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Photographer Alec Soth deals with an unexpected feeling: happiness

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Weinstein Hammons Gallery will feature new photographs by Alec Soth.
Photographer Alec Soth will present new large-format photographs as part of the exhibit "I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating" at the Weinstein Hammons Gallery.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Internationally acclaimed Minnesota photographer Alec Soth says he had an experience two years ago that caused him to step away from his work. Soth is now back with a new book and a show both called "I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating."

Soth has always had a talent for analysis, whether it's his own work or the world in which it appears. However, sitting in his St. Paul studio, he even seems to wonder about what happened to him a couple of years back. He'd been meditating while on a trip to Helsinki, then went for a walk by a lake near his hotel. That's where his life changed.

"I had that thing that sometimes happens to people, where it's just, you know, if you want to call it a mystical experience," he said. "I just had a big woo-woo moment. Tears running down my face, the whole thing."

Much to his amazement, he found he was deeply, profoundly happy. As he headed back to the hotel, he says he saw the people he passed in a new way.

"I would look at them and I would be like, 'Wow, I love that person.' I mean everything was different and I thought, 'That changes everything,'" Soth said.

And that included fundamentally changing his approach to photography.

"I eventually stopped doing all kind of photo jobs. I stopped traveling. And probably most importantly, I stopped photographing people," he said. 

While Alec Soth's work is not exclusively portraiture, his haunting images of people — often apparently on the edge of some community or idea — have been central to his projects. It was such a switch he went in person to tell the galleries which show his work.

"'Sit down, I got some big news for you: I'm a happy person. I love life, and that's going to change my work dramatically,'" he said.

He didn't stop taking pictures. He says he spent a year playing around, mainly in a farmhouse he owns, doing work he found personally interesting but didn't think he'd share with anyone.

He stayed happy, yet he knew it couldn't go on.

"I have two children, there's economics to this," he said. "And also I felt like, just in terms of a spiritual journey, either I have to go to the monastery or I have to enter into the real world and sort of apply whatever I have learned in this time period to real life."

So he tried a few things including what he called "the Seesaw Project." He points to a seesaw hanging from the ceiling above our heads

"So, that is the original seesaw," he said. "I mean my thing about a seesaw is it's a metaphor for portraiture — like before I saw portraiture as you over there and me over here," he said. "But in this new time period, I was thinking there is space but there is an exchange of energy. And a seesaw is like that, this sort of power-shifting back and forth." 

He actually took the seesaw to a gallery and used it to interact with people. Sometimes he'd take a photograph. Sometimes he wouldn't.

Then a friend suggested he meet a retired dancer called Anna. She was in her 90s, so he went to her. The resulting image, shot with a large-format camera through a window is an arresting ethereal portrait of a powerful woman at ease. It's similar to his earlier work — but not exactly.

Anna. Kentfield, California.
"Anna. Kentfield, California."
Courtesy of Alec Soth

"Just slightly different. I'm still the same photographer, the same guy, the same neurotic mess, but I was just a little more open and there was just a little more light and air in the pictures and in the picture and I could feel that in the photograph," Soth said.

So he made a lot more like it. In the next three weeks, he has shows opening in New York, San Francisco and Berlin. There is also the show at the Weinstein Hammons Gallery in Minneapolis.

"For me this work is about looking at another person, and yeah, trying to imagine who they are, what's inside. And also looking at yourself, looking at a person and analyzing 'why am I making these assumptions?'" he said.

And just for the record, Soth admits the old queasy feeling has returned.