Theory & Practice

Behind the Image: Alec Soth’s ‘White Bear Lake, Minnesota’

A chance encounter with an amateur painter provides Alec Soth with a blank canvas to make his own picture. Magnum's video team was there to capture the moment

Alec Soth

Alec Soth | USA. White Bear Lake, Minnesota. 2019. A painter's canvas by White Bear Lake. White Bear Lake, Minnesota, USA, 2019. © Alec Soth | Magnum Photos

Alec Soth’s A Pound of Pictures brings together work made 2018–2021 in an eclectic sequence that can be read as a winding, ruminative road trip. The book is also a celebration of photography itself – a dynamic captured by Magnum’s video team, who happened to be filming Soth (for an on-demand course on Photographic Storytelling) as he took one of the pictures that would ultimately feature in the photo book.

For this latest Behind the Image article, we present interview excerpts from Soth’s five-hour Photographic Storytelling course, which is made up of nineteen video lessons.

"This picture, for me, is a picture about photography and about discovery and about finding beauty in the world as it is."

-

On this particular day of filming, Soth was exploring a waterside corner of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, seeking subjects to photograph, when a woman preparing to paint at an easel piqued his interest.

On the day that the easel photograph was made, Soth had spent the morning photographing a prize-winning fisherman. After lunch, he set about exploring the lakeside area, weighing up the pros and cons of shooting various subjects, from people at the VFW veterans’ club to some young fishermen. And then…

“I looked over and saw this woman painting on an easel and something clicked in my head – something about fishing being this amateur sport that a small number of people do professionally. Painting is something that can be done by amateurs, that we think of as fine art, as something extravagant, but here it’s being done in this humble way. I approached her and she told me her boyfriend was fishing on the dock and she was painting.”

Alec Soth's A Pound of Pictures, published by Mack in 2022.

So, it was a situation with in-the-moment visual appeal and interesting correspondences. Yet Soth still had to decide: “Is there a picture there? This was a tougher one. It wasn’t like, automatically, there’s a picture, but using the camera, taking some time, there might be something there. The light wasn’t right. Nothing was right. But I thought, ‘There’s something here.’

“It’s not what I see in front of me,” explains Soth of his approach. “I have to start digging into this situation. And this is where there’s a translation of what’s going to happen with the camera, too, because the thing about the camera is that it renders space in a way that’s different from the way that our eyes see the world.

“So I have to start getting under the camera, looking, feeling the space and seeing what happens. And the act of setting up the tripod, looking at the scene, affects what’s happening in front of me. And so, things start happening, I start moving things and interacting with the space, interacting with the subject, and one thing leads to the next.

“My initial plan was to make a photograph of her painting [the painting itself]. I’ve always thought of the plate camera as being like a painting on an easel, and so I was making some sort of analogy. But very quickly I saw that she had a blank canvas. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s kind of interesting. That’s really like what I’m doing here.’ Then I see light hitting the canvas. And then it turns into this… I’m making a painting. I’m literally making a painting on the blank canvas, and I’m making a photograph, and I’m playing, and I’m interacting with the subject.”

Signed copies of A Pound of Pictures, published by Mack, is available from the Magnum shop here. You can find more details about the nineteen-lesson on-demand course Alec Soth: Photographic Storytelling here.

Stay in touch
Stay up to date every Thursday with Magnum photographers’ activities, new work, stories published on the Magnum website, and the latest offerings from our shop.
Be the first to know about recent Magnum Shop drops. From new books and limited editions, to special offers, you can find it all on the weekly Magnum Shop newsletter.
Get fortnightly tips and advice articles, find out about the latest workshops, free online events and on-demand courses.
Learn about online and offline exhibitions, photography fairs, gallery events, plus fine print news and activities, on a monthly basis.
Know when our quarterly 7-day square print sale is coming.
Monthly updates on the latest assignments, photographer projects and collaborations with brands.