Alec Soth’s work is rooted in the distinctly American tradition of ‘on-the-road photography’ developed by Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Stephen Shore. From Huckleberry Finn to Easy Rider there seems to be a uniquely American desire to travel and chronicle the adventures that consequently ensue. Soth’s photographs have been collected and shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the 2004 Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
We caught up with the Magnum Photos member on the eve of his upcoming exhibition, “Songbook” at Sean Kelly Gallery, on view through March 14th, 2015.
What’s the premise of your upcoming exhibition at Sean Kelly, and what was its genesis?
My last project exhibited at Sean Kelly was called Broken Manual. This work was about the desire to retreat from society. Upon its completion, I’d had enough solitude and wanted to explore community life. This new project, Songbook, is about re-engaging with social life around the country. I did this in a variety of means, but the majority of the work was made while working on a self-published newspaper.
What was it was like to assume the role of a “small town news reporter,” traveling from state to state across the country?
In my mid-twenties I worked for a suburban newspaper in Minnesota. The stories I covered were pretty generic: a ribbon cutting for a new store, a city council meeting, that sort of thing. A long time after I left that job, I wondered if those same scenes might be interesting, if seen in a different way. So a few years ago, I asked the writer Brad Zellar to accompany me on an assignment. We quickly learned that the world of small newspapers is completely fascinating if approached slightly askew. Twin Peaks is right around the corner.
It’s been said that the cornerstone of your photographs is the chemistry you create with strangers, what do you think about this idea?
I’m not sure. A photograph is simply light reflecting off of surfaces – the rest is projection. My camera doesn’t penetrate anybody’s soul, nor do I. I’m not saying I don’t have a relationship with the people I photograph, but I’m not sure that this relationship can be read in the pictures.
According to your gallery your images tackle the tension between American individualism and the desire to be united, can you comment on this?
We live in a country that treasures individualism. We have all of these myths of the cowboy and the self-made man. But if I learned anything from my years of work tracking down hermits and recluses, it is that we need other people to stay sane. We long for connection. This dualism can be found in a lot of my work and is at the heart of Songbook.
You’ve also said that you’re in love with the process of taking photos, and it feels like a kind of performance, what do you mean by this?
I like the process of moving through the world. Before I was a photographer, I was interested in land artists like Richard Long. I liked the idea that a walk could be a work of art. I feel like the process of driving around looking at people and things is also a kind of artwork.
Do you think that your wanderlust fuels your desire to document the world or is the other way around?
The wanderlust is the engine, definitely. The fact that I produce something that looks like documentary photographs is just a happy byproduct of my process.
What’s something that’s really exciting you at the moment?
A few years ago I began to realize the creative potential of live slideshows. After creating a workshop to explore this idea, I’ve started experimenting. Last fall I did an event on stage with Billy Bragg. I found the whole thing both exciting and terrifying.
What’s the thing or idea that most frightens you?
It sounds corny or cliché, but as an artist I think it is essential to keep listening to that weird little voice inside. I’ve always been nervous about having that voice drowned out by career expectations. But as I get older, this concern has been replaced with fears of my voice becoming atrophied by age.
Have you had an epic fail in your life and how did you recover?
Great question. I’ve never told this story, but in college I studied poetry. I had a teacher who thought the world of me. He actually got me published. Anyway, at the end of the semester, he wanted me to give a public reading. I had a terror of public speaking and couldn’t do it. So I drank a bunch of wine. I don’t remember the reading, but I know it was a disaster. Part of the attraction of being a photographer is that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with public speaking. Boy, was I wrong. It took me about fifteen years to get over this fear.
That’s a secret for now. In order to preserve that little voice inside me, I’ve found it’s helpful not to blab about it prematurely.