Alec Soth and the issue of social class

Alec Soth at UTA, in the shadow of his presentation. On the screen: a note with the dreams of his subjects

Alec Soth at UTA, in the shadow of his presentation. On the screen: a note with the dreams of his subjects

 

Last night, UTArlington and Arlington Camera hosted a discussion of the noted documentary photographer (and Magnum member) Alec Soth with the curator who gave him the first big push of public recognition, Anne Tucker of the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. These public conversations are always useful. It’s true that most probably the information they reveal can be easily found elsewhere. But there are always revelations that happen only in a face-to-face setting.

That’s the reason I used this particular image as an illustration for my post: Alec in the shadow and, on the screen, a note scribbled with the personal dreams of the people he has photographed. It is an approach he uses to get closer to his subjects and allow them to show something of themselves and make it visible in the portrait.

Alec is informal, self-deprecating and affable. His attitude confirmed to me an approach to photographing people with a look on the outside showing something very intense of the inside. He spoke of his ways of getting closer to people who would let him reveal something very personal and precious and make it public for everyone to see.

The issue of social class arose in this context and suddenly became so relevant to Alec’s work and a broader context. Remember the issues of a few photography projects centered on  Appalachia recently that awake the old debates on poverty porn? Of course, Alec’s photos have nothing to do with poverty porn, even though most of his portraits indeed depict working class and lower middle class people.

But it is interesting to note that he has tried very hard to photograph upper class subjects, with no luck. He has had many opportunity to contact them and establish relationships of trust. Anne Tucker herself has talked with the directors from the board of trustees of the museum, people who definitely support art and understand the value of photography and would definitely be willing to help. But nothing has ever happened.

And if you think, really, there are very few documentary projects featuring people of wealth. They are so rare in documentary photography yet fancy magazines on architecture and lifestyle feature them frequently and prominently. How come?

Working class people are easier to find. They are the ones we see on the street or at public events. They are more visible. But they are also more accessible.

Upper class people are not only absent from public spaces, but they have the media savvy to understand how photography works and the potential loss of control of what it represent. And they have the social capital (and power) to decide how to use it.

Someone like that would never put into writing their most personal dreams.

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