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Alec Soth’s American Dream

Magnum photographer presents work and process to UT crowd

By Rod Machen, 5:00PM, Thu. Oct. 24, 2013

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Alec Soth’s American Dream
Alec Soth’s American Dream
Photo by Rod Machen

Alec Soth’s journey as an artist has been a long and illustrious one, one he shared with a packed audience at the University of Texas Wednesday. He began shooting photography in large format in the style of Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Robert Frank, a take on the everyday world that found beauty in unexpected places.

More recently, Soth has moved to a more documentary form that has taken him around the country, with Texas being his next stop. Next month, Soth (rhymes with “both”) will take a trip around our great state as a part of his “Dispatch” series. Since May 2012, he has partnered with writer Brad Zellar on this ongoing project that focuses on a specific area of the U.S. to explore through both images and text. The end product is a limited-edition newspaper chronicling their journey.

This new work fits with Soth’s membership in Magnum Photos, the photographer collective that recently had its archive acquired by UT's Harry Ransom Center. For 65 years, this agency has been producing some of the world’s best photography, often skating the line between art and reportage. As a full-time member of Magnum since 2008, Soth ranks among the top practitioners in the field.

The irony in that is that Soth didn’t start out wanting to be a photographer. His first artistic pusuit was painting, but the amount of solitary time required in the studio was a turn-off. He then became enamored of earthworks art, such as that created by Andy Goldsworthy, and produced some of that work himself during college. It was in photographing those pieces that Soth made the jump to his current medium.

Soth's lecture, "From Here to There," was the first in the UT Graduate School's new Campus Conversations series. The cutest part of the evening was when a women asked a question posed by her young daughter: “Why do you like to take pictures?” A simple question with a not-so-simple answer. Soth claims that he shoots for the same reasons we non-professionals do: to capture a moment, to preserve a memory. For him, the journey is the thing, and photography helps to document his travels. He cited Wim Wenders’ 1976 film Kings of the Road as an early inspiration, and since then, his journeys have taken him all around America and even into other countries.

In 2002, he and his wife traveled to Bogota, Columbia, to adopt their daughter Carmen. Due to logistical hurdles, they stayed for two months. Soth spent the time documenting this country he hardly knew, creating stunning images that both represented and commented on it. Only one image of the book he produced, Dog Days, Bogotá, was of his family, a shot of his new daughter lying in a field of grass. For all of his photographic prowess, he rarely takes pictures of his own domestic life, preferring to point his lens out into the world.

His new “Dispatch” series does exactly that. He has taken an interest in documenting “social life,” those ways in which we form bonds between each other through interactions and encounters.

For their Texas edition, Soth and Zellar will focus on the triangle bordered by Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, breaking the trip into two legs, both using students as assistants. On Dec. 6, they will present a pop-up exhibition of their expedition back in Austin.

Soth will also participate in this weekend’s three-day symposium “Magnum Photos Into the Digital Age,” presented by the Harry Ransom Center. The symposium is in conjunction with the exhbition "Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos Into the Digital Age," which is on view through Jan. 5 at the Ransom Center, 21st & Guadalupe. For more information, visit www.hrc.utexas.edu.

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