Creating a dreamscape in front of the lens.
Naked and cuddling on their red couch, Michele and James are so content and at ease, it’s as if they’ve forgotten they’re under the watchful lens of a famous art photographer.
“I want to tell a story,” explains Alec Soth as he makes countless adjustments before ducking once again under the wool hood of his colossal camera. “And the best way to do so is getting to know who and what you are talking about.”
Sliding paperback-sized negatives in and out of his 8×10 camera, Soth can spend an entire day capturing one unique moment. “I like to work alone. Everything I do is very personal; the relationships I create are very personal,” he says from his home base in Minnesota. “I’ve even opened a second studio. I call it a cave. It’s a creative retreat.” Soth’s mental journeys are often inspired by his travels to unknown destinations.
“Travel and location-spotting is part of my art,” says Soth, who, for his new book, Dog Days Bogot? (Steidl), recounts the two months he spent in Bogot?, Colombia, waiting for the paperwork for his newly adopted daughter, Carmen Laura, to be processed. “Carmen’s birth mother gave her a book filled with letters, pictures and poems: ‘When I think about you I hope that your life is full of beautiful things,’” he recites.
“With those words, I began making my own book for Carmen with hopes that she could find beauty in such a difficult place.”
In one photo, a young mother in a pink top stares off in the distance while her bonneted baby girl, whom she holds tightly in her arms, looks directly into the camera as if she is about to speak her first words.
Soth’s personal touch—and the intimacy he creates between viewer and his subjects—has earned him accolades from art aficionados across the globe. Take Charles, an endearing portrait from his 2004 project, Sleeping by the Mississippi, that was exhibited at the Whitney Biennale and put him on the art-world map. “He was a real dreamer,” says Soth. “His wife told me he moved the stairs inside the house three times before he was totally satisfied with the location. I wanted to capture that dreamlike mentality.”
In the portrait, Soth did just that. Charles stands outside of his house in his paint-stained workwear and wool hat holding two model airplanes. “I am drawn to dreamers,” he says. For an acclaimed art project, Niagara, which showed at New York’s Gagosian gallery last year, Soth visited another great American landmark: Niagara Falls. This time he added a soupçon of cynicism to the generally saccharine honeymoon destination. “It’s about love and the way it’s interpreted,” he says.
Images range from happily-ever-after moments to glimpses of betrayal and disappointment. In one shot, for example, Soth pictures two towels rolled up on a motel bed to form embracing swans, while another shows a tray of wedding bands in the window of a pawn shop.
But he is no pessimist when it comes to the American way of life. “I’m not making negative social commentary. I’m very optimistic,” he says.
While considered a natural in his field, Soth first focused on painting while studying fine art at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. “I wasn’t very good at it,” he admits. Instead, he found himself passionate about photography and the ability to capture intimate moments.
Today, Soth, 37, has been featured in major public and private collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He has been featured in numerous solo and group expositions, as well as being named an associate member of Magnum last year. Most recently, he’s lent his personal touch to the fashion arena, moonlighting as a photographer for Magnum Photos’ Fashion Magazine, as well as shooting a spread for W magazine.
In April, Soth will travel to Paris for a solo show at the Jeu de Paume. “It’s not a retrospective, I don’t use that word,” he jokes. “I’m not old enough, it’s a survey: a survey of moments I’ve captured so far.”