PHO702 Week 3: Independent Reflections

The brief this week is to ‘find an image that interests you regarding multiple interpretations of the world and a “constructed” approach’.

The image I have chosen is from Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi. It is captioned ‘Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, 2002’.

SOTH, A. 2002. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota
SOTH, A. 2002. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota. From SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. MACK. London: MACK.

Like all the portraits in this book, the photograph strikes me as substantially posed. An important reason for that is the use of an 8” x 10” field camera which necessitates ‘slow photography’ and a formal procedure.

Charles is shown wearing overalls, a balaclava, thick gloves and holding two model aeroplanes. He could be a modelling hobbyist emerging from his studio but given that he is holding model aeroplanes of a fairly vintage design he could also be acting the part of an early aviation pioneer and particularly in American terms Charles Lindbergh (this observation is not original to me), in the overalls, gloves and floppy leather headgear of the early aviators. The image therefore becomes iconic and carries a shot of American myth-making.

However, other elements in the image run counter to this. Charles looks a little eccentric (the round John Lennon glasses) and scruffy and down at heel (note the stained overalls, worn shoes and rough-cut hair). He is standing, possibly on a roof, in a rather dilapidated spot among pieces of building material such as a breeze-block. The weather looks like bleak midwinter, maybe by a house, maybe on a river boat. The image adds a touch of uncertainty and disorientation in this respect.

The suggestion therefore is that Charles is quite possibly a bit of an outsider, perhaps a loner, a rather eccentric person on the margins, in a tough spot, someone who does not find life easy. On the other hand, the image’s uncertain aspects, muted colours, shallow depth of field and light contrast – all somewhat dreamy – undercut that a little. Yes, that may be true but one cannot be entirely sure. There is both fact and fiction in this gentle image.

Alec Soth’s book is full of similar characters. In my view they are portrayed with restraint, compassion and understanding although they are often posed or set up to plug into America’s native myths. No judgement is involved. (See also the superb portrait later in the book, ‘Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002’. I have admired a print but unfortunately it was £10,000.)

I am simply pointing out that many of the portraits in Sleeping by the Mississippi can be ‘read’ in more than one way and it looks to me as if Alec Soth set them up with that in mind. These are not just characters. They are American characters and part of the American foundation story.

Why do I read these portraits in the way I do? First because Alec Soth has said of making his images: ‘The process is a little bit like day dreaming. I like to take the reality of the world and use it as a springboard for the imagination.’ (Bubich 2015). This is exactly what I like to do. I do not like to stray too far into fiction even though I do feel that much of the power of a photograph happens when ‘the poetic quality of an image transgresses the indexical truthfulness of a representation’. (Wall and Galassi 2007: 337)

Second, because I too have an affinity for the marginal and the dispossessed. Somehow I just know. Perhaps I tend to notice them more or feel that way myself.

Third, because I am strongly opposed to the museum-gallery complex and its steam-rollering tendencies. Fashionable artists come ready-packaged like luxury products. It is almost impossible to approach their work fresh. One is told exactly what their work is about, what it references and what one should think of  it. I have found this a difficulty with truly appreciating the practice of Jeff Wall. I like and admire Wall very much, an unusually thoughtful and original artist. But add in the Gagosian connection, the multi-million sale prices and the forests of adoring and often rather empty comments on every website, and my feeling is that Wall’s best work risks being swallowed up by commerce and fashion.

I would position my own photographic practice much closer to Soth than to Wall or for example Crewdson, Hunter or Sherman. Without some kind of anchoring reality to the world and my fellow humans, I think the risk is of emotionally dead work trumpeted as intensely real but which is more likely to be intensely unreal and rather stilted. I have certainly felt that looking at the work of Crewsdon, Hunter and Sherman. I hugely admire their artistry and awesome technical and organizational skills but the results are too conceptual and they simply do not sing to me.

I do not feel that way with Wall: perhaps he is a finer artist or I am just more on his wavelength. I wanted to analyse his superb ‘Card Players’ of 2006 and its Cézanne connection for this CRJ entry but soon realized that it was impossible to approach it other than through reams of pre-existing comments and opinions, the packaging of the luxury good. There seemed no chance of a fresh view. A pity; it is a marvellous work with a witty touch.

BUBICH, Olga. 2015. ‘Alec Soth: “Photography Is a Unique Pursuit with Its Own Mix of Variables” | Bleek Magazine’. [online]. Available at: http://bleek-magazine.com/interviews/alec-soth/ [accessed 18 Feb 2020].

SOTH, Alec, Patricia HAMPL and Anne TUCKER. 2017. Sleeping by the Mississippi. MACK. London: MACK.

WALL, Jeff and Peter GALASSI. 2007. Jeff Wall: Selected Essays & Interviews. New York: MOMA