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Matinee: Alec Soth Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

30 May 2015

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the eighty-seventh in our series of Saturday matinees today: Photographer Alec Soth on a Life of Approaching Strangers plus Photographing 'The Cloud' in Silicon Valley and Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree.

First broadcast on the PBS NewsHour several years ago and based on video from Twin Cities Public Television, this six-minute profile of Minnesota photographer Alec Soth introduces his work on the occasion of his exhibit at the Minneapolis' Walker Art Center.

"No matter who you are, everyone's going to say one sentence about you," he begins as he unpacks his view camera.

Walker Art Center curator Siri Engberg describes his work in more than one sentence, though. He tells stories, she points out, but not in a traditional way. His finds subjects among the unusual and beauty among the unexpected.

But he isn't among those photographers who think the medium is ideal for story telling. Just the opposite. "Photography is an incredibly limiting medium," he says. "Being frozen in time means you can't really tell stories. It's very fragmentary."

But he can tell a story and he does, telling us his own story as he walks us through the several rooms of his Walker Art Center exhibition:

  • The first room contains his early images from Mississippi, for which he first became noticed. They are stunning portraits, stark, rich shots.
  • The second room displays images of Niagra, the area and the falls. He wonders out loud how the Falls can attract both newlyweds and suicides.
  • The third room features one piece composed of prints of thirty-three movie theaters and a funeral home from Texas arranged on one wall with a map on an adjacent wall showing his travels through the state.
  • The fourth room is reserved for home, he says. His winter images of Minnesota, a project he always planned to do -- until the temperature dropped.
  • Then he shows us Broken Manual, his exhibition within an exhibition, on the theme of running away. But "you need other people," he concludes. "There's always some connection to society."

The NewsHour piece is a nice edited quick overview of Soth's work, described in his own words.

Almost three years later, Soth was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to do a series of images of Silicon Valley. In this 3:39-minute second piece, he tells us how he approached this particular subject:

Silicon Valley? "Is this place made out of some alien material?" he wonders. His first impulse was to avoid the computer industry but "you just don't go to the Gold Rush and not photograph gold diggers."

Photography is a great medium, he flatters it, "but it's deeply flawed." You're just dealing with "the surface of things."

So he decided to shoot "the pilgrimage sites" of those garages where HP and Apple were born. But just "the garage exterior, the door, washed out." Just the surface, "using it like a diving board" to get into the thing you can't see.

The video takes us from the site of those garages to the prints. We see the transformation as Soth describes it.

In both of those videos Soth talks about his work. But in this final piece, he shot the video and lets it speak for itself.

Titled Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, the 6:23 production holds scene after scene of what appears to be rather uninspiring landscape. But rather than wait for the next scene, you explore what happens in front of you, almost as if you are looking for some amusement out a hotel window at dusk.

The video was produced as part of Aperture Remix, an exhibition of work commissioned to honor an Aperture publication that influenced the artist. Soth had been intrigued by Robert Adams's 1985 monograph Summer Nights as a young photographer. And the video is his hommage to Adams.

In addition to his home page, you can view selected photo essays on his Magnum page.

Now about that one sentence....

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