Alec Soth finds humanity in social media, fleeting images

Alec Soth will use an RV for traveling workshops.
Alec Soth sat on the roof of the RV he will use for a new traveling workshop for teens. The idea is to travel to places with groups of creative young people, gather stories through photography, drawing, writing, and other means and then return to that place afterwards to present a live event using the material gathered.
Courtesy Soth Studios

Most people like to take pictures to capture a moment or a memory, to create a dramatic image. Alec Soth is no exception. But recently, in a project called "Disappear with me," the St. Paul-based artist used photographs to offer a unique experience.

His intent: "To create some sort of dialog with an individual in which they are purchasing pictures that disappear."

Soth is known for his large projects such as his Mississippi River Series, his images shot around Niagara Falls as well as his Broken Manual project where he went in search of people who try to live off the grid. He is also known for his use of social media, particularly through his organization Little Brown Mushroom, which he's operated as a small press.

"Disappear with me" was one of the offerings in the Walker Art Center's "Intangibles" collection, a selection of artworks without physical form sold through the Walker's gift shop. There were ring-tones by composer Nico Muly, one-on-one dance performances, and even an ocean-side retreat in the Second Life virtual world.

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"Disappear with Me" cost $100, and there were only three for sale. Soth would send each purchaser at least 25 images through the SnapChat social media app. The images would come one at a time, and the recipient was expected to send an image in reply.

A single Alec Soth print can cost thousands, so 25 images for $100 is a great deal. Of course as SnapChat users know, recipients can only view what they get for a maximum of 10 seconds, then the images disappear.

"So you had to be kind of present for it," laughed Brian Goldston, "Otherwise you'd blink and you'd miss it."

Disappear with Me included photo collection.
Alec Soth offered "Disappear with me" as part of the Intangibles collection of artwork with no physical form sold at the Walker Art Center shop.
Courtesy Walker Art Center

Goldston was one of the three buyers. After working in the tech industry, he now describes himself as beginning a career as a creator of storytelling contraptions, things he says are more likely to appear in the virtual world than the physical.

He learned about "Disappear with Me" through an article in the New York Times, and leapt at the chance.

"Part of that I think was the 'disappearingness' of it," he said on the phone from New York. "I think in particular because I am middle-aged right now, and I'm thinking a lot about life and transience."

Goldston described the experience as like a blind date, where he didn't know the rules. However he quickly learned.

He calls some of the images he received as show-stopping, and he took pleasure in deciding what to send back. He says while it was remarkable to be exchanging images with Soth, it wasn't necessarily because he was a celebrated photographer.

"I found it was more profound that he was just this person doing this," he said.

Soth also says he found powerful moments of interaction.

"With so much photography in the world, like with so much music in the world, you need something that is live, that is fleeting, so you can cherish it," Soth said.

However, Goldston says he found it so profound, he told Soth he felt he'd been undercharged, and he wanted to make a donation to pay it forward. Soth told Goldston about his next project, the Winnebago Workshop. He's changing his Little Brown Mushroom publishing house into an educational venture.

Alec Soth celebrates unveiling of his billboard.
Photographer Alec Soth celebrated after a billboard for the Creative Enterprise Zone featuring his photograph was unveiled along University Avenue in St. Paul last summer. Soth delights in experimenting with photography, and the new opportunities offered by digital media.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News 2014

He wants to work with teenagers to create live image-driven events. He's taking applications until next Monday, Aug. 3, looking for a group of 16- to 18-year-olds interested in photography, drawing, and writing. They will travel in his RV to a place, to gather stories, and then present them as a live show in that place.

"This application form is really more about finding quirky people that have an interest in poking around in the world," he said. Soth tried a similar thing a couple of years ago with adults in what he called a "Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Story Tellers."

While that camp drew raves from participants, Soth hasn't offered another so far. However, he plans to make the teen workshops a regular thing with the help of a Knight Foundation Challenge grant. It awarded him $35,000 for the project, money he's matched through fundraising.

Soth describes the project as a way of pushing forward in an insanely fast digital world. However, the Knight Foundation's Interim Arts Program Officer Nicole Chipi sees it as old school too: an artist working within a community, with the support of that community.

"It's giving the audience and giving the community the power to say this is the kind of art that is important to me," Chipi said, "This is the kind of art I want to have in my community."

Which is in itself an artistic collaboration.