On Love
& Separation


In conversation with
Carrie Elizabeth Thompson

Wedding Dress, 2005, from the series, NIAGARA

I was asked to interview Alec Soth about his project NIAGARA. I said yes, but I was worried I had nothing interesting to ask that had not already been asked in the past. So I put off the interview hoping it would go away. I am Alec’s studio manager and have been since 2008. Over the years, I have listened to people interview him. The interviews don’t ask the same questions, he doesn’t give the same answers, but all of the interviews feel the same to me. In a past interview about NIAGARA, Alec said “With ‘Niagara’ I started with the idea of love, but I really didn’t know how to get at it. In the beginning I used the US and Canadian border towens as a metaphor for a couple (Love Canal on one side, casinos on the other). It was a disaster.” I decided instead of interviewing Alec about NIAGARA, I would interview him about love.

Jennifer and Terrell, 2005, from NIAGARA; Joy’s Divorce Party, 2004, from NIAGARA
Carrie: How do you define love?  

Alec: Wow, you are the kind of person that just jumps right into the pool, aren’t you? I feel like I need to dip my toes in a little bit here. Let’s see. For me, the thing I understand better than love is separation. I understand how we live inside our own heads and everything outside of that: trees, cats, people—all of that is something separate. I guess love has to do with the feeling of an external being not being truly separate. You feel like another person is a part of you the way your toes are a part of you. But surely there are many different kinds of love. My hands feel like a bigger part of myself than my toes and so on.

Carrie: What series and/or image of yours do you feel is most related to your definition of love?

Alec: I suppose the project I did in collaboration with Stacey Baker had a lot to do with this understanding of love. On one day I photographed all of Stacey’s dates during the world’s largest speed dating event in Las Vegas. The next day Stacey and I interviewed elderly couples at the largest retirement community in Las Vegas. These couples had all been together for decades. Their love was a great example of separate individuals growing together. That said, in terms of photography, I’m more interested in the pictures I made of Stacey on her dates.

Photographs from Soth’s collaboration with Stacey Baker

Carrie: You said during your collaboration with Stacey Baker that, “Photographic love is different from real love.” In an interview with the Guardian last year, Emmet Gowin said a similar thing: "If you set out to make pictures about love, it can't be done. But you can make pictures, and you can be in love. In that way, people sense the authenticity of what you do." What are your feelings about Emmet Gowin’s statement?
Alec: That is a great quote. I definitely agree about the impossibility of photographing love. Photography is just light reflecting off of one surface onto another. Just about everything else is projection. A photographer can project love onto the subject, but that doesn’t mean the viewer will feel it. I guess that is where authenticity comes in. But authenticity is a really tricky thing to measure.

Carrie: The difference between Emmet Gowin and you is that most often he is photographing the ones he loves. Your work rarely has images of your loved ones. Why do the people you hold close seldom appear in your work?
Alec: I’ve asked myself this question many times and don’t have a perfect answer. But my best guess is that it has to do with this issue of surfaces. When I photograph a stranger, I can, like the viewer, see the surface and project a story onto them. With a loved one, I can’t do that. I’m so aware of their backstory that I can’t see the picture. But this is just an intellectual answer. The real answer, I suspect, has more to do with my pathology. That said, I want to be clear that I have enormous admiration for people like Gowin that have photographed their loved ones. I don’t rule out that I’ll eventually give it a shot, but it hasn’t panned out thus far.

(all) Untitled, 1996, from Looking for Love

Carrie: You write a lot about darkness in your book Looking for Love, 1996, but you end by saying, “One day, I imagined, a stranger would fall in love with me.” Do you feel love can take you out of darkness and bring you light? If so, to you, do any of the images in Looking for Loveshow the feeling of strangers falling in love?
Alec: I’ve done a lot of interviews, but this one is far and away the most like therapy. I like it (though I’m not sure what I say should leave this room). The key part of this title is 1996. This book is as much about that period of time as it was about anything else. And, yes, I was living in a dark time. Did I think love could bring me into the light? The weird thing is that I was in love. That was around the time I got married. So I guess love wasn’t really my issue.

Untitled, 1996, from Looking for Love

Carrie: I guess I am turning into my therapist mother. Maybe it would be better to talk a little about a different kind of love, the love of a child. Can you tell me about your project Dog Days Bogotá? How did making those images prepare you for meeting and loving your daughter?

Alec: Dog Days Bogotá is the closest I ever came to making truly intimate work about my own family. Thirteen years ago, when we adopted our daughter Carmen, Rachel and I went to Colombia. I wasn’t planning on doing a project. Our trip might have been as short as a couple of weeks. But there were a bunch of delays with the paperwork, and then we ended up getting stuck there over Christmas, so there were delays with the courts. We ended up staying for two months. But Carmen was with us from the second day we’d arrived. Since I had all of this time, I started making pictures and a project evolved. Carmen’s birth mother (whom we’d never met) had given her a handmade book with pictures and poems. This was a true act of love. So I thought I’d make a book, too. I made a book of pictures of where she’s from. As the work developed, my photographer instincts kicked it and it became a way to understand a tiny bit about the place and circumstances she came from. So in a sense, it was a way to grow my connection to her. This is why, despite the fact that there’s only one picture of her in the book, it has the feeling of intimacy. Many people have told me that it is their favorite book of mine.

Photographs from Dog Days, Bogotá

Carrie: In 2007, when I was your intern, I interviewed you about Dog Days Bogotá. At that time Dog Days Bogotáwas my favorite project of yours. One of my questions to you was, “Imagine your daughter looking at this book in five years, what do you want her to see in her birthplace?” You said, “I guess I want it to be a real place for her. I mean, we are already showing her the pictures (we only tore one page out of the book). We talk about Colombia a lot with her. As a five year old, it is just a mythical place. But over time, I want her to absorb it as a real place and as a real part of her history. I suspect that in five years she would be ready to take a trip there.” Since that interview you and your family have traveled to Bogotá. Can you tell me about this experience for your family?
Alec: Interesting. I’d forgotten about that interview. I’m happy to say I was kind of right back then. The book laid the groundwork for her returning. Without it, it’s possible she’d have envisioned Bogotá as some sort of magical place. Instead, I think she saw it for what it is, a real city with both beauty and hardship. So I’m really grateful that we have the book. I wish I had pictures of my children growing up that also showed the beauty and hardship of that process. I wish I was that kind of photographer. But alas, I yam what I yam.

Carrie: It is hard to get to your emotional side, or maybe I should say, it is hard to get to your feelings about the emotional side of your work. I think all work, even non-personal work, is made from love and/or passion. It is in there, always. Maybe it makes sense that it is hard to get to your feelings about the emotional side of your work because, as you said, the thing you understand better than love is separation.

Alec: Yes, I’d argue this feeling for separation is emotional. I’d also argue photography, in particular, is a medium particularly adept at dealing with this subject. Photography is about looking at the world through a piece of glass—about light bouncing off one surface and landing on another. It is a medium built on separateness.

Untitled 04, Bogotá, 2003, from Dog Days, Bogotá

Alec Soth (b. 1969) is a photographer born and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has published over twenty-five books including Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), NIAGARA (2006) Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2015). Soth has had over fifty solo exhibitions including survey shows organized by Jeu de Paume in Paris (2008), the Walker Art Center in Minnesota (2010) and Media Space in London (2015). Soth has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship (2013). In 2008, Soth created Little Brown Mushroom, a multi-media enterprise focused on visual storytelling. Soth is represented by Sean Kelly in New York, Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, and is a member of Magnum Photos.

Carrie Elizabeth Thompson's work explores roots, rootlessness, and restlessness, generally in the context of her own upbringing as the child of a broken family. Most of her work is photographic, but she is also a writer and the editor of the New Moon Project. She is the recipient of 2015-2016 and 2010-2011 MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant for Photography along with a McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photographers in 2009. She was Alec Soth’s studio manager for ten years.