Prescience and Poetry – Alec Soth, a leading contemporary American artist talks about his project, “The Last Days of W”
By James Miller
James Miller – How did this project develop?
Alec Soth – The Last Days of W was never conceived of as a full-length project. The idea originated from some of the assignment photography I have done, where I will be dropped into situations for the experience of it. I have done assignment work allot over the last six years, and I wanted to use some of that material.
I just felt like we were coming to the end of this unbelievable era, and I wanted to mark the end of this era. It wasn’t a project where I sat in my basement and worked on it for five years.
James: As a result LDW, to me, has an immediacy which is different to the feel of your previous projects, which were often referred to as painterly, often in relationship to the portraits, but if we take the portrait of Joel as an example it seems to be a different vernacular, in that Joel becomes a motif of W’s legacy.
Alec: That’s a good example but I do think of it as more of a Landscape project. The picture in my head is of this guy wondering off into the sunset, and looking at the burnt landscape that’s left behind. It wasn’t a book, it wasn’t conceived that way. I didn’t want to give it that kind of weight.
James: …More literally speaking as a Pamphlet?
Alec: Yes, self-publishing it, as a newspaper, really cheap, I made a bajillion of them, so it wasn’t supposed to be this you know collectible thing.
James: …Which it has become, in a way.
Alec: In a way, but there’s so many of them. We’ve done things where I had a guy in New York who was putting them into the free newspaper stands. We wanted to have a mass-distribution.
But it was a funny-thing timing wise, because I strongly felt that I didn’t want it to come out before the election. There were some people who wanted me to release it then, but I just felt that I wasn’t trying to influence anything.
James: You didn’t want it to be confused as propaganda in anyway?
Alec: I didn’t feel that it had that capacity, it was really meant for the time period after the election and before the president elect took office, and of course it was all made before I knew who the new president would be so its coloured by that, not knowing.
James: The election result was fortuitous in relationship to the sequence of images.
Alec: Yes and it has this thing, “Either Dusk or Dawn” at the end, because it was really an uncertain time, and of course there really was no optimism, and we weren’t allowed, (laughs) to really believe that it could actually happen.
This is my number one thing, (pause), is that I wanted it, 30 years from now, (laughs), when I’m looking back and going through boxes and here is this really yellowed newspaper, and for it to just feel like this memory from that time. And by giving it that title of course, it just locks it down as one period of time, and I wanted that. I am really excited about the yellowing of the newspaper.
James: Titles are very important for you. You have said how poetry is really important to your practice. How does LDW reflect that idea?
Alec: The title changes the way you read the pictures, and that’s the most controversial thing about LDW, because if I had titled it something different it could be read so differently and I know that was a gamble, and it’s not typical of me to do that, but its what the production was about.
James: The first time I became aware of LDW was seeing the image, Priscilla, Los Angeles, California (girl with skeleton) from the Haunch of Venison show poster, Zurich, November 2008. Was this shot at Halloween?
Alec: Well there is a funny story behind it, but it’s always a question of how much do you want to tell people, and does it ruin it or not? But, what the hell, how many people are going to read this? (we both laugh). Just kidding.
I was in Los Angeles on a road trip doing something else, and I really wanted to go to Batman’s Cave from the television show Batman.
James: …The original Bat-Cave?
Alec: Yeah, the original Bat-Cave is a place, it exists, and it’s in a park near the Hollywood Hills. Basically the only real thing is the location for the scene where the Bat-Car is driving out of the Bat-Cave. So I wanted to go there and find-out if it really exists, and I was racing to get there before the sunset. I quickly parked the car, and started running up a hill, and this girl (with a couple) comes walking down with this skeleton and it was completely bizarre, and I’m thinking, “Do I or don’t I, I don’t have time shall I take it?”. And, Boom, I took it. At the time I didn’t think that much of it because I was in a rush.
James: Was it like a Winogrand moment?
Alec: Yeah, it was completely bizarre. And this is what this project was too, reclaiming some of these pictures, because of course there are so many pictures you take that never see the light of day, and, somehow within this context I thought it worked bizarrely, and I loved how it was used by Haunch of Venison with the title because then it is like the body of George W Bush, which never in a million years would you read the picture that way without that.
James: That’s what I found so surprising, and it seemed like a departure from your previous work.
Alec: Yes, and it’s not a set up picture, it wasn’t fabricated in any sort of way, it was, believe it or not, found, and that’s in the spirit of the project.
James: Where do you want to take your work next, and how do you see your work changing?
Alec: Well it’s dramatically changing right now. But what I was going to say about this project, to make the analogy with music albums, and how the great album can be the work of ten years slaving away in the studio or it can be one afternoon, they just lay it all down with that kind of rough energy to it. What I am trying to say is, I am doing these long projects and short projects, but you don’t really know. It’s possible twenty years from now that the newspaper is better than anything else I did, as quickly done as it was. I don’t think that, but you just don’t know.
James: With LDW there seems to be a cross over. For example, There is The Photographer, there is The Artist, and there is The Artist using Photography. These appear to have merged in the editing process, and I am reminded of other American Artists work, in particular Ed Ruscha and Raymond Carver.
Alec: I read this interview with Steven Soderbergh recently where he talks about his trajectory as a director and he said he wasn’t a great innovator, he was never going to be that, but he thinks he is a great synthesiser, assembling these influences into something, and it really struck a chord with me. And his career struck a chord with me because he’ll do a commercial film, and then he’ll do a small art film, and I think that I am more of a synthesiser in that way too, in that I am not going to create this new language for the medium, which is just so hard to do, but someone’s going to be doing it, online, on Myspace or something. That’s where The New is happening. Instead of that, I am synthesising all these different things, which is why you probably feel all these different influences.
James: I think you are adding to the language of photography, the lyric documentary, Walker Evans, American school, and at the same time I know an Alec Soth picture when I see one.
Alec: I don’t know, but I can’t work towards that. I am more comfortable in the literature analogy, you know it’s ok for Raymond Carver or who ever it is, to write in a conventional way and make something identifiable, there is authorship to it but, it is within this tradition and that’s definitely how I see myself.
James: The Image titled, Avenue theater, Dallas Texas is taken from the Series, 33 Theaters and a Funeral Home. What is the story behind this unusual commission?
Alec: This was through Magnum, the idea was to produce a piece of work that was inspired by a filmmaker and a particular film. Within a second I knew it would be Wim Wenders, because when I was young he had a huge influence on me, but then it was a mish-mash of a couple of different things, Paris Texas, and Kings of the Road. It’s about two guys who find each other, it’s a road movie, and one of them is a cinema repairman. It was my favourite movie as a kid. It really had that that American sensibility and a love of that American tradition too, it’s set in East Germany, and it’s partly about the death of cinema. Another movie that slightly came into this was The Last Picture Show, a Bogdanovitch film set in Texas and is also about the end of cinema as well, and it was from the same era as Wim Wenders. So with all this swirling around and I wanted to go to where the last picture show was, and I wanted to go to Paris Texas, and so it came about that I wanted to photograph these former movie theaters. Not all but, almost all of them had been converted into something else.
For me it was a chance, I had never worked in the typology format, I think it’s problematic to work that way nowadays, but it seemed like fun.
The other thing is I brought someone with me, replicating the two guys on the road theme. Really, I mean this is the case with so much of the work, when you get down to it, it’s about the process, in that case was about driving around trying to find these movie theaters. This doesn’t come through in the end, but that was the joy of it. We didn’t have that much time, it was a week and a half, and Texas is huge. That’s how the converted funeral home comes up we did all this research, but it turns out it was the wrong place, but I loved the picture so kept it, and it also refers to the death of cinema.
James: In his 1984 essay, “Images”, the poet Robert Hass recalls from a Chekhov note book the line, “They are mineral bottles with preserved cherries in them.” and the gist of it was that images can be surprising when they suddenly break the established sequential narrative. In other words they become, abstract, lucid and real, which is paradoxical. I felt this idea applied to the image titled, Walker, Minnesota. Do you think your work is becoming more abstract, and could even include elements of snapshot aesthetic?
Alec: Definitely, I mean, I am more interested in that kind of fragmentary surprise, as I’ve been more exposed and just developed a sort of visual language, I have a better understanding, and I feel more freedom to do that sort of thing, to be less literal.
James: It seems like your work has become cooler emotionally as well.
Alec: That, I don’t necessarily want, although I think that exists in LDW, but that, I don’t want.
I just got a few Japanese photo-books, and they have that fragmentation. There is this real trend that’s happening right now, it’s coming out of Yale, this super-fragmentary, Roe Etheridge kind of, every image is hip and cool and distinct. Roe Etheridge, I mean, he’s a really great photographer. Christopher Williams is another person who is sort of from that school. I like it, but I don’t want to have that emotional coolness. It’s corny but I am romantic, I want to make pictures that move people and all that gooey stuff. (laughs)
James: Do you believe there to be such a thing as Spirit in photography, or are you more existential?
Alec: In trying to make these distinctions, I am not a religious person, but I am not so post modern that it’s all just the surface of the image. We are not just adrift in a sea of images, there are actual connections to places and people, emotions and all those things, and I am hungry for that, I want that. One of my big problems with photography is that I do feel like I am starting to drown in images, and the medium frustrates me in that it is part of the sea, and I would be happier if I could say, I am a novelist. It would be a much more satisfying thing to be able to tell people, (laughs), and I do think that story telling is actually a better and much more powerful way to get at that, those connections and those deeper things, so that’s something that I struggle with. Yes I do believe in that stuff. One of the things is about trying to keep in touch a little bit with that feeling of actual connection.
James: I would like to thank Alec for his kind participation, and his assistant Carrie for her help. Alec Soth’s portraits can be seen at The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery until September 2009.
ASX CHANNEL: Alec Soth
All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher