Alec Soth’s Silicon Valley

Alec Soth. Silicon Valley. 2013

On the heels of my enjoying Flesh and Metal, I figured I should check out SFMOMA On the Go’s Project Los Altos show too. I’ve been intrigued watching this show develop. SFMOMA, despite being in the Bay Area, doesn’t typically address Silicon Valley. As much as I love the museum, this is one thing which I’ve always felt like it misses. The San José Museum of Art often does great things here. So does the Stanford Museum. So does Oakland. I’m glad to see SFMOMA look South for once.

Project Los Altos is also interesting since it brings SFMOMA into a non-art space. This is also something I’d like to see more of. The small galleries still smells like fresh paint. The docents are all super eager and friendly. It’s a nice change of pace to collaborate in the city and encourages people to walk and explore a bit. The whole “let’s go find this other piece/gallery’ experience is something I haven’t felt since I was at Biennale.* I wish that SFMOMA had done something similar to this with its Six Lines of Flight show. Sometimes exploring just enhances the experience.

*No, Los Altos is not Venice.

The main reason I wanted to see this show though was to see the Alec Soth photos. Besides him being a photography rock star, I was interested to see outsider views of Silicon Valley. There’s a bit of an echo chamber in the Bay Area which forgets how different the outside world is. Heck, it forgets that there’s a lot of non-tech stuff in the Bay Area too. In this case Soth is clearly looking at tech, specifically the current big-name companies. Lots of Google—and a resulting focus on Mountain View. Also Apple, Facebook, and Udacity. The garages* are a nice nod to origin stories. But it’s interesting that there’s no reference to Stanford or PARC or any of the intellectual sources of much of the Silicon Valley mindset.

*HP, Steve Jobs, Google.

I found myself thinking a lot about who else should have been chosen. The lack of Intel or Cisco for example are pretty striking considering what all the tech companies actually run on. I also thought about how the set would have looked different if it had been shot in 2000. Or 1990. Or 1980. Silicon Valley has been around a long time now but people only think of the current version as a new thing.

The photos themselves are very nice. Lots of low contrast black and white photos of home—foggy Bay Area mornings, sorta Baltzy industrial parks, and the suburbs I grew up in. Soth manages to pull a sense of calm out of the over-programmed Bay Area lifestyle while also emphasizing how lonely it can be here.

At the same time, they also feel also incredibly shallow. They try and scratch the surface of the gleaming fantasy of Silicon Valley success to show other aspects of the area only they don’t go deep enough. Nor do they suggest the boom-bust cycle which is common here. I’ve spent the last few weeks driving past the construction site for the gleaming new Apple campus, the first phase of which is to tear down what used to be the main HP campus. The constant churning of industrial park construction/destruction as industries come and go is completely absent from the photos. As is the similar churning of strip malls and suburban housing. The only constant I think are the schools since they’re the anchors upon which property values depend on. And the tech companies have to stay with commute range of those good neighborhoods.

Also, while I’m not Soth—both in terms of skill and vision, this is one of the first times I’ve been to a show where the subject matter overlaps with one of my own projects. I’m used to seeing photos which I’ve aped (either unconsciously or consciously). It’s a different experience to see photos which trigger the, “wait, do I have a photo like that” reaction. The two Soth photos in Redwood Shores are close enough to my work neighborhood in Foster City to have caused me pause.

It was also interesting to contrast Soth’s photos with Friedlander’s Cray photos. The two projects are very similar both in their subject matter and in their approach. Friedlander shows more people at work and isn’t as critical about what it all means. Soth is a bit more provocative in trying make a point about isolation. Still, both works come at a lot of our preconceptions about tech and where tech is developed. It seems like cutting edge devices should come from space age locations. The reality is much more mundane.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

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