speak to your campers?
For me, the fundamental form of visual storytelling has always been the book. But over the years, as I was forced to do more and more public speaking, I realized that the slideshow was its own unexplored form of visual storytelling. I mean, the old family slideshow where mom and dad talk about their trip to Paris — that’s visual storytelling. But more often than not, of course, that’s bad visual storytelling. Mom and Dad show fifty pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Everyone else falls asleep.
How can one make this experience more engaging? I figured it would be good to learn from people who directly engage audiences, who make art out of public speaking. Comedians do exactly that.
TWO THINGS I WISH I’D REMEMBERED TO SAY
I’m not sure that I made art out of anything I said that last day of LBM camp. The short talk that I’d planned to give was to be a mix of jokes, personal anecdote, an examination of performance art vs. stand-up comedy vs. traditional storytelling, this crackpot theory I’ve got about story fundamentals, another joke or two and a few little humorous poems — because rhyme is a guaranteed closer every time. It was going to be dense with info, a little weird and, hopefully, hilarious. Unfortunately, by the time I talked to the LBM campers, neither they nor I much cared what I had to say. They were scrambling to finish their slideshows for Saturday night’s event, and I was more interested in what they’d been up to all week than I was in listening to myself blab.
I opened with three short, socially awkward stand-up bits to establish my cred with the campers. What happened next was a variation on the multiple themes I’d intended to hit upon and more — delivered with no focus or sense of form whatsoever. In that moment, I don’t think I could have been trusted to sing along to “Happy Birthday.” My scribbled outline/setlist (memorization has never been my strength) looked more foreign to me every time I glanced at it. I fumbled my way through scraps and pieces of what I had planned, but my talk was more socially awkward than I’d intended, for sure.
At least I was quick to sit up straight in my chair in the center of the room when I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, the guy with the camera covering camp for a Japanese photo mag snapping my picture.
Two things I wish I’d said to the LBM camp crew but didn’t remember in my rush to be done:
- There is nothing better you can do in front of an audience than remain present in that moment. That’s the only way something magical is going to happen. Performing has taught me that much. (Though I too rarely remember it.)
- I learned an incredibly valuable lesson about audiences doing performance art as an undergrad. Screaming at dead birds to fly as I threw them at classroom and campus art gallery windows, shouting about the myth of Icarus, I learned that, more than anything, people really hate performance art.
ONE MORE AND DONE
I wish I could’ve been clearer with Soth’s campers about one other thing I’d been overthinking.
My crackpot theory about “story” is that it’s not as complicated as the five elements or three acts we’re taught in school. An effective story can be as simple as “I” and “why.” A character (the “I”) merely needs to take some sort of action, which will define the story’s shape (elegant or egads). Revealing that character’s motivation (the “why”) will reveal the story’s heart (its emotional truth).
If I’d just said that, it would’ve been enough, I think.