Carmen and Alec Soth Brighton Picture Hunt

An extract from an interview with Carmen Soth. 30th July 2010.

So, Carmen, looking back on what is already an illustrious career, where did your interest in photosensing really begin?

Well, in fact I can be pretty precise about that one. It was in the Spring of 2010, and my dad, as you know the photographer, Alec Soth, had been given a commission to make some work in Brighton, England. Anyway, there was some problem at customs when we arrived and because he didn’t have the right papers or something the officials said he couldn’t take any pictures, at least not as his professional work. The whole family were there so they let us through, but my dad was faced with a dilemma: how to go about the commission now? Then he came up with this idea to involve me. I think it was a kind of ironic compliance with those rules. So I got to take the pictures, under his guiding hand as it were. And well, the rest is history, as they say!

Back then of course you were using a camera?

Yes, just about everyone did in those days; the whole neuro-image-capture thing was pretty much science fiction then. But it was fun working with this machine, slow but fun. We’d take hundreds, maybe thousands of images – I can’t quite remember how many – and go through them all on the computer. Editing was in many ways the best part, the old ‘laptop’ grinding out the pictures. And they were always surprising I remember. In many ways it was amazing what those old cameras could do.

But you obviously had some kind of facility, shall we say, as a sensor of images even then?

Yes, I guess so. Dad was very encouraging. He was a member of the original Magnum Photo Agency…

Where the Magnum Heritage Centre (MHC) comes from, right?

Yes, that’s it. Anyway, he was one of the most respected photographers in the world and I think even as a child I was aware of that, so I did take his opinion and advice quite seriously! He thought the pictures I was taking were great and helped a lot with the editing.

So, what was this place, Brighton, like in 2010?

Well, in a way it was impossible to photograph, at least in that old-fashioned documentary style. I mean it was just far too nice, well not totally, but it was very pretty, and had what they used to call a ‘funky’ feel to it. And I guess the more interesting aspects were more difficult to find. In fact, my dad had originally planned to shadow a photographer from the local newspaper, to find an interesting narrative of the city that way, but in the end we just took in the street life and gradually found some kind of rhythm there. It turned out that Brighton did have a seamier side, it was there all the time, and I think I hinted at some of that in my pictures.

But for a child of eight it must have been difficult to know what to focus on?

No, not at all. In fact I remember it was more of a problem knowing what not to take pictures of! Although we’re talking about a machine here, it was a very point-and-shoot situation, even then a picture every fraction of a second and more if you wanted to. But Dad taught me a kind of restraint I guess, which is still very much with me to this day. And I remember how editing with him was so important, seeing what he thought was interesting and balancing that with my completely untrained eye. But I think I had some intuitive grasp of what was good. It’s that strange child’s eye, the sixth sense maybe; and look where we are with all that now!

So, if it was Alec’s commission, why do you think he decided to give the camera to you?

Well, first of all, it was my camera. All kids had them then, I seem to recall. Then, as I said, there was a practical thing, that he wasn’t supposed to work, so it was ironic. But other than that, it did fit in very much with his ideas at the time. His attitude to making photographs was changing, and he was looking for ways to re-generate some form of urgency, I guess, some form of primary (excuse the pun!) engagement with his subject that stripped away all the artifice, all that over-learning that was so deadening in the end. He was basically interested in stories, and about how he might work within them, just trying to find new ways to construct, respond to and deal with visual narratives. In fact, he had become very interested in children’s stories and books at this time. This was the Little Brown Mushroom legend, the blogspace, sense-page thing, and he began to feature children’s books and even publish photography in the manner of children’s stories. So, in a way, it was an extension of that, what a child sees, what their stories are and how they look to us – so strange and beautiful, and also, obviously, hilarious at times. And I do remember there was a lot of pink in those pictures! But I’d like to think there is some of that innocence left; that very unmediated kind of sensing. Let’s face it, it’s all about perception, even now.

So, you were doing his job?

Well, I wouldn’t say that. It was collaborative, in fact a kind of performance for him I think, one enacted through the pictures I was taking, and although, obviously, it was a pretty major starting point for me, it was still his project. I mean I wouldn’t have done it without him.

Looking at those Brighton pictures now, with the benefit of thirty years experience, what do think about them?

They’re pretty grey! (laughs). Well, it was terrible weather through those few weeks as I remember, and we were in rainwear most of the time. But, no, the photographs have this disarming frankness, even when we’re so used to everything being so much more sense-based now. But there is no holding back. I’m using the camera in quite a forthright way, being quite bold. But then, as a child you have that capacity, people were not so offended, and also the camera was relatively small for its time. Anyway, it’s candid in this sense, the streets of Brighton as I saw them, or as we saw them. Little details were continually leaping forward: these two dogs, timid-looking, caught up in their lead; people drifting by looking lost and distracted – one woman crying; an old broken suitcase abandoned in the street. In fact, a lot appears to be broken, or dysfunctional, a grey city hanging on to some sense of community. In many ways Brighton was a village trying desperately to be a city, insular in some ways, and rather pleased with itself, and still very rough around the edges. I think I captured some of this. Even though we still had to use a camera, it was a very fluid way of working, and I learned that fragments, visual thoughts, build into something like a language. It’s a very simple but beautiful way of communicating.

So, there was something of that old fashioned photography in there, after all?

Yes, something. But they were never meant as beautifully composed and balanced pictures. They are certainly not ‘decisive moments’ – remember that one! – but you could call them defining moments in some ways, certainly for me, and they became defining moments of those few weeks, at least the ones that have passed into history. We wouldn’t be sitting here now if they hadn’t. The photographs were, after all, a record of an experience, that’s essentially the story. Something of that lovely, strange town comes through indelibly, I think, and has survived over the years. The visitor can unlock something, some nuance of character and place, that the indigenous crowd can’t quite grasp. It’s a while ago now but I think the pictures have that power. I’m still proud of them.

Alec Soth was commissioned by Photoworks as part of Strange & Familiar: Three Views of Brighton, which was shown at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial 2010. –

Published in Photoworks Issue 15, 2010

Commissioned by Photoworks

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