Looking at Alec Soth

Figure 1. Alec Soth (2015) in conversation with American Suburb X

I had been avoiding Alec Soth, as I very much like his work and also very familiar with it visually. However, It was mentioned to me that my work has some similarities (albeit i’d argue tenuous), so I decided that it might be good to look at Soth for this task, which has turned out to be a revelation to how I am approaching my own practice. The interview that I am using is a conversation that Soth had with American Suburb X (Soth in ASX, 2015).

Figure 2. Alec Soth (2014) from Songbook.

I found his discussion about the work ‘Songbook’ (Fig. 2) particularly interesting as Soth quickly moves into the way he created this work aesthetically, utilising black and white images with direct flash, which he is mimicking the look of press photography of the 1950s. This is something that resonated with me immediately as I have been writing about a documentary aesthetic, which has been driven by the look of this style of photography from the earliest FSA imagery and also how the look of press photographers, such as Weegee, who Soth also referenced in this interview, which was a nice validation for a post I did earlier in the module (Fig 3). Soth states “the work is referencing another time,” which is how we look at the period of the post war era as a sense of wonder, and how people have a deeply romanticised version of the past. From here Soth also makes reference to community and how there is a sense of loss of it, yet it has never really gone away. I had also been looking at a recent publication by Eli Durst, called ‘The Community’ in which he also creates images using this aesthetic, and seems to also reference another time. I have been discussing this aesthetic in relation to my own work, which is colour, however I don’t think that I have been able to truly resolve the reason why I have not created my work in black and white despite choosing to reference and research a range of black and white photography until listening to this interview. I believe that my work exists on the spectrum of the documentary aesthetic, however unlike Soth and Durst, my project is based on the present, so to use Soth’s conscious referencing to a romanticised past would be confusing and my use of colour makes sense in this context.

Figure 3. Phil Hill (March 30, 2020) Discussion on the ‘Documentary aesthetic.

Soth also referred to a range of his works, which might be aesthetically different but are connected to each other and that every project that he creates is what Soth termed “Stuff that happens in America” but they are also about himself and some of the work is more inward looking than others. I have been struggling to resolve my project in terms of the editing of my work in progress portfolio, owing to a range of disparate imagery. My intention is to look at my connection to community, or lack thereof, which also makes my project a kind of autobiography in where I fit in. It has been useful to re-examine Alec Soth in relation to my own work. I think that in terms of how he resolves the autobiographical elements of his images could prove useful in the editing of my own WIPP.

Another interesting question posed to Soth was regarding his association with Magnum Photos, in what interviewer Brad Feuerhelm termed “the slippery position of being an artist and working with Magnum,” however after all our examination of National Geographic a few weeks ago, the statement of the ‘Magnum Artist’ feels like an oxymoron when considering how we perceive Magnum as a collective of documentary photographers. However, Soth states that Magnum has been misunderstood as being a news agency and confused by some its founding photographers who were closely linked to war photography, citing Robert Capa and Heri Cartier Bresson as “surrealists who exist in the real world,” and I wonder wether this statement sums up what I am aiming to say about this documentary aesthetic, which gives off the assumed authority of veracity but are aesthetic constructions in the same way National Geographic utilises similar tropes in the pursuit of empirical authority and arguments that have been put to the work of Sabastiao Salgado that we looked at a couple of weeks ago.


Durst, E., 2019. The Community. [Online] Available at: http://www.elidurst.com/the-community [Accessed 30 March 2020].

Soth, A., 2014. Songbook. 1 ed. London: Mack.

Soth, A., 2015. Brad Feuerhelm of ASX in conversation with Alec Soth [Interview] (4 November 2015)

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