Alec Soth is a photographer and book-maker based in Minnesota as well as the proprietor of Little Brown Mushroom, a small publishing house. In 2010, the Walker Art Center presented From Here To There, the first U.S. survey of his work. He is a member of Magnum Photos, and is represented by the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York, the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, and the Loock Galerie in Berlin. His newest photobook, Looking for Love, 1996 will be available from Kominek at the end of the month. In collaboration with writer Brad Zellar, his latest project is “an irregularly published newspaper of the North American ramblings” called The LBM Dispatch.
Alec Soth, at work in the cave
Ward Long: Can you tell me a little bit about your library? Where do you keep your books, how are they arranged or organized, and how often do you spend time with them?
Alec Soth: Along with my main studio, I have a room we call the cave. It is painted gray and, due to the quirks of our ventilation system, is chilly. All of the books are in there along with a cot and a treadmill desk (goofy looking, but it works). The books have been in there for a few years, but I have a serious shelving shortage. The books are organized alphabetically by artist, but this system is beginning to fail me. I’m thinking of dividing the books into nationality first, and then by author second. Or if that doesn’t work, maybe I should just go by the color of the spine.
As for time, my shortage of that outweighs my shelving shortage. It is a nightmare. Mostly I walk on my treadmill and respond to emails (and interviews!) and imagine a day when I’ll have time to really be with the books.
WL: Earlier this year I made a puritanical pledge that I would try to read all of the books I owned before I bought any more. My discipline failed four months later, and I’m much happier for the lapse. Can you tell me a little bit about your book buying habits?
AS: Ha, yeah. I have dozens of books I haven’t even broken the seal on. It is really frustrating. And I miss the days when I would buy a book at a bookstore and just covet it – go over it again and again for hours. Of course I’m grateful to have this incredible buffet, but sometimes the food tastes better when you are hungry.
The weird thing is that I don’t actually buy that many books. A lot of the things are get are done as trades with other artists or publishers. But I buy things here and there. I buy from a variety of sources.
WL: What were some of your oldest books? What are some books you’ve added recently?
AS: Before the internet, my chief source of books was the local discount bookstores, particularly Half Price Books. They tended to have a lot of Aperture overstock. So I got my Robert Adams books there. And those Adams books have stayed with me from tiny little bookshelf on bricks in my first apartment to the wall of books in my studio today. Recently added? Well, I did shell out the cash for The Place We Live, the beautiful recent Adams retrospective book (3 books actually).
WL: At Little Brown Mushroom you’ve made books and zines with Trent Parke, Seth Lower, Brad Zellar, Hans Seeger, Jenny Tondera, Todd Hido, Chad States, Peter Davidson, Anouk Kruithof, and the ever-enigmatic Lester B. Morrison. Publishing requires intense collaboration, some degree of compromise and choices between visions and possible versions of a book. Has this process changed the way you see your own collection?
AS: The reason I got into photography was because I liked working alone. Unlike filmmakers, you could do everything yourself, or so I thought. But it turns out there is a lot of collaboration involved with being a photographer. It also turns out I enjoy this collaboration. The older I get, the more I care about working with people I like and building something as a group. This is true whether I’m the photographer or not. For me, being a publisher is a creative act. With that in mind, yeah, I’ve come to really admire the work of certain publishers. I like when I can hear the voice of the publisher, however subtly, behind the voice the artist. J&L Books is a great example. Consequently, I sort of want to own every J&L book that comes out.
WL: A great piece in last week’s New York Times Magazine observed that Tumblr and Pinterest create a kind of highly pleasurable “addictive yearning.” Spending time with printed pages is obviously different than multi-tabbed browsing, but is a library also a place to store longing?
AS: Yep, it’s exactly the same thing. It’s almost embarrassing how desperate it all is.
WL: Can you tell me more about a book you find particularly special right now?
AS: Cristina De Middel sent me her book The Afronauts about an African Space Program. It is so damn good. Poignant and beautifully produced. I really wish Little Brown Mushroom had published it.
The cave, without Alec Soth