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Photographer Alec Soth is coping with fame
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Peter's Houseboat, Winona, Minnesota. Alec Soth's photography is acclaimed for having both a cinematic and folkloric feel, capturing the story behind the image as he does with this evocative picture of a houseboat in winter. (Photo by Alec Soth)
Alec Soth is drawing worldwide attention. The Minneapolis-based photographer exploded onto the international art scene at the Whitney Biennial this year. Since then his fame has continued to spread. But Soth is finding his newfound popularity has its advantages, and its disadvantages.

Minneapolis, Minn. — George Slade is the artistic director of the Minnesota Center for Photography. He's been following Alec Soth's work for a decade and he's partly responsible for Soth getting, not one, but two McKnight grants. Slade recalls the first time he saw Soth's photographs.

"It was a show called 'At the Bar.' They were black-and-white images of what looked to me at the time of subaquatic creatures, crawling out of darkness to be strobed by flashlight," says Slade. "They were some of the most common scenes you can imagine of couples conversing at bars -- and all the amazing behavior that goes on at bars across Minneapolis -- and I was completely enthralled."

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Image Charles, Vasa, Minnesota

Slade says he admires Soth for his ability to capture the "mystery of facts clearly described."

"I think there's something about Alec's images that sort of flirt with fiction, that have a kind of story behind them that might take them into territory that isn't always about truthtelling. It's about storytelling. Sometimes that's real, sometimes it's not," says Slade.

On opening night at Weinstein Gallery, the place is so packed it's almost impossible to get a good look at the photos on the wall. The room is filled with Weinstein regulars, museum curators, local photographers, and people who have just come to get a glimpse of Alec Soth's now famous work. It's hot inside, and the crowd overflows onto the street.

Sage Cowles, choreographer and avid art collector, proudly points out a photograph of which she already has a print.

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Image Weinstein Gallery

"The St. Genevieve," says Cowles, "that little boat. I find it very haunting, and very romantic."

Close by, Ted Hartwell, curator of photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Alec Soth's former boss, says Soth can't be claimed as a local artist anymore.

"He's no longer just a Minneapolis photographer. He's been launched into orbit, and I think he can handle it. I don't think it will spoil him. We'll see," says Hartwell.

So far, 2004 has been a big year for Soth. In February, his work was shown in New York as part of the Whitney Biennial, the highest profile visual arts event in the United States. Out of more than 100 artists, the New York Times named Soth as the great discovery of the show.

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Image Alec Soth and Martin Weinstein

Interest in his work immediately soared, and suddenly high profile art dealers were buying a number of his works -- not for their clients, but for their own collections. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Newsweek, Time, the New Yorker, as well as in all the high profile art journals.

"What has happened to Alec happens to so few artists in a century that he should just enjoy the moment," says gallery owner Martin Weinstein. "And I think that's what Alec is doing, he's enjoying the moment. He's getting commercial assignments from New York Times, Fortune Magazine, that take him to China, New York, places like that. It's a very exciting period in his life and he should enjoy it."

The pictures hanging on the walls at the Weinstein gallery are taken from Soth's "Sleeping by the Mississippi" project. It's a series of photographs he began back in 1999.

Many of the images are portraits -- a mother and daughter sitting side by side, a man standing with two model airplanes. Others simply capture a place -- a houseboat, an empty room.

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Image Soth looks over his work

While the public is just now falling in love with these images, Soth says he can't stand to look at many of them anymore. He's moved on, he's learned a lot in the past five years, and in those images he sees things he would never do now.

Sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop, Alec Soth says he feels like a rock star on tour, supporting his album.

"And I'm coming to the end of the tour, and sometimes it's hard to play the greatest hit. You just want to play a new song," Soth laughs.

But Soth says he still feeds off the excitement of other people seeing the photographs for the first time. And now Soth is a nominee for membership in Magnum, an elite cooperative of international photographers. For the next two years, Magnum will look closely at the work Soth produces and determine whether or not he qualifies for full membership.

So just when Soth should be able to relax and enjoy the spotlight, suddenly the bar has been raised and he has to work even harder. When asked how he's doing in light of all the attention, Soth pauses, and laughs.

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Image Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa

"I've been ecstatic -- right now everything is coming to an absolute point where it's a little unmanageable. I've just had a lot of luck lately," says Soth, "and it's really important that I capitalize on it and not turn down opportunities. So I've been chasing down every opportunity, but it's getting a little challenging at this point actually."

Soth says he's very conscious of the relationship between art and fashion. He can see several reasons why his art is fashionable at this moment. And he says he has no misconceptions about it lasting. Soth says his greatest fear is that he'll start to believe the art hype and start producing for it.

"For me, the act of photography is all about discovery and finding new things," says Soth. "And that would just be the death of it for me. So if I were to try and sustain success I think I would get into big trouble artistically."

Soth says he's trying to stay grounded by building up his career as a working photographer.

And he certainly is staying busy.

This week he's at a show opening in Berlin, next week he gives a talk in San Francisco, and then he's off to a photo shoot in Montana arranged by Magnum.

Soth will sign copies of his new book of the Sleeping by the Mississippi project at the Minnesota Center for Photography in Minneapolis in September. And he's already hard at work on his next project.

"The title of it is 'Love in Niagara,'" says Soth. "In a lot of ways I think of Niagara Falls. For a long time it's been called the former honeymoon capital of the world, and as a place it's long past its honeymoon. So for me it's a metaphor of that -- when love isn't new anymore."

Photographer Alec Soth says he's achieved his life's dream much earlier than he ever expected. Now the pressure's on to keep it.

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