Alec Soth

Teaching Page

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Alec Soth, Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002. Chromogenic print, 50 x 40 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Although From Here to There: Alec Soth's America is no longer on view at MMoCA, this teaching page is valuable as an ongoing classroom resource. Here, you can find information on the artthe artistkey ideasdiscussion questions, and additional resources.

THE ART

Standing tall and holding two model airplanes is a bearded and mustached man wearing a plaid shirt, black and white knit sweater, paint-spattered olive green coveralls with bulging pockets, leather work gloves, leather boots with laces untied, eyeglasses and a white balaclava cap. One of the airplanes he is holding is a Wizard gas engine model built from balsa wood and tissue paper and painted red, white, and blue with four stars and stripes on its tail; the other is a gas engine Testors model N4800T in red and white. He is standing on a tar-papered roof next to a window that appears to have been covered during the winter with glue-on plastic sheeting, which is lying behind him along with metal troughs and a cement block. The snow on the roof is melting, and the trees and bushes below are still leafless.

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, is a compelling portrait of a proud man whose bemused expression is faintly evident behind his beard and the reflection of light off his glasses. Not unlike portrait painting of aristocratic or regal subjects throughout history, he has participated in the process of being portrayed and has chosen to associate himself with objects that have special meaning to him. The artist, Alec Soth, encountered Charles when he was driving around Minnesota and noticed a house with a glass room on top. He learned that Charles had built this room, which he calls his “cockpit,” and used it to make model airplanes with his daughter. Soth was drawn to his subject because of a shared sense of his being a dreamer whose reveries are expressed through building projects and fantasies of flight.

Alec Soth pursues a roving tradition established by such photographers as Robert Frank and William Eggleston who took to the American road, documenting everyday subjects. Using an approach similar to surfing the Internet, Soth follows links between one situation and another that are intentionally discreet from one another. However, when combined into series they suggest intriguing stories of quirky places and potentially overlooked people in present-day American culture. Soth has said, “In the early development of my work, I knew how to take pictures, but the struggle was how to organize pictures. Eventually, I started this thing called From Here to There, which was one picture leading to the next so that it was like a sort of game I was playing photographically, where the detail of one photograph actually provides the link for the subject matter of the next image.” Soth cites the ideas of musician John Cage about indeterminacy and the effect of chance events on composition as an important influence on his photography practice.

Working primarily with a labor-intensive 8 x 10-inch field camera, Soth achieves a kind of detached intimacy with his subjects. When he encounters his subjects he asks them for permission to photograph them, then asks them to relax and wait while he sets himself up under the dark cloth he must place over his head to load the film and adjust the exposure. This process results in a contemplative photographic style and elicits remarkable detail and clarity. When viewed together the photographs present an unconventional portrait of America, and they ask they viewer to muse on and fill in the stories behind the images. “I am a photographer who floats over the surface of the world. I float, I wander. I have brief but occasionally powerful encounters…Photography is a very sensual pleasure…I look for color and shape like a painter.” 

THE ARTISt

Born in 1969 and raised in Minnesota, where he continues to live and work, Alec Soth attended Sarah Lawrence College. He has received fellowships from the McKnight Foundation and Jerome Foundation, was the recipient of the 2003 Santa Fe prize for Photography, and was short-listed for the highly prestigious Deutsche Borse Photography Prize. Soth also makes journalistic photographs such as those that have been on the cover of New York Times Magazine four times, but his journalistic work is separate from his art photography, in which he chooses the subject and uses different art methods.

KEY IDEAS

  • Art photography in the tradition of on-the-road documentation of everyday American culture
  • Photography employing the contemporary art convention of asking the viewer to fill in the story
  • Use of serendipity for seeking subjects and linking photographs, similar to surfing the Internet
  • Use of a large format camera that requires time and “detached engagement” with a subject
  • Discovery of beauty in banal or overlooked situations

DISCUSSION QUESTIONs

  1. What are some things you notice first about this portrait? In what ways is the image different from typical portraits of people?
  2. What hypotheses or assumptions about Charles do you form from viewing concrete details in the picture, such as his age, his interests, his work, the part of the country where he lives, his personality characteristics, his lifestyle? What do you notice about how you attempt to figure out what a person is like?
  3. In what ways does the formal composition of this photograph suggest qualities that could be characteristic of Charles?
  4. Have you ever created a portrait by photographing or drawing a person? In what ways is Charles, Vasa, Minnesota similar to or different from portraits you might make of people in your life?

RESOURCES

On the Artist:

National Portrait Gallery
Magnum Photos
Alec Soth

Context:

Portraiture