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Jim Reed on The LBM Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers

In March of this year, famed photographer and photobook maker Alec Soth put out a call for visual storytellers to join him at a sort of summer camp to be held at Little Brown Mushroom headquarters in Minneapolis, MN. Photographers, illustrators, writers, designers – anyone who tells stories visually – were encouraged to apply to what Soth termed "The LBM Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers." He explained it like this: "Visual storytelling tends to be a lonely business. As such, it attracts more than its share of wallflowers. Here at LBM (home to more than a couple introverts), we thought it would be worthwhile to bring creative loners together to see what we can learn from each other." Details were hazy – the initial call promised outings, digital slide talks and discussions on making books, but little else – which apparently was no deterrent as about 400 people applied.  Ultimately campers were sent on missions to find stories in and around the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area, discussing what they came up with and finishing by making a presentation in front of an audience at The Soap Factory in Minneapolis.

Working Memory by Jim Reed
One of the fifteen selected was photographer and book maker Jim Reed of Easter Trouble Press. It’s no surprise that Reed made the cut. His beautifully executed book Working Memory was selected as a photo-eye Best Book in 2012 and was quick to sell out. Presenting images and documents in an unconventional form that replicated his subject’s personal filing system, Reed’s book told its story through image and design that continued through to the physicality of the object. A perfect pairing of subject and form, Working Memory integrated intimacy and fragility into the handmade book. We've continued to be fans of Reed's work, each created with a characteristic sensitivity and fine attention to detail.

When we heard that Reed had taken part in the LBM Camp, we couldn't resist asking him what the experience was like. By all accounts, The LBM Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers left a big impression. Reporting for the Walker Magazine, LBM camper Julian Bleecker gave a wonderful day-by-day report of the activities (read it here), which makes a great companion to Reed's more psychological response. From the sound of it, LBM Camp may be a one-off event, but you'll have to watch the LBM blog to know for sure. -- Sarah Bradley


Soth Studio by Jim Reed
It's March, I'm living in someone else's apartment, someone I've never met and who is at the moment in South Africa. There's a large indoor palmy plant of some sort that reaches over the bunk bed I sleep in. It's getting late -- I turn on the computer and hit refresh and an email blackens at the top of the list: sender -- Alec Soth, subject -- from Alec Soth. He can't officially invite me to the camp yet, but he wants to ask me a favor. A month goes by and then I get the official notice -- I've been accepted to the Little Brown Mushroom Camp for Socially Awkward Storytellers.

Two years earlier, I'm riding with my friend Dustin in his white Jeep. It's late summer and we're talking about the movie we're filming and everything else. I tell him I want to start doing photography again and use an old view camera. He asks me if I know Alec Soth, I say no, he says: "Really?" Dustin tells me about Niagara and Sleeping by the Mississippi and I listen as well as I normally do while bouncing my hand over objects as they shoot past the car. I get home at some point and turn on the computer and search the word 'both,' but with an 's' at the front instead. Maybe some other people have already got this viewfinder-camera-wielding wanderer thing taken care of. I'll keep trying to make films; at least there I feel like I know what has been done. There's a big problem though: I don't know a good story, and even if I did I wouldn't know how to tell it.

Someone else hears my complaining about how difficult storytelling is and suggests I watch Ira Glass' lecture on the subject. I watch it and it feels like sneaking a peek through a magicians dressing room keyhole -- thrilling and also sort of deflating to see the formula for how to hold a room full of people's attention long enough to convince them that you're not doing anything tricky until at the end, when you do something tricky. But if that's how it works, ok.

Now it's July 4th weekend and I'm in the United States again, in my home-state Tennessee with my family. We sit around watching something I haven't watched in six months -- TV, and go out on something I haven't been on in two years -- a boat. I fish off the front end wearing my cousins Bush Reagan '94 baseball hat, slinging a plastic neon green dangle with two hooks attached. My brother fishes off the back end and everyone else either has another side of the boat or is lounging around. I hate fishing, and I hate that my father was supposedly so good at it before he died because it puts some kind of expectation on me by the universe to enjoy fishing and also to be good at it. My brother is starting a company that will manufacture fishing lures and he explains to my five year old nephew that fish like 'structure,' branches in the water and other forms: "You know how when we are driving to your house we know to turn right at the gas station? Well fish do the same thing, they know that here is a certain tree branch and they have to turn left to get to where they find food. So if we cast over by the branch we'll get 'em as the swim by." Fishing makes me feel like a bad storyteller, the fish watching my translucent line slowly tugging a mangled fake worm through the water can see: I'm not really trying, I don't know what I'm doing.

BE RIGHT THERE, the book Reed created at LBM Camp
I get off the plane a few days later in Minneapolis and convey through the enormous gray building. Adam picks me up in the taxi lane in a white VW Bug. We've never met; he's also going to the storytelling camp and is also from the South so we hug each other as a greeting. We talk until the sound of the air conditioner unit at the place we are staying puts me to sleep. I wake up the next morning at five. I lay around staring at Adam's bunk bed and flip through the women's magazines next to the pull out sofa I just slept in for the first time. Adam wakes up at some point and we drink smoothies. "Wanna head to the studio?" he asks me. We get there and are both nervous, it says Soth Studios on the front and I photograph that because I should. We go through an alley to the back entrance. I have seen photos of this place on the Little Brown Mushroom blog and also accompanying interviews with Alec. I know what his dog looks like, I know what his kids and wife look like, I know what his assistants look like, and I recognize all of them and say hello and mumble: "Hi, I'm Jim." "Oh I thought you'd be much older, like sixty," is Brad Zellar's first comment. "Yeah, I thought he'd look different too," is Alec's. The group mingles, sits down, and gets a greeting from Alec. Then we start a speed dating exercise in order to meet one another. I say a variation of the same thing to twenty different people twenty times: "So I make books, photobooks mostly. They are stories sometimes or sometimes just a project with a theme. I live in Germany, but I'm from Tennessee." Then they tell me their thing, but normally I don't really get it. We only have two minutes with one another. Then I'm sitting across from Alec, I get nervous again. "So, what are you doing here?" he asks after sitting down and looking me in the eye from across a narrow table. My face feels like a squid's body recoiling from fear and confusion. I have no idea what is going on, finally though, it seems someone has realized that there has been a mistake. I'm not a storyteller or a photographer and I have no idea what I'm doing. "You're so accomplished, I feel like you should be giving your own storytelling camp," he says. My heart claws back up to its normal spot and I give a smile and a shrug and we have established our dynamic for the rest of the week: I think Alec Soth hates me and knows I'm a fake, wait, no, he actually really likes me.

from Jim Reed's BE RIGHT THERE

I go through the activities of the week, racing around the city looking for something. Every day I come up with a new scavenger hunt, some new obsession to go out in search of, lugging around a viewfinder camera I will never once use and opting instead to snap clandestine photos with a cell phone of American women who seem exotic in comparison to the Germans I've become accustomed to. I'm an iPhone Tichy in Minnesota who keeps getting it wrong when it comes to knowing whether I'm in Minneapolis or St. Paul. There is no question of whether these twins are identical; they are at least indistinguishable to anyone not in the family.

photographs by Jim Reed

My problem is still the same though -- I don't know any good stories and even if I did I wouldn't know how to tell them. But I have to tell a story on Saturday to a live audience and the British Journal of Photography will be there, and NPR, and local papers, and some very nice Japanese journalists. That seems like a better set up for a story than anything conceivable, but this isn't about me. I don't want to be a This American Life photocopy of quirky and confessional. My bigger problem might be that I don't know what I want to be. I've spent all my time until now avoiding the responsibility of a personality or simply made decisions by doing the opposite of whoever was next to me. Now everyone next to me is telling stories. I struggle, I argue, I pull theories, I complain, I sulk, I sit alone staring. I tell myself everything is a story, that the expectation of receiving a story is what brings the feeling. Imagine walking down the street watching a woman's hair bouncing as she is pacing and thinking, "This is a magic trick. This is a story." That is how art began, isn't it? A bowl of cherries telling a story. Animals running being scrawled on cave walls in the dark. The images from your life that are burned on the backs of your eyes, which surface in isolation and darkness.

photographs by Jim Reed

So I try something different. I try everything different. It is probably a failure; one day is deemed a failure by Soth. I may have yelled at him in his office standing on his treadmill looking at his books. I can't remember. Most of what I remember are the faces of the others who went through with me, who all felt not good enough and believed themselves to be impostors. And I remember the objects I drunkenly stared at for a day instead of taking photographs. I wanted to burn arcane images on the backs of my eyes and to see stories moving at a graceful pace -- and I did. -- Jim Reed

Jim Reed (*1984) is from Nashville, TN where he studied photography at the Nashville State Technical Institute from 2002-2004. In 2012 he founded Easter Trouble Press, an independent art book publishing company. He now lives and works in Frankfurt, Germany.