The past two years have been very interesting for
photographer Alec Soth, a period of time in which he has gone from
being an unknown to fame after his exceptional book Sleeping by the
Mississippi was released in 2004. An invitation to join the famous
photo agency Magnum as a nominee soon followed and helped put his name
on the map in photojournalism circles. In 2005 he was short-listed for
the prestigious 2006 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize, to be announced
on March 22, 2006.
(Read the September 2004 Q&A with Alec Soth which previously appeared
in The Digital Filmmaker.)
Photo by Donna Kelly
Soth has now released his latest body of work entitled Niagara, a
reference to the waterfalls that separate Canada and the U.S.A., where
this new work was shot. The new project is totally different from his
previous work, and perhaps more surprising when one looks at what was
done in Sleeping by the Mississippi. Soth calls Niagara an exploration
of love and relationships, shot at a place where there is what he
calls "big passion, like the waterfalls." Niagara will be published in
book form by Steidl Press in March 2006. I caught up with him in
mid-January as he was preparing for the opening of a show of his
Niagara photographs at Gagosian Gallery in New York City.
"You know, it's so different from the Mississippi work," Soth says. "I
knew about the place from this old Marilyn Monroe movie called
Soth is referring to a 1953 Marilyn Monroe film co-starring Joseph
Cotten, in which Monroe's character, Rose, and a secret lover hatch a
plan to murder her mentally-unbalanced husband (Cotten) while
honeymooning in Niagara Falls.
Beginning in early 2004, Soth set out from his home in Minneapolis,
Minn., making a total of seven trips of between two to three weeks in
length to the area, working on both the U.S. and Canadian sides of
"Before ever having been there I liked the place. I wanted to explore
the scenes of love, and approach it with a kind of lyrical
sensibility," says Soth.
Sleeping by the Mississippi
But what Soth found was much more than he had bargained for. "After
the fifth trip, I was done," he relates. "The Mississippi work was
fun. But here I was having negative experiences. After the fifth trip
it was hard to go back."
Soth says that as the work progressed it became like a downward
spiral, and became darker and darker in tone.
"There's this one guy named David. He may not be in the book ... his
girl committed suicide. He had this collection of love letters ... the
letters were so raw." Soth said the work was becoming too dark. He had
wanted to maintain the sense of melancholy without it becoming so
intense. But it was becoming harder to do.
"When I started this project I said to my wife 'this is dedicated to
you.' But that all changed," he says jokingly.
In a high-tech world where most photographers are using digital
cameras, Soth remains firmly dedicated to keeping things simple. He
works with a large 8x10-inch camera, the high-resolution negatives
giving his prints an unparalleled clarity of detail that digital
cameras have yet to equal.
But the large prints in his Gagosian Gallery show are different from
his traditional darkroom prints, a nod to the way how many
photographers who still shoot film now also use digital technology in
a hybrid way. The Niagara works are digital C-prints, made by drum
scanning negatives and printing them on photo paper which is then
developed in photo chemicals.
"Digital technology is great, but this perpetual upgrading — I just
want to use my Leica and Tri-X," he says.
Soth is no Luddite. Two years ago he used a medium-format camera with
a digital back on a project but decided that he did not like the look.
So for now he continues working with large format film.
Soth uses 8x10 cameras made by R.H. Phillips and Sons and K.B. Canham,
and says he prefers the "simple elegance" of the Phillips. His lenses
are heavy, large aperture ones "so that I can see what I am looking
at" on the camera ground glass. His film of choice is Kodak Portra 400
In this post-9/11 era of paranoia and suspicion in which photographers
have found themselves being targeted by law enforcement types, Soth
says he had few problems working with his imposing cameras.
"I think the camera looks old-timey enough. With Niagara I had more
problems photographing property than people. Sometimes I feel that
people value property more than other people. I just encountered
resistance a lot of the time," he says.
On how he would describe his time in Magnum so far, Soth says, "It's
complicated. I'm still figuring it out. The more I'm in New York, the
more involved I feel. It's been challenging. It's a labyrinth ... it's
a big organization. I've been so distracted by shooting and the
gallery world, I'm still finding my way."
View the Niagara Photo Gallery
View an Interactive
Presentation at Magnum in Motion
Roger Richards is the Editor and Publisher of The Digital
Filmmaker, and Multimedia Editor/Producer at The Virginian-Pilot in
Norfolk, Virginia. Richards now produces video essays and digital
short films for the Web, as well as working on documentary photography
projects. He began his photojournalism career
in 1979, focusing on political and social themes in the Caribbean, the
civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua and then joining the Gamma
Liaison photo agency in 1988. Based in Miami and then Europe, his work
with the agency included the US invasion of Panama, political upheaval
in Haiti, civil war in Croatia and the siege of Sarajevo. He is a
former Associated Press photo bureau chief in Bogotá, Colombia, and a
staff photographer at the Washington Times in Washington, DC, from
1997-2000. He is the recipient of numerous awards from the National
Press Photographers' Association, the White House News Photographers'
Association, Pictures of the Year International, the Society of
Newspaper Design, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Virginia
News Photographers Association. He became a digital filmmaker in 1998,
focusing on projects about war in the Balkans. He was awarded the
first White House News Photographers' Association sabbatical grant for videojournalism in 2000 and was one of the first graduates of the
famous Platypus Workshop that trains photojournalists how to become
digital filmmakers and videojournalists. He is now a member of the