Alec Soth: Dispatches from a Ramble
Alec Soth is a celebrated American photographer born in and based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Soth’s Tumblrs include his publishing company Little Brown Mushroom and his latest project, The LBM Dispatch. In partnership with writer and journalist Brad Zellar, Soth is producing the LBM Dispatch in both newspaper and digital formats. Soth describes the Dispatch as an “irregularly published newspaper” of their “North American ramblings.”
For the LBM Dispatch, you’ve gone to Ohio and upstate New York and produced two newspapers.
When Brad and I were working in Minnesota on this idea, it wasn’t called the Dispatch. It was simply this idea of two people working together: one as a writer one as a photographer in this kind of old-fashioned way.
As old newspaper men.
Yeah. Brad was doing this project on Irwin Norling, an old newspaper photographer. I had written the introduction to that book. I had once been a suburban newspaper photographer. And we thought it would be fun to function like that, knowing what we know now. So last December 30th, I asked him to do me a favor and pretend to do a newspaper assignment. And it was super fun … we did more and more in Minnesota, and then I had a lecture in Ohio. And I thought, let’s use this as an excuse to go to Ohio and try this out. From that we made a newspaper, really loved the experience, and decided to do it as an ongoing thing. That’s the trajectory of the whole project.
Your current project is taking you to Michigan
For the third Dispatch, Michigan, we’re pairing up with Cranbrook Academy of Art in Detroit. The Walker show (Soth’s exhibition “From Here to There”) is actually traveling to Cranbrook. The Walker show had a room called the Minnesota Room. We’re taking that out and making it the Michigan Dispatch room. I’m going to do an instant show, a pop-up show, in that space. The newspaper will be produced for it as well. Equally importantly is that we’re teaming up with Cranbrook students. We have two Cranbrook students that will be traveling with us for different parts of the trip. The trip is two weeks, and it’s kind of perfect because it’s right before the election, and it has this little election tie-in. Incidentally, Mitt Romney attended the grade-school version of Cranbrook Academy in Detroit. So there’s going to be an election-eve quality to it. Not that every picture is going to be related.
Much like “The Last Days of W.”
Yeah. Like “Last Days” it will have this oblique reference to the election. And that’s where the real-time publishing is interesting because the newspaper will in fact come out right after the election. We end shooting the day before the election. So the newspaper comes out after it, but you can still have this moment of these words and images coming up in real-time on Tumblr.
Let’s talk about the concept of photography as being non-narrative or struggling for narrative. Is there a narrative element in each trip you take? How does Brad’s writing fit into that sense of narrative or non-narrative?
I always struggle with the issue of narrative. LBM for me is like a laboratory to experiment with different forms of narrative with photography. I think photography struggles with narrative. I don’t think it’s an inherently narrative medium because it’s so fragmented, but I crave narrative, and I want to see what can be done with it. That is the role of LBM for me. To play around with that on a smaller, more experimental stage. Brad is great because he’s a real writer. I’m not a writer, and to have someone who can work with language but also has an understanding and respect for photography, which is often the problem you encounter in editorial work when you’re just paired up with a writer and there’s this kind of clunkiness because they don’t understand the language of photography. His role has changed. The Dispatch is more closely aligned to journalism, though it strays off.
And you’re reaching back to something of a dying format with the newspaper.
I am. In my research on narrative photography, I come up with different models for it. The principal model we’ve used with LBM is children’s books. Little golden books — photographically illustrated books for children — is one model of combining text and image in a storytelling way. Comic books with photographs and photo novellas. The photo essay is actually a very legitimate form, it does feel old-fashioned to us now, but in fact there’s something valid if you actually look at it. So I’m going back and looking at that and exploring the possibilities of that.
What I find fascinating is that for someone whose primary work is rooted in the traditional, you’ve embraced the digital. How do you see the digital version of the Dispatch in the form of Tumblr fit in to the overall idea?
For me the great thing about being a photographer is I get to distribute my work in so many different ways and contexts. I can have an art exhibition, or a big limited-edition print that’s one kind of experience. I can have it online for free for everyone, as a different experience. I can have a book. My work can be reproduced in magazines. Sometimes the work will show up — for example, this print behind me is actually going to be in the New York Times Magazine. You get this audience of hundreds of thousands. You get an art audience of hundreds. All these different audiences that you’re working with. To me that’s exciting. For better or worse I’ve embraced all of that throughout my career. Journalism is based on working at a certain type of speed. So when I worked as a suburban newspaper photographer, you processed your film, you made your prints, got it to the art department, and it was in the newspaper the next day. There was something thrilling about that. We still want that kind of speed built into the process. We do our trip and we publish our newspaper within a week or two weeks. I’m not pretending I’m wearing a hat with a press card in it. I’m living in it, the world as it is. I’m going to shoot digitally and distribute those images in the contemporary format as well. That means uploading them.
So you’re uploading as you’re in the field working.
More or less … it’s not instantaneous because I’m coupling it with Brad’s work, and he needs time to write. It’s not Instagram. We want a little time to filter and figure it out. There’s a lag of usually a day because we are pairing the text to the image. We’re also creating as we go … trying to build an arc and shape the trip as we go. Midway through the trip we need to slow down and rejigger the whole thing. We’ve thought a lot about this issue of uploading more or less instantaneously. We did it on the first trip and had a lot of success. There’s an issue of: we’re publishing a newspaper, is anyone going to buy it if it’s all online? In a funny way, the reproduction online is better than in the newspaper. The online version has better contrast and things like that. But there’s something for us about the process. The commitment to getting it up right away that’s important because it functions as a deadline. If we didn’t have that deadline, there’s a good chance we would choose to think too much and ponder and not get our work done as we’re going. The perceived audience of the Tumblr page forces us, even though I’m very unclear as to who that audience is. Another little interesting fact related to Tumblr is that it doesn’t compete with the newspaper because so much functions as this real-time experience. It’s less of an archive than a website is.
Within the Dashboard environment.
Exactly. It’s really unclear to me who’s looking at what. How many people are viewing our work through the Dashboard and through the front-facing regular blog. And even when you go outside of the Dashboard, you’re experiencing it in reverse. So there’s this lag. And of course we’re doing updates often multiple times of day. And people have, you know, lives. So they’re missing lots of things. There are big gaps. The newspaper itself functions as the curated whole experience, and the Tumblr is this fragmentary experience. So I’m still participating in that world of fragments. Tumblr functions this way so that things are just shot out and dispersed in this matrix, and that’s thrilling. For me it’s thrilling to add new content into that world. I’m not engaged in re-posting all this material. I want to be a maker.
There are a few classifications of users. There are creators, and there are people who are collecting and finding content and commenting on it, and there are also people that are reposting an archive of stuff that they enjoy.
I want to be on that creating end. I like people playing with it, re-blogging, I like it spinning out just like in books and magazines. I like the content having these other lives. What would be nice someday is a way to do it where we have that sense that people follow the narrative truly. Where you can go back and follow the narrative again. One thing we’ve talked about is: We’ve got the whole thing up on Tumblr in reverse order. It’s a very complicated thing to say, okay, go to the first post on Upstate and then click backwards backwards backwards. The Dashboard is not built for narrative. What I love about Tumblr is its efficiency. I really started with it with these Magnum group projects I did.
You mean Postcards from America. How were the other Magnum photographers who collaborated on that project — were they into it?
We had this broad range of people and generations. It was really my doing on the Tumblr front because I knew it was so simple. There was resistance … the resistance isn’t the technical part. It’s that, wow, I’m publishing. Publishing is serious, and there wasn’t this sense that there’s this river of material coming through rather than a book. They were treating it seriously in the way they would treat publishing a book. There was a hurdle, and they jumped the hurdle. Of course the crazed genius of Tumblr is the heart, the Like. The Like in all its simplicity plays on the ego in particular ways. In Magnum, it was a group project with five people working together. We all love each other, but there’s competition. Suddenly, Paolo got 120 likes on his photo. All of these Magnum guys and all their accolades! The guy next to you on the bus suddenly gets more hearts, and you start to wonder why. So it became this sort of joke as to who would get the more likes.
Do you follow anyone on Tumblr?
A few. I was at the New York Art Book Fair last weekend, and there were 20,000 people, a million books. And people come to your table and engage with your book, and then you go out with it as a buyer, and you just get this interesting flipped perspective on both sides of the table. In a way that’s related to this experience of Tumblr. I’m so immersed in the making of these things and trying to perceive how people are responding to it. I’m not such a consumer of it.
Yesterday I met with a musician and I’m doing the album art for him and we were talking about music. I gave up on my music collection at a certain point a long time ago. I had a pretty big record collection, and when it went to CDs I was like, you know I just don’t have time for this. And then when it all went to iTunes, I thought, I’m not going to spend my life organizing music. I’m just going to listen to the radio, listen to Pandora, I just don’t have time to curate constantly. If you go to my house, I don’t have great art on the walls. It’s just a beat-up, kids-running-around house. And it’s that same thing — I’m just too busy running around making things. I want people to take those things and decorate their own houses and their own Tumblrs.
How much of your work has to do with the sense of you behind the camera, of authorship?
One thing happened a few years ago: I had a secret Tumblr. It was for this very interior work I was doing … it was a place to experiment. Very personal work. I barely shared it with anyone. I shared it with a couple people and realized how self-centered and vain it was. It was self-obsessed. I think there’s a real significant danger of social media — “wow, I’m interesting.” That emphasis on the author becomes too strong, and that’s something I really felt was happening in my own work — that I was too self-obsessed. Hence the need to go back in to the world and be a reporter and to be amongst people. To remind myself that other people have lives, and it’s not just me.
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