When Alec Soth gave a lecture
Some time ago, I decided I wanted to sell prints of my work online, but it hasn't happened because I have had all kinds of excuses. And unanswered questions. It's crazy that trying to sell something can turn into an existential crisis. But not only am I just days away from being able to call the shop "open," I am excited about the future.
Perhaps the hardest part about opening a shop—that potentially no one will see, that potentially no one will want to make a purchase from, that potentially will not represent you the way you want it to, that potentially could make you seem greedy, that potentially might not be successful because you didn't put enough effort into it, that potentially could be a headache and is nothing that you actually enjoy spending your time on, that potentially could just be an ego thing and do you even really want to start down that road?, that potentially will only be successful if you market it right, that might not even work because you're not a salesman anyway, that you don't even know if you want to open because you don't want to be pigeon-holed like that, that you can't even decide if you have the money to start up, that you're unsure if anyone actually even needs what you're selling, that might turn you into a hypocrite because you're always preaching less is more, that comes with so many detailed, minute decisions surrounding it that you hardly know where to begin—is all of that.
Asking someone to buy something that I made is really, really hard, but I'm realizing that not all doubts or questions are bad. In fact, they can result in a lot of good if I can figure out which parts are just self-doubt and scrap them from the list so I can address the really good, lawful questions.
Last week I went to a lecture given by a photographer I've long admired: Alec Soth. He's from the Twin Cities, but he doesn't often pop up around town. It was a fantastic opportunity I couldn't miss.
I knew as soon as I heard he was giving a talk that if I were to go, I would be able to add something new to my brain and life that wasn't there before, like a round mass, something with volume and weight and that takes up space. I could put my arms around this invisible thing, but it would exist only in my mind because, after all, it's a lecture. You can't exactly stick those in your pocket. Nevertheless something new would enter my life and it would inform future decisions, ideas, even reach other people. It turns out that Soth didn't disappoint, and I left the auditorium that day bursting with thoughts.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I gleaned from his talk was a piece of age-old wisdom that I'm learning to apply it in a new way:
Do not deny yourself your own intuition.
It's simple enough, right? And not exactly unique advice. I've always relied on intuition to make tough decisions, but something about Soth's delivery made it click for me in a new way. It made me feel so light afterward. I realized that it comes down to the fact that as a photographer, and a lifelong art maker, Soth believes it is important to be aware of what you value, and make your work conform to that. How liberating!
I want to share a tidbit from an answer Soth gave to an audience question. A member from the audience asked Soth to talk about his relationship with his subjects, the people that he photographs—who are mostly strangers. Soth was immediately a little uncomfortable. (It's a question I nearly asked him myself, too, because I personally find the topic difficult. I'm not naturally interested in talking to and photographing strangers, but at the same time want to photograph people. It's a tough topic.)
Soth answered by saying he's a very shy person, and that in a perfect world he would never have to interact with his subjects. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way. Over time, he gained confidence and patience and found ways to make it work when needed. He started in a safe place, an area he was familiar with, like the Powderhorn neighborhood. He chose subjects that seemed approachable, non-antagonistic (he showed a picture of a mother with daughters, for example).
Then he touched on a concept regarding photographing strangers that is close to home for me. It sprung from his own values and ways of thinking. He posed: is it fair to ask to take a picture of a stranger? What are you offering them, when they are giving you so much? If you do take the picture, what are your responsibilities as its steward? Is it fair to call that work "good?"
These are the same questions I have asked myself regarding photographing subjects that are not mine, or people I don't know, or places that are beautiful of their own accord. What are the ethics of using this subject for my work? What does it say of me as a person? Does it align with my values, and if not, why do I feel pressure to do it?
But there was also something deeper there that clicked in place for me: these kinds of questions are not related to self-doubt, or that can or should be ignored in the spirit of "getting the job done," or that are just merely excuses. They are questions that lead to better, more intentional work that could actually lead into new territories, new ideas, new ways of doing things. I realized that some of the topics I have been wrestling with are more telling of what I want to do than of what I am unwilling to do. Say whaaaaat?
Soth talked about how for years he's been photographing "the space between us," as if you and me are at different points and the camera captures everything in between. But recently that space collapsed for him, and he now sees that everything and everyone is connected, or shares space. He said, "Think of it as, I'm up here speaking, and the sound waves travel from me to you. It's not just me here and you there." We don't live in bubbles unconnected from one another. What happens here eventually makes its way over to you. The space between us isn't empty.
It was a real good talk.