News Photographer – Alec Soth | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios


SARAH URIST GREEN: This
episode of “The Art Assignment” is brought to you
by Squarespace. [MUSIC PLAYING] We’re in Saint Paul,
Minnesota, today to meet up with
photographer Alec Soth, who makes large scale photo projects
that manifest in prints, exhibitions, and books. He works in a
variety of formats, but is known for
using a large format 8 by 10 camera for
series including “Sleeping By the Mississippi,”
which evolved from several road trips he took along
the Mississippi River. And “Niagara,” for which he
visited the Niagara Falls area and took a series of pictures
that all circle around the themes of love and passion. More recent photo
projects include “Broken Manual,” which
sees him visiting people trying to
live off the grid and the places they inhabit. Soth’s work is
often talked about as chronicling American life. But as you look at
more and more of it, you see it’s much more
complicated than that. His work is rooted in
the world of fine art, but also skirts that
of photojournalism. He also does
editorial photography and has been a member of
the Magnum Photo Cooperative since 2008. But he’s also known to
play with these rules. With his author friend Brad
Zellar, Soth, for a while, posed as a reporter from
a fictional newspaper and investigated stories around
the US, which they documented in a series of
tabloids distributed by Soth’s publishing company
Little Brown Mushroom. And then he also published
the prints separately as a photo book
titled “Songbook.” It’s the permeability
of Soth’s roles as an art photographer
and a photojournalist that we’re going to be
talking about with him today. I’m Alec Soth, and this
is your art assignment. When I got out of college, I
had this photography knowledge and thus opened up
the possibilities of all sorts of different
potential photography jobs, low end photography jobs. So I worked in a dark room
and I worked at an art museum and I worked at a small
suburban newspaper. So I was photographing
ribbon cuttings, city council meetings, a new business opens. And the occasional fire destroys
a property, that sort of thing. And while that seems
dull, and at times it was dull while I was
doing it, in retrospect, I’ve realized how interesting
all of that subject matter is. That these sort of very
prosaic elements of daily life and community life
are actually what’s interesting to record
for the future. You know, the thing about
the ribbon cutting moment when you do it for
the suburban newspaper is that the job is to
get the giant scissors on the ribbon at that moment. It’s ludicrous. And they hold it, of course, for
30 seconds so you can get this. What I think is probably
more interesting is the guy walking away with
the giant scissors right after. Where did the giant
scissors come from? All these questions. Kind of the before,
the after, looking at something just
slightly askew can reveal all this other information. So your assignment
is to be a newspaper photographer for the day. I want you to pick one story. It doesn’t need to be a dramatic
story, like a fire or a crime scene. It could be something really
simple like a ribbon cutting for a new store or a birthday
party for someone turning 100. And I want you to follow up on
this story, with the goal being getting access. Because once you’re
in there, then you can look for something
a little unusual. Maybe something before the
event or after, or something funny happening off on the side. And let that carry
you to the story. In addition to this picture
that you make there, I want you to write
a little text that also isn’t entirely obvious. This can be something
you overheard. Or it can be a
quote from someone. But something that will push the
viewer in a slightly different direction. John, this assignment
makes me think about how in this, the
day of the internet, it’s really easy to
get access, actually. Yeah. I mean, we’re all
reporters, right? I think about serial. Or I’m really interested
in these communities that are trying to find the
identities of unclaimed bodies online. Like we’re all reporters
and we’re all detectives. And you don’t really need
credentials these days. And what that also
signals to me is that it’s important to
remember that there really is no such thing as objectivity. That that is a myth. And whenever anyone goes
out to report on a story or take pictures, they bring
with them their own biases. And they also bring
with them this history. The conventions of
photojournalism, a lot of which actually go
back to these photographs that were taken during the New
Deal in a project that was sponsored by the Farm
Security Administration. SARAH URIST GREEN:
The FSA’s work included educating the
public, and they established a photography program
led by Roy Stryker with the aim of documenting
poverty, defending federal relief efforts, and
introducing quote, “Americans to America.” From 1936 to 1944, the
program commissioned work by an impressive
roster of photographers who were sent to document the
effects of the Great Depression in the hardest hit
areas of the country. Stryker gave out
assignments to 11 artists including Dorothea Lange,
Walker Evans, and Gordon Parks. Lange was sent to
Oklahoma and Texas to photograph drought-stricken
Dust Bowl farmers, and to California to
photograph migrant workers in relief camps. Walker Evans was sent
to document small town life in Pennsylvania and
across the American South. And Gordon Parks was
assigned to Washington, DC, documenting racial
segregation and bigotry in the nation’s capital. Over 250,000
photographs resulted and were made
available to media, appearing in newspapers
and popular magazines like “Life” and “Look.” The project’s reach extended far
beyond its original objective, generating powerful images that
communicate the harsh realities of the time created
by photographers who used a wide range
of styles and approaches and who would go on
to make important work in similar veins. So I had been working in
this very inward looking way. Wanted to somehow go
back out in the world and engage with community
in some sort of way. So on my birthday,
I called up a friend of mine, Brad Zellar,
who had formerly been a newspaper reporter. And asked him to
give me this gift of going out on a newspaper
assignment with me. And he would be the writer. I would be the photographer. And we’d– you know, like
an authentic team out in the world. The question of what
should we do came up. What do we cover? And so we just
picked up a newspaper and more or less just
pointed at the first story. It didn’t really
matter what it was. The story was of this cat
which had been missing. And it turns out
it had been living on a freeway interchange between
all these different freeways. And it survived on
this deer carcass for this long period of time. But it was becoming
a real problem because all the cars would
see the cat and slow down. And so this police officer on
Christmas day saved the cat. And this was this charming
little suburban story. And we went to the
shelter and met the cat and met the people
who lost the cat, and all this kind of stuff. Reported on the story. And it opened up for us. And we heard these
really funny quotes and had a funny experience
photographing the cat. And it wasn’t
necessarily profound, that particular
photographic experience. But it showed this path of a
way to go out in the world. We created a
fictional newspaper, had business cards made, and
started going on assignment after assignment. So the number one question
I’m asked, by far, is how do I approach strangers. And I think of it as being
like those people that hand out stuff on the street
when you’re walking by. It’s humiliating at first. But you realize that it’s
not that big of a deal. You’re just another person
on the street handing stuff. And OK, maybe it’s going
to annoy a few people. But most people don’t care. And the thing about being a
photographer or a writer when you engage with people is that
you find out, to your relief, that so many people
are just really hungry to be paid attention to
and they like the attention. [MUSIC PLAYING] SARAH URIST GREEN: This
episode of “The Art Assignment” is brought to you
by Squarespace. Squarespace is an easy way
to create a website, blog, or online store for
you and your ideas. Squarespace features a
user friendly interface, custom templates, and
24/7 customer support. Try Squarespace at
Squarespace.com/artassignment for a special offer. Squarespace. Build it beautiful. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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20 thoughts on “News Photographer – Alec Soth | The Art Assignment | PBS Digital Studios

  1. Ok here is the deal though. When he made those cards and went out on assignments for a fake newspaper, that's was a breach of trust. People trust reporters and photographers with with their names, stories and lives. The takeaways he got from it are all true, that people are hungry for attention. But when they looked for the paper later or looked online for the article, what did they find? Nothing. They found a lie. Maybe not a hurtful lie, and maybe nothing was damaged. But he was given access on the basis of false credentials. That can make a source feel betrayed, feel like they were made fun of. I'm a reporter and I love my work. But people talk to me, they trust me, when they know who I work for and its reputation. When someone takes time out of their day to tell me their story, it's an honor. A privilege. And I owe them honesty on my side too. I like Alec's work and the history of it, but he owed those people honesty. Even if it is just a suburban cat story.

  2. I also find myself uncomfortable with the fake newspaper tactic. Newspapers are already wrongly maligned in America, something we can little afford. Not sure I'm thrilled about people going out and pretending to be members of the press without any of the accompanying ethical obligations of real journalists. Interesting artist though and something to think about.

  3. 1. I was ~SO~ hoping you'd do something photography-related; THANK YOU!
    2. You went to the Walker while you were in the Twin Cities, right?

  4. I remember doing a photo project as a model, where we were setting up a fake VIP tour on campus for a made up pop star. I made a CD cover for the new release and sent it to everyone. My role was a campus VIP providing the tour, and we had a bodyguard, manager, fan, paparazzi, and the singer herself. Unfortunately it rained the day we were going to go out and fake this tour, but I feel like that would have been a great set up for this assignment as well, documenting the tour but also the reactions of bystanders to this singer being ambushed by paparazzi and fans and all that.

  5. I love this! One of the tips I was once given in a high school photography class was to make a press pass for yourself with the name of a (real or imagined) blog/ news site/ etc. before going to events where you want to shoot. It can help you get in for free, skip lines, and get special access to events, and security will seldom question you. Make your own credential, back it up with a healthy dose of confidence, and get the shot.

  6. So glad to see this video pop up in my subscription feed! Alec Soth is my number one contemporary influence – and just a sensational photographer.

  7. Fabulous, really liked the inclusion of how we bring our biases to everything and how the very context (itself a bias) we carry around about what is "photos" or "photojournalism" also heavily influences how we interact and take pictures. Thank you for these insightful explorations!

  8. Are we not going to distinguish the differences between art and journalism? And asserting that it's impossible to be objective requires arguments. It would be interesting to hear a conversation on the philosophy behind objective and subjective thought.

  9. John dearie what are you wearing ?? Please do check with Sarah if that particular shade of green is called "ouch my eyes I'm blind "

  10. All is Subjectivity is it self a myth…!

    If all is subjective then the statement "all is subjective" has no value as it is itself just a subjective statement with no truth valve… and one is left in an infinite regress in attempting to prove such a statement has any substance at all.

    On the other hand the statement of preception following:
    The Art Assignment is a channel on Youtube. Is this just "subjective" ? Or is it varifiable in the emeprical world?

  11. I'm sorry he pretended to work for a newspaper in order to get material for a project he intended to (and possibly did) make money from. 😵😵😵 What a disgusting creep. How could The Art Assignment sign off on this kind of unethical BS let alone celebrate it? Not okay.

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