“I was such a shy kid. Anyone who knows me from when I was young can’t believe this is what I do,” laughs the photographer Alec Soth. He says when he started taking portraits after college “it functioned almost as a kind of therapy, which was embarrassing, but it was a way to learn how to deal with other human beings and confront this fear.”
The reticence paid off. Over the course of five years, Soth made frequent road trips along the Mississippi – which runs through his hometown in Minnesota – and shot a collection of landscapes and portraits that have been compared to Robert Frank’s landmark 1958 series The Americans.
If you just sit in awkwardness for a period of time, that’s where the magic can appear – Alec Soth
After Soth’s series Sleeping by the Mississippi appeared in a self-printed book, he was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial and offered assignments that led to him joining Magnum Photos. His Mississippi pictures are populated by dreamers. One of them, titled Charles, is simultaneously disarming and mysterious – why the planes? Why is he standing on a roof? – an offbeat moment captured partly because of Soth’s shyness. A fan of “letting the awkward silences happen”, he extends those silences through his choice of camera.
Soth says one of the reasons he likes working with a large format camera and tripod is that he can observe his subject while he’s setting up the camera. It gives them “time to settle – but there’s also that existing within the awkwardness. I’ve noticed that when you take a portrait, you kind of race through it, to get it over with, because it can be this unpleasant thing: but if you just sit in that awkwardness for a period of time that’s where some of the magic can appear.”
Soth took that to its limit with a recent project. “Four years ago in Japan, I did this experiment and I made these portraits in five-minute exposures where I would just sit with the person, my head wasn’t behind the camera, I was just sitting – and it was mainly an excuse to just stare at people. To really be in that uncomfortable place. It was a wonderful experience.”
The unblinking eye
Soth feels privileged to have the permission to do this. “Fundamentally, that’s what portraiture allows you to do,” he says. “It allows the viewer to have that experience, to stand up close to someone and look at them closely, and just to peer – it’s a pleasure.”
Between 2006 and 2010, Soth gained access to a difficult group to reach. His project Broken Manual profiles men who have chosen to hide from the world: hermits, wild men, monks, and survivalists. The images are often eerie: in one, empty coat hangers dangle from a pole attached to two sides of a cave; another shows some poignant graffiti scribbled on a wall: ‘I love my dad Tony. I wish he loved me’.
“It’s really about the need to connect under the guise of wanting to run away,” says Soth. Sometimes, even in images that are uninhabited, his photos are like portraits taken without people. “The work is really about the failure to be alone. The people that I photographed allowed me to photograph them because they didn't want to be alone,” Soth told Interview magazine. “Nobody really wants to be alone. People need people.”
A 2006 collection, Niagara, shows newlyweds at the honeymooning destination Niagara Falls – Soth has noted that it’s also a place where people go to commit suicide. Images of smiling couples and a rose-tinted waterfall are mixed in with a letter asking: “If there was a nice apartment and I have a descent [sic] job… would you come home?”
Soth describes the process by which he seeks out subjects as ‘planned serendipity’. “A great analogy for me to photography is fishing. You start to learn the lures, the different spots in the lake, the different times of day – this accrued knowledge of the tide.”
Gone in a flash
Soth took some of the photos for Sleeping by the Mississippi at a brothel in Iowa. In one of them, a pair of women sit side by side, their bare legs overlapping. They are prostitutes, and they are also mother and daughter. For his project, Soth asked his subjects to write down their life’s dream. The daughter dreamed of being a registered nurse, Soth told The Telegraph. “And the mom said she didn’t have any dreams any more. She was beyond them.”
He worries about the ethics of documentary photography – “I think it’s problematic when I ask permission – it’s triply problematic when I don’t ask permission.” But he also sees that an image can often give a voice to the voiceless. “Everyday people say amazing things. Being able to frame it in a certain way, and then pay attention to it, can highlight that meaning. One of the great things about photography is that it largely pays attention to these very prosaic things, and heightens them, and I’m happy to be part of that activity.”
It all comes back to the awkward silence. Soth believes we can see more if we sit it out. “I rediscovered this quote by John Cage where he was saying if something is boring for two minutes, listen to it for four minutes; if it’s boring for four minutes, listen to it for eight – eventually it’s not boring any more. I think that applies to the banal, to what’s around us. If you actually spend enough time and look at it in a certain light, it’s kind of amazing.” If we dismiss something as banal, he says, “it comes from not paying close enough attention”.
BBC Culture is partnering with Magnum, the international photographer’s co-operative, for its annual awards. Any photographer – professional or amateur – interested in entering can apply here: the competition closes on 16 May, and winners will be announced on 18 July.
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