At the Portrait Gallery, Alec Soth Likes Looking at Women

Photograph of Alec Soth taken in his studio
Photograph of Alec Soth taken in his studio Wikimedia Commons

When I read that Alec Soth, one of the young art photographers who has a new show at the Portrait Gallery, specialized in portraits of women, I thought that meant willowy actresses in varying degrees of makeup. Or American Apparel-esque exposes of "everyday women."

We live in a culture full of pictures of women—from the perennially glowing divas in women's magazines, to the disastrously drunk celebrities who grace tabloids. Many famous photographers claim they take these types of pictures to comment on our visual culture, but often enough these claims seem shallow.

Soth doesn't photograph famous people. In a visual environment where everything seems to be a reflection of the viewer, his subjects are neither trainwrecks nor glamazons. His portraits aren't even pictures, not in the sense we've come to believe. They're stories, like Gordon Parks' shots of African-American families of the 1960s.

I wasn't expecting them to be so human, or even so normal. I didn't expect to be interested in the characters, much less compelled by their narratives. But I was. It shouldn't be revolutionary to look at people with imagination and empathy, but for some reason it is. Is that a comment on our visual culture?

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