Alec Soth masterfully weaves nuanced stories of people and places that show intimate glimpses into fascinating worlds. Viewing his books feels like slowly peeling an orange as you reveal small parts of the lush center below.
Born in 1969 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Soth’s main focus has been on the overlooked middle America, the fly-by places, small towns, and forgotten people, as he captures their dreams and disappointments, their complex views and feelings.
While each body of work stands on its own, it’s important to look at the progression that Soth made through these portfolios, both conceptually and technically. Soth is famous for using an 8×10 camera, but he has actually switched between multiple formats, from large format, to medium format, to digital SLR depending on the needs of the project.
“I’m less interested in the incredible image or the iconic moment – they come along or they don’t. Anyone can take a great picture, but editing those pictures and, more importantly for me, putting them together and having them resonate off each other – that’s the ultimate task. It’s the body of images I’m most interested in.”
Sleeping by the Mississippi
Soth’s first published book was Sleeping by the Mississippi, which gained wide acclaim. He traveled along the Mississippi River from his home state of Minnesota all the way to New Orleans. “I live near the beginning of the Mississippi and have always felt a pull to it. I used to run away when I was 5 or 6, pack a suitcase with books and run away from home. I’d only get a few blocks but it was the whole Huck Finn process, where the north is home and the south symbolizes the exotic.”
“I remember when I got to the river, I thought, ‘I can go on the Minnesota side or the Wisconsin side – either way it’s full of possibilities.’ And the making of the work was just so magical. It felt like every time I knocked on a door, it opened. And it’s never been like that since.”
The river became the link, and you can sense a subtle connection between each person, despite the subjects and places being so wildly different. Just as important is the connection that Soth makes with his subjects, even though as he admits, he was never comfortable photographing people. Yet he still found a way to connect with his subjects, to inquire about them, and to listen to them, and his subjects rewarded him with their poses.
Soth asked his subjects to write down their dreams, and at the end of the book he gives us fascinating information about the subjects and their dreams, but it’s the idea of the dream that often shines through in his subjects’ gazes, or in the fascinating backgrounds that Soth captures. Soth’s landscapes and backgrounds are complex scenes, yet similarly intimate. They feel like hidden places, both forgotten and special. These are places that you often feel like you shouldn’t be seeing, that you are privileged to be able to get a glimpse of.
Technically, the 8×10 camera seems to aid this process as well. You can see the subjects become comfortable and introspective with the question asked to them and with the time taken to set up the camera and scene. The subjects recede into themselves.
Soth used a similar formula for his second project, capturing the area surrounding Niagara Falls, the famous tourist and marriage destination.
“Niagara is part of American mythology. It’s a place of romance, where people go to get married, but when I got there my view of the place totally changed. The American side is economically devastated. It’s bleak.”
“The longer I spent there, the darker it got. Part of that is down to me and my nature, part of it is down to the place itself. But I also find a real beauty in that darkness.”
Soth shows stark contrasts between the bleak surroundings and the irony of the symbols of romance shown throughout the book, such as a sign for the Happiness Inn, a heart-shaped bath, or two kissing swans folded on a cheap hotel bed. The area itself encompasses the idea of romance, simultaneously showing optimism, beauty, reality, bleakness, and despair. He similarly shows this in photos of couples and individuals, their faces alluding to complex feeling beneath the surface.
“What fascinated me is how this crashing waterfall is a metaphor for that crazed intensity of new love, and how it’s like this force that peters out. Niagara Falls is also where a lot of people go to commit suicide.”
Like Sleeping by the Mississippi, the photos lure you in, while the end of the book gives you deep context, where Soth talks about his subjects and shares their love letters. “To gather the love letters I would ask people I met in bars or donut shops if they had any old love letters I could have. If you’re in a donut shop and you ask someone at the next table for their old love letters, they are going to look at you like you’re a freak and mock you. But every once in a while, someone would have them and be happy to share them.”
As said in one of the letters, “I love you but you’ve become a piece of shit.”
In Broken Manual, Soth captured people looking to disappear, to escape their lives. He photographed hermits, survivalists, runaways, and the places they escaped to.
In his research, Soth explored pamphlets and instruction manuals on how to escape and structured the book in this way, almost like a manual. But the reality of escaping is shown to be much more bleak and depressing than the fantasy of it.
“The inspiration for the ‘manual’ aspect of the project came from buying all these ‘How to Disappear’ books online – they’re so absurd. They’re such ridiculous little pamphlets, which would be completely ineffective if you really wanted to run away. So there is a real dark-comedy aspect to the work.”
“The reason I wanted to become a photographer was to spend time alone. It’s funny, because for the last year and a half I’ve been trying to learn how to work alone again. The psychological elements of working alone are so profound.”
Soth at the time was having his own feelings of escaping after establishing himself in the art world, and this project is almost like his research into the idea, and the resulting reality that it might not be all that its cracked up to seem.
“Like I said, I’m in a very different headspace now. But at that time, I’d just done Niagara, and I felt like I was finally ‘established’ or whatever. And for some reason, when I crossed that threshold, I became frustrated with the medium of photography – I didn’t want to repeat myself, and I didn’t want to give in to marketplace pressures. Maybe pretentiously, in retrospect, I was thinking along the lines of, ‘I don’t want to be a photographer; I want to be an artist’. It was partly that, and also maybe domestic life was wrapped into it too – kids reach a certain age, everything becomes a little chaotic, and I was a bit like, ‘Get me out of here!’ I always joke that Broken Manual was my ‘midlife crisis’ project.”
“I really was having a midlife crisis. I would actually come to this room – ‘The Cave’ – get really drunk, and work on these things. I’d write, and do drawings, and so on. But a lot of that stuff is a blur to me, and it’s kind of embarrassing now.”
In Songbook, Soth focused on the idea of community life in America, but the style of the photographs depart significantly from his previous projects.
To fully ingratiate himself to these communities, Soth cultivated himself as a community newspaper photographer and traveled throughout the country attending meetings, gatherings, festivals, and dances. He used a smaller camera, often illuminating the images entirely with a flash, and focused on fleeting, intimate moments.
The photographs portray crashing forces between the longing for community yet the urge to stand apart from the crowd. His subjects seem yearning, yet struggling, to connect.
I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating
After staying away from photography for a year, Soth both escaped and returned to his roots. With a large format camera, Soth masterfully enters the lives of a variety of individuals around the world and shows them and their surroundings intimately.
“What I was trying to do was not to have a formula. I wasn’t trying to do what I’d done in the past, which was simply drive around and pluck people that I find interesting and curious. So this time, I decided to go somewhere, usually on an invitation—someone would invite me to give a lecture or whatnot—and I would find somebody in that region who could help me find other people. And like you, they would ask: ‘Well, what are you looking for?’ At first, I would say, ‘It’s hard to say. I’m looking for people with a certain kind of relationship to physical space.’ Eventually, people would just send me photographs, and then I would respond and negotiate a time for a sitting in advance. The more pictures I made, the more I could show examples of other people that I’d photographed for this project. and thus show that I wasn’t looking for one particular..
Like it’s predecessors, the Fuji X100 and Fuji XT, the Fuji GFX 50R is a marvel of engineering, ergonomics, size, image quality, and price.
I had seen wonderful, giant prints at the PhotoPlus event that were created with the Fuji GFX, and with some unbelievable Fuji deals out right now (as of right now you can get the GFX with the 63mm lens (50mm equivalent) or 45mm lens (36mm equivalent) for $1000 off), it peaked my interest on how it would do as a frequently used street camera. So I rented it from lensrentals.com, it showed up at my door a few days later, and it blew me away so much that I ended up purchasing it a week later.
Let me start by saying this is not going to be overly technical of a review. I’m just going to share my opinions and some images. And this camera is certainly not going to replace my X100.
The Fuji X100
I want to use the X100 camera as a basis of comparison for the GFX, and quickly explain why I love the Fuji X100 so much (I’m currently using the X100T) before I get into a longer review of the GFX. The X100 is my favorite camera.
The size is perfect for an everyday walk around camera – you barely feel it on your neck. The images are wonderful, sharp, the colors are gorgeous, the noise at high ISOs is not significant and has a great look to it. The autofocus is snappy for a mirrorless camera. You’ve probably heard all of this already about the X100.
There are certainly cameras out there that do better at each individual point that I just mentioned, but I don’t think there is a camera that does all of them together as well as the X100, and particularly for the price.
The APS-C sensor size is fantastic for street photography. You can still blow up these images to create large prints with a wonderful feel to them. When zone-focusing you can set the camera to F8 or F5.6 and get a large range of sharpness in the image to be able to shoot in a spontaneous manner yet still come back with well-focused images.
Here are a few X100 example images.
Fuji GFX 50R
So if I was so happy with the X100, why did I consider the Fuji GFX 50R?
First, I did want to shoot content that I could print larger with a different level of quality. I think the APS-C prints blown up are gorgeous. I am one of those people that say variations of the oft-used quote, ‘The only people who look at large prints from inches away are other photographers.’
But I am a photographer, and those large GFX prints from close up, and from far away, are special. There is an edge to edge crispness, a lack of fringing, and a subtle and fantastic look to the tones and colors that just aren’t quite there in the X100 (although the X100 tones and colors are still gorgeous).
Because of this look, while I found myself preferring to convert to black and white much more often with the X100, I’ve found myself sticking to color most of the time with the GFX. They’re that good.
I tested out the 63mm F2.8 and 45mm F2.8 lenses (50mm and 36mm full frame equivalent) and ended up going with the 63mm, although I would love to have the 35mm as well at some point.
There are many other detailed reviews that will tell you the specifics, but these lenses are edge-to-edge sharp, which is incredible to see on a 40×60 inch print. They both go from F2.8 to F32, so you can create some incredibly sharp scenes from foreground to background at very small apertures, yet the bokeh at the larger apertures has a beautiful look to it.
And you can even use a variety of adaptors to add vintage lenses to the camera, including the Minolta Rokkor lenses. I haven’t tested this out, but it will be very exciting to try.
Size and Ergonomics
The GFX is not a small camera. It’s a tiny bit larger than the Canon 5D line. The lenses are fairly large too, and the size of the 32mm-64mm zoom lens is one of the reasons I didn’t even consider trying it. The 63mm and 45mm lenses are not small, but they are a great size for the camera and quality.
But this camera is light. At least for the size, it’s extremely light. It feels much lighter than the 5D, but it’s still a substantial camera. I feel comfortable shooting for three straight hours with it, although my neck is a bit sore the next morning, and whereas I can shoot with the X100 all day long.
This isn’t an everyday camera like the X100, but it is a camera you can use a lot of the time and for specific purposes.
The ergonomics are one of the best features of it, and I’ll explain more in my next and final point. It’s a snappy camera, the dials are easy to move, and the autofocus is very accurate and fast enough (although there is a noticeable lag after each shot, which takes a couple of days getting used to). I’m more accurate with it than the X100, which, while the size makes it perfect for everyday street photography, can be tough to use sometimes because it is so small, particularly in the winter with gloves or frozen hands.
But it’s a big, slower camera. This will turn off many of you, but for me, it was something that I wanted. I wanted to change how I shot.
The main reason – The feel and changing how I shoot
The final, and main reason that I think this camera is perfect is that it’s not a spontaneous street photography camera. You can still get very good at it for spontaneous shots, and I did after a few days even though that can sometimes feel like shooting while riding a large mechanical bull, but that’s not the purpose of this camera.
When I go into Manhattan on the busy streets, with chaos all around, the X100 is my camera. I zone focus and shoot so quickly and spontaneously that people barely notice. It’s so easy to be nearly invisible, to steal your shots and then maneuver away.
But I wanted to slow down. I wanted to create a new body of work that felt different. I wanted to shoot in quieter areas and I wanted to be more obvious and methodical.
The GFX is perfect for this. When I walk down a quiet street with the X100 I’m just a creepy guy slinking around with a camera trying to steal shots. In certain areas, it feels weird capturing people in these quiet moments. With the GFX, I look like a photographer, inviting myself into people’s worlds and smiling, nodding, or interacting after I take the shot.
The moments feel slower, the shooting is slower, but I feel more present and involved in what I’m shooting. The experience doesn’t feel more intimate than shooting with the X100, but it’s a different kind of intimacy.
When exploring the work of Saul Leiter and learning about his thoughts on photography, an aspect that shines through is that this was the work of a man who enjoyed photography for photography’s sake. You can feel it in his work, a calm enjoyment for the hidden beauty in the world.
This is simultaneously inspiring and relaxing. Looking through his work, cutting out all the distractions, you can feel the medium at its purest.
“I may be old-fashioned. But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty – a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologize for it.”
– Saul Leiter
Photography seemed to be an escape for Leiter. Born in Pittsburg in 1923, his father was a well-known rabbi and Talmudic scholar, and Leiter was encouraged to become a rabbi as well. He left theology school and at 23 moved to New York to pursue painting.
Leiter was introduced to photography by the Expressionist painter, Richard Pousette-Dart, and while he began in black and white, in the 1950s he started to experiment with color photography at the time when the medium was in its early stages. With no formal training, he began exploring the streets of New York.
“My family was very unhappy about my becoming a photographer – profoundly and deeply unhappy.”
– Saul Leiter
“My father thought photography was done by lowlifes.”
– Saul Leiter
Leiter’s work was noticed by Edward Steichen, who included him in two MoMA shows in the 1950s. However, after that, Leiter’s work faded from view. While he became a successful fashion photographer, he continued to explore the streets of New York, printing some of his black and white photographs, but putting his color slides into boxes.
“I spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way. Being ignored is a great privilege. That is how I think I learned to see what others do not see and to react to situations differently. I simply looked at the world, not really prepared for anything.”
– Saul Leiter
While he worked with a variety of lenses, Leiter was well known for often using a telephoto perspective, and particularly a 150mm lens. This is not a focal length that many street photographers use, but he used it to create a compressed view that made his work feel painterly.
Leiter used many other strategies to enhance painterly look and feel, including shooting in the rain and snow, photographing through windows, including reflections, and combining many elements at different depths, often bringing out strong colors in out-of-focus foreground elements. Leiter even purchased expired color film, which would allow for surprise color shifts.
“Perfection is not something I admire. A touch of confusion is a desirable ingredient.”
– Saul Leiter
“I like it when one is not certain what one sees. When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing. I like this confusion.”
– Saul Leiter
It was not until the 1990s that Leiter began to look back through his color work and start making prints, and in 2006 with the help of historian Martin Harrison and the Howard Greenberg Gallery, they released Saul Leiter: Early Color with Steidl books in Germany. The book became an immediate sensation and thrust the photographer into the limelight, something he had previously avoided. In 2012, a documentary In No Great Hurry – 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter was released. Leiter passed away in 2013.
“I’ve never been overwhelmed with a desire to become famous. It’s not that I didn’t want to have my work appreciated, but for some reason – maybe it’s because my father disapproved of almost everything I did – in some secret place in my being was a desire to avoid success.”
– Saul Leiter
“In order to build a career and to be successful, one has to be determined. One has to be ambitious. I much prefer to drink coffee, listen to music, and to paint when I feel like it.”
– Saul Leiter
His late fame and his life story aside, getting lost in the work seemed to be the crux of his focus and enjoyment in photography. As a viewer, this philosophy has made it just as easy for us to relax with, and get lost in his work.
Saul Leiter Quotes
“When I am listening to Vivaldi or Japanese music or making spaghetti at 3 in the morning and realize that I don’t have the proper sauce for it, fame is of no use.”
– Saul Leiter
“I have been told that some of my photographs maybe indicate that I am a painter.”
– Saul Leiter
“Photography is about finding things. And painting is different – it’s about making something.”
– Saul Leiter
“There are the things that are out in the open, and there are the things that are hidden. The real world has more to do with what is hidden.”
– Saul Leiter
“I believe that there is something in you that strives for order, and within that order, there’s a certain kind of mishmoshy confusion, and you bring this mishmoshy confusion, if you succeed, into some kind of order. There’s an element of control, and there’s also an element that just happens—if you’re very lucky. Artists need luck.”
– Saul Leiter
“A window covered with raindrops interests me more than a photograph of a famous person.”
– Saul Leiter
“I’m sometimes mystified by people who keep diaries. I never thought of my existence as being that important.”
– Saul Leiter
“I like the Zen artists: they’d do some work, and then they’d stop for a while.”