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"As custom dictates," New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote in his review of the exhibit, there were "a few good discoveries (Alec Soth, a photographer)."
The tossed-off reference was enough to turn Soth into an overnight star. "It was just those four words, and it hasn't stopped since," says Weinstein, who now represents Soth.
Since then, Soth's prints have hung in prestigious galleries and museums all over the world: Paris, Berlin, Beijing, and Sao Paulo. He's taken assignments from Esquire, W, Newsweek, GQ, and the New York Times. These days his large prints sell for as much as $20,000.
Weinstein, who has delegated to himself the job of "keeping Alec's hat size the same," says, "He is still in amazement of it all. He notices the sweet awe of things and he knows how fleeting this is."
IN A ST. PAUL STUDIO that is a significant upgrade from his Franklin space, a printer the size of a floor freezer rumbles as it slowly spits out giant photographs to be framed, crated, and shipped to a solo exhibit in Paris, where a gallery is hanging 100 of Soth's prints. Eric Carroll, the photographer's red-haired studio manager, sits at a desk near the door, quietly answering emails. Meanwhile, Soth answers questions and endures a photo shoot.
"I absolutely despise this," Soth says with a self-conscious laugh.
The printer makes a loud swoosh and drops Brianna into the tray. Soth was in the parking lot of a Richfield strip mall setting up a shot in the snow when Brianna, who had been shopping on her day off from high school, trudged past in boots and a long black coat a few sizes too big for her. She wore a black hat with a brim and clutched a black Chanel shopping bag. "It's impossible to verbalize why I pick one person over another," Soth says. "I just pluck them out."
Brianna is a perfect Soth subject. She doesn't perform for the camera and she's unconventionally striking. Standing in front of the giant green awning of a Sally Beauty Supply, she embodies what Soth calls "the trickle down of fashion" from places like Paris and Beverly Hills.
In stark contrast is the portrait of Chanel über-designer Karl Lagerfeld at the Grand Palais in Paris. He stares toward Soth's camera through blackout sunglasses and strikes an imperial pose, one hand clasping his suit coat. Lagerfeld radiates power—a rare theme in Soth's work.
As the photographer shoots Soth, the uncomfortable subject comments on the role reversal. "What I do is so different than this," he explains. "Imagine if he was standing over there in the corner for like 10 minutes dinking around with his camera the way I do. What happens? I'm getting bored with the experience and I start thinking about other things and I'm not aware of the camera anymore."
This is the space Soth tends to thrive in. He's a fussy photographer working with a fussy camera, and by the time he's set up the camera and the shot, the subject's instinct to perform has long ago expired, which is exactly what Soth wants. That's one reason he avoids shooting celebrities: They're trained to turn it on as needed and that drives him crazy. "They can even do it with their eyes!" he says. Instead, Soth's photos feature ordinary people who he has interrupted and detained for the better part of a day.
Minneapolis photographer Karolina Karlic, who has assisted Soth on many shoots, says he gets away with it because of his personality.
"A lot of the time people don't know who he is," she says. "He doesn't name-drop himself at all and subjects are usually just intrigued—they see this guy with a burly beard and tennis shoes and they think he's just this young photographer playing with an old camera."
Soth, for his part, credits something more base: "People are flattered by attention."