On Songbook: In Conversation with Alec Soth

from the series In Pursuit of an MFA

Alec Soth's Songbook Signing (photo: Theresa Ortolani)

Alec Soth’s Songbook Signing (photo: Theresa Ortolani)

Soth3©TheresaOrtolani Soth1©TheresaOrtolani

Joanna Lehan, professor: This show came out of the “Dispatches” project, which was included in our last ICP Triennial. We had a whole wall of books that reflected the self-publishing phenomenon, and you were such an important part of that. Is there anything you would like to tell us about the show?

Alec Soth: The way it started is complicated. Preceding all of this was Magnum Photo’s involvement with “Postcards From America”. The first one we did was a road trip from San Antonio to Oakland. I was the organizer of that particular trip and I invited writer Ginger Strand to join us. That, in many ways, started the ball rolling on collaborating with a writer. And then it came to be that I, on a whim, invited my friend and writer Brad Zellar, to do an imaginary photo/newspaper assignment with me. We went out and started doing a number of these locally, in Minnesota, and it took on a life of it’s own. Then Brad and I went to Ohio, where I was doing a talk and, kind of in connection with Magnum, we did the first LBM Dispatch. There were all these mini strands coming together. It wasn’t like “I will publish in a newspaper and then it will be this”. It was continually evolving, which I think is maybe a good approach from a student perspective – that it’s not all planned out. It was about half way through doing the Dispatches that I knew (and had discussed with Brad) that I needed to have this other life – the work that was outside of the text. Brad and I had planned on doing a novel sized book/reader that would go in the literary world, but I also wanted an art book that was purely about the pictures rather than the stories, where the stories are stripped away. In this book I wanted to include a combination of pictures from the Magnum projects as well as from my editorial work. So about 80% of the work is from a mishmash of various things, but it all has something to do with community life in America and loneliness. One of the reasons it’s called Songbook is that it’s not an essay on something, it’s more lyrical.

JL: It’s an interesting time I think in history to focus on the idea of community and isolation.

AS: Yes, it is especially so because of smart phone culture, but I think it’s always been the case, particularly in America, that there’s this celebration of individualism and isolation. It’s all part of being in the world in this little glass bubble. And I think photography is the medium of being in the world of not being in the world. And I kind of love that relationship.

JL: How difficult was it to think about the ways in which you were working in the tradition of “Americana?”

AS: That’s something that has been in my work from the get-go: that relationship and the connection to the American photo tradition. I think of photography as being a language, and it has different dialects, and I speak a dialect and I use it. I was definitely referencing Americana, both in subject matter and in approach. I have the belief that Americana still exists. Because that’s the thing, these places are still out there, these people are still out there, and that’s something I’m less jaded about; it’s still a rich world to be explored.

JL: Each one of your photographs is really startling and fresh and manages to skirt any kind of cliché.

AS: My feeling about cliché is that I like riding up right to the edge of it. I did this project in Niagara Falls – and I think Niagara Falls is the ultimate cliché. But I wanted to show it and do it because you can get away with it if you counter balance it with a different image. Like a musical analogy, feeling is connected to cliché as we have an emotional response to things that it’s always bumping up against. But you don’t want to manipulate people. When you’re watching a movie, you don’t want the music to swell to force you to have a feeling that’s clichéd. It’s often very basic human stuff that affects you. Like this picture that’s at a blind camp in Georgia and it’s an incredibly touching picture. I think emotionally it’s right on the breast of that kind of cliché. On my mind was the really blatant racism I witnessed in Georgia – I didn’t want to see it because I didn’t want that cliché of Georgia, but the fact is I did see it. But then to go to a blind camp and see black and white touching each other, it was like, wow!

JL: And literally not seeing color.

AS: And literally not seeing color! That’s like a dumb metaphor but it was true. So that’s the thing about cliché. Clichés are clichés for a reason.


Theresa Ortolani: So, you stripped away the text for Songbook. I heard Brad speak about your collaborations, and the relationship between image and text at the MoMA PS1 symposium. What are your thoughts regarding the image/text relationship, and the role of photography as language?

AS: Brad has a very sophisticated understanding of photography and the way the text works with the images; he’s great about not stepping on them with text and hopefully my pictures wouldn’t step on his text. And I love that Little Brown Mushroom has generally been a place to experiment with that balance. But I also love pictures on their own and their mysteries being wide open. This book was about that. Songbook is open-ended lyricisms where you can just bring whatever you bring to the pictures. In a lot of ways, I think I’m having my cake and eating it too, and you can do that with photography in some ways because it can work on different platforms. It can be in the New York Times Magazine where it’s a story about oil, but then it can do the Dispatches and become more open-ended but still have a narrative component, and then here it can just be kind of wide open. It’s one of the upsides of photography, especially when there are so many downsides and limitations to being a photographer. In terms of narrative, filmmaking can be such a powerful medium and I’m really envious of it – it’s the cultural medium of our time. It has an incredible power that photography doesn’t have. It’s similar to the narrative possibilities of the novel. So, emotionally this is called Songbook, but it doesn’t do that, it doesn’t do what music does. And in this day and age of fragmentations photography can be frustrating in that sense; everyone is a photographer.

TO: Do you have an inclination to make film – and combine music with narrative?

AS: The inclination comes and goes. A few years ago I started doing these experiments on the Internet in-between slideshow and photography. It kind of crashed and burned in a lot of ways though, publicly too. And that killed it for me. But, every few years it swings around. The problem is, since I know photography, I have my tools, I know this; to do something entirely different is so hard.

Matthew Papa: How did you book the research in terms of finding places?

AS: It was really intense and significant research. Usually for the Dispatches we would draw up a route, and we’d work with different assistants to research every spot on the map for different events or historical topics, though half of the pictures are made on the way to those things that we researched. And that’s just dumb luck, but you kind of make luck. I can never just drive aimlessly, it never works for me; I need some sort of destination. Yeah, research is huge. Research and access. I feel there should be a photography course on access, or how to get it. It’s just so hard. In this case it’s really different because there’s three of us. I find that’s like a power number; three’s a group and you can just enter into things. You look official when there are three of you. You look like a news organization. People kind of accept that because there’s an authority to it. Where, if you’re alone it can look sketchy. But you use your gender, you use your age, you use whatever you have to get access.

Katrina Sorrentino: I think of that incredible access when I think of your work. Could you talk about the intimate relationship you have with people who are on the other side of your lens, your subjects?

AS: I get that a lot and I always feel like it’s a bit untrue, the intimate access. I get access but it’s not always super intimate, or there’s distance there. I actually like a certain kind of distance. I sometimes don’t want to hear a subject’s entire story so that my experience of them is the process of photographing them. When work gets talked about there’s like a little myth that builds up about it, and that’s one of the myths. But, I guess I get described as nice.

JL: Well you are Midwestern.

AS: But a Midwestern thing is, it’s called “Minnesota nice”. It’s like this fake nice. And I definitely am not “Minnesota nice”. And that feels fraudulent too. That’s actually related to this work. I have a tougher, edgier side and in the sense of a novel I wanted the author’s voice to be a little tougher. In fact when I did those New York Times videos I used a very tough voice, that of a very unlikable narrator. I went far in that direction, which is why I got really beat up for it. This isn’t that. But it has more. I think of Weegee a lot, I love Weegee. He has this quality where he’s kind of laughing at the world. With this work I thought a lot about Weegie and Robert Adams as these two characters like the good angel and the devil. Because the thing about Weegee’s work is that it’s joyous, whereas with Robert Adams, though I love him, it’s not really joyous. It’s serene. There’s huge despair there. I love that Weegee joy of celebrating the chaos of the world, and this has some of that. There’s a great recording of Weegee talking – it’s this advice to young photographers where he says, “You can’t be a Nice Nelly.” And it’s so great! I love that. And that was my approach with people, not being Nice Nelly, coming in with the flash, taking over, and not being bashful about it. Maybe it’s not as respectful, but it’s not mean spirited either. It’s OK. There are ethical issues for sure. I’m not free of those by any means, but I’ve had to come to terms with that a long time ago.

TO: In regard to Weegee’s advice to young photographers, do you have an opinion about MFA programs? And, if you were to teach or lecture in one, what kind of advice would you give to your students?

AS: Ah that’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’ve been interested in education. Last semester Brad and I taught a special course in Madison. I also organized a summer camp in my studio about a year and a half ago, and it was one of the greatest things I ever did. I also teach at a Limited-Residency program in Hartford, and am a visiting artist for the graduate program at the University of South Florida. So in thinking about all these different experiences coming together what I’m working on is to be able to give advice, because I’m asked for it but I don’t have it yet. But I have this strong feeling that one shouldn’t get into crazy debt unless they have a lot of money from their parents or something like that. I’m actually really terrified of that issue and advising people to go to those places. Especially since I’ve seen a number of weak programs. But there are places that are strong, such as the program in Florida. It’s hard for a program that costs a lot but one of the great things about this one is that the students go out into the world and meet different artists. They move to meet in Berlin, New York, San Francisco and then Hartford. In contrast, having spent a semester in a classroom with students seems crazy. I think you need to be out in the world, because it’s not stuff you learn sitting around a table; photography itself is learned by doing it, and then this universe is learned through making connections, meeting people and such.

JL: Well certainly this is what we have going for us in New York City, we can stroll out the door and bump into Alec Soth.

AS: Exactly. In Minnesota we have the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and I love the faculty there, it’s super great. But I would never tell someone: move to Minnesota, spend all this money, and you’re not going to make any connections, and you’re not going to really be able to see that much work.

JL: I feel so lucky that we’ve walked here and bumped into you! Thank you, and congratulations.

AS: Thanks so much. That’s really great. It’s good karma.

On Songbook, an essay by TheresaOrtolani


See more interviews in the series: In Pursuit of an MFA, by Theresa Ortolani

In Pursuit of an MFA

Alec Soth's Songbook signing at Sean Kelly Gallery. (photo: Theresa Ortolani)

Alec Soth’s Songbook signing at Sean Kelly Gallery. (photo: Theresa Ortolani)

Twelve trudge 1.4 miles, post-blizzard, from Bryant Park to Chelsea. One of many stops, along the way to an MFA.

Joanna Lehan’s Survey of Contemporary Photography stormed Sean Kelly Gallery for Alec Soth’s exhibition, Songbook, on opening morning. Fortunate to have engaged in an impromptu conversation with the artist – I think he was empathetic to our cold shivering selves – we took the opportunity to discuss with him his thoughts on the evolving publication platforms, the relationship between image/text and the role of MFA programs.

At the Songbook signing the next day, I gave Alec a copy of my book Endurance, and he responded: “You’ve published a book, with another on the way? Why grad school?” Dumbfounded, I didn’t have an answer at the ready. His question led me to engage in a series of interviews with esteemed curators, gallerists, critics and artists – in the hope of gaining deeper insight. Perhaps, by week’s end, I shall have a better answer.

I’ll kick off this Monday morning with my essay: On Songbook

Alec Soth's Songbook signing at Sean Kelly Gallery. (photo: Theresa Ortolani)

Alec Soth’s Songbook signing at Sean Kelly Gallery. (photo: Theresa Ortolani)

On Songbook by Theresa Ortolani

The acquisition of language marks a child’s progression toward agency. One’s capacity to understand and use language provides us with the rudimentary tools necessary for survival within a community. The more nuanced and multiplicious one’s languages become, the more power one has the capacity to wield. But, even before words are formed, a child first learns to smile, laugh, cry, flirt – to satisfy basic needs. The infant is a performer. He sings for his meals of mother’s milk day and night, night or day.

It is this kind of lyricism that Soth seeks in the Songbook score. The essence of imagination. Desire at its core. He brings his subjects to the pages of Songbook, and printed large-scale, to the walls of the Sean Kelly, Fraenkel and Weinstein galleries, where the work is concurrently presented. Meanwhile, the viewer projects whatever he wishes onto the images. Pure delight, melancholy, irony, solitude. All readings are within bounds, as the story is shelved, and paradoxically allowed to unfold.

Soth, accompanied by writer-friend Brad Zeller, assumed the role of small town reporter. Together, and sometimes with a third, they entered communities, camps and festivals across the country, storytelling along the way. But, the exhibition’s press release tells us, “with Songbook, Soth has stripped photographs of their news context in order to highlight the longing for personal connection at their root.” Still, despite being photographed digitally, the images are printed in black and white, reminiscent of the pages of a newspaper, music score, or piano keys. Shorn of text and color, the images, removed from their original context, invite viewers to improvise their own stories.

During an impromptu conversation between the Bard-ICP MFA class of 2016 and Soth at the Sean Kelly Gallery, I ask him to comment on the relationship between image and text: “Brad Zeller has a very sophisticated understanding of photography. The way the text works with images; he’s great about not stepping on the images, and hopefully my pictures won’t step on his text…. I love trying to figure it out [the relationship between image and text], but I also love pictures on their own and leaving the mysteries wide open. And so this book was really about that; Songbook is just open-ended lyricism, where you can just bring whatever you bring to the pictures. In a lot of ways, I think I’m having my cake and eating it too, and you can do that with photography in some ways because it can work on different platforms.”

Much like the tension between individualism and the desire for unity that Songbook depicts, image and text also seek balance within our multitude of contemporary platforms of communication. “Texting” calls only for language – the written word – though at times, seeks the aid of emoticons to establish tone. Instagram begs for the absence of text, while Facebook is a dance between both image and text.

Rooted in tradition, Soth, a truly contemporary artist, is fluent on all platforms. As an accompaniment to the exhibit, Soth took over Sean Kelly’s Instagram account, posting pictures from his daily life using his phone. @SeanKellyNY, #SKNY

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” – John Berger 



In Conversation … with Alec Soth, Michael Foley, Elisabeth Biondi and Gary Taxali


Beginning February 23rd, I’ll share the photos I’ve taken and the conversations I’ve had with artists, curators and gallerists. Our discussions center around the role of the MFA program, new media and the intersection of image/text.

Until then, you are invited to attend the related exhibits and events:

Monday February 23: Bard-ICP + Theresa Ortolani in conversation with Alec Soth
Songbook by Alec Soth through March 14

Alec Soth Songbook
Tuesday February 24: Theresa Ortolani in conversation with Michael Foley
Subtext by Wyatt Gallery through February 22
Thursday February 26: Theresa Ortolani in conversation with Elisabeth Biondi
Moderated by Elisabeth Biondi. With Vince Aletti, Chris Boot, Brian Clamp, Allen Frame, Andrea Meislin, Charles Traub
Lift Off through February 28
Curated by Elisabeth Biondi. With Jesse Chun, Magali Duzant, Michelle Claire Gevint, Rehan Miskci, Charles Sainty, Jesse Wakeman
Friday February 27: Theresa Ortolani in conversation with Gary Taxali
10 Years of Jonathan LeVine Gallery opening February 21, 6-8pm
Aj Fosik, Audrey Kawasaki, Brett Amory, Daleast, Gary Taxali, Jeremy Geddes, Josh Agle (Shag), Parra, Pose, Tara McPherson

Alec Soth

Alec Soth Songbook


stay tuned for … S O N G B O O K

Bard-ICP MFA ‘16 in conversation with Alec Soth at Sean Kelly Gallery

Full transcript, with photographs by Theresa Ortolani, will be posted to the

Bard-ICP MFA blog and tumblr on February 23 as part of an interview series:

In Pursuit of an MFA

In Conversation with Alec Soth