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No Nonsense Advice from Alec Soth

The award-winning Magnum Photos photographer gave us straightforward tips for success.

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Alec Soth sets the standard for contemporary American photography. His work captures the uncomfortable intimacy of capturing another person’s image. This stark dose of reality is paired with a dreamy narrative that lurks just behind each photograph.

What’s the past, present and future for this person? How did they come to find themselves in front of Soth’s camera? “My own awkwardness comforts people, I think. It’s part of the exchange,” he told The New York Times in 2009.

Seven years later, Soth has turned more inwards for his latest exhibition titled Hypnagogia. The exhibition features 30 photographs from the photographer’s 20-year exploration of the transition between the state of being awake and asleep.

“Described as a neurological phenomenon, one recurrently associated with creativity, a hypnagogic state is the dreamlike experience while awake that conjures vivid, sometimes realistic imagery,” his artist statement explains.

At the world premiere of Hypnagogia in Toronto, we had a chance to ask Soth a lightening round of questions, hoping to glean sage advice for anyone inspired by his work and his career. Without pulling any punches, he warned us about using travel as a crutch, why you shouldn’t plan projects too much and how to stay creative when things get tough.

Film or digital?

Alec Soth: Use whatever tools that best suit the project.

Social media: For personal updates or professional work?

Use social media if you feel like it, but not out of a sense of obligation.

Travel: A good way to start new projects?

Travel can be a way to avoid distraction and heighten engagement, but it can also be a crutch.

What’s the best way to approach strangers to take their portrait?

As Wegee said, ‘If you want to be a professional, you can’t be a Nice Nelly.’

Should photographers have a diverse body of work—portraits, landscapes and still lives—or just stick to one thing?

Having limitations is essential, just don’t box yourself into a corner.

Your project with writer Brad Zellar, The LBM Dispatch is a secondary outlet for your work. Would you recommend other photographers to start a project like this?

One of the things I like about photography is that you can have dozens of outlets: books, magazines, galleries, websites, etc. It’s a good exercise to maintain ownership of some of these outlets, but I would find it extremely limiting to put all of my eggs in my own basket.

Part of The LBM Dispatch is collaborating with Zellar. What’s the benefit of building a creative partnership?

Photography seems like a solitary art form, but all art eventually requires some form of dialog and collaboration. Building strong relationships makes your work better.

What’s the differences between presenting work in mediums: books, exhibitions, magazines, etc.

Everything changes by virtue of the context in which it is seen. I see my role as a photographer as not just making pictures, but as engaging with the contextual relationship of their distribution.

Do you plan and research your ideas before starting a project?

I think of planning my work similarly to planning for a road trip. I like to know that there are hotels and restaurants where I’m going, but I don’t like to book too many reservations in advance. I want to feel free to wander around the outline.

Do you have any lasting advice for staying creative, inspired, focused and productive?

Never stop working. When things get tough, try to remember the first time you got excited about making stuff.

Alec Soth’s online portfolio
All images by Luis Mora

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