Minnesota photographer Alec Soth’s pictures bring to light the quirkiness and humanity of people he encounters and the places where they live. From 2012–2014, Soth embarked on a series of state-by-state road trips to make a portrait of present-day America. His journey through each state that he visited was printed in a “dispatch” format that calls to mind a small town newspaper or travel guide. I spoke with Soth in anticipation of his visit to the Denver Art Museum for an Anderman Photography Lecture on June 5 and the opening of Alec Soth: Colorado Dispatch, which features a selection of the work Soth made in Colorado in 2013.
Micah Messenheimer: Much of your work is rooted in the act of the journey. Can you describe how this unfolds in your Dispatch work? How does this project differ from your earlier series of photographs that also explored the idea of place?
Alec Soth: It’s bewildering that so much of my work is born out of travel. I’ve never been the hitch-hiking-through-Europe kind of guy. But for reasons that I don’t totally understand, my photography took off once I hit the road. I’ve taken a number of different approaches to this movement. For Sleeping by the Mississippi, for example, I was in constant movement along the Mississippi River while in Niagara I stationed myself in a single region for weeks at a time. The Colorado Dispatch falls somewhere between these two approaches. There was fairly constant movement, but by limiting the travel to the state it made the investigation a bit more focused.
MM: While some photographers work from their deep attachment to a place, you’re willing to wander. To do so requires that you accept a small amount of chance in what you find. What role does serendipity play in your photography?
AS: Serendipity is the key ingredient. But by its very nature serendipity can’t be expected. I can’t just hit the road and expect magical things to happen. For the recipe to be successful, I need a good deal of planning and structure. So each trip I make is preceded by a great deal of research. Only a small amount of this research pays off as a picture, but without it I’d be lost. All of this research does lead to a certain amount of expectation about a place. But the realities of a place inevitably surprise.
MM: While you draw upon documentary practices, you’re also very open about the potential of a photograph to imply a narrative that differs substantially from reality. How do you deal with this tangled relationship between photography and storytelling?
AS: I thrive in this jungle. If I had an agenda I’d be a politician. I want people to find their own meaning in my work.
MM: The printed Dispatches (and your Tumblr feed) presented your photographs alongside Brad Zellar’s writing. In this exhibition—as well as in Songbook—the photographs are shown without their accompanying stories. What went into your decision whether or not to offer this context?
AS: One of the beautiful things about photography is the way it can function in so many different contexts. I feel lucky that I get to share my work in such distinctly different places as The New York Times, Instagram, and the Denver Art Museum. Each time one of my pictures is used in those different contexts, the meaning changes. This is something I cherish. I also treasure the role of text in this shifting of meaning. I like the way a text-free picture in a museum can have one meaning and the same image in a newspaper can have a very different meaning. It isn’t an either-or proposition.
MM: I’d like to look specifically at your portraits. There’s a quirky sensibility that you’re drawn to—or maybe draw forth—among your subjects. How do you identify the people you photograph?
AS: In describing how I identify the people I photograph, I like to make the analogy to romantic attraction. Why is one attracted to one person over a hundred others? Is it based on your parents, your first babysitter, or genetics? It is hard to identify, but when you feel this attraction, you know it. That is the way I usually choose the people I photograph; I’m simply attracted to them.
MM: You’ve written that there’s a certain amount of dishonesty in thinking of a portrait as a collaboration between a photographer and a subject. That being said, where do you find the balance between embracing an encounter and directing a situation? People have expectations of how they should present themselves in a photograph. Is this something you encourage or try to counteract?
AS: With the rare exception of a commissioned portrait, the work I made is usually conceived out of my own interest. In that sense, it is not collaboration. But nevertheless, every portrait is representative of a relationship. Photographic relationships vary as much as human relationships. The way I photograph an eight-year-old girl is different than the way I photograph a 60-year-old man. Some people I direct more than others. The analogy I like to make is to the making of a family portrait. Rarely does such a portrait happen spontaneously. Usually you gather the family together. You might also direct the scene a bit “move closer together, smile, stop making bunny ears Johnny.”
MM: Okay: enough serious talk about photography. If you had three words to encapsulate your time working in Colorado, what would they be?
AS: Outdoorsy, westward, welcomers.
Image credit top: Alec Soth, Fun Valley (detail), South Fork, 2013. © Alec Soth
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