Alec Soth: So about 10 years ago, I got a call from a woman in Texas, Stacey Baker, and she'd seen some of my photographs in an art exhibition and was wondering if she could commission me to take a portrait of her parents. Now, at the time I hadn't met Stacey, and I thought this was some sort of wealthy oil tycoon and I'd struck it rich, but it was only later that I found out she'd actually taken out a loan to make this happen.
I took the picture of her parents, but I was actually more excited about photographing Stacey. The picture I made that day ended up becoming one of my best-known portraits. At the time I made this picture, Stacey was working as an attorney for the State of Texas. Not long after, she left her job to study photography in Maine, and while she was there, she ended up meeting the director of photography at the New York Times Magazine and was actually offered a job. Stacey Baker: In the years since, Alec and I have done a number of magazine projects together, and we've become friends.
A few months ago, I started talking to Alec about a fascination of mine. I've always been obsessed with how couples meet. I asked Alec how he and his wife Rachel met, and he told me the story of a high school football game where she was 16 and he was 15, and he asked her out. He liked her purple hair. She said yes, and that was it. I then asked Alec if he'd be interested in doing a photography project exploring this question.
AS: And I was interested in the question, but I was actually much more interested in Stacey's motivation for asking it, particularly since I'd never known Stacey to have a boyfriend. So as part of this project, I thought it'd be interesting if she tried to meet someone. So my idea was to have Stacey here go speed dating in Las Vegas on Valentine's Day. (Laughter) (Applause) (Music)
SB: We ended up at what was advertised as the world's largest speed dating event. I had 19 dates and each date lasted three minutes. Participants were given a list of ice- breaker questions to get the ball rolling, things like, "If you could be any kind of animal, what would you be?" That sort of thing.
My first date was Colin. He's from England, and he once married a woman he met after placing an ad for a Capricorn. Alec and I saw him at the end of the evening, and he said he'd kissed a woman in line at one of the concession stands.
Zack and Chris came to the date-a-thon together.
This is Carl. I asked Carl, "What's the first thing you notice about a woman?" He said, "Tits." (Laughter)
Matthew is attracted to women with muscular calves. We talked about running. He does triathlons, I run half-marathons. Alec actually liked his eyes and asked if I was attracted to him, but I wasn't, and I don't think he was attracted to me either.
Austin and Mike came together. Mike asked me a hypothetical question. He said, "You're in an elevator running late for a meeting. Someone makes a dash for the elevator. Do you hold it open for them?" And I said I would not. (Laughter)
Cliff said the first thing he notices about a woman is her teeth, and we complimented each other's teeth. Because he's an open mouth sleeper, he says he has to floss more to help prevent gum disease, and so I asked him how often he flosses, and he said, "Every other day." (Laughter) Now, as someone who flosses twice a day, I wasn't really sure that that was flossing more but I don't think I said that out loud.
Bill is an auditor, and we talked the entire three minutes about auditing. (Laughter)
The first thing Spencer notices about a woman is her complexion. He feels a lot of women wear too much makeup, and that they should only wear enough to accentuate the features that they have. I told him I didn't wear any makeup at all and he seemed to think that that was a good thing. Craig told me he didn't think I was willing to be vulnerable. He was also frustrated when I couldn't remember my most embarrassing moment. He thought I was lying, but I wasn't. I didn't think he liked me at all, but at the end of the night, he came back to me and he gave me a box of chocolates.
William was really difficult to talk to. I think he was drunk. (Laughter)
Actor Chris McKenna was the MC of the event. He used to be on "The Young and the Restless." I didn't actually go on a date with him. Alec said he saw several women give their phone numbers to him.
Needless to say, I didn't fall in love. I didn't feel a particular connection with any of the men that I went on dates with, and I didn't feel like they felt a particular connection with me either.
AS: Now, the most beautiful thing to me — (Laughter) — as a photographer is the quality of vulnerability. The physical exterior reveals a crack in which you can get a glimpse at a more fragile interior. At this date-a-thon event, I saw so many examples of that, but as I watched Stacey's dates and talked to her about them, I realized how different photographic love is from real love.
What is real love? How does it work? In order to work on this question and to figure out how someone goes from meeting on a date to having a life together, Stacey and I went to Sun City Summerlin, which is the largest retirement community in Las Vegas. Our contact there was George, who runs the community's photography club. He arranged for us to meet other couples in their makeshift photo studio. SB: After 45 years of marriage, Anastasia's husband died two years ago,
so we asked if she had an old wedding picture. She met her husband when she was a 15-year-old waitress at a small barbecue place in Michigan. He was 30. She'd lied about her age. He was the first person she'd dated.
Dean had been named photographer of the year in Las Vegas two years in a row, and this caught Alec's attention, as did the fact that he met his wife, Judy, at the same age when Alec met Rachel. Dean admitted that he likes to look at beautiful women, but he's never questioned his decision to marry Judy.
AS: George met Josephine at a parish dance. He was 18, she was 15. Like a lot of the couples we met, they weren't especially philosophical about their early choices. George said something that really stuck with me. He said, "When you get that feeling, you just go with it."
Bob and Trudy met on a blind date when she was still in high school. They said they weren't particularly attracted to each other when the first met. Nevertheless, they were married soon after.
SB: The story that stayed with me the most was that of George, the photography club president, and his wife, Mary. This was George and Mary's second marriage. They met at a country-western club in Louisville, Kentucky called the Sahara. He was there alone drinking and she was with friends. When they started dating, he owed the IRS 9,000 dollars in taxes, and she offered to help him get out of debt, so for the next year, he turned his paychecks over to Mary, and she got him out of debt. George was actually an alcoholic when they married, and Mary knew it. At some point in their marriage, he says he consumed 54 beers in one day. Another time, when he was drunk, he threatened to kill Mary and her two kids, but they escaped and a SWAT team was called to the house. Amazingly, Mary took him back, and eventually things got better. George has been involved in Alcoholics Anonymous and hasn't had a drink in 36 years.
At the end of the day, after we left Sun City, I told Alec that I didn't actually think that the stories of how these couples met were all that interesting. What was more interesting was how they managed to stay together.
AS: They all had this beautiful quality of endurance, but that was true of the singles, too. The world is hard, and the singles were out there trying to connect with other people, and the couples were holding onto each other after all these decades.
My favorite pictures on this trip were of Joe and Roseanne. Now, by the time we met Joe and Roseanne, we'd gotten in the habit of asking couples if they had an old wedding photograph. In their case, they simultaneously pulled out of their wallets the exact same photograph. What's more beautiful, I thought to myself, this image of a young couple who has just fallen in love or the idea of these two people holding onto this image for decades?