from "Ash Wednesday, New Orleans" © Alec Soth
from “Ash Wednesday, New Orleans” © Alec Soth. “I decided to spend Fat Tuesday alone in my hotel room watching tv.”

Last week the New York Times posted a multimedia piece by Alec Soth, “Ash Wednesday, New Orleans” on its website. What’s notable is that Soth’s piece appeared on “Opinionator”, the Times’ online Op-Ed section.  This is the first time I’ve seen a visual piece by a photographer in this section (or in the opinion or comment section of any newspaper- but if anyone knows of other instances, please let me know).  “Ash Wednesday, New Orleans” is the first in Soth’s “Continental Picture Show”, a series of posts about his travels around America.

It’s not surprising that Soth should appear on the NYT site; he is an accomplished and celebrated documentary photographer and a member of Magnum. Soth is probably best known for his large format documentary projects Sleeping By the Mississippi and Niagara, the latter of which we’ve had the pleasure of exhibiting at Host Gallery.  As with the best documentary photographers- whether their work identifies primarily as journalism or as documentary art- Soth is sensitive to nuance, gesture, and moment, and he is able to put himself in the kinds of situations that allow him to exercise that sensitivity. The result is what makes so much documentary work compelling: something ineffable is created from the photographer’s selective regard of the particulars.

from "Ash Wednesday, New Orleans" © Alec Soth
from “Ash Wednesday, New Orleans” © Alec Soth. “I left the room for the midnight police sweep of Bourbon Street- the official end of Mardi Gras- then photographed the aftermath.”

While “Ash Wednesday, New Orleans” is consistent with Soth’s sensibilities in his earlier projects, the pictures appear to be digital and are more like snapshots than his earlier work.  And it differs from most slide shows that you will see on newspaper websites.  The 3:25 piece is punctuated by intertitles, beginning with  “I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras but couldn’t handle all of the communal joy.  I decided to spend Fat Tuesday alone in my hotel room watching TV.”  Five sections follow: some pictures in the hotel room and stills from TV coverage of the celebrations, with TV sound; photographs of the aftermath of the celebration as Fat Tuesday becomes Ash Wednesday (police, dazed and unconscious revelers, garbage); a photograph of a woman named Adelyn that Soth made ten years previously, followed by a compositionally identical video clip shot this year; and a slideshow of churchgoers, their foreheads marked with ash.  The final section is a sequence about Soth stopping at a casino on the way back to his hotel and seeing a woman who he had previously photographed at the church.  She agrees to have her picture made in Soth’s hotel room and we see video of her positioning herself on the bed as Soth’s flash fires.  The title displays “As I was photographing her, I realized that R. was a man.”

from "Ash Wednesday, New Orleans" © Alec Soth
from “Ash Wednesday, New Orleans” © Alec Soth. “Adelyn agreed to meet me again outside of St. Louis Cathedral.”

In some respects it feels entirely appropriate to have this kind of video diary with its highlighted subjectivity in the opinion section.  On his website Little Brown Mushroom, Soth cites the New Journalism of the 60’s move away from staid, detached, boring nonfiction writing. “Ash Wednesday” expands on the position that Soth has taken in his books, and his sensibility translates well from photography/ photo books to multimedia/ video.  At a moment when news organizations are rethinking their role and their mandate, it’s nice to see a piece published by a news organization that grapples directly with issues of authorship and the nature of the kind of truth that photography might impart.

However, while “Ash Wednesday” may be satisfying for someone who might know a little bit about where Alec Soth is coming from, it appears to have been disorienting for much of the NYT audience. Soth notes on Little Brown Mushroom that “The whole point of the project was to see what happens with an audience outside of the art and photo bubbles.” While some among the commenters did “get it”, most felt that he had missed the story of Mardi Gras, that his representation of New Orleans was shallow, and many could not understand why the Times would commission or run a piece by a photographer who wasn’t even going to leave his hotel room.  Not “I get it but I don’t agree/ like it”, but simply not getting it at all.  Inside those bubbles we might say that his story was a valid story of Ash Wednesday, not Mardi Gras; that his presentation did not pretend to more depth or authority than he was willing to claim; and that by inserting himself in the story he allows the viewer to make judgments about the piece with awareness of his position (although just because the narrator is visible does not always mean the story is true).  

from "Ash Wednesday, New Orleans" © Alec Soth
from “Ash Wednesday, New Orleans” © Alec Soth. “She agreed to come to my hotel room to be photographed.”

What does it mean for this piece to run in the New York Times opinion section where, for an editorial to have any value, the audience must at least “get it” even if they don’t agree?  Even in the context of New Journalism, this piece’s subjectivity far outweighs the matter.  It’s provocative and appears to be honest but it’s not very rigorous and a lot of people are not going to get it.  This is (unfortunately) fine in the art world but maybe not so good for the opinion page where viewpoints and arguments surrounding issues that readers ostensibly have some (perhaps broad or distant) stake in are discussed and debated.  The most powerful and “useful”  bit to come out of this may be the sustained objection by commenters that Soth had possibly outed R. as transgendered and also had done her a disservice or injustice by referring to her as a man when she identified as a woman.  (Soth noted in reply to comments that she had consented to him revealing that she was transgendered).

It’s hard for photographers to find the opportunity to speak in their own voice in a news context.  It’s not often anymore that a picture story is run in a major publication as an argument articulated by the photographer.  The editorial position or opinion of the photojournalist is frequently stripped from the images as they are repurposed as illustrations for text.  The public has been trained by the conceits of journalism to understand photography as evidence, illustration, emotion and the photographer as the collector of these things.  Photojournalists are challenged for editorializing through the creative use of photoshop.  (And they should be, but not because using certain photoshop tools is categorically wrong).   In order that we continue to discuss what we want pictures to do and be, the desire by photographers to speak in their own voice, for their own reasons, in aid of their own causes or questions, should not be supressed. The “Art World” not withstanding, art as communication has always been a part of documentary photography.

We’re in a moment in which photojournalism and documentary photography are being reinvented.  Relationships to institutions, practices, and the expectations of the public are all at stake.  It’s laudable that The New York Times ran a multimedia piece in its opinion section and that it went with someone who is so able at challenging what it means for photography to be truthful and objective, and I look forward to the rest of this series.

However, this is also an opportunity to run photographers’ pieces as editorials in what might be considered a more “traditional” photojournalistic mode.  Bravo for Alec Soth and the New York Times for pushing the envelope, but, while “Ash Wednesday, New Orleans” is an interesting statement, it’s not one which many outside of the “photo and art bubble” may have much use for, at least not yet.  We need more from the editors; it would be marvelous to see more photojournalism on the opinion pages as authored voices.  This would bring about the visually literate readership that will recognize and perhaps appreciate what Soth has here offered.