Represented by the Magnum agency, collected by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, commissioned by the New York Times and The New Yorker and head of his own publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, Alec Soth is about as credible as a contemporary documentary photographer can get. His new exhibition, Gathered Leaves, at London's Science Museum (they're partnered with the National Media Museum in Bradford, hence their Media Space, focusing on photography and film) includes the span of his four major bodies of work from his first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi (published in 2004), until now. Shown chronologically, it reveals the evolution of his work, and the constant exploration of the vast expanse of the USA.
Is it still better to see a photo in an exhibition or a book, rather than online?
A book to me is the album, like vinyl, and there's been this resurgence, because people want this tactile thing. The exhibition is like the live show. The prints are bigger and lusher and it's this physical encounter that is one of a kind.
I see you're engaging with Instagram and Snapchat though.
It's a big part of my life. I have not sorted out how it's affected my own photography. It's not to say it hasn't, but I'm too in the water of it - in 20 years maybe I'll figure it out. Photography is like a language and it's a language that I've spent a long time learning how to speak. And a lot of people are learning the language in a very conversational way, and I just enjoy it. Being in the pool of images is fun. A novelist who uses the English language should not be threatened by people having conversations on the bus, so I'm not threatened by people talking with pictures.
It's astounding that the still image has been having such a crazy renaissance.
It's insane. The Instagram turning point was the smart phone, plus that application. And now it's spinning off into other forms.
Are you surprised by how many people have a good eye?
I did a project years ago with my daughter when she was eight years old and she took amazing pictures. It's never surprised me. Photography has always seemed easy to me. It's the editing and the authorship that's the hard part.
What do you mean by the authorship?
I think anyone can take a great picture, like anyone can write a nice sentence, but writing a good novel isn't easy. And try to assemble a body of work that's layered and is not just a bunch of good pictures, but they talk to each other. It's really quite challenging. It's about having a distinct voice.
I heard you and a friend pretended to be reporters on the road. Is that true?
No, we really did publish a newspaper. We did seven issues. In the beginning we pretended. I'd worked at a suburban newspaper and I was curious to work in that manner, only knowing what I know now. Me and my colleague Brad played with that idea, then we started actually publishing it. By the last issue, we were collaborating with the New York Times, so we ran the whole gamut.
When you're on the road, are you just going round, scoping things out?
No, it's heavily researched. We plan an itinerary and research every stop of the way, so I have dozens of options wherever I go. And we had to publish the paper and were on deadline, essentially. And I do plenty of editorial work, so I know what it's like. That's partly what I wanted: the energy of deadlines. I don't like pure, aimless wandering.
No matter how much you research, you can't know what you'll encounter on the way though.
It's like planned serendipity. You put a lot of things in place and inevitably something happens on the way to one of them. But it's like jazz, you have to have a lot of knowledge and structure to be able to improvise.
You've covered so much of the USA - do you think there's always going to be room for surprise/new material?
Yeah, one of the great lessons is how much material there is out there. It's endlessly changing. And the scale of the US is so immense. When you're in the culture - like you, being British, know how Bristol is different than Brighton and there are all these nuances. Well there are so many endless nuances if you're in the culture.
Do you think you function as well in different cultures or countries?
I know I don't function as well in other countries! I work in other countries plenty, and I'm not great at it. And I'm not great right where I live either. Which isn't to say I won't do a longer-term project in another country or where I live, but it's not my strength.
Why is that?
Well I like this separation from home, so that my eyes are open. Here in London, there are all these layers of history. We're in this part of town, and I know that South Kensington isn't representative of all of London, but I don't really know. It's not in my bones.
Like with Nan Goldin's work - her New York images feel so authentic, but her work abroad, whilst still nice, doesn't feel as strong.
I totally agree. Who knows what will happen.
So it's not a bad thing for a photographer or artist to know their territory?
Yeah, I work on long-term projects and short-term, experimental things. Sometimes I have big breakthroughs with short-term things and some fall flat on their face. But I'm open to wherever it goes.
That's good to hear - it happens to the best of us!
Yeah, there's plenty of failure!
One of the hardest things with photography must be the approach; the way you ask the subject to be in the photo. Have you nailed that?
I was so nervous about it in the beginning, which disarmed people. Now I'm more confident, but that can present challenges. It's really case-by-case. The thing that's remained consistent in the US is how challenging it is to photograph rich people. They have gates and forms of protection that make it quite challenging. It's frustrating as a photographer. It's almost become a cliché that a photography student would photograph a homeless person, because they're out in the street, and lower incomes are generally more welcoming. You start having more defence systems the wealthier you get. I worked on it with the newspapers, but I met so many problems. Even when I have the New York Times behind me, and that credibility, I'm still met with those problems. In a way I understand, because the more sophisticated you are of the media and aware of what's out there, the more defensive you might be. It could be an interesting path for me to explore going forward.
Crazy Legs Saloon
"I was in Watertown, a moldering town in upstate New York, and saw a sign for a foam party. Watertown isn't exactly Ibiza, so I was curious who'd show up. It turns out there's an army base nearby so the crowd was mix of military and twenty-somethings. But once the foam started, all those distinctions fell away."
"One of my big inspirations for Niagara was the 1950s film of the same name starring Marilyn Monroe. It is actually one of my favourite films and contains a lot of the themes I explored in my book. Misty doesn't look like Marilyn, but for me she kind of plays that role in the project."
Near Kaaterskill Falls
"Just the other day somebody asked me if this fellow died. The beauty of photography is the way it hides as much information as it reveals. I kind of like that you don't know what happened to him."
Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth runs from 6th October - 28th March 2016.
Text Stuart Brumfitt
Photography Alec Soth