Category Archives: Alec Soth

Alec Soth – Portraits, the Ground Glass

My tutor recommended this short video interview with Alec Soth as part of my feedback for Assingment 1.

I first became acquainted with Soth’s work last year on an OCA Study Visit to Bradford where he had a positive influence on me. The write up from which can be found here:

In this short video he explains how the relationship between him and his subject is influenced by the use of a large format camera. He talks about how the 10×8 ground glass focussing screen, which he focuses on – literally – from under the dark cloth, effectively detached him from his subject.

They will still talk and ask questions to some degree but Soth talks about the distance that this arrangement creates between them compared to a typical subject.  He will stare intently at their eyes for no other reason than to focus accurately.  This is something that would not be socially acceptable to many subjects with a normal camera and would make them feel uncomfortable.

At one level the end result is a portrait of an individual looking relaxed in their environment.  The distance shows through as the subject does not appear ‘imposed upon’ or startled.  The natural focal length and distance mean that the personal space of the subject is respected.

However Soth is very conscious of the effect this relationship with his subject has on how he is portrayed in the end result.  He feels that this is as much a portrait of him as it is of them.  The distance allows him the space to treat his subject more like an object, it might be argued.  This is reinforced by the slow approach needed when using a large format camera, tripod and physical isolation under the cloth.

Personally the idea of slowing down for portraiture is something I need to experiment with. I would be very conscious of being ‘slow’ and risk the subject getting bored or accuse me of ‘faffing about’ – while Soth appears to be very ambivalent to this idea.  Although he doesn’t say this in the video, I’m sure he would be prepared to wait under the cloth until he got just the expression he was needing from the subject, however long that takes.

In a past life as a wedding photographer I would often use a tripod for territorial reasons – to subtly, non-verbally signpost to the groups where I planned to put myself and so which direction they needed to face.  Then, when I had them all in position, I would head back over to my ready-placed tripod and take the shot.  Aside of the very practical considerations of using a large format camera, Soth is also using it to assert his authority as the photographer, in control of the situation and demonstrate symbolically that he is prepared to take it slow and get everything just right.

Maybe his customers respect this consideration and attentiveness more than I imagine, in this age of hurried Instagram snaps?