One of the Great Ones

"I never really knew where I wanted to go": John, in a portrait by Alec Soth
Alec Soth

If looked at in a certain light, nearly anyone can be beautiful. I learned this on a recent Monday afternoon while in the company of Minneapolis artist Alec Soth at Stand Up Frank's bar in the dingiest hinterlands of northeast Minneapolis. We had come here on a hot August dog day to track down subjects for Soth's camera, a large 8-by-10-inch device that makes beautiful, diamond-edged, almost painting-like pictures. And that's how even a guy we'll call Don--the ageless, marble-mouthed guy who is listing like a schooner too long on the high seas, despite the fact that it's only three in the afternoon--comes to seem beautiful to me.

Don is spouting a tale of sorrow about his buddy Mike, one of the great ones, who died a few days ago of a heart attack. He shows us a photo of a 50ish guy kneeling in a yard next to a spaniel. "Not too many showed up," Don mumbles, speaking of the funeral. "Only three guys there that we worked with."

Soth has led us to the corner of this long, pockmarked wooden bar because a lonesome-looking, 47-year-old, dark-haired drinker named John had caught his eye when he peeked in.

"What's your story?" Alec asks John as soon as we order drinks. And so John tells his story. He's a builder, off early for the day from a job. He has a cabin he's building in the north woods and someday he plans to retire there. "I want to get up there and replant a lot of the trees," he says.

"That's a real good story," says Soth. "Can I tell you my story? I'm a photographer...I'm drawn to dreamer types--people who dream big. Something told me you were a dreamer."

Soth asks if he can take John's picture. Finding out John lives nearby, he further asks: "Can we go to your house?...I'll buy you another one of these."

And despite himself, just like that, John seems poised to agree to something he probably has never considered doing before--exposing his life to the artist's sharp eye.

I should explain something about Alec Soth: He's not just some photographer. He's actually an open-faced, warmly smiling, 33-year-old used-car salesman of an artist who works his way into unusual situations--a Memphis prostitute's room, the Angola State Prison, an aging Southern matron's bedroom--and pries surprising elements of beauty from them. He's traveled far afield in search of these strange beauties: Bogotá, Colombia; Iceland; and most recently down the Mississippi River to make a series of images called "Sleeping by the Mississippi" ( It's this body of work that has recently garnered the attention of the national art corps in the form of upcoming exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and at Washington University in St. Louis. A few weeks back, he received a flattering visit from Whitney biennial curators Debra Singer and Shamim Momin.

"['Sleeping by the Mississippi'] is my first truly substantial body of work," said Soth, before we set out for the day to find subjects. "I think of the process as akin to filmmaking. The big camera, the slowness of the process, the fundraising, the shooting, then the postproduction and all that. A lot of effort goes into one picture. At $15 an exposure, you can't just do it willy-nilly."

Soth's process of finding a subject is almost unnecessarily complicated and reliant on fortuity. But this may simply follow the complicated and nebulous process of using the late-'80s camera. Soth's R.H. Phillips and Sons 8x10 Compact camera, which must be reconstructed anew on each use from a variety of parts, uses large and expensive negatives that slide into the back. The camera's lens is particularly sensitive to variations in light and has a shallow field of focus that causes much fussiness in the artist. Soth says he's lucky if he manages to make one or two exposures on a given day of shooting. This is, of course, very different from the photographic norm in the load-and-shoot era of 35mm and digital cameras.

"That's the whole game," he says, laughing. "I drive around and look for something that catches my curiosity, and I follow up on it. And that usually leads to something. I find that most people are just good and generous people and like the attention....It's really an enjoyable, improvisational kind of game."

Two hours pass in the bar and the rising din of men's voices slowly drowns out the rockin' blues on the stereo. At our corner of the bar the subject of the neighborhood comes up, and everyone expresses disgust at what's happened over the years. "Drug dealers are everywhere," says John, going on to joke, "and they won't even sell to me." John and Don turn to talking about some of the old crowd who used to live here, and grow sullen that so many are no longer with us.

"They're all dyin'," says Don, "and I'm still living."

Soth brings conversation back to the house, subtly but repeatedly. John, however, is not to be rushed. He drinks six double screwdrivers and hardly seems affected. His face does grow slightly more somber, though. "I never really knew where I wanted to go. The world to me feels depressing. I don't understand where the souls of people are anymore."


  John's house, when we finally get there, looks as it must have in 1954 when his parents bought it. Soth comments on the vintage green carpet downstairs and John says that's nothing. "You should see the three-tone shag in the attic."

Naturally, that's where Soth is immediately drawn. The space is hot and also a time machine of sorts--the posters on the wall, the boxes of LPs, the racks of clothing untouched since 1975. "This is it," says Soth.

John and I go back downstairs to cool off while Soth sets up the shot. John does not seem to notice the distant banging and scuffling noises. After about a half-hour, we go back upstairs. Soth, who is drenched with sweat now, says to John, "Hope you don't mind my rearranging." Posters have been repositioned behind a chair, a lamp brought forward, other objects moved. The space is more composed now, a poetic version of what was there before.

But John is gracious, saying it looks cleaner than it has been in a long time. "You oughta come over more often," he says.

"No, this is a treasure trove worthy of documentation." And with that, Soth goes about the business of documenting it.

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