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Vivianne Sassen

Brighton Photo Biennial: Alec Soth

Soth's seven-year old daughter shoots his entry for one of the UK's biggest annual exhibitions

This upcoming weekend, one of the most important festivals of international and contemporary photography in the UK takes place,  the fourth edition of Brighton Photo Biennial. This year sees the satirical documentary photographer and internationally renowned Martin Parr guest curate the 2010 instalment entitled New Documents, “As a curator, I want to make this festival fresh, distinctive and focused on Brighton & Hove.” In a response to what Parr describes as “a natural cultural constituency of its own” he asked three artists to create Strange and Familiar, giving three alternative views of the outré city. "We wanted some better known photographers – people who were, if you like, in mid-career – to come to Brighton and do their own version of the place," he explains. One of which is Minneapolis photographer Alec Soth. 

Represented in many public and private collections worldwide, his photography is cinematic and evocative and often suggests a story is at play. Receiving much critical acclaim for his work, his images have a similar feel to that of Stephen Shore’s and Walker Evans’. However on his way over to produce photographs for Brighton Photo Biennial he was faced with customs at Heathrow who banned him from working without a visa. With little option he turned to the unlikely expertise of his seven year old daughter. Here we speak to Alec Soth about the festival and his rather unusual photographic collaboration.

Dazed Digital: For the Brighton Photography Biennial you have taken a rather different approach other exhibitors – can you describe your series and how you came to it?
Alec Soth: My original plan was to do something related to the Argus newspaper. I hoped to follow around a photographer see what that might bring. But when I arrived along with my family at Heathrow, the customs agent reprimanded me for not having a work visa. After threatening to put us right back on the plane for home, he finally allowed us to stay, but strictly forbade me from working. He said if I was caught photographing I could face a severe financial penalty and up to two years in prison.

This forced me to do some creative thinking. My daughter Carmen has always liked playing with my digital camera. For the last couple of years I’ll give it to her and let her fire off some pictures and see what she comes up with. Because it is fast and highly automated (but also high quality) there are often some really interesting results. I thought it would be interesting to see what she could do in Brighton. Each day we would go out walking for a few hours. Over the course of two weeks she took 2,000 pictures.

DD: Does this mean anyone can be a photographer?
Alec Soth: Yes, absolutely. That is the beauty of the medium. It is totally democratic. So many great pictures have been made by amateurs. But great projects? That is a different matter.

DD: How did you find this process of image making?
Alec Soth: I was jealous! I'd give anything to be able to see the world with such open eyes. Her visual vocabulary isn't cluttered with all of the cliches and references that mine is.

DD: How did you decide on the final edit?
Alec Soth: I did all of the editing. That's the big lesson of this project. In the digital age, anyone can make a great picture, but it does take some knowledge to edit a project. With my edit, I was trying to communicate this idea of 'fresh eyes' by subtly using the metaphors of Easter, sprintime, renewal, etc.

DD: What do you want viewers to take from these images?
Alec Soth: Well, on one level these images are one sort of document of Brighton. They show this city from a child's perspective which has as much validity as if a professional had made the pictures. But I'm more interested in the journey than the destination. With this work, I hope that people think about what it takes to see the world around them anew.

DD: What does being a part of the BPB and under the curation of the incredible Martin Parr mean to you?
Alec Soth: I cannot overstate how much I admire Martin. Along with being so insightful about the medium, he is incredibly generous with his knowledge. He mentors young photographers in an open way that is very rare for someone of his stature. I was thrilled to be part of his project. But when it came to be that I was unable to make the pictures, I was also nervous. I didn't want to disappoint Martin. Fortunately he totally understood what the work was about. Martin has always championed vernacular and untutored photography. In a way, he was the perfect fit for this project. 

DD: Who else's work are you pleased to see in the photography festival and why?
Alec Soth: Well, the two other folks in my show are longtime favorites. Stephen Gill and Rinko Kawauchi are both exceptional artists. I'm excited to see the dynamic between our three rooms. Lastly, Zoe Strauss is a friend and I can't wait to see what she comes up with.

DD: Poetry and texts figure in many of your series and also heavily on your blog – are these the underlying messages to your work and how important is the written word in what you do?
Alec Soth: I wouldn't say they are underlying messages as much as simultaneous messages. I'm constantly battling the limitations of the photographic medium. For better or worse, I use text as a way to try to push photography to more than I can do with images alone.

DD: How much of your photography is autobiographical?
Alec Soth: 89%

DD: What projects care you working on next and do you have any plans to venture into other mediums such as film?
Alec Soth: For the last year I've been doing a number of experiments with audio/video presentations. Most notably I'm doing a series on the New York Times website called The Continental Picture Show. These are little short stories I've done while traveling around America. My goal for the forseeable future is to keep working on short stories until I feel something larger that I need to do. (I just finished a four year project called Broken Manual that was a part of my 15 year survey at the Walker Art Center).

DD: How would you describe what you do?
Alec Soth: It's your basic hunting and gathering. The photograph is the trophy mounted on the wall...for me it mostly just serves as a reminder of the hunt.

Brighton Photo Biennial is on between October 2 and November 14, 2010