This Week In Photography Books – Alec Soth

by Jonathan Blaustein

I signed up for Instagram a few months ago. As ridiculous as it sounds, I use my Ipad to shoot the photographs. It’s a crappy camera, but what I love most is that I see something, reach for the tablet, and make a picture. It’s perfectly unprecious, and I appreciate that the platform engenders occasional creativity in me, nothing more.

Normally I stay away from the day-to-day controversies in cyberworld, but this Instagram Term of Service kerfuffle is too good to pass up. We can all be as outraged as we like, and feel free to think that way. (Which comes first, I wonder, the liquor or the pitchforks? Wouldn’t you have drink first before you went out to hunt Frankenstein’s monster?)

Can we not acknowledge the silliness of trying to commodify the random, meaningless little compositions we create? If there are billions of these things (photos) getting made every day, how much could any one of them truly be worth? Value is traditionally derived from scarcity, for heaven’s sake.

How much money do you expect to lose when Instagram charges some dumb company $.00037 to put their ad next to your filtered photo? Does anyone actually think they’ll be denied untold riches from Mr. Zuckerberg’s secret vault? (I’ll have the rubies, thank you.)

Rather than focus on the news cycle, though, I wanted to write this last column of the year with a more important message. In the time I’ve been writing here, (2.5 years,) it seems as if the publication industry has started to stabilize, as has the American economy. So, many of you are off the proverbial ledge, worrying about how to pay the mortgage. At least, I hope that’s true.

So, for 2013, as we all emerge from perma-fear-mode, why not take a risk? Try something new. Learn a new skill. Make a conscious effort to improve yourself, and your knowledge base. Embrace the New Year with a sense of opportunity, rather than fear. (And of course I’ll try to do the same.)

Why am I off on this rant today? Why no mention of the wife and kids? Because I just finished looking at Alec Soth’s “Looking for Love 1996,” published by Kominek, and it seemed like the perfect catalyst for a “stretch yourself” message today. (Plus, that was the year I graduated college and took up photography, so I couldn’t resist the chance to wax philosophical.)

According to the text, Mr. Soth began investing in his photographic talents while working at a commercial printing facility in 1996. He would print other people’s birthday photos all day long, and then go out at night to drink and photograph away his misery. He also admits, after the statute of limitations has probably run its course, that he would make his own prints and sneak them out at night, wrapped around his legs. (Cue vision of the robot dance.)

I know Mr. Soth has many, many publications on the market. I don’t know if you should buy this one to add to your collection. That’s up to you. But his photographic style, though raw, is certainly on display here. He walks the line between pathos and poking fun at people. The photos display an eye for detail, and the ability to celebrate the awkward moment, rather than gut it like a branzino destined for the grill.

There is a bit of a time capsule feel to the book. It’s all in black and white, which is not the way we know Mr. Soth’s best work. It really is a cool little object, and ends with a dorktastic self-portrait. The artist, lacking his now-famous beard, lounges back in a tuxedo, sans jacket and bow-tie. The look in his eye is a bit doofy, but you can definitely sense the beginning of some serious confidence. (What the f-ck are you looking at?)

Let’s all take inspiration from Mr. Soth’s journey. Let 2013 be the time when you too try to build something fresh. I’m not advocating theft, per se. But my New Year’s wishes for you are clear. I hope, this time next year, that you find yourself fulfilled, and capable of new and dynamic things.

Bottom Line: Very cool collection of the artist’s early work

To Purchase “Looking for Love 1996” visit Photo-Eye

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.


Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 27 Comments On This Article.

  1. Great black and whites. My fave is the old guy feeding the lady with a cig a cherry — that’s a grand-slam home run and so funny. I award this book my highest rating — 4 Green Bathrobes! :)

  2. Przemyslaw Stroinski

    I like b&w but Alec Soth have great sensitivity for colour,.. it’s a waste

    objectively great works, but not best of Alec Soth.

  3. Was pleasantly surprised when I first saw this book. It revealed ‘new’ and welcomed aspects about Soth’s vision that are absent in his color work. The people and occasions he photographs here are alive, full of quirks and life’s little oddities. Conspicuously absent is the zombie nation made famous in his “deadpan” portraits. Too bad he’s sacrificed so much of what life has to offer in the name of color.

    • “Too bad he’s sacrificed so much of what life has to offer in the name of color.”

      That’s quite a silly thing to say on many levels but let’s just focus on one. It ignores a large part of Soth’s work. Two of Soth’s monographs (“Sleeping by the Mississippi” and “Niagara”) are strictly 8×10 color and contain his “deadpan” portraits. Then there’s “Dog Days, Bogota” which is not 8×10 so it’s a bit more spontaneous in style and less ‘deadpan’ but still quite formal. Then there’s “Broken Manual” which is a mix of bw and color. Since then he seems to have mostly switched to bw and flash which is much more like this early work from 1996.
      It seems to me that he has explored an extensive range of styles so it can hardly be said that he has sacrificed anything in the name of color.

      • RA- Thanks for turning me on to his B&W Ohio essay, work I was unfamiliar with and will continue to go back to (and which does, in fact, look very much like his earlier B&W). I’m a fan of much of his color work, but as I alluded to previously, too bad he doesn’t incorporate some of the spontaneity of his B&W into his color.

        Then again, B.B. King didn’t sing and play Lucille at the same time either…

        • I understand what you’re saying but I don’t think spontaneity would’ve done the Mississippi and the Niagara series much good. I think the mood of the pictures perfectly fit the subject matter. Or, to use your music analogy, if you’re going to play a slow lovesong you don’t want to go off on a free jazz tangent in the middle of it.

          I wouldn’t have wanted to see any spontaneity in those two books but I’m happy that he’s now switching it up instead of just continuing to produce the same kind of work over and over again. There’s a part of me who wants my favourite musicians to just play the hits but then again it’s much more interesting to hear the new songs.

    • “Can we not acknowledge the silliness of trying to commodify the random, meaningless little compositions we create?”

      They may start out as random and/or meaningless, but once someone purposely chooses one- it then becomes both meaningful and valuable. Going beyond the cents & dollars (or scarcity thereof) how’d ya like one of your photos (meant perhaps for nothing more than light hearted observation) being used to bolster a multinational conglomerate actively engaged in raping and poisoning the environment, forcing people from their homes for corporate profit, or helping start a few local wars here or there? Makes ya kinda feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside, don’t it?

      • I second Stan. I’m less concerned with making money off my Instagram pictures and more concerned with who or what my images are endorsing. I’d like to retain that control.

        • I don’t Instagram, so I hadn’t much paid attention to the whole shebang. But it took all of two seconds to realize what the possible consequences are. One would have to be a fool not to be concerned about involuntarily having your images appropriated by god knows who, for who knows what- leaving you with no legal recourse whatsoever (even in theory).

          Be interesting to see a show of hands of how many photographers are OK with that…

  4. scott Rex ely

    Thanks for shrugging off the Instagram kerfuffle.
    Nice to know we can count on the sober/serious people to help us decide what value we have for our own work.

    • scott Rex ely

      It reminds me of the bumper sticker” I wasn’t using all of my civil liberties anyway”.

  5. “In the time I’ve been writing here, (2.5 years,) it seems as if the publication industry has started to stabilize…”

    As somebody who works in the publishing industry, I’ll just say, um…no. It’s, let’s say…changing, not stabilizing.

    Great set of pictures! I’ll put this one on my list to look at.

  6. Will Soth’s audience ever get tired of photographs that mock middle America? Or…Is “fly-over country” a joke that never stops being funny for them?

    • Donnor Party

      Soth treats his subjects with respect. I don’t see his work ever mocking anyone. Look at Niagra, his subjects were shot with care, they appeared dignified. It would have been TOO easy to show them as crass and lewd, low rent. He is a very nice guy, not a mean bone in his body. I don’t know anyone who looks at Soth’s work and mocks the subjects.

  7. Simon Crofts

    I couldn’t disagree more about the value of the Instagram photos, and I think it does a disservice to talk them down. The general public often has this perception that photos are ‘just’ snaps and shouldn’t have any value. That’s why theft is so widespread. They only start to find out the true value of images when the court papers come through.

    If a photo has been chosen for use in advertising, then its value should be counted in the (at a minimum) hundreds or (more likely) thousands – or even tens of thousands of dollars. Just because that photo has been posted on Instagram does not suddenly render the photo valueless, or crappy. There is an extraordinary level of creativity on Instagram. Facebook valued our crappy Instagram photos enough to pay $1 billion for Instagram even though it had no rights (yet) over those images and no apparent way to monetise them yet. It is paying that amount just for the hope that it might be able to get some leverage on these photos for the future.

    • MacCruiskeen

      Indeed–how many posts have there been on this very web site about the value of a photographer’s work in a commercial context, and trying to maintain that in the face of competition from the Instagrams of the world. I’m not a commercial photographer but I don’t post my photos on facebook or Instagram or any such place because I don’t particularly want to give it away for someone else’s profit. I use a lot of open-source software, but I see a difference between someone voluntarily making a free license and a corporation unilaterally deciding to take what they want because they can. And they expect you to roll over and go along with it. Meanwhile, woe unto you if you use some corporate IP without permission! You’ll be hearing from their lawyers.

  8. There are all kinds of blogs and articles written and published on the Internet everyday. Zillions and zillions of words. Some are nice, some are so-so, and some are crap. Do you mind if those you write are taken without compensation or attribution and used by some corporation to help it line the pockets of its investors and executives? Is there a threshold of the amount they line their pockets with before you object?

  9. I like the guys at the bar. It’s my favorite photo. It says alot. I want to know what is going on in the one guys head. He looks so out of it and why is the other guy laughing at him

  10. “Can we not acknowledge the silliness of trying to commodify the random, meaningless little compositions we create?”

    If Instagram users felt the photos there were meaningless, they wouldn’t be posting and sharing so many of them. I think snapshots are often very meaningful to the people–amateurs and pro photographers alike. I don’t think the National Geographic photographers that use Instagram consider their photos to be “random, meaningless little compositions;” I certainly don’t view their photos that way.

    Silly or not, why would a self-respecting pro photographer let a corporation license rights to her pictures without approval and without getting a cut?

  11. Now that has to be one of the best expressions of a New Year’s Wish that I have come across in my short existence. My I reciprocate and wish you the same, I return regularly to this site for some cerebral provocation, but today I leave with a positive invocation. I haven’t even got out of the bed yet.