Here in Minnesota, where we usually spend the post-holidays buried in snow and bundling up against sub-zero temperatures, we experienced a lovely extended autumn that now seems to have skipped us ahead a few calendar months. The last week has felt like a perfect stretch of late March. We’ve been breaking high temperature marks all over the state. I’ve been nostalgic enough, in fact, that I’ve spent several nights hunting through photo books for some of my favorite winter images. Here are some that made the cut.
Vivian Maier, March 18, 1955, New York, NY.
Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992.
Bruce Davidson, American Elms – The Mall in Central Park, 1994.
Emmet Gowin, View of Rennie Booher’s house. Danville, Virginia, 1973.
Nobuyoshi Araki, from (Sentimental Journey and Winter Journey, 1991)
I am excited to see the images Martin Parr makes in MN.
What are your favorite winter photographs? And is there any one photographer –or even several– that you particularly associate with the season?
In response to a recent post, I received an email from Cait who wrote:
“Like you, my partner shoots with a large format camera and makes treks around the country (and sometimes the world) for his work. He plans to keep this up for the long term. As we plan for our future, marriage and babies included, I can’t help but think about the challenges our partnership and family will face under somewhat fleeting and unpredictable circumstances. I would love to learn about you and your wife’s perspectives on this subject and/or be directed to any personal accounts or resources that you know of on the work-life balance of a photographic family.”
In thinking about how to reply to this, I first turned to Robert Adams. As regular readers know, I’ve been immersing myself in his work lately. In the new Adams retrospective book, The Place We Live, there is an essay by Jock Reynolds entitled ‘Taken Together’ on the importance of Kerstin Adams in Robert’s life and work. Reynolds paints a fairly remarkable picture of marital harmony:
“Robert began to suspect that he wanted to abandon teaching and become a photographer. Kerstin was characteristically encouraging, and when her employment schedule allowed it, she became his partner in the field. He did most of the driving and she cooked (on a little stove they called “Mother Svea”); at dusk he loaded film holders inside a homemade dark box in the back of their panel truck while she brushed away mosquitoes; in small towns she kept up diversionary conversations with curious onlookers so that he could compose upside down on the view camera’s ground glass; and each day they enjoyed together the sweep of the land and sky, and the privilege of being there.”
As is often the case when I think about Adams, I’m simultaneously impressed and discomfited. When I read about his life I feel like a carnivore reading the menu at a vegan restaurant.
So instead I turn to fellow carnivore Lee Friedlander and his wife Maria (I can’t imagine Adams eating peanut butter, tuna and cheese whiz on crackers!). Nobody has written more honestly about being the spouse of a photographer than Maria Friedlander.
On my old blog, I once quoted her powerful forward to a William Gedney book. Recently I came across Maria Friedlander’s introduction to her husband’s book Family:
“What is this Family Book? Is it our own family album? Is it our pictorial biography? Does this book tell us whether we are, to paraphrase Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, one of those happy families that are all alike or an unhappy family that is unhappy in its own way?”
She later writes:
“A book of pictures doesn’t tell the whole story, so as a biography this one is incomplete. There are no photographs of arguments and disagreements, of the times when we were rude, impatient, and insensitive parents, of frustration, of anger strong enough to consider dissolving the marriage. Lee’s camera couldn’t record our family dysfunctions. There are no photographs of Anna, Tom and Giancarlo during the three years in which they felt it would be better if they didn’t see us, and certainly no photographs of how Lee and I felt during that time. Tolstoy was right – when we’ve been an unhappy family we have been unhappy in our own way.”
Getting back to Cait and her concerns about marrying a photographer, I don’t think there is a good answer. Mixing marriage, kids, travel and artmaking is extremely challenging. It will sometimes be unhappy. “The challenge for artists is just as it is for everyone,” Robert Adams once said to a group of college students, “to face facts and somehow come up with a yes, to try for alchemy.”
Orson Wells by Eve Arnold. 1966
A number of people have privately emailed me with concerns about all of the age talk on the blog lately. Am I depressed? Am I going to give up photography and buy a Ferrarri? The answer is no and no. I’m still happy with the minivan and I can’t remember being more comfortable with my age (mature and still regularly beating the 25 year-olds in ping-pong).
But yesterday I got a different email from a friend who works with Magnum:
“I just saw your and Martin’s equally depressing posts about being old. They reminded me of one of my favorite Guerilla Girls interventions – the list of advantages of being a woman artist (specifically number 4: “Knowing your career might pick up after you’re 80.”). So, you know, there might be a little White Boy Whining in all this.”
Knowing that I’m just stirring the pot, I’ve been able to brush off the criticism of my age posts. But this comment stung. Part of the reason it bothered me is that I’m vulnerable to similar accusations in other areas of my life.
At Little Brown Mushroom, for example, I publish a men’s magazine. I’ve defended this by pointing out that the magazine is actually about men and pokes fun at their longing. But the other day I received a copy of Jacques Magazine and was embarrassed to realize that whomever sent it probably did so because they thought it was similar to Lonely Boy Magazine.
And then there is Magnum. With today’s passing of Eve Arnold, we are now left with five living female photographers in the organization. It is beyond embarrassing.
So enough of my White Boy Whining. I’m happy to be 42. And I’m lucky as hell to have incredibly supportive women in my life. Beyond my wife (the most supportive and understanding person alive) I’m also lucky to have a fantastic studio manager, Carrie Thompson. The fact that Carrie manages to produce excellent photography while running my studio and supporting a child is mind-boggling.
So enough of the whining! Let me instead give thanks to women like Eve Arnold who manage to make great work when the odds, not to mention the culture, are so heavily stacked against them.
For my twenty-second birthday, my brother signed me up for a woodworking class. The classroom was in a suburban strip mall and all of the participants were men over sixty. While we whittled our first piece of wood, the instructor told us that the instruments were very sharp and we should be careful. Immediately after he said this, one of the men in the class nicked his finger. I secretly chuckled. Not a minute later I also cut myself. I clenched my finger and went to the bathroom. It was much worse than the other guy. Blood was spraying everywhere. I rushed out of the classroom and never returned.
Now that I’m twenty years older, maybe it is time to think about woodworking again. It seems to do wonders for some of the older artists I admire.
Robert Adams says: “It becomes mysteriously central and helpful to your health of spirit. It’s mainly just a wonderful way to relate to the world in another way. You can remember things in your hands and you can know things with your hands that you can’t know with your head.”
David Lynch says: “I really love wood, the texture of wood. I like to saw wood. In fact I love to saw wood. I like to put a saw against wood and cut the wood. I like the resistance, not too much resistance, just the right amount of resistance, and then the saw blade opens up some kind of fantastic smell that comes from the wood. It’s just a fantastic, beautiful experience.”
If Robert Adams represents one model for the aging photographer, this film by Weegee depicts a very different example.
A recent post by Blake Andrews on dead photoblogs has me thinking a lot about life online and off. From 2006 to 2007, I poured a lot of energy into my blog. On my first post, I wrote that I was ‘hungry for a bit of interaction with the world (albeit virtual).’ For my last post, I quoted Walt Whitman and his need to escape the astronomer’s lecture and go look at the stars.
A couple years later I started Little Brown Mushroom books. LBM is a publisher of physical objects, but like most businesses we support this with social media. But the LBM blog has never been like my old blog. The most effort I put into it is probably my year-end list of favorite photobooks. This year’s list of 20 books was a particularly big task to assemble. As a consequence I was eager to hear from readers. Did they disagree with my selections? What were their favorite books of the year? Happily, I got a lot of responses. A number of readers made me aware of books I hadn’t seen. And one commenter, John Gossage, tossed a couple follow-up questions back at me:
“Is there one book in your list that changed you as an artist? One of these that allowed you to take something from it that you could use to move forward?”
In the era where retweeting and ‘liking’ is the most interaction I normally expect online, Gossage’s question provoked me to go deeper. And so I did. I looked over my list and asked myself Gossage’s questions. The answers are complicated (several of the books changed me in incremental ways). But since this is a blog post, and not a conversation, I’ll try to keep it simple. The book that changed me the most this year was, in fact, not on my list:
I often say that I understand Robert Adams a little bit more every year. Entering my 42ndyear , I guess I’ve been deepening this understanding for about 22 years. But I still keep learning. This year’s lesson came from the reprint of an Adam’s book from 1978: Prairie (2011, Denver Art Museum & Fraenkel Gallery).
Prairie is a simple book. It is a small soft cover with minimal design flourishes. And Adam’s early pictures match the books humility. We see barns, farmhouses, an old church. Some of the pictures brush up against small-town photo cliché’s. The truth is that if Adams name weren’t on the book I’d probably never give it a chance. But this is an Adams book. And after 22 years I’ve learned that there is always more to learn from him.
As with most books by Adams, Prairie starts with a few well-chosen words by its author:
“Mystery in this landscape is a certainty, an eloquent one. There is everywhere silence – a silence in the thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door. If you are crossing the plains, leave the interstate and find a back road on which to walk; listen.”
The first picture is an utterly commonplace view of a gravel road and a telephone pole (this hardly looks like a mystery). The next two pages show an ordinary main street and then a closer-up picture of two kids in a pickup truck. (Still no mystery, bu I can hear the silence). Then, with this double-page spread, the real mystery begins:
Looking at these pictures, we immediately think of Walker Evans and his frontal cataloguing of country churches. At first it appears that the young Robert Adams is simply mimicking Evans and his famous depiction of two different small white churches in American Photographs (here and here). But a closer look at Prairie reveals that his photographs are describing the same church in two different seasons. It is as though Adams is acknowledging his predecessor while laying his own claim. For Evans, the churches are about rigorous, unromantic documentation. For Adams, the documentation of the churches is a way to explore the subtle mystery of weather and time.
On two more occasions in Prairie, Adams employs this use of repetition to quietly investigate time and perception:
What is most remarkable to me about this use of repetition is the fact that Adams was doing this in such a sophisticated way so early on. He later mastered this approach in Listening to the River (Aperture, 1994), but I find it encouraging that there were glimpses of it sixteen years earlier.
Another notable thing about Prairie is the inclusion of two pictures of Robert Adams’ wife Kerstin. This understated autobiographical content continues to separate him from more clinical strands of documentary photography. As with the use of repetition, it hints at work to come in books like Perfect Times, Perfect Places (Aperture, 1988).
All of this explains why I like Prairie. But I haven’t answered Gossage’s question about why the book offered me something that I could use to move forward as an artist. For me, Prairie brought home the fact that I need to sometimes look backward in order to move forward. I need to remember the reason why I first got interested in photography in order to continue photographing.
For Christmas my wife and I made handmade gifts for each other. Rachel made me beautiful ceramic tiles. I made her a book called One Mississippi Two. These were pictures made during a road trip along the Mississippi in 1992 (but not published in the book One Mississippi):
When a friend of ours saw this book the other day she said, “these look just like Alec’s pictures now. I don’t think I could tell the difference.” Of course I can tell the difference, but much of this has to do with technique. Otherwise the pictures are very much connected to those made twenty years later. In working to move forward as an artist, I think I would do well to make some of those connections to the past stronger.
So as the year comes to a close, I’m looking at my old photographs and Robert Adams books and thinking about time. In one of Adams’ books I keep a handwritten letter that he wrote to me in 2003 (after I sent him a copy of my maquette for Sleeping by the Mississippi). He ends his letter with this passage from the poem ‘I Sleep A Lot’ by Czeslaw Milosz.
I have read many books but
I don’t belive them.
When it hurts we return to
The banks of certain rivers.
Happy New Year,
Following up on my post on the age when photographers do their most influential work, I decided to look up the ages of the photographers who’d made the most influential books of the year (according to the EyeCurious tally of 52 year-end lists): Here are the top five:
Christian Patterson (39)
Rinko Kawauchi (39)
Yukichi Watabe (34 in 1958)
Ricardo Cases (40)
Valerio Spada (39)
Gregory Halpern (34)
Alex Webb (59) and Guido Guidi (70) tied for 7th place.
PS. Be sure to check out Martin Parr’s recent comment on the age discussion here
We’re happy to report that two LBM publications made year-end lists of best photobooks.
Conductors of the Moving World by Brad Zellar was selected by Joerg Colberg in Time Magazine and Elisabeth Tonnard at PhotoEye. Unfortunately this book is sold out (though you can buy one for $525 on eBay…yikes).
A Head With Wings by Anouk Kruithof was selected by Raymond Meeks at PhotoEye. We still have copies available, but suggest ordering soon since all of the other books in this series have sold out. Buy it at LittleBrownMushroom.com
While reviewing my favorite photobooks of the year, I noticed that numerous selections could be classified as crime stories. So in creating this year’s list, I thought it would be an entertaining exercise to categorize all of the books by genre. Given the quantity and quality of books being published, it is now feasible to think of photobooks in much the same way as we think of literature and cinema. These genre pigeonholes are reductive, of course, but like year-end lists, they are mostly a lighthearted excuse to analyze and discuss quality work.
Crime: A Criminal Investigation by Watabe Yukichi (Xavier Barral-Le Bal). Following a police detective investigating a 1958 murder in Tokyo, Yukichi’s photos almost look like stills from a Chandleresqe noir. Elegantly mixing text and image with perfect printing and design, this is a masterpiece of photographic storytelling. My favorite book of the year. Runner-up: Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson (Mack). Like A Criminal Investigation, Patterson’s book was inspired by a 1950’s killing spree. But rather than a linear narrative, Redheaded Peckerwood is like an investigator’s dossier in the age of Google Images.
Comedy: Paloma al aire by Ricardo Cases (Photovision). A documentary on pigeon racing that manages to be funny, mysterious and strangely touching. Runner-up: Animals That Saw Me by Ed Panar (The Ice Plant). Panar’s book could also be classified as the children’s photobook of the year.
Family Drama: In the Shadow of Things by Léonie Hampton (Contrasto). A mother and daughter try to come to terms with shipping boxes, mental illness and memories. Along with the excellent photographs, be sure to read Hampton’s interview with her mother. Runner-Up: Mom & Dad by Terry Richardson (Morel). A fascinating glimpse into the legendary shock-photog’s roots.
Romance: Eden is a Magic World by Miguel Calderón (Little Big Man Books). A heartbreaking look into a Korean man’s obsession with a Mexican soap opera actress. The second brilliant narrative photobook by Calderón. Runner-up: Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel (Siglio) Told in photo-collages and poems, the fictional tale of a woman who falls in love with Joseph Cornell.
Horror: The Wedding by Boris Mikhailov (Morel). Another hard-to-swallow masterpiece from the great provocateur. Runner-up: Series by Enrique Metinides. A fascinating opportunity to watch Metinides horrific tragedies play out in time. Be sure to check out the incredible crime story, The Black Trunk.
Regional/Travel: A by Gregory Halpern (J&L Books). A is for Abandoned, Acrid, Animalistic, American and Ambiguous. Runner-up: One to Nothing by Irina Rozovsky (Kehrer). A beautifully understated Israeli travelogue.
Female artist monograph: Illuminance by Rinko Kawauachi (Aperture/Foil). An exquisitely produced monograph with wide international distribution. This book should make Rinko a household name. Runner-up: About Love by Gay Block (Radius). With the death this year of Milton Rogovin, it is great to see the tradition of quiet and humane portraiture living on in the work of Gay Block.
Male artist monograph: Dirk Braeckman (Roma Publications). Described by Braeckman as “a cross between an artist’s book and a survey publication,” this is a terrific summation of his mysterious and distinctive world. Runner up: A New Map of Italy by Guido Guidi (Loosestrife Editions). Guidi’s complicated excavation of simplicity edited and packaged by John Gossage.
Historical/Archive: Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography by Verna Posever Curtis and Denise Wolff (Aperture). A beautifully produced book on a fascinating subject. Runner-up: War Primer 2 by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (Mack). A searing update of Bertolt Brecht’s Photo-epigrams.
Independent/self-published: Lang Zal Ze Levan (Happy Birthday To You) by Anouk Kruithof. Ten joyous birthday celebrations in a psychiatric institution. Runner-up: Gomorrah Girl by Valerio Spada. Another excellent crime book, this one a mashup of documentary portraiture and a Neapolitan police report
Did I miss any genres? Do you disagree with my selections? What were your favorite books of 2011? I want to hear your comments.
I have a renewed appreciation for kindness and generosity thanks to all of the people who helped Brad Zellar pay off his medical bills. I dont have an exact amount to announce but I can say that what we raised helped tremendously. Last night Brad posted Hold Out Hope: An Old Pep Talk. Hold Out Hope: An Old Pep Talk is a beautiful story that brings a smile to my face. I hope it does the same for you.
We are having a holiday sale from today through Friday (11/28-12/2). For order’s of $20 or more, we will add a FREE copy of The Little Brown Mushroom Coloring Book and will wrap your purchases in Jason Polan/LBM wrapping paper. To order, go to LITTLEBROWNMUSHROOM.COM
Elliott Erwitt once said that the thing he likes about photographing dogs is that they don’t ask for prints. But this isn’t always the case. The picture above was made for a collector (that’s a million dollar Ad Reinhardt above the fireplace). This guy loves his dog. And I love dogs too. I also really love photographing dogs.
I mention this because I will happily photograph your dog if you are the winning bidder of a portrait session on our eBay Auction page. Keep in mind that the collector above paid well over triple the amount of the current high bid. Also keep in mind that all proceeds go toward Brad Zellar’s mountain of medical bills.
Brad Zellar is himself a lover of dogs. Check out his sweet tribute: A Man Who Wins The Dog Lottery Is a Lucky Man.
So if you feel lucky too, go bid on a portrait session on our eBay Auction page.
PS. Sorry, I don’t photograph cats.
I want to thank everyone who came to the Brad Zellar fundraiser/birthday party last night. It was a great night. I also want to remind people that there are a few more days to bid on a portrait session. The auction ends on November 25th at 4:26pm Eastern Time. Check out our eBay auction page for more details.
Earlier this year we released a book entitled Conductors of the Moving World by Brad Zellar. Brad’s book raised $10,000 for Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief. Since then, Brad has suffered a number of setbacks. After multiple unexplained dizzy spells, Brad fell down a flight of stairs and was left unconscious for a full day. He then spent weeks in the hospital and months undergoing neurological tests. As a consequence, Brad is drowning in medical bills.
To help Brad, I’m offering the opportunity to purchase a portrait commission on our eBay auction page. Winning bidders may book a session for themselves or give the portrait session as a gift. The picture can be made in my studio in Minnesota or I can travel to you (as long as my expenses are covered). From this session the sitter and I will select an image to produce as a large scale print (up to 40×50 inches).
Over the years I’ve done a handful of these commissions. The picture above was commissioned in 2004 and has been exhibited all over the world. (See other commission examples on our eBay auction page). Whomever purchases this portrait, I aim to make a serious piece of work for a friend who is seriously in need.
If you are unable to purchase the portrait session, you can still help. On Sunday November 20th there will be a fundraiser at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in St. Paul. Otherwise, you can donate cash directly via PayPal here.
So check out our eBay auction page, and if you have any questions (or just want to send a check), please email email@example.com
Last Friday I gave a lecture in Syracuse about my desire for narrative in photobooks. The reason behind this desire, I explained, was a feeling of saturation in the era of Google Images, Flickr and so on. But I neglected the more fundamental reason: stories are entertaining.
I like to say that there are three levels of artmaking.
1) Entertainment: This, for me, is essential. If the work doesn’t pull me in, I’ll go elsewhere. And doing this and this alone is one hell of a challenge.
2) Education: After being entertained, maybe I can learn something too. While watching The Social Network, maybe I’ll learn something about Facebook or frat boys. But before this learning takes place, I want to be entertained.
3) Change: After being educated and entertained, once in a while a story changes your life. But as an artist, this isn’t something you can shoot for. Otherwise you’d just write self-help books and advice columns.
The day after my lecture, I went to hear John Gossage speak. As some of you might know, John and I recently worked on a project in New Zealand together (more on The Auckland Project soon). I learned so much from John and consider him one of my great teachers. So I was taken aback when he said this in the lecture (I’m paraphrasing):
“Entertainers try to please their audience – artists do what they do and the audience comes to them. I don’t think about my audience whatsoever.”
Suddenly I felt like a cheap carnival hawker. Not only do I consider the audience for my work, I confess that I aim to entertain. Is this pathetic? I guess it depends on the definition of entertainment. In his essay The Pleasure Principal, Michael Chabon investigates this definition and aims to expand it:
I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” I could go down to the cafe at the local mega-bookstore and take some wise words of Abelard or Koestler about the power of literature off a mug. But in the end — here’s my point — it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles. Therefore I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.
Here’s the thing, I find John Gossage’s work entertaining. I get great pleasure from The Pond. The narrative that propels that book carries me in a way that ‘entertaining’ photographers like David LaChapelle never can. Nonetheless, there is no disputing the fact that Gossage doesn’t aim to entertain. Are artists better off forgetting about their audience?
What do you think? Should artists be entertainers?
The best thing about having the LBM sandbox is that I get to invite people over to play. One of the most vibrant artists I know is the 30-year-old Dutch bookmaker/installation artist Anouk Kruithof. Anouk’s work is dizzy and alive; she makes me want to go out into the world and play. So last August I invited Anouk to make a book with Little Brown Mushroom. The result, A head with wings, is a dream-like sandcastle of a book (with sponge walls and secret tunnels). Anouk and I recently chatted about how the book came about.
Anouk and Alec speaking via Skype on 10/12/11
ALEC SOTH – So I think we should start by giving a little history. You and I met in 2009 at Fotomuseum Winterthur. At that point you had already published a couple of books. Since then you’ve been cranking stuff out like crazy. I mean really, really productive.
ANOUK KRUITHOF – Eight years it’s been since I’ve graduated. Six published books, mostly artist books. I like the form of the book a lot. My mind is always thinking in books.
SOTH – There’s no formula for a great book. You can work on it for ten years and really craft it, or it can be something that’s done in a week. And there can be a real energy from that thing that’s done quickly. It’s like music, you know, people can spend forever in a studio or it can be a live album done in one night. And the live album can be just as good or better, because it has that energy.
KRUITHOF – Yes.
SOTH – Your book Playing Borders had that kind of frenetic energy. It was so chaotic and kind of falling apart in a wonderful way. I thought it was great. After seeing that I wanted to work with you. I also thought it would be kind of a challenge for you to make a book with us because of the way our Little Brown Mushroom books incorporate storytelling. I don’t think of your work as particularly narrative—it’s very fragmentary. So I thought it would be interesting to see what you could do with narrative, and then also to work with these crazy pressures of the limited size and incredibly limited timeline. I asked you in August, I think, and we had the book out by the end of September, which is pretty amazing.
KRUITHOF – Was it really August already?
SOTH – I looked it up; it was August 7th that I asked you. Incredible!
KRUITHOF – And when was the book done?
SOTH – September 29th. So that’s less than two months from my asking! All of the other books we’ve done have come from existing material, but in this case it wasn’t. I mean, you used existing photographs, in a sense, but the structure and collages had to be recreated. You had a big assignment!
KRUITHOF – Yeah, of course, I was a bit surprised. Like, oh no, the pressure of the deadline. You said “well, just lock yourself up for two weeks in the basement and you can do it!” I just said, okay, maybe it’s possible. Then I got this email “Ten weeks until the New York Art Book fair!” And I was like, what did I get myself into? But it was actually quite good because I’d already started to work on a very extensive new book out of snapshot photographs, like my diary photographs, that I’ve made over the last twelve years. So I had already made a selection hanging in my studio when you ringed me. I once made this series of portraits of this typical man. I had 18 photos of him in my archive from which I always was very sure that I wanted to do something. So I made the decision to use him as the “main character” of my story. I photographed him in Berlin in 2008 in a park and I was really fascinated by his gestures and his expressions. The man was either tripping or having a psychosis, but you didn’t know what’s going on with him. He was just so far away from reality. He was just living his own life.
SOTH – Were other people noticing him or was it just you?
KRUITHOF – A lot of other people were noticing him because he was a little odd. He was kind of dancing and walking and looking at things that didn’t exist. The man became the only thing I could look at in that moment. I filmed him and made photos of him, but I never did anything with these pictures until now.
SOTH – There is something about that guy, which, for me, somehow connects to the other work you’ve done. The man on the cover of Playing Borders has a similar gestural quality. It’s like a businessman who’s dancing, almost. Your portraits, if you want to call them that, are these people that are sort of wrapped up in their own worlds or performing without an audience. Is that a common theme?
KRUITHOF – Yeah, I definitely think I’m fascinated by visual expression of something that goes on inside, like a mental landscape or dream – people living in their minds. When I look for people that I want to work with in portraits or photos of performances; I think those people are the ones who are not so aware. Those are the ones who float above the earth or, I don’t know, I think they’re fascinating. I think they always have a certain distance to other people or are a bit disconnected from reality. I think it’s also quite interesting what’s going on inside everybody’s minds and how we, as human beings, have our own inner world, but on the other hand we also have to open up and show ourselves in public. We do that with a certain idea or position ourselves and maybe create boundaries or walls around us because we want to show us in “this way”, but I’m interested in what’s behind them, or what’s going on when you break this wall
SOTH – So this gets into one of my primary interests: the limitations of photography. Photography deals with surfaces. So you make a picture of a person and all you really see is their clothing, their skin – you have no idea what’s going on in their minds. It’s all projection. That’s both the beauty of photography and also the frustration. Unlike a novelist, you can’t write down what’s going on in their mind. This series of books came out of that frustration and my jealousy of storytelling. That’s where it’s kind of interesting to see what you would do with the text part of it. How did you respond to using text? And how did you want to approach it? Because there’s a beauty to just seeing this guy and not knowing anything.
KRUITHOF – Yeah, it’s true. First I had 80% of the final images finished. In the meantime, I was struggling with what to do with the text. I gathered many interviews with schizophrenic people. I’ve red about mental illness a lot. Found a lot of written experiences from people having trips. But I went through all the footage and figured out it wasn’t interesting enough to use. Nothing worked out. I also did not feel to make a compilation out of other peoples words. Some of my friends encouraged me for longer already to start writing as well. So I started to just write a fictional short story, which in a way, wasn’t related to the images in another way it is. I think how the end result is now: the images are not illustrations towards the text.
SOTH – Yeah, the thing I’ve learned in doing these books, is that if you tie the text to the image too closely, it kills it. That’s what I like about children’s books; the ratio of text to image is right, and the writing is often very simple. You don’t have to sound like Proust or something. You can use this very simple non-descriptive language because the photographs are descriptive in and of themselves. But you go to strange places in the text. Where does the sponge in your story come from come from?
KRUITHOF – Oh my god, my obsession for sponges! The sponge came from another work that I recently made. “Der Ausbruch einer flexiblen Wand (weich und hart)” is a diptych work existing out of 2 enormous b/w wallpaper prints with 2 images of exploding “spongewalls” in the darkness. I like the sponge in content, material and form. In high school we had the blackboards with all of the information of the lesson on it and at the end of the lesson everything had to be erased with a sponge and water. Basically you erase the past, draw a line for a new beginning. I see this “spongewall” as a metaphor for the wall people have around them, my fascination where we were talking about before. In my text, as well as in the images of ‘a head with wings’ and in the wallpaper diptych you’ll see this ‘breakthrough’. To me this is the point where things are getting mysteriously interesting.
SOTH – There was such a speed to making this book. I think what must have been very difficult for you was the fact that you were traveling too, right? You were in France?
KRUITHOF – The French Alps! I was in a village where there wasn’t even a bakery. It was good. I needed it the quietness for my concentration. There was too much going on around me in Berlin.
SOTH – So you were there, but Hans Seeger, our LBM designer, was in Wisconsin. You know Hans and I live in nearby states, but we’re actually very far from each other. So we’re dealing with this very physical, tactile object, but the three of us are all over the world communicating about an imaginary object . I think this must have been very difficult for you because you’re so much a maker of physical things.
KRUITHOF – Yeah, it was very hard. I mean, I made some dummies and folding things by hand. Of course, Hans did that as well. But it was really new and quite hard to talk over Skype and emails about such a physical object. This book is like an installation. I think we really understood each other after a while and always went through everything and folded again and explained how we folded and then I did it myself and I saw it. Yeah maybe because we tried to be very clear to each other that I also had an idea how it would look in a physical form. Maybe because I made more books with folding, I could see it and try it out after hearing his description. We were lucky we just were really good in understanding and listening to each other I guess…
SOTH – I think of you as having a real Dutch design sensibility. You might not think of it, but compared to other books from all over the world, I kind of know where they come from without knowing anything else. But in the case of this book, you’re working with these two American guys and I’m wondering if you feel that in the end result, if it changed the book, or not?
KRUITHOF – Not in the end, but in the beginning for sure. Of course when I saw the other books, I also looked into Hans and I thought, whoa, that’s like a different planet. The books I see in the Netherlands or in Berlin and how the photography books are made in America, it’s hard to talk about, but there was a big difference in approach. So I was a bit worried in the beginning, but I’m really happy with the result now. The fixed elements for making this book like the format, the sticker, the cardboard cover and the way the book is bounded, were in the beginning a little struggle to me. But in the end I think it fits so well with the topic of ‘a head with wings’. I’m really happy with it. I also have the feeling that this collaboration and time limit have pushed my ideas. I learned a lot from it.
SOTH – That’s the beauty of it, that there is this push. So in my own publishing life, with my own books, I actually have little to push against. I print with Steidl, and he just lets me do whatever I want to do, basically.
KRUITHOF – That’s great!
SOTH – Yeah, it’s great, and I love it, but at the same time, I think interesting things can come from collaboration and from people pushing against each other. I’m curious about what is it like to have an editor. So I think it’s been really fun for me to have this collaboration with Hans over the years because he has really pushed me to do things I would never do. The books have been way more interesting because of it, and occasionally, I’d have to push back because I’m the publisher guy who has to worry about money and other practicalities. It’s actually quite helpful when I go back to being an artist to know the other side of these things. So I like this tension. For me, it was really exciting to have your perspective and this Dutch design perspective crammed together with a book that’s based on an American children’s book and the limitations of that.
KRUITHOF – Collaboration, especially in having conversations about the work is really interesting to me. But like you said, when you got all of my previous books: you know immediately where they come from. It’s mainly because I make them myself. With Playing Borders, the physical dummy I made was pretty close to the end result. With making all my books I try to keep the outcome very close to myself. I believe when you don’t do that, you‘ll end up having coffee table books and I’m really not interested in that. When you make a book: make a book, which has his own existence as a work.
SOTH – You mentioned that you made these pictures of the man in the park, but we haven’t talked about how you went about making the final montages.
KRUITHOF – Photoshop does not interest me. I thought about why I want to do it by hand, probably it’s a concentration thing. Not working behind a computer, but separating yourself from the computer and making 3d stages around this man. I feel more in control. I can play with It – putting this man in a cardboard environment. I like it also because it goes quick, the cutting, etc. Other people might say this handwork asks a lot of work, which is actually true. I am just a worker I guess, I go on and on and on. The handmade 3d stages and re-photographing them to me is much more playful in the result and surprising during the process, which makes it interesting to me. I also did it like this, because your invitation for this series of books is after the style of a children’s book from the 70s in America. As a kid we all made this shoeboxes with this cardboard worlds inside. The existence of my photos is kind of the same but than not a hole in the box to peek through but a photo camera, which picked the frame. It’s important to me that I used my own snapshots for all of these images, rather than using found footage. The act of making work outside: this social element is important to me. I have a strong drive to go out, that is why I work with photography, video or behave as a scavenger in order to collect and recycle material for my installations. When I am out: I talk to people and gather information and all sorts of little adventures happen on my way. This is what I love in life!
SOTH – That’s what I always say: the real world still exists! You spend so much time with this computer in your face that when you go out there…it’s like, wow, real life, how amazing!
MORE PICTURES OF A HEAD WITH WINGS HERE
A VIDEO TOUR OF A HEAD WITH WINGS HERE
BUY A HEAD WITH WINGS HERE
Jacques Henri Lartigue
Just about anybody who’s been in my company for the last couple of years has heard me yammer on about photography and aging. The best creative years for a photographer, I’d proclaim, are 20 to 40, but the peak is 25 to 35. Of course I’d mention the exceptions, but taken as a whole, photographic greatness seems to me to be a young person’s game.
The thing that got me started on this train of thought was reading a New York Times article from 2010 entitled How Old Can A ‘Young Writer’ Be?:
They (fiction writers) often compose their best and most lasting work when they are young. “There’s something very misleading about the literary culture that looks at writers in their 30s and calls them ‘budding’ or ‘promising,’ when in fact they’re peaking,” Kazuo Ishiguro told an interviewer last year. Ishiguro (54 when he said this) added that since the age of 30 he had been haunted by the realization that most of the great novels had been written by authors under 40.
Reading this at the age of 40, I began to picture myself as Wile E. Coyote still running after he’s off the cliff. The decline seems inevitable.
But is it? From in-depth quantitative studies, University of Chicago economist David Galenson has proposed two kinds of artist greatness. One he calls Young Geniuses (conceptualists who do their best work early in their careers). The other group he calls Old Masters (those who work by trial and error and improve with age). According to Galenson, Picasso (Young Genius) peaked at age 26 whereas Cezanne (Old Master) peaked at 67.
Does Galenson’s theory apply to photographers? I have no idea. What I need is data. Here is a chart analyzing the ages of philosophers and their influential contributions (peak age is 38-44). What would such a chart look like for photographers? I have a funny feeling my 25-35 guess might still be right.
What do you think?
Tonight I’ll join Rodarte (Kate and Laura Mulleavy) and Catherine Opie at the Hammer Museum to talk about our recently published book (conveniently titled Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth). Believe it or not, I still haven’t met Kate & Laura, so it is a pretty exciting night. One of the things I’m eager to talk about about is the map above. It was made after Kate and Laura sent me a package of pictures and notes describing their creative influences (Condors, Horror Films, Sleepwalking, Hare Krishna’s, etc…). From this list I made a treasure map in which to explore California. It was an amazing trip. I felt like I was sleepwalking through Kate & Laura’s imagination. We’ll find out how well I did tonight.
Info on the talk here
An article about my contribution to the book here.