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Alec Soth

“The H3DII-50 merges the portability and functionality of medium-format digital photography with the sumptuous quality of large-format photography.”
Alec Soth


Blue House, Auckland, New Zealand, 2009. © Alec Soth / MAGNUM Photos

Shelly, Auckland, New Zealand, 2009. © Alec Soth / MAGNUM Photos

Peter's Houseboat, from Sleeping by the Mississippi, Winona, Minnesota, 2002. © Alec Soth / MAGNUM Photos

Pursuing Multiple Muses
H3DII-50 Delivers Medium-format Portability, Large-format Quality

Alec Soth (http://www.alecsoth.com/), of St. Paul, Minnesota, has been a professional photographer for 18 years, six with his own business. His fine art work has been exhibited internationally and hangs in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, et al. His editorial clients include The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Telegraph Magazine. Soth’s independent works include the books Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara, and Dog Days Bogota. His collaborative projects include Paris, Minnesota, a magazine of his own fashion images, some created for W Magazine and others with Magnum Photos. Shooting with an H3DII-50 since December 2008, Soth has found it a remarkable camera for pursuing his different muses. 

When I begin a new project, I am open to whatever I find. While staying open is easier when working alone, even on collaborative projects, I prefer starting without an agenda. As a project develops, I find the thesis and the shooting becomes more focused. When I began the fashion project Paris, Minnesota, for example, I had no idea what would evolve. Eventually the theme - the distance between my life in Minnesota and the world of Parisian couture - developed organically.

My creative forte is the ability to surprise. Put me out in the world, let me wander, and I’m pretty good at finding something rich and unexpected. On the business side, my greatest strength is being established in the traditional photography and fine art markets. I am represented by Gagosian, a world-class gallery, and Magnum, a legendary agency. Working within both of these worlds, I avoid putting all my eggs in one basket.

Hasselblad, Then and Now
Back in college, I could only afford a 35mm camera, so I cropped the pictures square. After college, I slowly assembled an arsenal of medium-format cameras. While I’m mostly known for large-format work, I use medium-format on a regular basis. I’ll be working my way through my archives with a Flextight scanner for years to come. 

I bought my first Hasselblad, a 501C, 12 years ago, and only recently acquired the H3DII-50. I’ve done a few commissioned projects with a digital Hasselblad, including Making Parts, a series on a metal stamping plant in Minnesota, for Granta magazine. Given the size and general chaos of the place, it would have been very difficult to light the scene myself. The H3DII’s ability to quickly color-balance under mixed lighting conditions was a blessing.

I worked outside this winter in January with the H3DII-50 and it was extremely fast. The autofocus, quality metering, large image preview with histogram, and exposure warnings further sped up the process. After importing the file onto my laptop with the Phocus software, very little image editing was needed. I tweaked the file in Photoshop and sent it to my HP Z3200 Designjet photo printer. Within an hour, I had a stunning 32x40-inch print that was completely noise-free and blazingly sharp. It had a subtle gradation of color very similar to large-format film, a creaminess and clarity I love.

I'm always aiming for the highest possible print quality. The difference between a great print and very good print is subtle, but critical. With the HP Z3200, I am able to produce great prints. Along with having much more control of the final image, I get everything I need in a good print: subtle gradations of color, shadow detail, and excellent color gamut - the standard of true fine art prints. 
 
Assignment in Auckland
This past January, photographer John Gossage and I were invited to Auckland, New Zealand, by AUT School of Art and Design, to present a three-day workshop, “Strategies for Developing Your Own Personal Style.” I spent another week making pictures with my new H3DII-50. Auckland was beautiful, friendly, and culturally interesting, but I felt that the happiness of the place was creating a sort of wall that kept me from finding pictures. Eventually, I found my way over and under the walls.

I love working at dusk because objects seem to glow from within rather than reflecting light. I was curious to see if I could capture this quality digitally. For me, the picture of the blue house does this well. The blue is rich, carrying as much weight as the pink sky. Captured at ISO 50, 1 second, f/11, the image is noise-free and grain-free, making it easy to read the writing on the sign in the window.

What struck me about Shelly, the blond with tattoos, was her beautifully pale skin. To emphasize the paleness, I shot her against her bed wearing a white tank top. I love the way the white sheets are cool, while her skin has a touch of pink. The Hasselblad did an excellent job of picking up these nuances in a nearly monochromatic setting. The authenticity of real light makes it harder to get sharpness, particularly in large-format photography, but the image is incredibly sharp. I captured Shelly at ISO 50, 1/4 second, f/4.8.

With the H3DII-50, I have increased mobility during capture, and digital files that give me more control in the printmaking process. It merges the portability and functionality of medium-format digital photography with the sumptuous quality of large-format photography.

Text: Alice B. Miller