Alec Soth shoots City Pages cover for Artists of the Year

This week's cover image was shot by world renowned artist Alec Soth.

This week's cover image was shot by world renowned artist Alec Soth.

It's not every day that a fine artist of Alec Soth's caliber deems fit to grace the cover of a local alternative weekly. But that's just what happened with this week's City Pages.

For the cover of our annual Artists of the Year issue, Soth--himself one of the honorees--agreed to shoot Emily Johnson, a choreographer whose arresting dance is featured on the Northrup stage.

How did this happen? And who decided to bring the fish?

Back in January 2008, City Pages featured one of Soth's photos on the cover to illustrate a profile of Alec Soth written by Jeff Severns Guntzel. The story chronicled Soth's unlikely ascension from shy Chanhassen kid to overnight star of the New York photography world.

From all those miles up and down the river emerged a collection of photographs called "Sleeping by the Mississippi." The work won him his first major award: the 2003 Santa FeWhitney Museum in New York City were flying in to meet Soth. "I think they took pity on me," Soth says, only half-joking. By 2004, prints from his Mississippi project were hanging at the Whitney Biennial in New York City.

"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 [Martin] 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.

This year, Soth was selected as one of our annual Artists of the Year--the creative figures both local and national who made our lives just a little bit more interesting in 2010. As Marlon James (winner of the 2010 Minnesota Book Award for "The Book of Night Women") writes of Soth's particular artistic genius:

The thing about photographers, particularly brilliant ones like Alec Soth, is that they have a gift for capturing people in the increasingly rare act of being people. I'm not sure how he does it, especially in this age in which reality itself is up for grabs and everybody is a performer. Maybe he starts shooting at the point where most photographers stop. There is a casual intelligence here, the honesty of outtakes even though there was probably nothing casual in the process of taking them.
But even as we were preparing that text, we had no idea Soth would end up shooting the cover of the issue itself.

For answers to how that came about, I had to turn to City Pages Art Director Mike Kooiman.

How did you end up commissioning Soth to do this week's City Pages cover?

Traditionally, the cover of Artists of the Year features a work from a painter, or similar kind of visual artist. This year we weren't featuring any of those, so when we looked down the list, we sought an alternate visual solution. Alec Soth is famous for a certain style of portraiture, so we thought he might be perfect for capturing the eccentricities of the work of someone like Emily Johnson (whose concepts and choreography reach beyond traditional boundaries). Luckily, both artists were on-hand and excited to participate.

What was the process like in terms of working with Soth to get the right image?

The process was pretty hands-off, aside from facilitating communication between photographer and subject. Alec preferred to talk with Emily personally in order to come up with a setting that suited both his own style and her work. The photo shoot was surprisingly varied, and many different kinds of shots from different environments were submitted. It's a challenge to choose the best shot for a cover like this. One one hand, our publication like all others has to sing from the stands. On the other, we want to be true to the style and spirit of the creators.

Did they expense the fish?

I have not received any expense reports or receipts from the fishmonger.
But one question still remained: Why? The only one who could answer was Soth himself.