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Reading Alec Soth in Providence

I've been on a photo book kick for a number of months now. The section of a bookstore that pulls me in has changed a number of times in my life, but right now I go straight to the photography section. I spent the past weekend visiting my sister at RISD, and we spent a couple of hours in the library, she working on typography and I flipping through a stack of books which I had grabbed off of the shelves. Having access to a library with such a collection would be a great way to pass the time on other freezing Sunday afternoons.

Among the many books in the stacks, the first which caught my eye was Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi, which is considered nothing short of a modern-day classic by everyone who's involved in contemporary photography. His style is immensely influential among younger (especially large-format) photographers, and Soth was one of the first people to really embrace blogging. He built up a huge blog following before stopping, although he's now blogging again for Magnum.

"Helena, Arkansas 2002" by Alec Soth

I sometimes approach much-heralded works with a lot of scepticism; part of me wanted to dismiss Sleeping by the Mississippi as a product of hype too obviously trying to imitate Robert Frank's journey in The Americans. So what if he traveled around the Mississippi, how hard could it be to find interesting stuff there?

"Sunshine, Memphis, Tennessee 2000" by Alec Soth

Well, that thought was totally off base. The one thing that really struck me about the book is the sheer amount of work that it took to make. I'm not even talking about the difficulty involved in using an 8x10 view camera to take the pictures, which *is* impressive, sure, but I was more struck by the situations that Soth was able to access in the first place—photographing people in their homes, or lonely hotel rooms. After all that, still managing to get the ideal shot, and then processing it and getting the colors to look right.

"Joshua, Angola State Prison, Louisiana 2002" by Alec Soth

This was the image that struck me the most. It's of an inmate at a prison in Louisiana. Looking at it on a big page, I was first drawn to the man's eyes, boring out of the page. But as I looked longer, I realized that I was also fascinated by the scene behind him: one man looking off into the distance, another man leaning over to say something to someone else, behind a man who is staring straight at the camera, seeming to be entirely aware of its presence and (in my reading, for now) wishing that he was the one in focus.

I thought of the scene that Soth had put himself into. How noisy was the room? What did he do to pluck this moment out? How many exposures of Joshua did he take? I imagine that he picked this shot for the immense interest of the background, the moment at which these figures have come together to frame the subject.

Because Alec Soth is just that kind of dude, you can view all of the images from this collection on his website.

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