Alec Soth is Mean-Spirited?

I attended a lecture a few nights ago at University of New Mexico where Alec Soth was the featured speaker. During the course of the lecture, Alec discussed his work and also brought up a variety of interesting topics directly and indirectly connected with his work. At one point, he said that one fellow Magnum photographer, who I will not mention here, viewed his work as mean-spirited. He left this description with very little detail in the beginning, but when he reached a particular image, he said this is the one that sparked the comment.

The image in question, Michele and James 2004, from the Niagara series is one of a middle aged white couple sitting nude on a burgundy sofa with burgundy carpet below their naked toes. She is guarded with one leg and arm reaching across her body resting on her lover and covering all of her intimated parts. The man lovingly places his arm on her lower back as she rests upon his chest and gazes down to the floor. She is bleached blonde, tan, and full-bodied. Her partner is large, redheaded and pale with a few visible sores on his lower torso. His penis rests between his large legs. He softly stares into the camera with a very receptive and unsuspicious tilt of his head. He emits a sense of pride in his partner and himself visible with his posture.

This delicated and intimate moment usually shared only between couples is now presented to the world. Alec states that portraiture is more of a photo of the space between the one how resides behind the camera and the subject in front. Photographers are agressive beings by nature: we shoot and we take. Can we take at will without any thought of the ramifications? Where does the responsibility of the photographer end and the responsibility of the sitter begin? Is the photographer ultimatley responsible for what contemporary society, and ultimately posterity, will think of the work? How can you control how your audience will perceive your photographic intent and should you even bother?

In a post lecture conversation totally unrelated to the topic mentioned above, Alec mentioned that there was a Little House on the Prairie that he had recently seen with a dwarf named Lou (who also happened to be a circus performer). Although it might have been perceived by some at the time of airing in October of 1982 to be acceptable, it is not so kosher in 2009. The producers of this episode were responding to the contemporary society. The photographer who commented on Alec's image is of another generation and is responding to the work according to his own set of values. Just speculating (and maybe defending), as I do not know if this particular photo sparked the comment or just exaserbated the perception of his work as a whole, but maybe the labeling of "mean-spirited" by the unmentioned photographer shows a certain acceptable predjudice in society today. Not all will look at this photo in this light and who knows how the future generations will judge his intent.


Joe Holmes said...

The image is here:


in context of the whole Niagara set here:


I've met Soth a couple times casually and had a portfolio review with him at Magnum, and I have to say that he seems to be one of the least mean-spirited people you would ever want to meet. Is that relevant to the charge about that specific photo? I believe it is.

Anonymous said...

well said.
But I suspect that if the red headed man had had a bigger penis, the picture would not have been "mean spirited".

richard said...

I wouldn't call it mean spirited, but my first reaction to any photograph like this is to remember that we are not privy to a private moment. We are watching two people getting their photo taken.

M. Gantz said...

Portraiture in photography slips constantly into the paradox between presentation and representation. Sometimes even the best of intentions may be perceived as the worst. As well, I know many contemporaries that begin to question their own attempts when continually attacked for the "real" source of their intentions.

What can you do in such a calculated medium? Does naïveté even fall into the equation anymore? It’s such a ridiculous notion that it could possibly not.

Yet, there seems to have become a wave of images everywhere that exemplify the same aesthetics of Soth’s work, perhaps even the same intent, but at times it makes you wonder whether people are more concerned with the idea of the portrait as an image or the idea of the portrait as an essence of the person(s) within.

Anonymous said...

As long as it is perfectly fine with the people whose picture are being taken, which I would assume that it is fine since they had agree to strip down nude for the picture, then nothing would be mean spirited if it were allowed.