Part two in our series of texts looking at the theme of isolation, written in light of the current moment by a number of people who’ve appeared in the magazine. We’ve asked them to reflect on their experience with isolation or distance, how it’s affected their outlook, and how it relates to the present. Alec Soth is an American photographer, the producer of seminal works like Sleeping by the Mississippi, and a documenter of his country’s disconnected communities, an explorer of the social distance that exists between people.
One can be a connoisseur of anything. In the late ‘90s, when the internet was new, I interviewed an Israeli man who was a connoisseur of women’s fingernails—he deemed himself ‘the father of fingernail fetish photography’. Though I didn’t share his interest, I asked if I could acquire an appreciation. After a couple of weeks of taking pictures of fingernails, I wouldn’t say I became an aficionado, but I started to develop an eye.
Susan Sontag called the flâneur a ‘connoisseur of empathy’ and considered photographers to be ‘an armed version of the solitary walker … the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes’. While this might be true of someone like Weegee, there are many types of photographic connoisseurship.
‘What kind of photographer are you?’—oh, how I dread that question. While I’ve never wished to be a wedding photographer, at least it would give me a reasonable answer. When I’m asked this question, more often than not by a fellow traveller before I have the chance to feign interest in the inflight magazine, I usually mutter something about making portraits along the Mississippi River. ‘Like National Geographic?’ they sometimes reply. I imagine Susan Sontag overhearing this in the row behind me and rolling her eyes. But I’ve never claimed to be a connoisseur of empathy. Nor do I profess to know much about the Mississippi River and its inhabitants. I often say that when I take a portrait, the thing I’m really capturing is the space between myself and my subject. If I’m a connoisseur of anything, it’s social distance.
My appreciation of distance has come in handy the last couple of months. While I’d never heard the term ‘social distancing’ until now, it’s a concept that comes naturally to me. Over many years of observing people while hidden under a camera dark cloth, I’ve rarely come closer than the new six-foot health guidelines. My ideal distance for making a portrait is about the length of seesaw—close enough to exchange energy, but far enough to properly visualise separateness.
What advice can I share for the countless people learning to live with the new social restrictions? Try to look at social space the way a sommelier looks at wine. Swirl it in the light. You needn’t intoxicate yourself in loneliness, just hold it to your nose and breathe.
Alec Soth was featured in issue #20. Interview by Paul Schiek. Photography by Dru Donovan.