I recently read a book named Ping Pong Conversations. It was a fascinating conversation between photography critic, curator and teacher, Francesco Zanot, and one of my favourite photographer’s, Alec Soth. At times meandering, the conversation examines a number of images from throughout Soth’s career providing powerful insight into Soth’s working habits and creating interesting connections and relationships between otherwise unconnected images. It is definitely worth looking through if you’re into the thought processes that go into artist’s work. Details on the book are included at the end of this post.
One insight that I particularly enjoyed was Soth’s observation that,
“The reason I prefer to photograph in America is because I know what a peanut butter sandwich and jelly means.”
This statement was obviously inspired by the image above of a young soldier making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. This is a powerful reminder of the way that photography relies on sets of meanings, that are often very culturally specific.
This idea of visual languages is otherwise known as the study of semiotics. This branch of visual studies was championed by academics such as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco who proposed, ‘that every cultural phenomenon may be studied as communication’. Essentially meaning that anything contained with the frame of a photograph can be a sign that holds further meanings whether intended or not. In this case something as arbitrary as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich can be regarded as a cultural phenomenon.
This is why, as someone who has grown up in what would be referred to as the ‘West’, I understand what Soth means when he continues, ‘… It is what you eat as a child, it’s what a mother makes for her children… it’s like he’s playing at being a soldier.’ The extension of this is that there is no guarantee that someone who has grown up in different cultural circumstances will understand this intended nuance in Soth’s image. To make this even more complicated, as these meanings are culturally derived they are not concrete and can vary from person to person and even change over time. For example, imagine that in the future there was a worldwide peanut shortage and peanut butter became an expensive commodity. Someone who then saw that picture might assume that the soldier was very wealthy.
This is, of course, an indication as to the attention to detail that Soth brings to his work. Throughout his work are very intentional but subtle signs adding significance to seemingly innocuous images. This is undoubtedly why a photographer of his style, one that relies on subtelty and nuance rather than brash exoticism such as someone like Steve Mccurry, prefers to photograph within the system of cultural signs and signifiers that he understands.