Tales from Alec Soth's Camp Awkward

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2013 - 2:23 PM

Artists came from all over to attend the renowned photographer’s summer camp for “socially awkward storytellers.”

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Jim Reed of Frankfurt, Germany, performed a shadow-dance with a snow shovel.

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Even without s’mores and campfire songs, the Summer Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers was crammed with the kind of screwball incidents that campers will talk about for a long time.

“Remember how we had to abandon the mobile home ’cause Alec got a flat tire taking us to Taco Bell?”

“Hey, what’s with that blue bunny suit Brad put on in the parking lot?”

“Was Jim really drunk, or just faking it in the dog park?”

“Do you think Tara ever made more than 4 bucks hawking her one-dollar portraits?”

By the time the 15 campers headed home to Germany, Venezuela and U.S. cities from Miami to Portland, they had plenty of stories to tell, and maybe the moxie to give them a fresh twist.

Organized by internationally known Twin Cities photographer Alec Soth, the five-day, free shindig last week attracted more than 400 applicants after Soth announced it on his blog in March. They didn’t have to send evidence of maladjustment, just a picture and story about themselves.

Mostly in their 20s or 30s, the campers ranged from recent college grads to seasoned professionals with fat résumés. That it was free made all the difference to the writer/single mom from Miami and the filmmaker/mother of twins from Vermont.

Most at least dabble in photography, but some are primarily writers or work in other media, including film, performance and bookmaking.

“These were incredibly appealing applicants who have done amazing work,” said Soth, himself a recovering shy guy.

From studio to streets

Campers gathered in his St. Paul studio every morning for talks and slide shows by Soth and other artist/writers. Afternoons were spent on projects followed by work-in-progress shows each evening.

Best known for big color portraits of drifters, loners and social misfits encountered on cross-country road trips, Soth is also a prolific producer of quirky books and ’zines published under his Little Brown Mushroom imprint. Often wordless or embellished with bits of text by Soth’s writer-pal Brad Zellar, the publications have garnered worldwide attention by merely hinting at stories through the sequence and arrangement of images.

“The reason I became a photographer, and so many people become artists, is because they’re lonely,” Soth said. “Photography especially is a very lonely business. Early on I realized I had to photograph people to make interesting work, and it became like a kind of therapy. But that social awkwardness was built into my being a photographer. So part of the camp is a goof and part of the name is marketing. It’s not truly therapy.”

There was nothing awkward about the lively first-day buzz as campers met and exchanged stories in a “speed dating” exercise. Still, no one would confuse the crowd with a bunch of car sellers on holiday. A check of Delaney Allen’s website turned up photos of the Portland, Ore., artist with head obscured by balloons, vines, scarves, clouds. That of Milwaukee-based Colin Matthes is full of political-protest posters, burning buildings, union propaganda and sinking ships.

Asked point-blank if she felt herself to be socially awkward, perky Caitlin Warner, a Minneapolis artist who makes palm-sized books, said, “Oh, yes, profoundly so. That’s why I make the work I do — because I don’t have to have direct interaction with people.”

For April Dobbins, the Miami writer/mom, the camp was a pressure-cooker experience.

“It’s been a bit like a reality show,” Dobbins said later in the week. “It’s high stakes. We’re all artists and we want it to be successful, but we’re doing it in front of a lot of professionals and it’s like making a cake without a recipe.”

Show and tell

Like many camps, the SCSAS ended with a variety show and dance, held Saturday night at the Soap Factory, a shabby-chic Minneapolis art venue near the Mississippi River. The place was packed. Several campers admitted to having imbibed a bit (gin-and-tonics were mentioned) to loosen up before stepping into the spotlight to share their week’s work via narrated slide shows.

Spiced with an R&B soundtrack and a little Elvis, the two-hour event carried the crowd through a visual and emotional farrago of riveting stories and weird performances.

They empathized with the financial anxieties that inspired Tara Wray, the Vermont filmmaker-mom, to interview people about possible careers in bank robbery, and were stunned by the raw honesty of Jeff Barnett-Winsby’s ambiguous tale about a rapist grandfather. They were amused by the strange things that Minnesotans told Venezuelan “immigrant” Diana Rangel she should do to fit in here, and entranced by the love stories Elaine Bleakney elicited from strangers.

In musings about time, Brad Farwell started with images of a car, and Adam Forrester tracked down sites seen on old postcards. Shy-girl Warner had everyone chuckling over her clever story about the time-warp sex fantasies of 19th-century painter Édouard Manet.

As the crowd cut loose afterward, a visibly euphoric Soth said, “I felt like the teacher who assigned a 700-page novel Tuesday and they wrapped it up on Thursday. Wow!”

 

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431



 

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