LITTLE BROWN MUSHROOM BLOG

Alec Soth: New York Times Blog

Posted in narrative photography by Alec Soth on April 1, 2010

My first post as a New York Times contributor is up. Have a look here. If you feel compelled, I’d be ever so grateful if you’d leave a comment on the Times site. Many thanks,

18 Responses

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  1. Russ Osterweil said, on April 1, 2010 at 6:51 pm

    Great job. Congrats. My comment is posted on the Times’ site.

  2. brendan said, on April 1, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    Alec, you’re a rock star, stop being so humble!

    Hope to meet you on the mountain sometime

    -B

  3. Jenny said, on April 1, 2010 at 11:55 pm

    Looks wonderful!

  4. bob black said, on April 2, 2010 at 8:54 am

    funny how some interpret wit and a recognition of the beautifully absurd as somehow cynical….i dont get people….so damn uptight….rather than the typical overly didactic or the overly introspective or reverent times pieces we get a piece that reveals in the absurdity of being a photographer, a mardi-gras’r, a sinner, a gambler, a god damn human being….a great argentine writer once wrote that how is it possible to extract beauty and humour from the arcane strategies and silliness of the tango’s movements: that would be the glorious dance of humans….remember Mr. Palomar’s observations of the elegant inelegant gait/run of the giraffee….

    loved it….

    NOW, ALEC, you gotta rent this flick, please:

    Invisible Girlfriend!

    http://www.carnivalesquefilms.com/Invisible_Girlfriend.html

    u can thank me when we go book hunting in Toronto ;))))

    cheers
    bob

  5. gregg said, on April 2, 2010 at 10:21 am

    I watched the slideshow twice and honestly felt a little conflicted about it, though I did enjoy the piece alot. I posted some thoughts on facebook about it because I think the ending opens up a really important dialogue about identity in photography and wanted to know other people’s thoughts on the piece. Obviously you can’t see that, so I thought I’d repost them here:

    “hmm i don’t know. i like the idea of being in new orleans, but experiencing mardi gras from a distance, because that’s kind of how the rest of the country experiences it. it’s a nice sentiment, being part of something and removed from something at the same time. the images at night for the most part are a little banal, but i like the idea. the ash wednesday images are pretty great i think, but the part at the end with the transgendered woman has me torn. i like the metaphor of things being different on the outside than on the inside, but i think it sends a confusing message about identity, and kind of makes the metaphor fall flat.

    meaning: he’s simplifying gender identity in a weird way… i don’t think he’s saying “I realized R. was a man” in a critical way, i think it’s more honest than that. but at the same time “R” ISN’T a man, “R” is a woman because “R” is living as a woman and sees herself as a woman… so where does that leave the metaphor then? i’m interested in the complications of it, but i’m not sure i take it the way he intends it.”

    Which is more important? The way you see your subject, or the way your subject sees themselves? Now that you’ve said it, does the viewer see “R” as a woman or as a man living as a woman? How does “R” feel about that distinction?

    Anyhow, really interesting stuff, as always.

  6. mike dialect said, on April 2, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I enjoyed the narrative aspect quite a bit.

  7. andrew r said, on April 2, 2010 at 11:43 am

    I posted this on The NYTimes site but I wasnt sure if you would actually have the time to read every comment. I found it deeply moving and inspiring to see someone who could rest on their 8×10 laurels attempt something new.

    “Everyone who is wishing this was a “48 hours in NOLA” feature is missing the point, We have all seen the celebratory and the derogatory pictures of Mardi Gras, in this feature we are given the opportunity to witness one mans experience in a very polarizing situation, HIS experience not a general overview of New Orleans as a city. God forbid that in an opinion piece someone shares their personal experience and their point of view. Just because you don’t like what he saw doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, or should be forgotten and hidden behind people dressed as Indians and smiling faces.

    If you hate everything this story represents than I feel its an effective story. If this upset you and made you think about everything you love about New Orleans than it made you think and in a round about way brought you joy, If you hated seeing the excess, the drunks, the sadness, than fine focus on what you enjoy about Mardi Gras. Sometimes we have to recoil away from something to move closer to what we actually care about. I wonder how we have come to equate successful art with one emotion only, happiness?

    A+ plus Alec thank you for attempting to break photography and the NYTimes out of the box its been in so long. Experiential,narrative, video, sound,all of it comes together so well. You had mentioned this series when you lectured at VCU and its great to see it come to fruition.

    And to the commenter who made the snide comment about Mr. Soth photographing a dumpster at a restaurant, all I can say is that you learn a lot more about people or a place by what they attempt to hide than what they want you to see.”

  8. Jenny Smith said, on April 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Did you have your subject’s consent to out her as transgender in your New York Times slideshow? If you did not, that is really not okay. When someone identifies as a woman, it’s really disrespectful to say that she is “really” a man.

  9. Alec Soth said, on April 2, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Yes, I had permission Jenny.

  10. eric said, on April 3, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    rough crowd! fantastic audience though. keep doing what you do best–making pictures and telling stories.

  11. re: photographica (George) said, on April 3, 2010 at 11:05 pm

    Alec, you clearly didn’t need to solicit comments from the LBM faithful. Eight pages worth of responses, and counting; you stirred up a hornet’s nest, I’d say. I never thought of you as a “failed wedding photographer,” but that does add another bit of critical jargon to the portfolio, doesn’t it?

    It’s interesting how people are perfectly willing to let a columnist, a blogger, or a radio talk show host go on ad nauseum about their particular bit of personal-as-political turf, but when it comes to photographers, OMG it gets to be so much about responsibility. No license, no acknowledgment of observer as participant, or as human responding to incomplete, evolving, confusing data input. As though the photographer is responsible for seeing and conveying nothing but truth and compassion. You’re showing people how, in a piece like this first NYTimes foray, a photographer deals with self in circumstance, how you get from here to there with only one’s gut instincts to guide you.

    I guess, too, when you get smeared and praised in public in significant, comparable amounts (again–8 pages!), you realize that the course you’ve taken is offending and impressing people while it also seems to you the only truth that was clear at the moment. My gosh, what were you thinking? You can hardly know, though you were honest with yourself. But loads of people want to tell you that they know, that they have exquisite insight into what must have been going on in your head.

    You’ll carry on, I’m sure.

  12. Alec Soth said, on April 4, 2010 at 2:01 am

    My family and I fly home from England today. Reading the Times comments, I’m sure some prefer I stay here. But I’m actually excited to get back to work on the Picture Show. The whole point of the project was to see what happens with an audience outside of the art and photo bubbles.

    Last year I did a project in the Republic of Georgia in which I drove around the country and into small ethnic villages looking to find beautiful women. I mostly hid the theoretical underpinnings of the project. I titled it ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in Georgia’ and awaited the backlash. The work has been exhibited and published and I still haven’t heard a peep of criticism. Mostly people talk about the fact that I shot the work with a digital camera.

    For the most part, the Times comments have been about the perceived subject matter and, often, the way I failed to do it justice. But in a sense, many are ‘getting’ the work. As with many projects I’ve done over the last few years, this piece is largely about failure. In the case of ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in Georgia,’ she turns out to be a Chechen who won’t let me photograph her. And in the case of the commission I just completed here in Brighton, England, I didn’t snap the shutter once (my daughter took all of the pictures).

    For more examples of first-person failure narratives, go here:
    http://www.vimeo.com/littlebrownmush/videos

    I love George’s comment ‘As though the photographer is responsible for seeing and conveying nothing but truth and compassion.’ Lord, how I want to burn this idea. When I approached the Times with the idea for this series, I talked about the first person New Journalism of Wolfe, Didion,Thompson. I’m not interested in being a documentarian. I want to describe things with a point of view. (There is a reason this series is on the opinion page).

    In recent lectures I’ve been quoting Wolfe’s essay on the beginnings of New Journalism:

    “The voice of the narrator, in fact, was one of the great problems in non-fiction writing. Most non-fiction writers, without knowing it, wrote in a century-old British tradition in which it was understood that the narrator shall assume a calm, cultivated and, in fact, genteel voice…Readers were bored to tears without understanding why. When they came upon that pale beige tone, it began to signal to them, unconsciously, that a well-known bore was here again, “the journalist,” a pedestrian mind, a phlegmatic spirit, a faded personality, and there was no way to get rid of the pallid little troll, short of ceasing to read…”

    I’ve been that pallid little troll before and found it totally dispiriting. I’d rather just sit in a hotel room, drink Miller Lite and watch TV.

    Happy Easter,

    Alec

  13. Tom said, on April 4, 2010 at 8:12 am

    Being a called a failed wedding photographer is really a compliment for an actual artist. Nice series.

    I’m sure you’ve probably seen this, but it probably warrants re-reading in the wake of some of the NYT coments:

    http://retroscenemag.com/post/Cadillac-The-Penalty-Of-Leadership.aspx

  14. bob black said, on April 4, 2010 at 8:22 am

    George/Alec:

    though much much more a fan of Didion than Wolfe, I tried to suggest similarily: that the irony of the blogosphere, including the Times, is that it still houses a nest of indifference to the peculiarities of story telling thought masked in a dressing of fervor. I loved Alec’s piece not so much for it’s Sothness (word?) for it’s humor and for it’s internal strategies (leg opening to leg closing, ash face to gambling face, 10-year old portrait to recent portrait, awash of the street, away of the hotel, etc) and above all for it’s brilliant final cut edit. In other words, we are consumed and defined by this odd inelegant gambol (as i said, Palomar’s girfaffe) and in that comes a deeper truth to the rhyme of our lives.

    The problem Alec with Wolfe’s idea’s of new journalism is that he’s, as a novelist, has become the worst kind of conservative latch, and in many senses, that propensity was seeping through his early books….a grand pronouncer quick a dictator becomes, ….

    the irony is that the readership is NOT reflected by the 8 pages of the comments…..the fact, generally, is that those of us who mine the world for stories (every person) and tell them through images and words, get often drowned out not by the majority but by the vocal minority….

    the world is the world of first-person narrative (see Natasha’s Dance, for an interesting dissection of russian history) or the film i told you about (invisible girlfriend)…and no matter the blog, or the reaction, that aint gonna change and so i would simply keep that in mind when appraising the reaction….

    people like their cultural icons predictable (mardia gras is a cultural ballast for america) and that’s because most people want to be associated with stories but rarely give an flick about the real story being told…any cat whose been to mardi gras knows that the tidium often gets run up laying in soggy hotel beds….just as much of the stuff i see from Brazil carnival looks more like hollywood than the real carnival….

    the one lament i have about the nytimes piece is that the Times is still SO PREDICTABLE when it comes to choosing it’s opinionators….i love Alec’s work, his blog, his intelligence, his humor and his films….but, as i’ve told James Estrin before, when will the times really risk courage and give the viewers stories and films and narrative by people of whom the risk would be risky….

    that is still where the blogs prevail…..give me a 15 year old filmmaker from nola….or that guy on his red bike telling his story….but, that’s the way of the world….

    ok, gotta look for chocolate eggs

    cheers
    b

  15. Tom said, on April 4, 2010 at 9:49 am

    I went back and looked at your NYT piece again, then re-read the comments. Some love it. Others despise it. There’s no middle ground.

    It reflects the broader divide in this country. Everything is black and white — love or hate. No one wants to take the time to try and understand an alternate point of view. Everything has become a battleground. You have to be on one side or the other.

    The point of art is to stir emotion. To make you think. Maybe see a subject from a different perspective. I wonder where we’ll all end up if we lose the ability to see things differently.

  16. Alec Soth said, on April 5, 2010 at 5:42 am

    Bob, thanks so much for the Invisible Girlfriend link. Looks fantastic. And great comments — as always. Happy hunting….

    Alec

  17. Tim J. Veling said, on April 6, 2010 at 1:32 am

    Alec,

    I’ve watched the video four times now. I really wanted to form an opinion so as I could post a well considered critique of it. Problem is, each time I watch it I’m left feeling something different. At first I felt very uncomfortable. The way the last scene plays out, the disconnected, voyeuristic position of the camera and the constant flashing creates a lot of tension. This, I believe, was your point? A comment about being on the edge of things and trying to make sense of it all? As a photographer, I understand what is really happening and also know about the weird relationship one often shares with his subjects when trying to “use them” (I can’t think of a better way to articulate it, sorry,) to say something. I’ve talked my way into and out of my fair share of weirdness! I also feel that people need to forget for a moment who you are and what you’re known for – making “old timey,” often very beautiful pictures. This is an opinion piece, not made for a gallery, fine art audience or even as reportage. The way I read it, it is an expression of how it sometimes feels being a photographer. It is NOT about photography. I got to thinking this way when considering (on my second view!) the still image of Ash Wednesday from SBTM against the moving footage of the same woman. As much as I love the moving footage, the blinking and all the subtle movement, (subtle details that I love in Rineke Dijkstra’s extended, topical video works,) I find the still photo so much more enigmatic. There is just something about that one moment, still and perfectly framed forever, that makes me think beyond it. Speaking as a photographer again, the video footage works to demystify the process of photographing. Like in the final scene, we watch and perhaps realize just how constructed photographs – even those damn decisive moments – really are, how much we take for granted in them and what we bring to them. All of this leads me to the spine of your video. Mardi Gras. What is the beginning of lent and a deeply religious time for some, is for others just a time to have a big blow out party. Again, I think although you have included a great many still images in this piece, mostly repeated compositions of subjects paying what amounts to lip service to religious belief, you’ve done so not for photography sake, but to hammer home a point; that we (or should I say “you” as a citizen of the USA?) live in a country / world full of contradictions. Just as I sat at home on Easter Sunday, bored out of my mind because it’s illegal here in NZ for shops and cafe’s to be open on religious holidays, filling my time and stomach by unwrapping a zillion and one foil wrapped chocolate easter eggs that I’d seen a zillion and two advertisements for on television during the month previous, this piece ultimately comments on the absurdity of it all. We live in an increasingly secular, commodity and fetish driven world that is at odds with many of the principles our very laws are based on. I think the transexual at the end can perhaps then be seen as the personification of this feeling, that she could represent a world that pays more attention to outward appearances and facades while forgetting about real substance. Gender doesn’t define us, surrounding culture does. Things look pretty bleak!

    At the end of all this writing I’m still not really sure what I feel about the piece, except to say that it is making me think.

    Sorry for the inarticulate ramble…

    Tim

  18. Whitney said, on April 29, 2010 at 7:06 am

    I thought that the first two segments were a unique look at the phenomena of the New Orleans Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday. It is interesting to see the aftermath of what is supposed to be a religious celebration juxtaposition by people attending church then next morning. I was however completely lost by the transsexual in the hotel room and am not sure how it fits into the rest of the piece.


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