The weight of a giant in the palm of your hand: Alec Soth on 'A Pound of Pictures'

How much does a photograph weigh? Nowadays this question sounds as absurd as measuring sunlight on a bathroom scale. But for those of us who’ve made a life out of recording light, there’s mass to the amassing. Negatives, contact sheets, enlargements, books—a tonnage of reflections.

For me, photography is fundamentally tied to the physical act of recording. I leave the house and drive into the world. Through the lens of my Honda Odyssey, I watch light bounce off of a million surfaces. One of them catches my eye—the girthiest sycamore in Michigan, let’s say. I park the van, pick my spot, and set up the camera. It’s a simple tool and there’s so much it can’t record. We can’t hear the birdsong nor the crabby farmer who reluctantly gave me directions. My slow shutter can’t even catch the butterfly fluttering near the trunk. We might intuit the tree’s two-hundred-year-old history, but we only see bark, not rings. But, oh, the bark! The film’s emulsion soaks up its reflections like a blanket in the rain. Printing the picture, these reflections coalesce into a body. We hold the weight of a giant in the palm of our hand; flattened and miniaturized, yes, but not a VR genie. Each negative weighs .6 oz.

The photographs in this book were originally prompted by a desire to photograph a different giant: Abraham Lincoln. In the spring of 1865, a train carrying Lincoln’s 6'4" corpse traveled from Washington, DC, to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Millions of Americans viewed the funeral train, and Lincoln’s rapidly decaying body. One of those mourners was Walt Whitman, who soon after penned his elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Midway through the poem, Whitman imagines decorating Lincoln’s tomb:

And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?

I began this project by traveling the route of the funeral train in an attempt to mourn the divisiveness in America. I took a handful of decent pictures, but as a project it felt lifeless.

I was looking for rings when I should have been paying attention to the bark. I decided to keep traveling, but as inspiration I replaced Whitman’s elegy with his “Song of the Open Road”:

From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list [...]
Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!

Often I was joined by young people: my interns Molly, Cheryl, and Alejandro, my former student Cooper, my daughter Carmen. Along with taking my own pictures, I acquired other people’s photos in thrift stores and flea markets. In Los Angeles I met a woman who sold photographs by the pound. These adventures and analog treasures reminded me of when I first fell in love with photography. The camera was an excuse to wander and dig.

My process is like web-surfing in the real world. The goal is to be carried by a wave of curiosity and free association. Visiting a market in upstate New York, I see a jar of honey. Later that day I find myself thinking about beekeeping boxes. Are they painted certain colors to attract the bees? Is the dark interior similar to the chamber of my large format camera? Before I know it a beekeeper is guiding me by tractor to his magnificent back- woods brood.

If the pictures in this book are about anything other than their shimmering surfaces, they are about the process of their own making. They are about going into the ecstatically specific world and creating a connection between the ephemeral (light, time) and the physical (eyeballs, film). These accumulated connections hopefully create constellations of possible meaning. I want this book to buzz like a hive. But in the end what matters most is the .6 oz tablespoon of honey.

Embossed linen hardcover with front and back tip-in
Three different papers, including a marbled Japanese stock and five randomised replica vernacular photographs
25.3 x 31 cm, 156 pages

ISBN 978-1-913620-11-0
January 2022
€70 £55 $75

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