Stacey Baker: How to Revisit an Iconic Photograph

This fall is a busy one for the photographer Alec Soth, who most recently shot “Portraits From a Job-Starved City” for the magazine. Soth is showing new photographs at the International Photography Festival of Rome and at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. And later this month, at the NY Art Book Fair, Soth’s publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom, will introduce three new books: “A Head with Wings,” by Anouk Kruithof, “The Little Brown Coloring Book,” by Jason Polan and “Bunny Boy Goes to Rome” by the Soth family. In a series of e-mail exchanges, condensed below, I asked Soth about his latest work.

SB: Can you describe the new photographs that people will be able to see in San Francisco and Rome?

AS: After my last big project (“Broken Manual”), I decided that I needed to shake things up. Rather than take on something epic, I wanted to experiment. And so I’ve been doing lot of small-scale projects. I’ve played with a lot of tools, video and zines, digital cameras and disposable cameras. Some of this has been self-assigned and some of it has come from commissions. The work in California and Italy are both commissioned projects.

The show in California, “More American Photographs,” is being organized by the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. The idea was to commission a number of photographers to produce new work about America in the spirit of the Farm Security Administration photography of the ’30s and ’40s. I decided to use the most famous F.S.A. picture as my reference point: Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother (1936).” I’m fascinated by the whole notion of iconic pictures. Of the 80,000 F.S.A. pictures, why is this one so memorable? This is a particularly interesting question for a photographer working in the age of Flickr. So just as a painter might go to a museum and sketch from one of the masters, I attempted to make my own migrant mother picture. It was a fascinating exercise.


Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother (1936)


Alec Soth, Eueth, Migrant Workers Camp, Owatonna, Minn., 2011

Inspired by this exercise with Lange, I did something similar in Rome. In this case, I remade Ruth Orkin’s iconic photograph, “An American Girl in Italy (1951).” But this photograph was just a jumping off point for a really crazy series of photographs. When I arrived in Rome, I’d just recovered from an illness and some other personal drama and was a little out of my mind. I was inspired by John Keats (who came to Rome to die in 1821) and ended up producing a series named after one of his poems: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (“The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy”).


Ruth Orkin, An American Girl in Italy (1951)


Alec Soth/Magnum, Via Natale del Grande, Rome, 2011

SB: What did you learn from revisiting these earlier images?

AS: I actually learned a lot. I mean, Orkin’s original picture was, like mine, partially staged. What gives the picture the energy is that a real event took place. The men in her picture were not paid actors – they were real people. They were really reacting to an event. It just happens that part of the event was the act of being photographed. This is usually the case with my photography (and most photography for that matter). What excites me about the medium isn’t pure documentary or pure fiction; I like exploring the murky middle place in hopes of finding what Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth.”

With the “Migrant Mother” pictures, I learned more technical things about photography. The most fascinating element in photographic portraiture is the subject’s eyes. I remember being stunned when I first saw a print of “Migrant Mother” that the eyes of the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, are dramatically out of focus. It is a technically imperfect picture, but of course it is an absolutely great image. Why? In remaking the picture, it became clear that that some of this has to do with the fact that the children’s eyes are hidden. If that weren’t the case, the picture would be about the children. Instead, the picture is about the mother and about her plight.

SB: The issue of copying can be kind of touchy among photographers. Did you have any qualms about exploring these iconic images so directly?

AS: I really didn’t have any qualms about this. Photography is a language. And in order to speak the language, you need to learn about how other people use it. I know that there have been a number of controversies about photographers copying each other. But this was an educational experiment. And it was fruitful. As they say: Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

SB: You mentioned to me a little while ago that you had sort of fallen back in love with photography. I’m curious how you fell out of love and then back in love with it.

AS: For a little while I was exhausted. Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr and so on. … I felt like I was drowning in images. As a consequence, even work outside of that digital stream – the work I was seeing in books and exhibitions – started looking all of the same. More important, my own pictures started feeling the same. I was burned out. So I started experimenting. I made little videos and used disposable cameras. I played. I stopped making big, formal, large-format pictures.

Recently I’ve returned to a version of that more formal kind of photography, but I have a whole new energy behind it. I’m making pictures that surprise me. I’m feeling some of that same thrill when I was 20 and falling in love with the medium.

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