A List of Favorite Anythings
Whenever I’m asked to make a list, I have the desire to formulate some sort of manifesto.
I like rules and guidelines, as in Lars von Trier’s filmmaking movement “Dogme 95” (the film must be in color, the shooting must be done on location, and so on). But then I reread Frank O’Hara’s “Personism: A Manifesto” and remember that his whimsical, rule-free manifesto is probably the most I’d ever be able to adhere to. “Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art,” writes O’Hara. “But to give you avague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity....”
The Family Photo Album
Picasso famously said that it took him four years to paint like Raphael but a lifetime to paint like a child. In a similar way, the struggle of many professional photographers is to make images that have the same purity of heart as the family snapshot. As someone whose primary ambition is to make photobooks, I’ve found the ultimate guide in the vernacular album. After years of collecting these albums, it was great to see this art form acknowledged in the recent Aperture book Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography (2011).
Masahisa Fukase’s The Solitude of Ravens (1991)
When asked to name my favorite photography book, I always answer The Solitude of Ravens by Masahisa Fukase. Made after his divorce, it describes the feeling of a broken heart as lyrically as a Roy Orbison song.
Chantal Akerman’s News From Home (1977)
In an era when just about every still photographer is experimenting with video on their DSLR, it is eye-opening to revisit Chantal Akerman’s 1977 film of barely moving images. Every frame is perfect. But it is the voice-over of Akerman in New York reading letters from her mother, who is back home in Belgium, that gives this film its haunting beauty.
Robert Frank’s Pangnirtung (2011)
Though I’ve never met Robert Frank, I feel like I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with him for the past twenty years. In many of our conversations, I question his later work. But with his modest 2011 book about a five-day visit to a remote Inuit village, I ceased to question and now simply enjoy being in the company of a master.
Pedro Meyer’s I Photograph to Remember (1991)
I own an original CD-ROM of Pedro Meyer’s multimedia piece I Photograph to Remember, but it no longer opens on my computer. Fortunately, Meyer eventually put the essay online, though that presentation feels dated too. What doesn’t feel dated is Meyer’s heartfelt tribute to his parents. The love, humor, and vulnerability of Meyer’s intimate family slide show stands the test of time.
Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs (2001)
A number of years ago in a frigidly contemporary German hotel room I discovered Cohen’s CD in a drawer. As always with Cohen, the lyrics are the biggest draw. Nobody is able to describe the full spectrum of yearning—from physical to spiritual—the way Cohen does. But what I love most about this album is that Cohen isn’t singing alone. In almost every song the vocalist Sharon Robinson accompanies him. Since that first night in Germany, the blend of their voices has served as a tonic to my loneliness in a hundred hotel rooms.
What Was True: The Photographs and Notebooks of William Gedney (2000)
There is so much meat on the bones of this book about the underappreciated photographer William Gedney. There are Gedney’s wonderful photographs, of course. But these fragmentary glimpses of grace are made all the more meaningful by reading about Gedney’s process in transcriptions from his notebooks and in two illuminating essays by Geoff Dyer and Maria Friedlander. Every (as-yet) unsung photographer grappling with the medium would do well to own this book.
Wim Wenders’s Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road, 1976)
Since I first rented the double-cassette VHS as a teenager, Wenders’s depiction of two lonely men on the road together has felt like some sort of prophecy. So when I started traveling extensively with the writer Brad Zellar a couple of years ago, you wouldn’t believe my shock when he told me that Kings of the Road was one of his favorite movies.
Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home (1992)
One of the hardest things to do with photographs is accompany them meaningfully with words— particularly those written by the photographer. Pictures From Home achieves this goal better than any other book I’ve seen. But I only allow myself to read the book every few years because (1) it is so heartbreaking and (2) it is so good that it makes all of my work seem trivial.
Alec Soth is a photographer born and based in Minnesota. He is the author of more than a dozen publications including Sleeping by the Mississippi (Steidl, 2004), NIAGARA (Steidl, 2006), and Broken Manual (Steidl, 2010).
Akerman: © Chantal Akerman and courtesy Galerie Marian Goodman, Paris and New York; Gedney: Courtesy David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University; Sultan: © The Estate of Larry Sultan; O’Hara: Gruen/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Meyer: © and courtesy Pedro Meyer; Cohen: Putland/Getty Images; Wenders: © Wim Wenders Stiftung