Tag Archives: Alec Soth

Assignment 2 – Those Who Do

It is a modern axiom that 90% of people complain about their local services and only 10% try to do anything about it. This is a series about Parish Councillors, who are part of the 10%. Each of these people has been formally elected by the people of their parish to an unpaid group whose aim is to maintain and improve services, activities and open spaces in the village. It is the lowest rung of government, making decisions that affect communities are the level of villages and very small towns. Until recently, the role was fairly low key, but the current financial pressures on town and county councils is forcing them to delegate service to parishes across the UK under the Localism agenda, and groups  like this are taking on more and more work which was previously undertaken by larger local authorities. The role is often practically difficult and thankless (see the comment about complainers above) and each person’s motivation for becoming involved is different.

The series looks at some of the people who are sufficiently interested in their local environment to take up the challenge of being a parish councillor. I am a member of this particular group myself, and am therefore photographing them as an insider;  they all know me, although not necessarily very well. I am interested in the diversity (or perhaps lack of diversity) visible among the group, although it is fair to say that they are a realistic reflection of the community they serve, in terms of age range, ethnicity and economic situation. This part of rural England has little of the multicultural flavour of the big cities.

The journey towards making the series has been documented in the series of posts here. Particular photographers who have informed this selection are Joel Sternfeld, and especially his series Strangers Passing and American Prospects,  John Myers’ series Middle England and David Hurn’s Tintern Photographic Project. The aim was to produce a series of images where there is a clear interaction with me, the photographer, but which also indicates how they relate to their home environment.

The images are shown full size below.



Demonstration of technical and visual skills

Technically, I think this assignment is better than my first one. The subjects are in focus and their positions in the images are pleasing. Each expresses something about their personality in their faces and the way they are standing and also something about their relationship with me, the photographer and a member of their group. I have learned a very useful lesson about how to interact with my subjects during the shoot too, as it became clear through the early ones that they all needed time to relax into the situation, and to chat with me about what they would like to show in their images. Finally, the idea of using some of the as yet untaken images as pictures around the Parish Office was a mistake, as it meant that I was trying to combine two separate ideas in the same project, which was confusing for me when deciding how to shoot the subjects. I have a tendency to overcomplicate the scope of my assignment ideas, and this was a lesson learned for me. Simplicity of purpose is best.

Quality of outcome

I believe the series achieves what I was looking for. Admittedly, this turned out to be some distance away from my starting point, but the final result is a truthful portrait of some of my fellow Parish Councillors and what interests them, albeit that not enough visual information is given to firmly pin down their areas of expertise. The series also hints at some of the issues that exercise my local community, and I leave the viewer to decide what they might be. None of the subjects has seen the results of their shoot as yet, and I must show them, as I would be interested to know whether they feel comfortable with how they are portrayed.

Demonstration of creativity

This has been the part of the assignment that I have found most challenging. As can be seen from my previous posts on the preparation work, there were several false starts which did not achieve the effect I was looking for, and I think I was probably too focussed on showing  a sense of place in each image, rather than allowing the subjects time to relax and inhabit their space. Unlike assignment 1, the location is Home for all the subjects and they feel at ease in their environment, which shows in the final images. For my next unit, I intend to spend more time researching the idea of spaces and places and how one can express these concepts through images.


Returning to my original starting point of study for this assignment, I see that I have not in fact strayed too far from my original ideas. The difference has been more in how I interpreted them. The work of John Myers and David Hurn was useful in setting the scene of current life in rural Britain, but my final creative choices were more informed by the work of Joel Sternfeld, and particularly his Strangers Passing series. Upon reflection, other more subliminal influences should include the series Sleeping by the Mississippi and Broken Manual by Alec Soth, which | saw last year and which I found very affecting, particularly in terms of how the subjects were photographed in their personal environments.

I have visited a number of exhibitions this year in support of this assignment, not all of which I have written up as yet. They include Made You Look at the Photographers Gallery, An Ideal for Living at Beetles & Huxley and a number of shows at the Brighton Biennale, the most relevant of which were The Dandy Lion Project and ReImagine. So far, I have not written up all of these as yet, but I intend to do so over the next few weeks.



Photo London 2016 – Alec Soth interview

Soth was talking about his Gathered Leaves exhibition, which I saw at the Science Museum a few months back, and blogged about here. Having spent some time looking at the work, it was interesting to hear about his motivations and how he went about the projects. Gathered Leaves is a reference to photographs being fragments of life, discarded as they become old.

Soth uses the road trip as a metaphor (his words) for photography, although I would say the trips are more about allowing himself space to explore ideas. He said that in his first project, Sleeping by the Mississippi, he was not self-aware, and simply wandered the landscape, picking out subjects that caught his attention. When asked whether his work is Landscape or Documentary in style, he replied that mostly he thought of it as Portraiture. In Niagara, he explored themes of love and loss. The notes that he collected helped him to give a voice to the people he made photographs of. Without the notes, he felt the project was too two-dimensional and lacking in depth.

Broken Manual is about running away. He has produced it as a secret manual, aimed at men, about leaving their lives behind them and setting off to explore their inner lives. Soth said that at the time he was very preoccupied with the concept of the inner life. He also said that he is a project photographer, not someone who works on many different things at the same time, and that each project has an internally consistent form and content What I had not fully appreciated before was how each of his projects is based on a fantasy persona, which may or may not have elements of Soth himself within them. In Broken Manual, he collaborated with a (fictitious?) person to produce something that is much more than a series of photographs. There is a lot of other work in the project too – books, artefacts, etc. For Songbook, his most recent project, he assumed the persona of a newspaper hack wandering across the States, looking at small-town stories.

During the Q&A session afterwards, Soth was asked about whether success had begun to limit his freedom to choose his own subjects. He said that it was a constant tussle to keep control of his work. He was also asked about whether he felt he was exploiting his subjects, and responded that he thought not. He always spends some time with them before making the images, and they are not cruel in the way of Bruce Gildin. When questioned about whether his images are storyboarded, he replied that his way of working was more of a treasure hunt, though I was not sure how much posing went on once he had found them.

Edward Burtinsky has defined Soth’s work as interior. He is exploring his own thoughts through photography – it is effectively an illustrated journey through his mind. This resonated with me, and came up again in the Richard Misrach lecture I attended later the same day. I am not a religious person, and would call myself atheist, but I am interested in the connection between people, the land and history, on the one hand, and the energy that binds us all together at the quantum level, on the other. After this discussion, I felt energised to go out and explore these ideas further in my own work. There have been hints of the themes in many assignments already, and it seems to indicate my direction of travel.