On marrying a photographer

In response to a recent post, I received an email from Cait who wrote:

“Like you, my partner shoots with a large format camera and makes treks around the country (and sometimes the world) for his work. He plans to keep this up for the long term. As we plan for our future, marriage and babies included, I can’t help but think about the challenges our partnership and family will face under somewhat fleeting and unpredictable circumstances. I would love to learn about you and your wife’s perspectives on this subject and/or be directed to any personal accounts or resources that you know of on the work-life balance of a photographic family.”

Kerstin Adams preparing a meal (1972) Robert Adams photographing (1984). 

In thinking about how to reply to this, I first turned to Robert Adams. As regular readers know, I’ve been immersing myself in his work lately. In the new Adams retrospective book, The Place We Live, there is an essay by Jock Reynolds entitled ‘Taken Together’ on the importance of Kerstin Adams in Robert’s life and work. Reynolds paints a fairly remarkable picture of marital harmony:

“Robert began to suspect that he wanted to abandon teaching and become a photographer. Kerstin was characteristically encouraging, and when her employment schedule allowed it, she became his partner in the field. He did most of the driving and she cooked (on a little stove they called “Mother Svea”); at dusk he loaded film holders inside a homemade dark box in the back of their panel truck while she brushed away mosquitoes; in small towns she kept up diversionary conversations with curious onlookers so that he could compose upside down on the view camera’s ground glass; and each day they enjoyed together the sweep of the land and sky, and the privilege of being there.”

As is often the case when I think about Adams, I’m simultaneously impressed and discomfited. When I read about his life I feel like a carnivore reading the menu at a vegan restaurant.

So instead I turn to fellow carnivore Lee Friedlander and his wife Maria (I can’t imagine Adams eating peanut butter, tuna and cheese whiz on crackers!). Nobody has written more honestly about being the spouse of a photographer than Maria Friedlander.

Lee & Maria Friedlander 1968, 1997

On my old blog, I once quoted her powerful forward to a William Gedney book. Recently I came across Maria Friedlander’s introduction to her husband’s book Family:

“What is this Family Book? Is it our own family album? Is it our pictorial biography? Does this book tell us whether we are, to paraphrase Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, one of those happy families that are all alike or an unhappy family that is unhappy in its own way?”

She later writes:

“A book of pictures doesn’t tell the whole story, so as a biography this one is incomplete. There are no photographs of arguments and disagreements, of the times when we were rude, impatient, and insensitive parents, of frustration, of anger strong enough to consider dissolving the marriage. Lee’s camera couldn’t record our family dysfunctions. There are no photographs of Anna, Tom and Giancarlo during the three years in which they felt it would be better if they didn’t see us, and certainly no photographs of how Lee and I felt during that time. Tolstoy was right – when we’ve been an unhappy family we have been unhappy in our own way.”

Getting back to Cait and her concerns about marrying a photographer, I don’t think there is a good answer.  Mixing marriage, kids, travel and artmaking is extremely challenging. It will sometimes be unhappy. “The challenge for artists is just as it is for everyone,” Robert Adams once said to a group of college students, “to face facts and somehow come up with a yes, to try for alchemy.”


I have a renewed appreciation for kindness and generosity thanks to all of the people who helped Brad Zellar pay off his medical bills. I dont have an exact amount to announce but I can say that what we raised helped tremendously. Last night Brad posted Hold Out Hope: An Old Pep Talk. Hold Out Hope: An Old Pep Talk is a beautiful story that brings a smile to my face. I hope it does the same for you.

I want to photograph your dog

Elliott Erwitt once said that the thing he likes about photographing dogs is that they don’t ask for prints. But this isn’t always the case. The picture above was made for a collector (that’s a million dollar Ad Reinhardt above the fireplace). This guy loves his dog. And I love dogs too. I also really love photographing dogs.

I mention this because I will happily photograph your dog if you are the winning bidder of a portrait session on our eBay Auction page. Keep in mind that the collector above paid well over triple the amount of the current high bid. Also keep in mind that all proceeds go toward Brad Zellar’s mountain of medical bills.

Brad Zellar is himself a lover of dogs. Check out his sweet tribute: A Man Who Wins The Dog Lottery Is a Lucky Man.

So if you feel lucky too, go bid on a portrait session on our eBay Auction page.


PS. Sorry, I don’t photograph cats.

Fundraiser update

I want to thank everyone who came to the Brad Zellar fundraiser/birthday party last night. It was a great night. I also want to remind people that there are a few more days to bid on a portrait session. The auction ends on November 25th at 4:26pm Eastern Time.  Check out our eBay auction page for more details.



Alec Soth portrait commission on eBay

Stacey, South Plains, Texas

Earlier this year we released a book entitled Conductors of the Moving World by Brad Zellar. Brad’s book raised $10,000 for Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief. Since then, Brad has suffered a number of setbacks. After multiple unexplained dizzy spells, Brad fell down a flight of stairs and was left unconscious for a full day. He then spent weeks in the hospital and months undergoing neurological tests. As a consequence, Brad is drowning in medical bills.

To help Brad, I’m offering the opportunity to purchase a portrait commission on our eBay auction page. Winning bidders may book a session for themselves or give the portrait session as a gift. The picture can be made in my studio in Minnesota or I can travel to you (as long as my expenses are covered). From this session the sitter and I will select an image to produce as a large scale print (up to 40×50 inches).

Over the years I’ve done a handful of these commissions. The picture above was commissioned in 2004 and has been exhibited all over the world. (See other commission examples on our eBay auction page). Whomever purchases this portrait, I aim to make a serious piece of work for a friend who is seriously in need.

If you are unable to purchase the portrait session, you can still help. On Sunday November 20th there will be a fundraiser at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall in St. Paul. Otherwise, you can donate cash directly via PayPal here.

So check out our eBay auction page, and if you have any questions (or just want to send a check), please email carrie@alecsoth.com

Thank you,

Should artists be entertainers?

Last Friday I gave a lecture in Syracuse about my desire for narrative in photobooks. The reason behind this desire, I explained, was a feeling of saturation in the era of Google Images, Flickr and so on. But I neglected the more fundamental reason: stories are entertaining.

I like to say that there are three levels of artmaking.

1) Entertainment: This, for me, is essential. If the work doesn’t pull me in, I’ll go elsewhere. And doing this and this alone is one hell of a challenge.

2) Education: After being entertained, maybe I can learn something too. While watching The Social Network, maybe I’ll learn something about Facebook or frat boys. But before this learning takes place, I want to be entertained.

3) Change: After being educated and entertained, once in a while a story changes your life. But as an artist, this isn’t something you can shoot for. Otherwise you’d just write self-help books and advice columns.

The day after my lecture, I went to hear John Gossage speak. As some of you might know, John and I recently worked on a project in New Zealand together (more on The Auckland Project soon). I learned so much from John and consider him one of my great teachers. So I was taken aback when he said this in the lecture (I’m paraphrasing):

“Entertainers try to please their audience – artists do what they do and the audience comes to them. I don’t think about my audience whatsoever.”

Suddenly I felt like a cheap carnival hawker. Not only do I consider the audience for my work, I confess that I aim to entertain. Is this pathetic? I guess it depends on the definition of entertainment. In his essay The Pleasure Principal, Michael Chabon investigates this definition and aims to expand it:

I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period. Oh, I could decoct a brew of other, more impressive motivations and explanations. I could uncork some stuff about reader response theory, or the Lacanian parole. I could go on about the storytelling impulse and the need to make sense of experience through story. A spritz of Jung might scent the air. I could adduce Kafka’s formula: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” I could go down to the cafe at the local mega-bookstore and take some wise words of Abelard or Koestler about the power of literature off a mug. But in the end — here’s my point — it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles. Therefore I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.

Here’s the thing, I find John Gossage’s work entertaining. I get great pleasure from The Pond. The narrative that propels that book carries me in a way that ‘entertaining’ photographers like David LaChapelle never can. Nonetheless, there is no disputing the fact that Gossage doesn’t aim to entertain. Are artists better off forgetting about their audience?

What do you think? Should artists be entertainers?

California Sleepwalker’s Treasure Map

Tonight I’ll join Rodarte (Kate and Laura Mulleavy) and Catherine Opie at the Hammer Museum to talk about our recently published book (conveniently titled Rodarte, Catherine Opie, Alec Soth). Believe it or not, I still haven’t met Kate & Laura, so it is a pretty exciting night. One of the things I’m eager to talk about about is the map above. It was made after Kate and Laura sent me a package of pictures and notes describing their creative influences (Condors, Horror Films, Sleepwalking, Hare Krishna’s, etc…). From this list I made a treasure map in which to explore California. It was an amazing trip. I felt like I was sleepwalking through Kate & Laura’s imagination. We’ll find out how well I did tonight.

Info on the talk here

An article about my contribution to the book here.

Some memories from the April 2010: Week 1Week 2

Still movies



Thanks for all of the great comments to my post about short-form video books. The intersection of photography and video appears to be really fertile ground these days. I particularly like this pairing of video and still images that Justin James Reed has on the front page of his website right now. Of course this kind of still video isn’t new. Experimental filmmakers have long explored this terrain.

Perhaps the most notable example is Hollis Frampton’s 1971 film (nostalgia). The 38 minute shows black and white still photographs by Frampton being burned on a hot plate while the soundtrack offers comments on the  content of the images. It is worth noting that this reading is done by Michael Snow who created the other masterpiece of still movies, Wavelength. This 1967 film is a 45 minute long static shot in which a lens zooms across a room and finally focuses on a picture of the sea pinned to the wall. (The movie is also a murder mystery; at one point in the film, a man – played by Hollis Frampton –  walks into the scene and dies).