Photographer Alec Soth seeks escape's dark side

Photographer Alec Soth in his studio
Photographer Alec Soth sits in his St. Paul, Minn. studio Monday, August 30, 2010. An exhibition of Soth's work is being held at the Walker Art Center September 12, 2010 - January 2, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Critics say Alec Soth takes pictures of the unphotographable.

The award-winning Twin Cities-based photographer travels the world to capture images of intangible things like love and dreams.

Siri Engberg
Walker curator Siri Engberg displays a scale model of the Walker gallery being used for "From Here to There: Alec Soth's America." She used it to plan the placement of the 100 pictures in the show.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

This weekend the Walker Art Center opens "From Here to There: Alec Soth's America." It surveys his career so far, and includes Soth's latest project with a decidedly darker tone.

For 15 years Alec Soth has trained his camera on people and places, to create astonishing and arresting images. Walker Art Center curator Siri Engberg says Soth approached his early work like a treasure hunt.

"He would tape a list of topics, or things that he was looking for to the steering wheel of his car," she says. "And he would drive around Niagara Falls for example, looking for love letters, or people who'd just been married, or people who were just getting divorced, or pawn shops with wedding rings. He had all sorts of cues he was looking for."

Engberg points out a picture from the Niagara series of a bride named Melissa. She sits in her cascading dress on an old chair. It's set on an oil-stained sidewalk outside a rundown motel.

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002.
Photo by Alec Soth

"She's oblivious to the kind of ordinariness of her surroundings, but she's very content with who she is. She's excited to be getting married. It's an amazing picture," Engberg says. "And then there is something about this wedding dress and the voluminousness of the fabric, that kind of speaks to idea of the Falls themselves and the kind of spilling over of the water."

Engberg says Soth also searches for linkages between his pictures. He calls it real-life web surfing, where something from one image connects somehow with something in the next.

One day, for example, he'd photographed Charles Lindberg's boyhood bed for his "Sleeping by the Mississippi" series. He'd been asking people he met about their dreams. It seemed likely this was where Lindberg dreamed of flight.

Melissa, 2005, chromogenic print.
Photo by Alec Soth

Then he stumbled across a man making airplane models in Vasa, Minn. The resulting image is now one of his best known. It shows an overall-clad figure standing holding his planes on the roof of his home. The picture was featured in the Venice Biennale.

Photographer Alec Soth in his studio
Photographer Alec Soth sits in his St. Paul, Minn. studio Monday, August 30, 2010. An exhibition of Soth's work is being held at the Walker Art Center September 12, 2010 - January 2, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Engberg says an Alec Soth picture brings out something unexpected from his subjects.

"What he's doing is really allowing a very different side of that subject to come out," she says. "You have someone who is not posing any more. You have someone who is just being."

One of the secrets behind Alec Soth's work is very large and not so secret.

In a room at his St Paul studio Soth begins setting up his camera. He's done it many, many times, but such is its size, it takes a while.

He reaches for a huge tripod, and gets it in position.

Soth fixes the camera's large wooden body, complete with focusing bellows atop the tripod. Then he attaches the lens. It casts an image across the glass plate on the back of the camera, which Soth will cover with a black cloth, so he can compose his picture, just as photographers did a century or more ago.

"It's almost like a canvas on a easel in some ways," Soth says. "And so you can really take your time. You can stand back. You know, change the composition, move things up and down like this. Change the plane of focus. You are really creating the image over time."

And that's the secret. Not the camera, but time. In an age where digital technology has made photography almost instantaneous, Alec Soth works long and hard to get things just right. He describes it as editing the picture before the fact. It can take so long that he says both he and the person he's photographing often drift off into their own thoughts.

George Slade
George Slade during his time as Minnesota Center for Photography Artistic Director. He's now curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston Univeristy. He has followed Alec Soth's carrer since the mid-90's and wrote the published first critique of Soth's work.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

"And I always think of it as these two solitary people kind of with each other, but not with each other," he says. "Which is sort of like photography for me. You're kind of in the world but you are separated from it. You are looking at it. And I like that combination of separateness: lack of engagement and engagement."

And what emerges as a result, says George Slade is something intangible.

"One thing that Alec has been particularly good at is photographing things that aren't normally seen," Slade says.

Slade is now curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, but as the former director of the Minnesota Center for Photography he's followed Soth's career since the mid-1990s.

"He photographs things that most of us think of as invisible, or maybe obscured or hidden, or unphotographable," Slade says.

That is particularly true of Soth's newest work, which will form a major part of the Walker show. Like many of Soth's personal projects, it's designed as a book.

Man sleeping
Untitled, 2008, archival pigment print.
Photo by Alec Soth

"The book itself is called 'Broken Manual.' And what it is, is a guide to run away from your life, essentially," Soth says. "And it's addressed to men specifically."

The text is written by Lester B. Morrison. Soth has spent the last three years gathering pictures for the book.

"I went around the country photographing different people that have attempted to escape, either by being monks, or survivalists, or just generally hermits," he says. "But it's not a documentary of these people, it's evoking the spirit of escape."

Escape from society is an unsettling idea -- attractive and worrying at the same time. Soth had to travel far to Texas and California, and elsewhere to find his subjects. Some were tucked in canyons or deep in the woods.

The idea of escape resonated with many ordinary people Soth talked with about the project. He thinks it's something to do with the post-9/11, post-economic-crash world. Heck, it resonated with him.

"There's one thing I wanted to show you, you'll get a kick out of," he says.

Photographer Alec Soth's escape model
A model entitled "Lost Boy Mountain" was commissioned to be used as part of an exhibition of photographer Alec Soth's work at the Walker Art Center September 12, 2010 - January 2, 2011. The model represents a place of escape which his new series of work explores.
Photo courtesy of Soth Photography, Inc.

Soth leads the way to another room, and a six-foot-tall diorama he commissioned for the Walker show.

"This is a scale model of my fantasy, and it's called 'Lost Boy Mountain,' he says. "It's a tree house up here, that leads down into a secret chamber, a cave that's full of books."

Again it's attractive and a little unsettling. Soth says the escape fantasy he explores in the show runs deep.

"It even hits something similar to that boyish 'I want to get on a raft' mentality. It's a fantasy of escape," Soth says. "And the thing about this work, it's called 'Broken Manual' because it's broken. It doesn't work. And you can't actually escape. It's an ideal."

Soth describes most of the people he photographed for the project as sad. He also reveals that despite all his subjects desire to drop out of society and disappear he found them on the internet.

Man in woods
Untitled, 2006, archival pigment print.
Photo by Alec Soth

The Walker's Siri Engberg predicts visitors to "From here to there" may spend hours looking at the hundred images in the show. She says it's important not to underestimate what it took to get them.

"They do stay with you these pictures, and I think a lot of it has to do with the effort he has put into finding them, to finding the pictures," she says. "He is very tenacious when he wants to track something down and it really does pay off. These are pictures that are just remarkable in what they are telling us."

The Walker exhibit opens to the public on Sunday and runs through the end of the year.

George Slade will come from Boston to talk at the opening. He admits he cannot put his finger exactly on why Alec Soth's pictures touch people so deeply, but it's clear they do.

"I suppose he's tapped into a kind of zeitgeist of American identity, dreams of America, at a very odd moment in our history," Slade says.

Odd indeed.

Alec Soth has just issued a limited edition of Broken Manual. Each one is concealed in a hole cut in a larger book, making it a little easier to hide, if indeed you are planning to escape.