Small Town America – Alec Soth and the Hidden Exotic


There is a tendency for photographers, professional and amateur, to be attracted to the exotic – people, places and things that seem foreign or unusual to them. For many individuals this means traveling to areas of the world where the word exotic is synonymous with that location. This, however, begs the question, doesn’t every place inherently have its own exoticness? The answer to this question seems obvious but the issue isn’t so much finding the uniqueness but being able to portray it.

Alec Soth grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota before moving to New York in the late 1980s to attend Sarah Lawrence College. Originally interested in becoming a painter, Soth’s artistic interests shifted to photography after attending a lecture by a photographer, who had travelled by van across the United States taking pictures. At this point, he knew he wanted to work as a photographer and moved back home to Minneapolis to pursue a career in it. He also knew, however, that he wanted to be a certain type of photographer, not one who was paid to take pictures at weddings or graduations but one who could explore his own interests. The issue for him, like many recent college graduates, is that he had no money to finance his aspirations. As a result, Soth decided to take a job working in a darkroom, working on his personal photography on the side, before receiving a grant that lead to his first published collection, Sleeping by the Mississippi, in 2004.

As of 2016, Soth has published eight personal projects, all of which can be viewed on his website, as well as many other collaborative ones. Soth’s collections tend to be lengthy, usually between 40 and 60 images and feature a variety of photographic genres such as landscape, portraits and still life. This diversification of images, a mixture of photographs of people, places and things, creates a narrative for the viewer and is what he describes as his “hunger to tell stories”. Soth, however, is adamant about leaving interpretation up to the viewer and rarely leaves any form of explanatory text, other than the person’s name and or place, with his work.  Sleeping by the Mississippi and NIAGARA, two of Soth’s earlier collections, are indicative of his approach as a photographer. Published in 2004 and 2006, both collections inspire similar reactions but are from completely different parts of the United States, the Midwest and upstate New York.

Soth’s photographs in these collections, particularly the portraits, are a fascinating look into areas of the United States that aren’t typically seen by people who don’t already live there. It is his ability to use quintessential Americana to create images that evoke a sense of exoticism that makes his work distinct. Moreover, Soth tends to film these people in intimate locations and situations, such as their homes or in the case of NIAGARA, their hotel rooms. He affords us as the viewer a look into a world that isn’t ours but he also creates a sense of normalcy in his photos, removing any feeling that the image was forced or that the subjects in it feel uncomfortable.

The natural essence behind Soth’s photographs is a crucial part to his process and something he constantly strives for. In a 2010 interview for Art21 magazine, Soth addresses his approach for taking photographs, specifically ones of people: “When working with a large format camera, I’ll often approach people while leaving the camera in my car. I’ll just talk to them, explain what I’m doing and ask if they’ll pose. In terms of the explanation, I try to be as honest as I can about what I’m doing”. Additionally, all of his photographs are taken outside of a studio, in many different environments, aiding to this natural feel and he is able to achieve what feels like a very real moment rather than a staged one.

It would be negligent not to mention Soth’s unique photographic process. Soth uses a 8×10 camera to take the majority of his photographs (an 8×10 camera was used for all pictures in Sleeping by the Mississippi and NIAGARA), a far cry from the digital photos most of us are used to nowadays. The 8×10 camera is a crucial part to his process as he feels it not only makes the subject more comfortable and less judged, as he is covered by a cloth, but also creates a more desirable image, an image that is of a higher resolution and “tonal purity” and “…renders the world in a really unique way”.

Soth’s exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2010 titled “From Here To There: Alec Soth’s America” was a conglomeration of images from his published works and underlined the major themes of his work. It was an exhibit of contemporary Americana photography but with subjects and places that are not often seen, especially in photography. Many of the people who are photographed would be described as hermits, vagabonds or drifters yet they are still as much a part of America as you or me. “Charles”, one of Soth’s more famous photographs of a bizarrely dressed man holding model airplanes in the middle of nowhere, from his Sleeping by the Mississippi collection is the perfect example of this theme of hidden American culture.

In one of Soth’s first interviews back in 2004 he was asked about whether he values a single great shot or the collective whole more than the other: “The lesson I learned is that great pictures are all about luck. And anyone can take a great picture. But very few people can put together a great collection of pictures”. Twelve years later and Soth’s work has remained consistent with this attitude.

Soth’s ability to create a cohesive narrative through exotic and aesthetically attractive material from what one would usually consider as mundane or normal is what makes him a unique and important photographic figure.

One thought on “Small Town America – Alec Soth and the Hidden Exotic”

  1. I love that your lens profile stemmed from a personal experience (at the Walker) and connection (Minneapolis) with the artist, but it is evident from references to interviews and several different collections that you did quite a bit of research as well. It is really cool that Soth strives to connect with his subjects before photographing them and is intentional about not scaring them away (by leaving his camera in the car). The statement, “This, however, begs the question, doesn’t every place inherently have its own exoticness?” was a great hook, and I feel like it really sums up Soth’s approach. It’s interesting to think about how we perceive our daily surroundings just out of habit and how Soth might have to intentionally and actively take a new perspective in order to find the exotic in the otherwise mundane.

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