Magnum photographer Alec Soth has been telling the stories behind America’s outsiders for over a decade – here’s how
The creator of hauntingly striking photographs, Minneapolis-born and based Alec Soth is a storyteller disguised as a documentary photographer. His images hint at an underlying story; capturing people and places set with a melancholy tone. A Magnum photographer as well as founder of his own publishing house Little Brown Mushroom, it takes just one glimpse of any of his many photography books like Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), NIAGARA (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2015) to begin to sense that these photographs are grouped together for a reason – to suggest a narrative, told through thematic photographs. Setting his gaze on the US – outside of New York and Los Angeles mostly – his distinct voice tells the story of the country’s outsiders. “I don't think there's anything more powerful than a story – I have this tug of war with storytelling, where I want to tell stories but it's not necessarily what photography's good at,” he says. “I'm definitely a project photographer – what photography is good at is suggesting a story without necessarily telling one.”
Before his appearance at The Photography Show in Birmingham (19-22 March), where he will discuss the many road trips where he captures his magical portraits, we asked him about the art of storytelling.
“I plan as much as I can ahead but then the reality of the world changes everything and it's this constant act of planning and then re-modulating based on what I find” – Alec Soth
FIND A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION OUTSIDE OF YOUR OWN FIELD
“When I was setting out it was photography that inspired me and now that's really faded away because it's just too much influence from the same medium and that’s not necessarily a healthy thing. I take a lot of inspiration from poetry – it functions a lot like photography – as well as film and literature.
Poetry for me is this current, it's this river that I dip into, but I don’t really have a favourite spot. Lately, there's this poet, Dean Young, who I've become really enamoured by. His way of mixing surrealism with American quality really resonates with my own work.”
LET YOUR IDEAS EVOLVE NATURALLY
“Generally I come up with some idea and I go out and start chasing after it and the idea morphs over time, like Sleeping by the Mississippi – when that one started it had nothing to do with the Mississippi river and had a totally different title. The most recent project Songbook started at The LBM Dispatch, which is a self-published newspaper that I worked on with Brad Zellar, a photo writer, so it's really about coming up with an idea but allowing it to evolve.
I plan as much as I can ahead but then the reality of the world changes everything and it's this constant act of planning and then re-modulating based on what I find.”
KNOW HOW TO APPROACH YOUR SUBJECTS
“As Richard Avedon always talked about, the photographer invariably has more power in the relationship because they choose when to take the picture. I tend to not do a tonne of posing but I certainly move people, I make the analogy to a family portrait and say ‘move to the right, move to the left, stop grinning like that’, all those kinds of things, but I'm generally not constructing whole scenes.
It can be quite intimate and have an intensity to it but I'm not the kind of photographer that ever lives with people for weeks. I like the brevity of it because photographs themselves have this fragmentary quality.
If you talk long enough with anyone you generally find that they're somewhat unusual, when you just get past the surface of things, there's something interesting deep down if you get in there. It's just that some people express this more openly than others so it's less obscured.”
BECOME A CHARACTER IN YOUR NARRATIVE
“In a sense, I take a lot of inspiration from the journalism that came to prominence in the 70s where the journalists didn't speak in the third person, it's like they are essentially a character in the story. While I don’t necessarily turn the camera on myself – I don’t want to sound like I have some authoritative view – I want to feel like a piece of the story, because I am.”
APPROACHING STRANGERS ISN’T EASY
“It just takes lots of practice, it's awkward and it's like having to be a door-to-door salesman. Knocking on someone's door, engaging with them and having to explain to people what I'm doing, the purpose I'm on and why I'm interested in that particular person. I have to reveal something about myself or my own agenda or insecurity to make people feel comfortable.”
FEEL, DON'T THINK
“To use a musical analogy it's like ‘why do you put in one note’? Photography's a felt thing, you’re like “over here I have that note so I need to counter it with this note” It's one of the hard things about teaching photography, it's something that's felt, as much as conceptually constructed.”
AUTHORSHIP IS KEY
“It's hard to say how technology is affecting the world of art photography – I see micro-trends happening all the time. My belief is that the more photographs there are, the more there's a need for authorship to defend an individual who's sharing a unique vision of the world and that the fragmentary individual pictures are less important than the overarching voice.
Everyone's been a photographer for a long time, even before Instagram, everyone was snapping away. What I say is that for professional photographers to be threatened is like a novelist being threatened by the fact that people write letters or emails. It's different, that's where authorship is important, and if you're doing something larger than that you shouldn’t feel threatened by people snapping pictures.”
YOUR WORK HAS VALUE; EVEN IF IT'S NOT SEEN BY MILLIONS
“Stories are always getting lost and the kind of work I do is seen by an infinitesimally small audience in the large scale of things. The number of people that read literary novels is always going to be tiny compared to people that read tabloid newspapers, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value.”
Tickets for The Photography Show are available here