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How to Be Alone and Loved by Millions

By Siri Engberg

The following e-mail correspondence between Walker visual arts curator Siri Engberg and Alec Soth took place as they organized From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, on view at the Walker Art Center September 12, 2010–January 2, 2011. Excerpts appeared in “How to Be Alone and Loved by Millions,” in the September/October 2010 issue of Walker magazine.

Siri Engberg

What led you to photography?

Alec Soth

It took me awhile to find the medium. My initial interest was in doing temporary sculptures outdoors. At the time I was a fan of the British earthwork artists Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Andy Goldsworthy. And like those artists, I documented my sculptures photographically. One thing led to another and I eventually stopped doing the sculpture. I found it a relief to call myself a photographer rather than an artist. I felt like a fraud when I called myself an ‘artist.’ I mean, I was terrible at drawing, not good at building things and uncomfortable in the studio. For me, the whole point was to be wandering around. And photography gave me a great excuse to wander.

Engberg

As much as you yourself are wandering, and like Richard Long, documenting your own journey through a kind of topography, you are also finding people, and allowing those encounters to interrupt the journey or change its course. How has this process of finding subjects—either locations or individuals, evolved for you? Or maybe I should ask how it began…

Soth

Back when I was doing that sort of land art, it was all about avoiding people. Growing up, I lived in a kind of fantasy world with forts in the woods, pretend friends and so on. I was a real wall-hugger in school. Painfully shy. So this was the attraction to people like Long. But when I made the shift to photography, I started falling in love with masters like Arbus and Hujar. They really sunk their teeth into these feelings of loneliness, longing and insecurity that I was secretly feeling so strongly. So as I knew that if I was going to continue with photograph and be any good, I need to come to terms with my fear of photographing strangers.

So after I left college, I started teaching myself how to photograph strangers. At first I started in a public park. It felt like a safe social space and there were a lot of kids around. Kids seemed less threatening. Eventually I started photographing their parents and outside of the park. I photographed all sorts of people from different ethnic and economic classes. I called the work Perfect Strangers. But it was never really a solid project. It was just practice. I mean, in the beginning, I my hands would be shaking so hard I could barely photograph. But eventually I settled down. Once I learned how to work with people, I was then able to incorporate strangers into my wandering.

Engberg

And the bar was another social space in which you found subjects early on. The At the Bar series seems to be more “micro” wandering—a more focused set of locations geographically—but a kind of world that sets an incredible backdrop for the people you found within.

Soth

The bar pictures were made out of desperation. At that time in my life I had a dead end job at Kodak that started at four in the morning. I was unhappy and spending a lot of my free time in bars. I figured I might as well get something done while I was there. Plus, bars are just a good place for a shy guy looking for other people.

Ever since making those pictures, I’ve used bars as a jumping off point for my wandering. I go to a new town, hit the tavern, and see where it takes me. (You might find this article helpful: http://www.citypages.com/2003-09-10/news/one-of-the-great-ones/)

Engberg

So, what do you gravitate toward when you start the search? Is it intuitive?

Soth

I’m not so good with totally aimless wandering. I need to have something to look for. In the beginning of a project, I have some sort of generalized idea of what the project is about. With NIAGARA, for example, I knew it was going to have something to do with love. So I start by looking for things related to love: couples, wedding chapels, etc. But very quickly the realities of the place change what I’m looking for. I’d never been to Niagara Falls before doing a project there. One of the first things to strike me about the place was the abundance of these fantastic old motels. So very quickly I knew the motels would be a part of the project.

I often create a list of things to look for while I’m driving around. Along with obvious stuff like motels and wedding chapels, I’ll have a bunch of brainstorming ideas that likely won’t ever be photographed: Marilyn Monroe look-a-likes, Men in Pajamas, body bags, etc. This helps guide my wandering.

Engberg

Body bags…Interesting. Has this process of free-association ever led you somewhere you wish you hadn’t gone?

Soth

Well, there are plenty of dead ends, but I rarely regret the journey. The body bags, for example, were part of a broader interest in suicide with the NIAGARA project. It was fascinating to me that the same place that attracted so many lovers also attracted people who wanted to kill themselves. So I was looking for different ways to get at the subject of suicide. One of the things I learned about was a guy named Wes Hill who used to be paid $50 to drag bodies of suicide jumpers out of the water. He’d taken over 400 bodies out in his lifetime. I took pictures of Wes in his basement, but it wasn’t a great portrait. I never used it or any of the other suicide stuff I tracked down. But for me it is still part of the project.

Engberg

It seems a major aspect of many of your projects involves language—lists, notations about people you’ve encountered; you also once had quite an active blog. How does your own writing factor into your working process?

Soth

I suppose I’m a wanna-be writer. I love the way language traces an idea - the way language moves. With photography, I’m constantly bumping up against the limitations of the medium. Sometimes I just can’t deal with all of these frozen little fragments. I want to make pictures flow into each other like words into a sentence.

Engberg

Your books have certainly done that—both in the way you have chosen to organize the images as a kind of abstract narrative, and in that you are often adding your own written commentary. Do you go into a new project thinking about it as a book, or does that part come later?

Soth

I always start with the book. I suppose this is also the wanna-be writer part of me. But in terms of visual media, books are something photography does particularly well. A reproduction of a painting isn’t worth too much. But photography is the art of reproduction. A picture in a book is often nearly as good, and sometime better, as a picture on a wall. But more importantly, I just like the way books work. I like the simple mechanics of a cover and a sequence of pages. It is deceptively simple. I mean, anyone can be a photographer. But it is nearly impossible to make a great book of photographs.

Engberg

So Sleeping by the Mississippi started this way—as a book project? I remember you explained to me how your booklet From Here to There was a sort of preliminary sketch for it—or at least evolved into it.

Soth

Pretty much every personal project starts as a book project. This is just the way I think. It all has to do with that feeling of ‘flow’ that I was talking about. A number of years ago I was reading the John Ashbery’s book-length, stream-of-consciousness poem, Flow Chart, and stumbled on an idea. What if I did an ongoing series of photographs in which one picture simply leads to the next? At the time the Internet was pretty new to me, and I loved this idea of web-surfing. My idea was to web-surf in the real world through photography.

So I made a picture of a boy with a chicken. Then I made a picture of man with an egg. Then a short order cook in a restaurant. Eventually I found that these links were too obvious and literal, and I started making bigger jumps. I went from a small church in Spillville, Iowa to the Southern coast of Iceland.

Along the way I made a picture of a woman named Kym in a bar in Minneapolis. She told me that she’d only taken one trip in her life. She and a boyfriend had gone to New Orleans. She’d had this fabulous time going to Bourbon Street and the cemeteries. But on her last day she’d left her camera in the taxi to the airport. She didn’t have any pictures from the trip. I told Kym that I’d drive down the Mississippi to New Orleans and re-take the pictures for her.

This is how the Mississippi project evolved. But even though it was called Sleeping by the Mississippi, at its heart the project is still really From Here to There. I mean, the pictures were made in that spirit of free association rather than out of some sort of documentary impulse. For example, the picture I used of Kym. Do you know how I got to her? I’d taken a picture of woman with detailed painting on her fingernails. I got interested in this did some research on the web. I ended up interviewing Leni Cano, an Israeli man considered to be ‘the father of fingernail fetish photography.’ In the course of our conversation I asked him if I could be a fingernail photographer even though I didn’t have the fetish. Or, could I learn the fetish? Anyway, this led to a whole bunch of pictures of women’s fingernails that I took in bars. And this led to Kym.