Priscilla (from the series The Last Days of W). Courtesy of the artist.

In 2004, visitors to the Whitney were greeted by “Charles,” a large-scale color photograph of a bespectacled man in coveralls standing in the wintry outside beside a house. In each of his gloved hands, he held miniature biplanes, and he did not smile. The image introduced museum-goers to that year’s biennial, but it also heralded the arrival of photographer Alec Soth (pronounced “Sōth”) to a larger public.

The art world welcomed him enthusiastically, heaping praise upon Sleeping by the Mississippi (Steidl, 2004) from which “Charles” was pulled. The book featured 46 photographs taken during a series of road trips along the Mississippi River and which were notable for their sumptuous detail and elegiac documentation of an iconic American byway.  Niagra (Steidl, 2006); Dog Days, Bogota; and Paris/Minnesota followed soon after and, in the jittery election year of 2008, The Last Days of W, which Soth, tongue firmly in cheek, labeled his “Big Political Commentary.”

The young talent doesn’t restrict his work to photography books alone, however. He also shoots for the prestigious agency Magnum Photos, traditionally a photojournalist cooperative, and oversees Little Brown Mushroom (LBM), a blog and small press. (The modest initiative was represented at the New York Art Book Fair at PS1 in November.) Today Soth produces the Continental Picture Show series for the New York Times and is promoting Broken Manual, a collaboration with Lester Morrison that explores the places to which monks, survivalists, and the like retreat. The first U.S. survey of his work is also being shown at the Walker Art Center through January 2, 2011, and on Wednesday, December 8, he travels to New York to speak at FIT. New Yorkers can also catch Soth at The Strand on Thursday, December 9, when he’ll be signing books.

The man is busy, but he graciously took the time to talk to me last month over the phone. I was nervous beforehand, but he’s easy to talk to and we had a good time. I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

CL: Students are going to comprise a lot of the audience at FIT, and you’ve said that it was a photographer’s talk while you were in college that inspired your shift from painting to photography. What would you say to someone who aspires to your success?

AS: While it’s true that I got inspired by that lecture, I never honestly believed that I would make a living doing photography. After college I moved back to Minnesota, and it seemed impossible to make a living as an artist in Minnesota. I didn’t even pursue it as such. I had a series of regular jobs, and I thought that would always be the case and that I would follow the artwork on the side. Making a life out of it really is quite difficult, and I would hate to mislead anyone about any of that. The work is the main thing, the doing of the work. Enjoying the process should be the main thing and, in some ways, be an end unto itself.

CL: So was it a certain amount of hustle, faith in oneself, it was fun—all of the above, none of the above?

AS: Number one is dumb and obvious, but I kept working. When students leave school, they stop doing work. The numbers are pretty staggering, so I was really hard on myself about that. If I went a weekend without doing work, I really beat myself up. Your 20s are the hardest because you don’t have any money. You don’t have any experience, but you just keep pushing through that and push, too, to find your own voice. If you’re lucky, it comes around. In the end, great work—and I’m not saying mine is great—tends to bubble to the top. People recognize it. You just have to keep working.

CL: On a practical level, that sounds like pounding the pavement and going to galleries.

AS: Looking at work is important, but the self-promotion stuff is so super heated. Everyone is trying to show everyone their work all the time and trying to get things to happen when it’s premature. I use the analogy of a novelist. No one’s going to give you a book contract based on some idea you have or one chapter. The first novel you’ve got to write, and it has to be really good. Once you do that, then you can pound the pavement. It’s crazy to run around knocking on gallery doors when you haven’t really done the work.

CL: Sounds like the artist will know when he or she has reached a certain level, or do you believe mentoring relationships need to develop?

AS: That’s a good question. I came back to Minnesota, was doing work, had little shows and projects, but I always kind of knew it wasn’t the thing. The work was okay, but I hadn’t found it yet. Eventually I did Sleeping by the Mississippi and thought, “This is good.” It actually felt right. Often I think there’s this inner voice—which isn’t to say that you don’t believe in stuff along the way and you don’t doubt if something’s good—but there is a deep sense of when something is on another level.

CL: How big or little a role does intuition play in your composition? You’ve described your practice as driving around with notes on a dashboard. What makes you stop the car and say, “Okay, that person” or “That backdrop”?

AS: Oh, yeah, it’s totally intuition. It’s interesting, though, because it’s something you learn. So, you’re driving around and you see something and you photograph it. A lot of the time—and I do this to this day—I stop and photograph something because I’ve seen it before or I think I’m supposed to photograph it. Back in my brain it calls up a Walker Evans picture, and sometimes it’s real cliché. When you’re first starting out, it’s The Old Barn, and as you get more sophisticated, it’s The Lightbulb on the Ceiling. A lot of that stuff, you just do it. You shoot it and it’s okay and then after a while hopefully you start noticing things not just for those reasons, but because there’s something else that you’re really attracted to that’s more from who your mother was, where you grew up—the whole mix of your experience—and not just from looking at other photographers. That’s where it gets exciting because you’re, like, “Wow, why am I continually attracted to Goth people” or whatever it is. That becomes a route to investigate.

CL: With the ubiquity of Facebook, sites like Flickr, and smartphones with cameras, everyone’s an amateur photographer. Where does the fine art photographer sit in that context?

AS: It does change things.

CL: I’m asking because you said you have to work a long time before you realize the photographs you’re taking are being informed by a lot of other people and tradition. Now that we see so many photographs, do you think that will change the way photographs are taken? Will it make things seem more fresh, less fresh? You know what I mean?

AS: Yeah, I know what you mean. I really don’t know. It’s radical because I’m a young guy—40 is not that old—but all of my photographic education was pre-Internet. The resources are so vastly different now. It’s hard for me to know how that shapes a person.

That said, what I feel for myself going forward, is that, more than ever, it makes the individual image less interesting.

CL: You mean portraits or something else?

AS: No, I mean the singular photograph. Magnum has existed on iconic images—James Dean walking down Times Square—

CL: —the Afghani girl with the blue eyes—

AS: Yes, exactly. That pic gets picked up by these magazines, and it becomes an icon. That was how it worked. Now those pictures are made with someone’s cell-phone camera, and they’re so random. It doesn’t seem like an achievable goal anymore. Moreover, it’s not that interesting to me. It’s as fleeting as a viral YouTube sensation. What matters to me is authorship. It’s the photo book. For someone else, it might be the 10-minute online presentation, but it’s putting pictures together in a really meaningful way. That’s the only thing that matters to me.

Being a photographer is nothing. It’s like it’s anyone, it’s everyone, it’s nothing. Authorship—assembling a group of pictures meaningfully is incredibly rare.

CL: Do you see any trend emerging that might result from the deluge of images we have available to us with Flickr and people constantly posting images?

AS: There’s this renaissance of book publishing, self-publishing, do-it-yourself publishing and people wanting to assemble images together in this tactile form. People are beginning to study the language of that. Now it’s so easy to do a blurb book, and suddenly there’s thousands of these blurb books and you realize, wow, I need to do more than take 40 of my best snaps and put them together. There’s an actual art form here that I need to engage with and a language. I sense a real hunger amongst people to make books and put things together.

CL: I wonder if that’s because we have digital images. People don’t necessarily print them, but they want to hold something.

AS: The fascinating and slightly frustrating thing I find is that no one—and I mean no one—is thinking about work online in art schools. It’s really annoying. You visit a class, you get to critique, and students start pinning pictures to the wall. Sometimes they have a book, and sometimes (because they’re lazy) they’ll just show it to you on their computer. It’s not meant for online, though.

But it’s a very exciting time. It’s like the beginning of magazines. There’s a whole new language being created with tablets and different formats of presenting work. If I was 20, I would be thinking along those lines.

CL: What about small presses and Little Brown Mushroom? What motivates your involvement in that? Is it a way to diversify your income, to reach a broader audience besides gallery-goers, or for artistic control?

AS: I don’t do it for money at all. You’d have to be insane. You’d have to live very cheaply. Having just a little bit of insight into the economics of book-making, it’s very, very difficult to make money that way, so I wouldn’t recommend it for that reason. I do it as a tonic to the art world, which is a way to make money but which can be sort of nauseating because of that. You can forget why you’re doing things.

In the big business of art, I just wanted to have room to play around, make things, have fun, and collaborate with people on a scale that’s much more economical. Something costs $17 rather than $20,000, and I see some really interesting examples. This guy Jason Poland made this poster for us, and he’s this very prolific drawing guy who lives off doing little drawings. It’s that kind of intense originality in how you create your life and go about it that, to me, is really exciting. Often things happen because you don’t follow the predictable path. You just do crazy things you really love, and things can emerge out of that.

CL: With work like Broken Manual, you really admire people living not just off the beaten path, but who diverge from narrative, which is interesting because from what I’ve read about you and heard you speak about, narrative is important to you, yet it’s people destroying conventional narrative who populate your work.

AS: There’s a lot of irony because I’m an incredibly conventional kind of guy. This fantasy exists of some guy living on a raft on the Mississippi, and I’ve never been that guy. I’ve always had a regular job. I was terrified to go out on my own supporting myself as an artist. I’ve been married to the same woman forever. I have two kids. I live in a normal house. It’s really conventional, so there’s definitely some irony in promoting going an unconventional route. It’s funny. I’m full of contradictions. I really am.

CL: With Niagra, you had people write down their dreams. Do you still use letters—we’re talking about narrative, after all—or other textual devices in your work today?

AS: At the moment, no, but I’ll go back to it. I used to be well known for always talking about how photography can’t do narrative and now my only interest is narrative, so I’m painfully inconsistent on this topic as well. Stories just matter. Like, right now my daughter and I are reading this book, and this is going to sound really stupid, but you know American Dolls, right? It’s this phenomenon that’s horrific and I won’t go to the store, but there are these books about them, historical dramas. The one we’re reading now is about a former slave girl. It’s so compelling. I wanted to finish it after my daughter had gone to bed. We need stories, whereas I don’t think we need pictures. We don’t need these fragments. We need stories.

I’ve forgotten what we were talking about, but that’s what I’m talking about. [Laughter]

CL: We were talking about narrative. I was actually thinking of words on paper.

AS: Oh, right! I’m very much interested in that. Seth’s book and Trent’s book before that are experiments in using the form of children’s books, which is this combination of image and text, as building blocks. Whether it’s found material or it’s created by the artist, I’m interested in the way the two can work together because, like comics and graphic novels, there’s a sophisticated language for image going with text. Photography needs to do that. You don’t write in the form of a novel or short story. You supply much less information. It’s to be sort of very loosely tied to the image, but it can’t be too overly related to the image. I don’t understand these kinds of relationships. It’s not like you can take a course in this and figure it out, so yeah, I’ll be exploring it in one way or another for a long time.

CL: You think you’ll jump to a moving image with sound where you’re actually hearing—

AS: Yeah, I know what you mean. Mike Parr just placed a bet—or he wanted to place one—saying, “I bet you in 10 years you’re gonna make a feature-length film.” I didn’t take the bet because he might be right. For the immediate future, I’m interested in trying to solve this problem in another way, but maybe I’ll just give up. Make a movie. Like most photographers, I’d probably make a terrible movie.

CL: I don’t think so.

AS: That’s it’s own language, though, distinct from photography. It’s like saying, “I’ll just write a novel.” It’s not easy to write a novel. It requires all sorts of skills and a deep knowledge of that language. At this point, I have a pretty deep knowledge of photography and the photographic book and what can be done there. Maybe I’ll give up because good photography does drive me completely crazy, its limitations.

CL: That’s one of the things I was thinking about when I picked up Seth’s book: the literal space between the text and image where meaning gets made. I really love that. It’s different from art with words printed on it, you know?

AS: Totally. It works in a certain way in the book form, and it’s really suited for that.

CL: What are you working on now? You’ve got stuff on the LBM blog and at the Walker right now. If someone wants to see your most recent work, is the Continental Picture Show where that might be found?

AS: Theoretically, yeah. The problem is those stories are supposed to be in America, and I keep not being in America. What I’m doing these days are these little short stories, like in the Walker catalog. There’s one of these stories that’s included in a separate theme. I keep experimenting with that and releasing them in various little venues. Someday hopefully I’ll compile them together. Those New York Times stories are another version of that. Whether those ever get translated into paper remains to be seen. I’m in an experimental stage where I’m breaking things down and figuring out new ways to do stuff.

CL: I can’t find my last question. Is there anything I skipped over, and you’re, like, “Oh my gosh, I wish the world knew ‘X’”?

AS: What I’ll say is I’ve really enjoyed this interview because you researched some things and you were interesting, but the main thing is: often one becomes a photographer because of social awkwardness. It’s certainly how I got into it, and now all I do is give interviews. I get photographed much more than I photograph. I feel a bit fraudulent, and I go slightly berserkoid. I talk about photography much more than I do photography, so what I’ll say is: this may be my last interview.

CL: Oh my god, are you kidding me? Do you know how that’s going to skyrocket its value?

AS: [Laughter] I really did enjoy it.

CL: Aw, that’s sweet. I was nervous about it.

AS: You didn’t seem nervous at all. No, it was good.

CL: Hey, I found my last question. You know how you said you’re zipping around outside the United States a lot lately? The majority of your photographs have been taken here, though. In terms of regional identity, do you still feel like a Midwesterner? It seems in some ways the South has tried to adopt you as its own, what with that exhibit down South and your photographs of the Mississippi. Talk to me about American identity.

AS: I’m very much aware that I’m a Midwesterner and not a Southerner. I’m also aware that I’m from the middle of the country. So much of American culture comes out of the coasts, and I deal with the coasts to get my work out. When I’m outside of America, I’m both aware that I’m American and that I’m from the middle of America, that I’m not a New Yorker. That identity is important to me. Maybe it’s corny and old fashioned. It’s not like I’m Grant Wood with a piece of hay sticking out of my mouth, but I do identify with it. For that reason, I tend to be more interested in photographing in America than outside of it because I think I know things about the country. I understand the references and the subtleties in a way that I can’t outside of it.