A good surface is full of clues

I read Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi this summer (buy from Amazon). I’m exploring photobooks and this is one that comes up again and again as a must-read. I was predisposed to Soth’s work because i know him first as a blogger and YouTuber, which I imagine he might find amusing.

It’s a mix of environmental and intimate portraits, interiors, landscape and other subjects, but it’s the portraits that are most memorable. I’m not super-into portraiture as a genre, but I do find these intriguing. And I enjoy hearing photographers talk about how they negotiate the act of making one. The relationship between subject and photographer; the use of power, intimacy, discomfort, time and space.

I’ve always been suspicious of the idea that a portrait in some way captures the essence of a person; that it reveals a deep, enigmatic truth. Our tendency to think this way might be caused in part by the illusion that we’re looking at the subject, and they’re looking back at us. We read something into that imagined returned gaze, but we’re reading something about ourselves, not the person looking back.

So I was interested to read that Soth doesn’t consider his images as documents of some essence of the soul:

… Soth isn’t particularly comfortable with the role of portraiture within his practice. “The great struggle with portraiture is the energy of discomfort,” he says, referencing the work of Diane Arbus. Ethically, Soth doesn’t relish this sense of discomfort: he sees in it a sense of exploitation of the subject, their race or their sexuality. He emphasises the reductive potential of photography, that what we see in his images are the exteriors of those people he photographed on a particular day, frozen in time and space and rendered two dimensional. Opposing essentialism, he doesn’t believe photography can convey a deep truth about a person. Instead, “a photograph merely is light reflecting off a surface” – a transient moment in time, impermanent.


More recently l read another take from a photographer who’s work I don’t know first-hand at all – Richard Avedon:

He was fascinated by photography’s capacity for suggesting the personality and evoking the life of his subjects. He registered poses, attitudes, hairstyles, clothing and accessories as vital, revelatory elements of an image. He had complete confidence in the two-dimensional nature of photography, the rules of which he bent to his stylistic and narrative purposes. As he wryly said, “My photographs don’t go below the surface. I have great faith in surfaces.  A good one is full of clues.”

Ricard Avedon Foundation

I originally read this as an admission – or a disarming claim – that he really was only interested in the superficial. But now I read it as something subtler; that the camera captures light reflected of the surface of things, and those surfaces can be interesting in themselves. We don’t have to look into the eyes to look for the soul.

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