From here to there
In March I went to a talk by Alec Soth at The Photography Show in Birmingham.
Having visited his exhibition Gathered Leaves at the Science Museum, I was keen to hear him talk about his work process as I am currently very interested in photographers working processes on a project.
Soth spoke about his work in an open and direct way. It is clear that he has been asked questions about how he started many times and had a well prepared format to answer each section.
The talk was titled ‘From here to there’, this process is fundamental to his work as he explained how one picture may lead to the next.
In Sleeping by the Mississippi, he described how he became intrigued by the places and people, wanting the images to have a childlike wanderlust of those great Mississippi adventurers Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. He went on explain that he wanted a dreamy rather than documentary quality to the resulting images.
Throughout his work there is the very essence of wandering. In the talk, Soth referenced Robert Frank’s Guggenheim proposal:
“…To photograph freely…[to make] a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present…things that are there, anywhere and everywhere—easily found, not easily selected and interpreted…The material is there; the practice will be in the photographer’s hand, the vision in his mind. One says this with some embarrassment but one cannot do less than claim a vision if one is to ask for consideration.”
For me, Soth is the modern day flâneur, wandering through place and time to create each project. He believes photography is fundamentally non-narrative and it is for the viewer to navigate from picture to picture.
The word flâneur dates to the 17th century and was to idle or stroll. It was the 19th century where the term took on a more significant meaning. French writers including Balzac and Baudelaire elaborated the term and it became to signify those that had time to do nothing, time to idle along the streets. It was a quintessentially urban experience, not laziness per se but someone who had the time to absorb all that was going on around.
From the 19th century there has been a link between the flâneur and photography with references to the experience being a moving photograph of urban experience. Susan Sontag wrote in ‘On Photography’ on the development of the hand-held camera:
“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world “picturesque.”
As the pace of life gets faster, and ease of using digital cameras has speeded up the process of photography, the essence of flâneur has been lost. The antithesis of this approach would be the street photographer Bruce Gilden, whose in-your-face shooting strategy upsets as many subjects as he successfully photographs.
Alec Soth’s work is a complete contrast to this fast-paced frantic mission to the grab the photograph whatever the consequences. Soth’s images have a different quality. The photographs are meditative, the subjects posed in a veil of stillness – be they inanimate or animate.
His early working process of using large format is part of this process, the slowness of setting up camera, tripod, focussing, and then exposing a plate requires permission and cooperation from the subjects. However this quality has transcended to the later projects. His recent work, Songbook was shot on a digital camera and his Instagram account features many camera phone images. Looking at work on display at Gathered Leaves, there is a consistency to Soth’s style, which transcends the individual projects.
From Soth’s work you can learn to take the time to wander, to peruse, to be a flâneur. This may be a good tactic to use if you are struggling with a project, a way of giving yourself distance and slowing down and considering what is around. Maybe this tactic has worked for you?
If you missed the exhibition Gathered Leaves at the Science Museum in London, it is now on at the National Media Museum in Bradford. There is an OCA study visit planned on the 4 June. For more details visit here
You can read blog posts about the study visit to the London exhibition.
Featured Image: Adelyn, Ash Wednesday, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2000, from Sleeping by the Mississippi © Alec Soth