Attended the Alec Soth lecture at the Austin Center of Photography last night. They are doing a fantastic job for such a young organization, getting in great photographers who are giving interesting talks. Alec Soth talked about his ennui with photography as a medium. Starting out quite frustrated and negative about image making. Partly this was in the context of what he called the democratic jungle, riffing on William Eggleston's idea of the democratic forest. That everything is equally important as a subject and everything is up for having pictures taken. No need for much in the way of subject selection or thought - everything is a viable subject. In the same context, he showed the 2-billionth picture that's been photographed and uploaded to flickr - it looked a lot like an Eggleston image. This morning I had a look. They've passed 3 billion images now (some time in 2008 - shown above on the right) Facebook has over 10 billion pictures. Ten billion pictures.
As he tried to lighten the dark mood, he proposed that he thinks the narrative machete is the way out of this democratic jungle. That using photography to tell stories and create sequences of images is the only way forward, to do anything interesting. There was a section of 'understanding comics' shown to support this and then off to the portraiture. I'd looked through a lot of his portraits again, before going along to the talk. I'd been struck by how just slightly out of the normal each of the subjects were, often in their placement or relationship with the camera. He described much of his portrait process as really trying not to connect with the subject. Working with a large format camera, hiding under the fabric, not talking much. Waiting until the subject disconnects and withdraws into their own thoughts, before taking the pictures. He described trying to not take a picture of the person, but of the space between the person and the camera. That does a good job of describing what I'd felt was slightly odd about all the portraits. The disconnect with the subject, viewer and photographer, that repeats in his portraits.
He also delved into various parts of his published work, describing the process he follows to find images (something of a freeform word association with a slightly odd twist) and how those themes repeat throughout his work. It was interesting to hear how he uses overarching, obvious themes to help explain the work, even when often his own personal motivation is something quite different. This seems to come from early shows that he had a hard time explaining. So something like 'sleeping by the Mississippi' is superficially about that river, but mostly he's trying to explore other concepts - that are quite visible in the images. Similarly with Niagara. All in all, a fascinating and insightful chat about photography. Inspired me to try harder and depressed me about the whole state of photography in equal measure.
I think the ACP is doing a great job. Mary Ellen Mark talked about how great things were in the past and complained about how things are, how frustrated she is now - towards the end of a career. Alec Soth was much more interesting. He's at the middle and currently at the height of his career, 1 year after being accepted at Magnum as a full member. He just talked about how things are, exposing all the troubling flaws in this easy access visual art and describing his way forward. Next up, in September, Elliott Erwitt.