Oxford School of Photography

insights into photography

Alec Soth: America’s most immaculate, intriguing photographer

You will either love or hate his pictures, they will speak to you or infuriate you with their pretensions, it is hard to think of another photographer so feted who is perhaps less understood. Sean O’Hagen in The Guardian makes a very good stab at explaining why Soth is thought to be ‘America’s most immaculate photographer’, it is worth reading even if you don’t like the pictures because the article will help you to understand why some photographers/artists are so lauded. The start point for this Soth love-in is a new retrospective exhibition at The Science Museum. I’m not sure what any of it has to do with science.


2008  from Alec Soth’s book Broken Manual and included in the exhibition Gathered Leaves. All images courtesy of the artist/Magnum


Melissa, 2005, from Niagara


Adelyn, Ash Wednesday, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2000, from Sleeping by the Mississippi


Two Towels, 2004, from Niagara


Bil. Sandusky, Ohio, 2014, from Songbook

O’Hagen says “Underpinning the series, and indeed all of his work, is Soth’s restless vision and relentless curiosity. In Niagara, he finds another location steeped in contradictions, a place of “spectacular suicides and affordable honeymoons,” as he puts it. Soth’s Niagara is both mundane and majestic, its mythology invested with so much hope that disappointment and despair are an inevitable consequence…..

The strange atmosphere of banality and heightened intimacy is sustained throughout, further evidence of Soth’s meticulous editing and his almost writerly understanding of how to sustain a mood…..

This article is a very useful insight into the world of contemporary photography, not photography as most people understand but one where “It isn’t what a picture is of,” the great American photography curator John Szarkowski once said. “It is what it is about.”

Understanding this type of photographic imagery involves using your mind more than your eyes because although what you might see as O’Hagen says “His results are beautiful, whatever their subject matter. Painstakingly composed on a large-format camera mounted on a tripod, his images can be breathtakingly stunning in their subtle range of muted colours.” it is what it speaks of that gives it value

The question is do you believe this is what photography is about? I don’t know, I am intrigued by what I see and I like to try to understand but more often than not I get the impression that artists such as Soth speak to other artists and to those in the art world that own the art version of the Rosetta Stone and the rest of us are diminished because ‘we just don’t get it’

Read the article follow the links look at the pictures make of it what you will. The exhibition information is here

Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth

Alec Soth is widely considered to be world’s foremost documentary photographer. Recently described by the Telegraph as the ‘greatest living photographer of America’s social and geographical landscape’, Soth is admired for his experimentation across exhibition, book, magazine and digital forms.

Like many great photographers and writers from the American canon – such as Robert Frank, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld – Soth takes the open road as his subject, but brings to it his own unique and modern twist.

Through haunting, intimate portraits, desolate landscapes and wide open wildernesses, his work captures a profound sense of what it is to be human. Tenderness, joy, disappointment, fear or pride – his striking portraits capture the rawness of human emotion and the tension between our conflicting desires for individualism and community.

This exhibition presents his four signature series – Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and the most recent, Songbook (2014) – and highlights his remarkable career and distinctive vision.

Gathered Leaves is Soth’s first major UK show and offers a unique opportunity to see the journey his photographs make from the printed page to the exhibition wall.

Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth

First major UK exhibition by award-winning American photographer Alec Soth
Floor: 2
Price: £8


On a final note I am reminded that I went to the Brighton Photography Biennial in 2010. Alex Soth was one of the main attractions, he had been contracted to produce an exhibition of his pictures of Brighton. When he arrived at Heathrow on a tourist visa it was evident he couldn’t work in the UK so was not allowed to photograph for the show so  So he handed over the reins of his latest exhibition to a new collaborator: his seven-year-old daughter The Guardian

It was so disappointing, why not let any local seven year old take the pictures….art, you have got to laugh

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