Alec Soth on Influence, Summer Nights, and Allen Ginsberg

Soth speaks with Aperture Remix curator Lesley A. Martin about infuences on his work.

Alec Soth encountered Robert Adams’s 1985 monograph Summer Nights as a young photographer; the book was, in his words, a “gateway drug” to the “harder stuff” in Adams’s body of work. When asked to participate in Aperture Remix, an exhibition for which artists were commissioned to create new work in response to Aperture publications that were influential in their artistic development, Soth chose Summer Nights.

This video, Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, is Soth’s response to Adams, and is featured in the Aperture Remix exhibition on view at Aperture Gallery through November 17.

Soth spoke with Aperture Remix’s curator Lesley A. Martin about influence, Summer Nights, and Allen Ginsberg. The resulting conversation appears below, and is also included in the artist book Soth created as part of Aperture Remix.

Lesley A. Martin: For this project, you were asked to engage directly with an influential body of work—and with the photographer who created that body of work. What was the most difficult thing about that process?

Alec Soth: A few years ago I became really frustrated with photography. In order to continue working, I felt like I needed to take apart my process and to examine things before putting them all back together. One of the things I did was make re-creations of other people’s photographs. For example, I shot half a dozen versions of Migrant Mother. The point of this wasn’t to try and make my own iconic image—I was a more in the role of a student going to the museum and sketching from the masters.

What made this project different, and more difficult, was the looming presence of Robert Adams. In the case of Migrant Mother, I didn’t have to worry about Dorothea Lange and her opinion. But since this particular experiment was initiated by Aperture, Adams’s blessing was a necessity.

In the beginning, Mr. Adams graciously engaged in a letter correspondence with me. This was great, of course, but it was also inhibiting—it actually prevented me from having a dialogue with the core of his influence.

LAM: In other words, your dialogue became more about attempting to chat with esteemed, iconic master Robert Adams, rather than about an engagement with a set of actual ideas and images?

AS: Basically. Also, to borrow from Blake, my appreciation of Adams is all about innocence and experience. When I discovered Summer Nights I was discovering photography. The world felt so new. But that was a lifetime ago. It is hard to scrub your eyeballs of all that experience.

LAM: Exhibitions are an important way to experience work, but more often than not a book falls into one’s hands and becomes a primary way to engage with a set of images. How did you first encounter Robert Adams’s work and, more specifically, what is it about Summer Nights that you’ve found to be inspirational, maddening, or otherwise of interest to you personally?

AS: Almost all of the work I discovered as a young photographer was in book form. More often than not, I found these books at place called Half Priced Books. This store would always have books by popular photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Ansel Adams. They would also often have Robert Adams books. The first time I saw an Adams book, I remember wondering if he was Ansel’s son.

Early on, I wasn’t particularly taken with his books. They were too dry for me. But when I was twenty and discovered Summer Nights, things clicked. It is easy to see why. Summer Nights is his easiest book to digest. I think of it as the Robert Adams gateway drug. It certainly worked that way for me. I immediately went out and started taking night pictures. I didn’t find the book maddening at all. It just lit a spark for a kind romantic solitude.

LAM: Summer Nights, with its dark, empty streets; views through lamp-lit windows; and the lights of the carnival ride at night definitely feels different from the cooler assessments he seems to make in some of his other books. It tips his hand as a sentimentalist—in the best possible sense of the word—in a way that few other of his books do. His work also operates on a highly moral level, which seems to come from a sense of loss as much as judgement. Would you agree with that assessment?

AS: Yes, I would describe Adams as both a romantic and a moralist. You might even say he is romantically moral.

LAM: Has that sense of morality challenged you as a photographer?

AS: Absolutely, yes. As I said, Summer Nights was the gateway drug. As the years went by, I took on the harder stuff and, in fact, came to appreciate most of it more than Summer Nights. Los Angeles Spring is probably my favorite Adams book.

That said, I’m always aware of the fact that my moral temperament is vastly different from Adams’s. While I admire his conviction, I don’t feel the same outrage. Part of what I love about Los Angeles Spring is that it teaches me to find beauty in difficult places. I’m more interested in that beauty than in the anger that fueled Adams to go out and find it.

But the issue of rigor is more complicated. Adams is an incredibly rigorous artist—he is almost pious in his practice. I admire that and have longed for it to be a part of my work. There were times as a young artist when I emulated people like Richard Long. And God knows I’ve had plenty of fantasies of retreating to an adobe hut in the desert and purifying my practice.

One of the lessons I’ve learned from studying Adams—and others who live and work with his kind of rigor—is that I’m simply not that person. I grew up playing in the woods with my imaginary friends, but then I would come in at night and sit in front of the TV for a few hours. I’m a product of both those experiences.

LAM: To what extent do you think a young photographer needs to confront his or her influences, and at what point does one need to identify what one has learned and move on?

AS: It has always been important for me to wrestle with my influences. In college I studied under Joel Sternfeld. At the time, I was sort of embarrassed by his influence, so I made work that was as different as possible. But that was a waste of time. It was only when I worked through his influence that I really started to grow. Over time, you begin to understand influences and the nuances of what makes your own work different.

Photography is a language. To communicate, you need to learn the language. The history of photography is like the vocabulary and influence is like a dialect. One shouldn’t be embarrassed about having an accent. That said, it has been important for me to reevaluate those influences as the years go by.

There is a kind of mythmaking that inevitably surrounds influential artists. For me, it is more and more important to figure out how to function as a real-life human being than to emulate some sort of myth. I feel like I can now learn more from my influences by understanding the compromises and everyday challenges they faced than by upholding a schoolboy fantasy.

LAM: The anxiety of influence is hard to escape: one of the most deflating commentaries that someone can make about artwork is that it is “derivative.” In the context of thinking about photography as a language, however, I like your imagining work as “accented” one way or another.

At the very beginning of Why People Photograph, Adams writes: “Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too.” How easy is that to acknowledge—both in terms of people from whom you’ve learned from and in terms of people who are following in your own wake?

AS: I’d be lying if I didn’t say the “derivative” jab can be deflating. But I think it is dangerous to obsess over this issue. It is better to grapple with your influences than run away from them. I learned a lot about about what defines my particular vision by figuring out how it differs from those who’ve inspired me.

In Adams’s essay, “Making Art New,” he quotes Matisse, who said, “I have accepted influences but I think I have always known how to dominate them.” I’m no Matisse, nor have I always known how to dominate my influences, particularly as a young photographer. But as time goes by, I have a better sense of who I am and how I might be able to move my particular football a little further down the field.

So I’m comfortable talking about my influences. As for those who may have been influenced by me, well, I’m not sure what to say about that.

LAM: I’m curious about the other side of the coin of influence—i.e., the self-consciousness one can feel once one’s own path has been established, a path that might stray away from or push beyond one’s mentors. The Allen Ginsberg quote you’ve included in this book, about Whitman, seems to express Ginsberg’s own yearning for kinship and respect while also consciously throwing out a dissonant image—“neon fruit supermarket”—that is hardly Whitmanesque. What’s that about for you?

AS: Ginsberg saved the day for me. “A Supermarket in California” clearly illustrates Whitman’s profound influence on Ginsberg, but Ginsberg’s voice rises above it. He sings with Whitmanesque bravado, but it’s still Ginsberg’s world. The poem wouldn’t work if Ginsberg had written about Civil War soldiers. He needed to use his own universe of neon supermarkets in order to say anything meaningful about Whitman.

Along with reading Ginsberg’s poetry, I read some interviews with him in which he talked about influence. In an interview in the Paris Review he talked a lot about William Blake. I had been thinking about Blake because Adams quotes him at the beginning of Summer Nights. But, of course, Adams quotes him in a really understated way. In this interview, Ginsberg talks about a vision he had after masturbating while reading Blake. I found this kind of exuberance refreshing. It helped me shake loose from some of the somber reverence I sometimes feel when engaging with Adams’s world.

LAM: That’s definitely a different invocation of Blake than the one found at the beginning of Summer Nights. In the Paris Review piece you mention, the interviewer keeps bringing up classical reference points, trying to tie Ginsberg to various literary traditions. Ginsberg bats them away, insisting that his writing is arrived at “organically rather than synthetically.” He states that his own challenge was to be able to accept writing outside of preconceived notions of what literature should be—and instead to “approach the Muse to talk as frankly as you would talk with yourself or with your friend.” In other words, he seems to be encouraging us not to take the weight of literary tradition too seriously and to trust in our own intuitions and inspirations, which can be found in both old and new; to be both traditional and taboo-busting, if you are open to it. Is this relevant to your own process of making work, of having found an authentic voice for yourself?

AS: Absolutely, yes! Here’s the thing: I love Robert Adams. But I also love the TV show Breaking Bad. I don’t see that as a contradiction. In fact, I can see similar issues of morality and the American social landscape in both. Would Robert Adams like Breaking Bad? I doubt it—and that’s just fine. But for me to have an authentic voice, I need to follow whatever stirs me. Maybe it would make me a better citizen if I read Wendell Berry rather than watched Breaking Bad, but it wouldn’t make me a better artist.

LAM: I’m curious to hear about how you arrived at video as a response to this project?

AS: I needed to shake things up. When I tried going out to take night stills, I just couldn’t get the blood pumping through my veins. The world I was looking at didn’t feel new. It felt like Robert Adams’s world.

I had a new camera with a video option that I’d never used. I didn’t really know what I was doing technically, but that was an asset. It felt good to be a bit lost.

The biggest thing about using video was the sound. Playing back the footage after my first night of shooting, I was so aware of the sound of the evening. For me, this is what really evoked the feelings I first had of seeing Summer Nights—the sort of solace that one can find as darkness and quiet settles over the landscape.

Alec Soth (American, b. 1969) has been the subject of many exhibitions, including The Space Between Us, a major retrospective presented at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and Fotomuseum Winterthur in Winterthur, Switzerland, in 2008, and From Here to There, presented at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 2010. Among Soth’s monographs are Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) and Broken Manual (2010). In 2008 Soth started his own publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom. He is a member of Magnum Photos.