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Photographer Alec Soth on a Life of Approaching Strangers

January 5, 2011 at 4:50 PM EST
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Photographer Alec Soth showcased his work in Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, including exhibits entitled "33 Movie Theaters and a Funeral Home" and "Broken Manual." Twin Cities Public Television profiled him, and it's part of our NewsHour Connect series highlighting public media reporting from around the nation.
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Twin Cities Public Television produced two pieces on Alec Soth for the arts show, “MN Original.” One introduces Soth’s work and the second follows his preparation for an exhibit at the Walker Art Center.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the work of Minnesota photographer Alec Soth. Our story is part of our series, Newshour Connect, showcasing public media reporting around the nation. This profile is a combination of two stories produced by Twin Cities Public Television — told by the artist himself.

ALEC SOTH, photographer: No matter who you are, everyone is going to say one sentence about you. This is my 8×10 camera.

“He’s the guy that photographs Weimaraners.”

“She was a student of so-and-so.”

For better or worse, this camera sort of became my trademark. And you can’t really create that sentence, but you can sort of help determine what it’s not.

My favorite thing about it is actually looking through it. There’s just something really beautiful about the way it renders space.

SIRI ENGBERG, curator, Walker Art Center: Alec Soth is an artist who uses photography to really tell stories. But he’s doing this in a way that is not the traditional type of storytelling with photography. This idea of finding the beauty in the unexpected, looking in out-of-the-way places for subjects and for — and scenes set that somehow invoked an America or a place that people would not really anticipate.

ALEC SOTH : Sometimes I want to get this camera off my back. I’ve always had a real problem with the medium of photography. I was a painfully shy person, so it’s really strange that I’ve made a life out of approaching strangers. And photography is an incredibly limiting medium. Being frozen in time means you can’t really tell stories. You know? It’s very fragmentary. In a world, yeah, where there 500,000 pictures a second being uploaded onto Facebook, you know, what does it mean to be a photographer in that environment?

SIRI ENGBERG: In 2004, Alec was chosen as one of the artists in the Whitney Biennial, which is a showcase nationally of American artists. It’s a show meant to take the pulse of what’s happening in American art and includes a spectrum of artists from emerging to — to well known. And for a virtual unknown, has he was at that time, it was a huge launching pad.

ALEC SOTH: Can you print out on…

I’m preparing for an exhibition at the Walker Center. It’s — it’s a big survey show, work from all over America.

I mean what I wanted to do with the show at Walker is not have it be a retrospective, because, you know, I don’t think I’m old enough for a retrospective. And I wanted to give it some sort of shape.

To be a local artist, it’s — it’s really hard to make it at the local institution. You sort of have to make it out there before you can make it here.

This show at the Walker, you know, it’s, for me it’s like, it’s a really big deal. There are wall photographers and there are book photographers and that I’m a book photographer. I sort of know how books work and how to sequence for a book. But I really struggle with walls. And — and installation.

This is the first room that you see when you walk into the exhibition. And this room is — is all work from my project, “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” which is the — really, the first significant body of work that I did and it’s sort of how I made my name and all of that kind of stuff.

So in here, then, is my second body of work that — that followed up on “Sleeping by the Mississippi.” It’s entitled “Niagara.” With this work, I really wanted even more scale. I wanted the viewer to have this real physical reaction to the work. On the flip side, I also did portraits, sometimes of newlyweds and honeymooners and that sort of thing.

This is maybe my favorite picture from “Niagara.” It’s — her name’s Melissa. What I love about it is the way that the dress — this kind of billowing dress, it kind of mimics the mist of the falls, in a way.

My interest in the falls has to do with this weird relationship between it being a place to get married and a place to commit suicide.

Why do people choose such — you know, this incredibly forceful, frightening, powerful waterfall as a metaphor for a new love?

This one is called “33 Movie Theaters and a Funeral Home.” All of them were made in Texas. There’s a map sort of showing my journey around Texas to photograph these movie theaters.

So I thought of this whole exhibition as being this kind of geographical journey and I wanted to include one realm that was home. And so all these pictures are made in Minnesota. Every year at fall, I’m like, I’m going to finally do the Minnesota winter project, you know, that I’ve been dreaming of. And then it gets really cold and like the sucks and I don’t do it. But some year, I aim to do it.

So this is my exhibition within an exhibition, called “Broken Manual.” And what it is an exploration on the idea of wanting to run away, wanting to disappear. In the end — and I saw this over and over again with the people I met — you need other people. And there’s always some connection to society.

Over here is — is the real fantasy of where I would run away to if I were to run away. It’s called “Lost Boy Mountain.”

Up here is a tree house—it’s a bed. And down below, you go down the steps and then there’s a ladder inside that takes you down into a cave. So I have this really strong memory of being in high school, when I first got interested in art. And I came to the Walker and there was an exhibition by the artist, Jonathan Borofsky. And that exhibition, you know, it just — it felt so alive to me. And the thought that I’m not having an exhibition like that and potentially, you know, there’s going to be some teenager who’s going to draw from it, that’s really fantastic.

JIM LEHRER: Alec Soth’s exhibition at the Walker Art Center closed a few days ago, but there are now plans for a traveling exhibition later this year.