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Tuesday, 07 December 2010


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Really nice piece, Mike. I wasn't familiar with Alec's work before, but definitely am now. Refreshing to see someone so down-to-earth.

Thanks for the heads up.

Well, the video is available in Holland, I can tell you - and luckily so, as this is the way I like to see good photography best: as prints on walls. Would like to see this exhibition in reality, but alas ...

I've seen the show at the Walker and I'm a sad to report that the physical conditions of the exhibit itself are somewhat maddening. As you can see from the video, the Walker's walls are white and the lighting is quite bright which results in a heavy reflection when you're looking at the photographs behind glass. This is very apparent at 4:16 in the video when Soth's reflection is clearly visible. I'm not exactly a museum connoisseur but I don't recall ever seeing this issue (or at least to this extent) at other photography exhibits at different museums.

Quoth Mike: "There are a lot of great things about photography c. 2010, but one of the sad things is that so few photographers today have ever seen a lens image on the ground glass of a view camera."

Was there ever a time when large numbers of photographers saw an image on a view camera? (Not on a percentage basis, mind you, but on an absolute basis.) They're big, fiddly, and expensive, after all, and that hasn't changed much with time. So, has the lure of smaller cameras (SLRs, rangefinders, etc.) and digital really drawn down the ranks of view camera photographers, or has it just made photographers out of people who wouldn't think of trying it if it meant a view camera?

Speaking of the first time viewing through a ground glass there is an article in Digital Journalist where David Burnett tells of his experience using a Speed Graphic on the bus with John Kerry in 2003.

It's makes for interesting reading.

It's not mentioned there but David did say that he had never used a Speed Graphic before.

That got a good laugh from me. For David and I are almost the same age and I've used a Speed Graphic since high school.

Here's the link: http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0402/dis_burnett.html

Whether or not you enjoy Alec's work you should know that he loves photography. All of his recent promotion and becoming "Gagosian-ed" are secondary distractions to the real pleasure he gets from making photos. I've met few people as engaged with the camera as he seems to be.

That's why I still use a wooden 4x5 field camera ... I just really enjoy the whole completely manual process of using it, and I like "sensing" the composition while it is upside down and reversed on the ground glass.

I can relate to Soth's comments. I'm one of those new photographers (hardly close to a professional) who has learned all of my craft on a DSLR. As remarkable as the tools of digital photography are, I can't shake a persistent sensation of being unfulfilled by it. I dream of documenting my surviving family tree in black and white with a 4 X 5 Field camera - a format I have no practical experience with and only book-practical knowledge of. Perhaps I'm romanticizing the format - living in the nostalgia of a craft I have only experienced vicariously through blogs, online forums and books, but I can't shake the nagging idea that the eventual replacement for my aging D70 might be a Woodman 45.

Does Josh's comment constitute a stick in the i?

I'm sorry. I don't get it. Not to take anything away from Alec personally or professionally, but what is inherently good enough about his body of work that it warrants an exhibit of this size and the attention of PBS's News Hour?

I am not saying he is not good enough, I would just like someone to explain it to me so I can understand why.

Mike thanks for the link I have just watched the movie from Australia, so no problem there.


Then of course remember to purchase a suitable tripod...http://reviews.cnet.com/8301-19512_7-20018495-233.html

I encountered the problem HT points out at an Ansel Adams exhibit at the Amon Carter museum in Fort Worth a few months ago. "Maddening" is the appropriate word. All those deep blacks in a well lit white-walled room was just asking for the viewing experience to be hobbled and spoiled. Isn't there some kind of coating for glass that can minimize reflections?

In my home there's usually a large format camera set up on a tripod somewhere, but when I got my first DSLR, I put one of those plastic pop-up sun shades, which looks like a small version of the groundglass shade on a Graphic, on the LCD screen. When my wife, who is not a photographer, looked at it for the first time, she was confused and said, "oh, it's not upside down!"

After falling i love with the image from the back on my father's 4x5, I'm building an 8x10 wooden camera. When i got the process camera lens that will serve until i get a _real_ lens, i clamped the lens and ground glass to supports, made an impromptu 'bellows' from my dark cloth, and got an idea of how amazing an 8x10 ground glass is going to be:)

Ed Kirkpatrick,
Have you seen the show?

...And, remember "Johnston's Constant"?

Johnston's Constant, axiom. The persistent and persisting desire among photographers for a Universal standard of taste in photographs, which nevertheless doesn't exist.

Johnston's Constant has two corollaries:

Corollary no. 1: The "You like that?!?" corollary. Amazement (real or feigned) over the fact that other peoples’ tastes differ from one’s own. (Also frequently expressed in the form, “I don’t get it. Can someone please explain to me why this is good?”)

Corollary no. 2: The "What can I do to make you love me?" corollary. The wistful pining for some surefire means of pandering to everyone’s taste at once. A fond but futile hope.

The fact is, no matter how hard you try, no matter what you do, some people will love it, some people will hate it, and some people will be indifferent to it.


Ben Shugart,
No reason to give up digital. But a 4x5 can be fun. Get one, make a couple of pictures with it every month or two. Sounds like fun to me.


Take a look at Alec's web site, appears that Mr. Soth is the real deal.Any time it looks effortless- it ain't !

The first time I set up a 4x5, in the mid 90s, several things went through my mind, not the least of which was "so this is why god gave us the 35mm SLR..." I ended up appreciating the genius of both...

1. Not do knock Mr Soth, there are a zillion more outstanding photographers out in the Interspace who also find beauty in the unexpected. 2. Who decides why on earth photographs have to be seen behind glass? If at all then why not Matt glass?
Are Paintings seen behind shiny glass???

I can certainly appreciate the crafting dimension to large format photography, but surely you'd need more spare time than a golfer to practise it regularly and become sufficiently proficient to do justice to the format's potential. For me, 6x6 or 6x7 offers a great compromise between quality of result and practicality of use

Nice to see Alec's work being featured, thanks for the post.
I really love using my view cameras, but also see value in mixing in digital too.

What a great video, Mike. One thing i can't understand : Alec is so young, and seem so open-minded - and "Niagara" is so hard, so dark, almost hopeless.

Du grand art !

Forget the Scheinflug Principle, I could never get past the learning curve of how to see, let alone compose, something upside down and reversed.

HT & Ian,
I don't think coating the glass photos are framed in is the solution, nor do I think it is necessary. I print my pictures on matte paper and frame them behind glass. I recently had my first show (at 61, what a joy!) in a photo gallery with grey walls (a little darker than middle gray, let's say 12%) and windows only at one of the sides, and artificial light (bulbs in soft reflectors) coming from above. No nasty reflections to speak of. Can't understand why any gallery/museum should ever paint walls white - even if they're only showing oil paintings, as all that light narrows one's pupils far beyond the comfort zone.

Dear Mike,

I think, if anything, your "Constants" understate the matter.

I'd assert that in pretty much within any artistic medium you care to name, a MAJORITY of the audience dislikes or is indifferent to every single artist within that field.

Not only is no artist universally appreciated, I'd opine that no artist is even majorly appreciated.

pax / Ctein

I'd love the exhibition to make it over the pond, Soth's one of my favourite photographers. He's right about being a book photographer but seeing the large scale prints in all their glory would be an experience I know I'd remember.

I've never seen a lens image on ground glass. Wouldn't it be cool if they could set up an 8x10 at the exhibition?

Dear Ben,
What you´re missing is the somwhere genetically deep buried craving to anything with a formula ending in -tol.

Yep, darkroom work.

Dearest Ctein,
That seems to have been distroyed by the web. Enough to see that there hardly ever seems to be constructive criticism within internet fora.

A comment for EK. Personal taste is, well, personal. That being said, best to reserve judgement until you've seen actual prints. A major part of what Soth is doing involves the physicality of prints made from big negatives. Or have a look at his books, since Soth says he thinks in terms of books. His kind of work translates poorly to a computer screen.

I love this guy's photography, and I admire his Ctein-like dedication to his craft.

Thanks for posting this Alec Soth video Mike. What a wonderful, refreshing, down to earth, talented man he is.


Alec Soth is truly a fine artist.

While I can barely articulate why I like the things I like, I had the fortune to see some of his prints (at that point I had never heard of Alec Soth) at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts last year. I particularly remember the portrait "Misty" and thought it was an extraordinarily beautiful print. Just don't ask me to explain why. :) I will certainly say that viewing a JPG version of the photograph online doesn't even begin to convey what a print does.

I was drawn into photography by the lure of an inexpensive dSLR, but quickly added a 4x5 view camera to my arsenal as I learned to appreciate what I could do with that format. For me it's a constant challenge, but it carries the potential for high rewards as well, when everything comes together. I typically shoot along hiking trails and often run into curious onlookers, many of whom like to see the image on the ground glass under the darkcloth, and I'm always happy to show them.

Ctein said:

"I'd assert that in pretty much within any artistic medium you care to name, a MAJORITY of the audience dislikes or is indifferent to every single artist within that field."

I love this kind of head-scratcher. After scratching my head, I came up with: Vermeer. I don't think that a majority of the audience would dislike or be indifferent to Vermeer.

Or, at least, the best-known Vermeers.

I'm working on a second candidate.


2: Monet. Who doesn't like Monet? Even people who don't like him like him.


Van gogh
Just sayin'

I'm sure we all love Vermeer, I'm also sure that he would have appreciated it much more had it happened in his own life time.

Sorry Jan & Vincent. Justice came too late for you

Then again, how many of today's best living artists do either of us know?

It's unfortunately something that's almost impossible to sort out without the perspective of some years. Too easy to get "blinded by our own time." One writer on the subject feels that the public is always behind the leading edge of art by 60 years, unfortunately about one lifespan.

Critics aren't much help because they're living now too, and are subject to most of the same forms of cultural bias we also suffer from. History is littered with artists who were celebrated in their own time yet who have since been almost completely forgotten.

Consider that one of the most famous and celebrated photographers working at the turn of the 19th century, Eugene Atget, was completely unknown to his contemporaries and worked in almost complete isolation; and one of the most celebrated photographers of the day, Valentin Blanchard, is now unknown but to a few historians (and a few people like me who have read Bill Jay's essay about him).


On another discussion on this blog, there was a very wise entry distinguishing the artist and the artisan [; )].

Remember that, for that time being, prior to art starting to recycle, it had an educational purpose and lacked theory. Paintings were done to be documents and to teach.

At the heyday of painting, painters were artisans more than artists. They had to produce [hence the existance of huge ateliers to produce all what Michaelangelo, Velázquez, and Goya were able to produce].


I think it may have been around 200 years for Vermeer.

I'm thinking of a line from the well loved essay by Robert Adams-Civilizing Criticism. "Criticism should try to speed justice"

I'd be very flattered (if I wasn't dead) if your great great grandson ends up running TOP in a 100 years time and names me as a much loved artist. But if you & Gerry Badger could see your way clear to doing that now I'd be be very grateful ;) I could do with a Berenice Abbott type champion in my life time

Posted by: Sean: "I'm sure we all love Vermeer, I'm also sure that he would have appreciated it much more had it happened in his own life time.

Sorry Jan & Vincent. Justice came too late for you."

I know this topic has rolled by and Sean's comment was rather peripheral to the main subject. But I still feel compelled to make a correction. The Dutch painter Jan (Johan) Vermeer was recognized during his lifetime. It is true that he did not achieve the formal recognition that many of his more self-promotional peers received in his day, Vermeer's works were still recognized for their richness of detail and compositions. Reportedly, part of reason for Vermeer's diminished fame was the fact that he lived a rather reclusive family life and many of his paintings were rarely seen outside of a small circle of friends and family during his life.

Anyway, I am delighted that Alec Soth is getting so much attention, particularly in his home town. The impression you get from the PBS video is exactly the impression you get of him in-person. A very energetic and imaginative fellow very much a product of upper Midwestern America. He has not (yet) formed a self-importance suit and still has a rather boyish "Aww, this is cool!" charm. I'm quite sure that is he was to attend Mike's sushi party (and he might have if he was invited!) everyone would have liked him.

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