Alec Soth Advice on Approaching Strangers, Working on Projects, Photographing Abroad, and More

Copyright: Alec Soth / Magnum Photos
Copyright: Alec Soth / Magnum Photos

While in NYC, I visited the ICP bookstore and picked up “Ping Pong Conversations: Alec Soth with Francesco Zanot a lovely photobook/series of interview questions. I found it to have lots of great wisdom regarding photographing strangers, editing, and projects.

I copied my favorite excerpts which I found was particularly helpful, especially to those of you who want to be more serious about your photography and projects. Read more to learn from him!

On photographing strangers

“Once I was out of school I started to realize that there were no people in my pictures. I was terrified to approach strangers. But of course I loved pictures of people, so I needed to figure out how to do it. With “Perfect Strangers” I was teaching myself how to approach people. It was practice. I started photographing ordinary people in public places because they weren’t so scary. Then I grew more and more courageous and started photographing different types of people. But as I did so I found myself attracted to certain types. There’s something bout the practice of it that I found really interesting. It makes you question yourself. It’s like being in a bar and seeing a woman that’s attractive. Why is she attractive to you? Is it because of the clothes she’s wearing? Because she looks like your mom?”

Looking for photogenic people

Interviewer: Are you usually aware of the peculiarities of your subjects before pressing the button?”

Alec Soth: “Not necessarily. Sometimes I am driving down the street and just see from someone’s posture that it’s the kind of person I’m looking for. But the point of the “Perfect Strangers” period was that in photographing all of these people, sometimes for very cliche reasons, I began figuring out what I was authentically attracted to. But I’m a photographer, so some of the things attract me just because they are photogenic. It’s like seeing someone with an eyepatch: you can’t resist taking a picture of him.”

On creating narratives

“Even though I went into photography as a painter or as a wannabe artist, I did very quickly get into that photographer mentality of repeating the same gesture. Do I need a picture of a tree? Ok, so I’ll take ten of them and put them together. I didn’t know how to develop the poetry between pictures. I was afraid of connecting apparently disconnected images. After photographing in the bars I worried about becoming too ‘documentary’, so I started working in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way. There was a sort of dream logic connecting the pictures. I had an exhibition of that work here in Minnesota. I liked it, but there was something wrong… everyone remembered the same pictures of a flock of sheep but not the other ones I’d made.”

Revaluate your earlier work

“The nice thing about being a photographer is that you can constantly re-evaluate your own pictures. I like doing these experiments where I reassess mew irk from an earlier time. I don’t remember who it was, but a writer was asked about his influences and he replied that when you’re young you have mentors and role models, but as your writing develops the main influence becomes your own work. You start responding to what you’ve done before.”

On using a large-format camera

“[Around 1997] I was looking at Nicholas Nixon, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, Sally Man, and all these photographers whose works were very different but all of whom used the 8×10 view camera. I figured it was something I should try. I don’t love talking about technology, but in fact it really did change things. Technology plays an essential role in what I do and it transforms the way in which I interact with the world. A key thing for me when I use large format is that I don’t walk around with the camera. I usually leave it in the car. Only after meeting people or finding something to photograph do I go back and get it. This radically changes my relationship with the subject. It’s less predatory. With portraiture this gives the subject time to react. The awkwardness that happens when you point a camera into someone’s face diminishes.”

On large-format versus 35mm

“With an 8×10 there’s this kind of creaminess to the image quality. And there’s something bout the viewing experience too. looking at an 8×10 ground glass is a very sensual act. Particularly in portraiture there’s something about the way depth of field works. It’s like sculpting the subject out of the space. what was challenging was my ambition to combine the stream-of-consciousness flow with the precision and formality of large format photography. It was very difficult. The flow of “The Americans” is like a river current, whereas large format photography tends to have the rhythm of a marching band: Bam! Bam! Bam! This is something I struggled with. Indeed I think most of the great photo books are 35mm. That’s because the of the presence of in-between pictures, the ones which maybe aren’t the greatest but help to move the whole sequence along. In music, Miles Davis called them the butter notes.”

On photographing at home versus abroad

“That’s something I am conflicted about, because I believe in photographing at home. But I wasn’t successful with it. I think that was for two reasons. One is that real life has a way of seeping in and causing distraction. The other factor is novelty. Since everything’s new when you travel, your eyes are more easily opened up. I know I function better in such situations. That said, in retrospect, It hunk I am better when I am away from home, but not too far. Away from the distractions yes, but close enough to read the minutiae and details of an environment I understand.”

On not getting to know your subjects

[On the picture of Charles].

Interviewer: “So you didn’t know him before taking his portrait and didn’t spend much time getting acquainted with him.”

Soth: “No, and I would rather not. Because by not knowing him I can project whatever I want onto the picture. I know it’s ethically problematic, because I am using this real person for my project. This is something that does bother me.”

On iconic photographs

[On his famous photo of Charles pictured above]

Interviewer: “How do you feel about your iconic “Charles” photograph?

Soth: “The good thing is that i love this picture. I mean, I am tired of it, but I’m very lucky that it’s my signature picture, because its the one that i like and its representative of me and my interests. I appreciate iconic photographs and the power that they have. I want to make iconic photographs, I like that it can happen, but at the same time i know theres no formula. So I am happy to have made one, even if its not my goal. My goal is to make a great book and great connections between photographs.”

On directing portraits

Interviewer: How do you arrange your subjects?

Soth: “Each picture is different. In this case we went through the house, then he took us up onto his roof. Net to where he’s standing there’s a room he calls his cockpit. It alike a warehouse for his model airplanes. He was already wearing the flight suit, so of course i thought it was great! In terms of posing, I think the process is analogous to what one does when taking a family picture. You say to the subjects, “closer together, a little bit this way, you back there you’re not smiling…” I direct portraits to that extent, but chaos inevitably ensues.”

On arranging photographs

“I do touch the environment, I do it a lot, but I think it’s problematic. This picture I took in an abandoned house is a good example. Things are too arranged. It;s too perfect. If I look a this picture now i am really frustrated. I walked into this room and there was this hospital bed, just amazing. Under this hospital bed is this string that leads to a hole in the floor, which is also amazing. And that’s enough. That’s all is needed. Nowadays when I move things it’s usually to take them out of the picture. But at this stage of my career I would move stuff into the frame, I’d pack the picture with information. If I took this picture now I would like to move the TV out, and the broom too.”

On editing

“The original sequence of Niagara was much darker, but I edited out a lot of the harsh material because it was too overpowering. Desperate letters, penises, cocaine, a guy masturbating… they were all edited out. They would have overwhelmed the sequence. I wanted a certain amount of intensity, but it was getting too dark and it was no longer about love and longing. Half of photography is making the pictures and half of it is editing the pictures. Editing things out is crucial.”

On color photography

“I don’t think that as a color photographer you have to photograph colorful things, but you need to see the world in color and respond to color relationships. It’s a mind-set. Now I shoot in black and white occasionally, so I have to remember to turn that switch in the brain and forget about the seductive power of colors. Much of it is related to thew quality of light In Mississippi, Niagara, and Bogota there’s often this overcast soft light which I like in color for its kind of creaminess. Incidentally Bogota was printed digitally, because the negatives were processed in Columbia and were terribly damaged. So I had to scan them. After working on them digitally, I de-saturated all the colors quite a bit to give this feeling of memory.”

Editing a project

“I think so much of the art of photography is editing. When you publish some pictures it’s not like you’re burning all the negatives: they still exist, and I figure they can always have some other life down the road. At this pivotal time after eight years of George W. Bush, I thought it was interesting to look at pictures from America that had some sort of resilience for me. I wanted to take control and reshuffle them. I am a project photographer, but I do like making individual pictures. sometimes individual pictures just fall out, there’s just no function within a larger project. That was a way of putting them back into a container. It’s like a collection of fragments.”

On failure

“For me photography has failure built in. It’s about this wish to possess time, but you never can, you can’t preserve a moment. It’s a medium of desire, and of trying to fulfill that desire, but never reaching it.”

To learn more about Alec Soth, read my article on him: 14 Lessons Alec Soth Has Taught Me About Street Photography

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