I have always liked Alec Soth (rhymes with ‘both’) for his congenial vibe on social media and could sense that he was very much “a photographers’ photographer” but this is the first time I have really engaged with his work. And I must say I am quite smitten. He comes across as humble, warm and generous. Soth seems to be fully aware of his privilege and feels he has a duty to experiment, push boundaries and be playful. Curator Kate Bush describes him as a “lyrical documentarist” and the richness of his vision and careful consideration in editing underpins all of Soth’s photographs.
The show at the Science Museum’s Media Space covers four of his major series in chronological order. The title Gathered Leaves is a literal description of the bringing together of photographic paper but is also taken from a Walt Whitman poem, Song of Myself, from 1855.
Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,
Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,
In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night,
Kindling a fire and broiling the freshkilled game,
Soundly falling asleep on the gathered leaves, my dog and gun by my side.
This long and influential poem aimed to reflect the fractured state of the nation as it moved towards civil war whilst clinging, patriotically, to the American dream. Soth has followed in Robert Frank’s footsteps and captured the contemporary tensions as the modern USA fumbles for its sense of identity. He features people on the borders of normality and makes us wonder if there is such a thing as normal in America anymore. This small part of the poem perhaps also reflects Soth’s personal journey to make sense of his life and his work. As Sartre says: “a man has to decide what he is and what others are”.
From a newspaper review: ‘Photography,’ Alec Soth said, ‘is so stupid. It’s so obvious… Everyone can do it, and yet certain moments have this magic. And that’s what you’re always looking for. I make the analogy with popular music. In some ways, it’s so easy to write a pop song, but why do certain ones do that thing that touches a nerve and makes them a hit? It’s such a subtle little mix of elements. It drives me crazy because I’ll often go out and think it’s super easy – you can just point the camera anywhere and make a picture – and it just doesn’t capture it at all. To this day, it’s really mysterious to me.’ 
After an initial walk round with tutor Helen Warburton and the OCA student group, we also joined a tour with curator Kate Bush. She talked about how the images were chosen to fit the space – a collaborative process between her and the photographer. Each series has its own formal language and the curation aimed to compliment this. She explained that it can actually be quite problematic exhibiting photographers as they often work in series and need a lot of space to present their narrative. Soth has frequently stated that it is the body of work, how all the photographs are edited down to fit together and resonate off each other, that really interests him.
Someone asked about the choice of image for the promo for the show, which it had been said did not really reflect most of the work. Bush slightly awkwardly explained this was a marketing decision as images with subjects looking out directly at the viewer have proved to create more engagement and therefore sell more tickets.
Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004)
Described by Bush as a ‘statement of ambition’. This is a light and airy room. All the images are the same size with white mounts and white frames (print size: 40×50 or 50x40cms). They have been very carefully composed with a large format camera on a tripod. Technically, the work is impeccable. Muted colours and relaxed engagement with the camera allow this series to seem quite playful and very expressive. Interestingly, we hardly see the river at all except in pictures within a picture or frozen or in boggy borders but we get the sense of it carrying us along this journey metaphorically. This starts in the frozen north of Minneapolis (Soth’s birthplace and home town) on the right hand side of the room and concludes in the Gulf of Mexico on the left. There is a fascinating mixture of people and place.
These images are much larger than in the previous room (more than twice the size in some cases). The frames are natural wood and the vitrines contain evidence of the heightened emotions of these visitors to Niagara – notes and love letters, snippets of poems, heart symbols). There are also some excellent sketchbook styles notes to show the development of the series – very inspiring for us student types. Soth describes Niagara as a place of “spectacular suicides and affordable honeymoons.” We get a strong sense that this is a place of transition, impermanence, that all the human activity is at an extreme end of the spectrum. Soth flirts with picture postcard clichés to balance the drab motels and bizarre spectacles all around. We discover that when he photographs people, he often asks his subjects to tell him or write down what is their big dream.
Broken Manual (2010)
This is Soth’s most fascinating set for me. Here we really do see the melding of fine art and documentary as the series evokes an American rural romanticism punctured by sinister survivalists and recluses, off the grid for a reason. The use of long lenses and a surveillance approach adds to the viewer’s discomfort. Figures are often completely dwarfed by the sheer scale of the land around them. One image is a highly zoomed and cropped face of a nocturnal hermit. The print is not even securely fixed to the mount, perpetuating this sense of unease in the space.
This is an overtly autobiographical project – his self-confessed mid-life crisis. Soth is playing out a fantasy and the Lester B. Morrison/Lester Be More persona, which transitions into Lester Becomes Me, is indeed playful. He uses disfigured self-portraits and images found on the internet to illustrate his ideas. Some of the featured literature is alarming but some quite poetic:
The room is much darker, almost cave-like, with military-grey walls, making the greens of the landscape really pop out. Many of the images have codes for titles eg 2008_0ZZl0173 and they are presented in a variety of sizes. Randomly, some are monochrome creating a very fragmentary feel. There are more layers to this series, many more stages of production. It is very masculine and tackles issues of distance and separation from the self and from society.
After Broken Manual, Bush tells us, Soth needed to reconnect with society. For me, this series was the least appealing. Deliberately stark, these images speak of the dislocations and discontent in American society. Community and connection is counterpoised with isolation and loneliness. Soth’s subjects do not look at the camera. The nostalgia is very much melancholic and slightly sinister in places.
For this series, Soth said he was attempting to mimic the look of a Graflex in the reportage style of Weegee (whom he characterizes as a ‘truly joyous photographer’, taking pleasure in the insanity of life). Having started his photographic career on a local paper, Soth wanted to function like a journalist and felt that using black and white gave him more flexibility and a way of referencing the past. 
As he points out in the video, the past didn’t actually look like that (B&W and illuminated by flash) so we experience a deeply romanticized vision, which combines a longing for the relative simplicity of post-war USA and a subconscious fear of the future. The images are large and have black frames to confine the prints and lead the viewer’s eye into the scene. The vitrines feature the newspaper format zines produced by Soth and Brad Zellar as they visited different towns, investigated stories and created worked based on a fake local paper. This style demands a clear purpose for the photographer devoid of artifice or art; a purity of message and a sense of the surprising. The image must tell someone something. Of the flash, Soth says he liked its ‘aggressiveness. Rather than standing back and watching the light fall on a subject, you are projecting out your own light. And it’s almost a metaphor for the way I was working, like an attack dog.’ 
Fine art or documentary?
Sean O’Hagan states that Soth images are “the most sure-footed fine art photography of his generation” and that he is “the most important visual chronicler of the US at work today.” 
And yet he is a Magnum photographer, producing superb social documentary. Soth helps to explain this in the American Suburb X interview by observing that Magnum as a “complicated organism” is “profoundly misunderstood” and that it is not a news agency but rather a co-operative; what connects all Magnum photographers is that they are actually engaging with the world.
He goes on to talk about the importance of authorship and a ‘spectrum’ of non-fiction work, which I think is a great way of absolving our innate desires to pigeon-hole art and artists. 
Like Sternfeld, Soth is attracted to oddities and quiet, quotidian miracles. We see lots of crosses and beds in the first room. The theme is of flight/escape and dreaming. Vulnerability is strongly depicted throughout, sometimes indicated by the different points of focus. Animal motifs face each other in Niagara. The landscapes touch on existential ideas. Waterfalls can be a sexual metaphor or an indication of new explosive passions.
Soth is an extremely accomplished maker of photobooks and he describes the book as the ‘ultimate container’. These are presented digitally, as well as in hard copy, so we can sense the rhythm of how all the images fit together (only a selection are on the walls). We noted that the vitrines were all in the centre of the room and provided a fascinating insight to Soth’s process, showing the development of ideas through his books, maquettes, zines, research documents and Dispatches (a collaborative project with Brad Zellar). The choice of cover images changes over the various iterations (eg with Mississippi, the first cover is of Bonnie with her angel cloud picture).
The (broken) manual physically sits inside another larger book whose pages have been cut out: https://littlebrownmushroom.wordpress.com/broken-manual/. Some of the images in this series are displayed bureaucratically in a triptych as if they are catalogued evidence.
The show also includes a film about Soth’s work creating Broken Manual: http://www.somewheretodisappearthefilm.com/ which I did not not have time to watch in full but looked fascinating.
He is described in the show blurb as a photo-journalist, blogger, self-publisher, Instagrammer and educator. Kate Bush’s talk made it very clear that he is very reflective and open to sharing his methods and insights and this has a refreshingly contemporary feel. Soth really understands the power of the communication opportunities of the world wide web. It is also interesting that Soth secured his own means of production by purchasing a printing press. He describes Little Brown Mushroom as a ‘small art institution committed to experimenting with new ways of creating and distributing visual stories’. Big Al’s offers inkjet printing and drum scanning services for photographers throughout North America.
Our tutor Helen also pointed out that this is Soth’s first major exhibition in the UK and we wondered why it has taken so long. Possibly partly because of the subtly of his work and partly because it depicts an America that few Brits have likely seen or understood? Or maybe it is just because he has been extremely busy elsewhere. Helen asked us to contemplate how Soth has become so important and reached this milestone of such a large solo show. The fact that he is so well-liked on a personal level – leading to many layers of support from people – and that he is trusted will have certainly had an impact. Soth has also won many awards and has been widely exhibited in the USA and Europe. He is also regularly featured in the photographic press and the nationals.
Soth is quite traditional in his approach and embraces the exhilarating experience of the great American road trip. He has clearly been inspired by Frank, Evans, Shore and his former teacher Joel Sternfeld. There are also references to Eggleston (http://www.artsconnected.org/resource/80031/kym-polish-palace-minneapolis-minnesota) and Southern American writers such Mark Twain and Eudora Welty. This is demonstrated through Soth’s keen sense of place but also his skills as a storyteller. O’Hagan describes this as “an almost writerly understanding of how to sustain a mood.” Our man is often described as lyrical. There are various definitions for that word within this context – and various interpretations but I think ‘expressing emotions in an imaginative and beautiful way’ probably covers it best. It also perhaps has a hint of being ephemeral and elusive, maybe even whimsical?
Josef Sudek (1896-1976, Czech), is attributed with saying: “Everything around us, dead or alive, in the eyes of a crazy photographer mysteriously takes on many variations, so that a seemingly dead object comes to life through light or by its surroundings…. To capture some of this – I suppose that’s lyricism.” 
This is an interesting area when considered in the light of documentary ‘truth’, emotional detachment and objectivity.
The curation of this exhibition was excellent; each room has a very different feel and the presentation has been carefully tailored to each series.
The show flier says, “Fragmentary, funny and sad, his work captures a profound sense of what it is to be human.” I agree that Soth’s work is so powerful because he has an uncanny ability to connect with, and portray, humanity (even – or maybe especially – in images which do not include people) and is attuned to absurdity whilst observing and recording without exploiting. He is thoughtful and clearly very detailed in his research. All the subjects seem relaxed with him and are not made to look silly (even the naked guys) and there seems to be no judgment. It is a transaction not exploitation. The intimacy, the mundanity, the quirks, all work together to create a mood, a feeling, a time and a place you may never have visited. I feel this but cannot always pinpoint the specific aspects of his images that leave me with this sensation. And maybe that is part of the magic.
I think much of the brilliance comes from the respectful treatment: careful compositions with the subject often centred. They are allowed to have props. The narrative pacing is controlled and Soth clearly has confidence in his ideas. Delicate stories, gently told.
Other aspects for future consideration
- The role and priority of publishing in an artist’s practice (eg the vitrines being at the centre of the room for this show)
- How do viewers respond differently to books and images on walls?
- The ratio of the frames and the mounts to the size of the images
- Relationships between text and image? Does this change between the books and the exhibition?
- Form reflecting content
- The dichotomy of photography – why is there a gallery in a science museum?
- Who is the audience? What is the context? What is the purpose or function of the show? And how is this reflected in the curation?
- How does this exhibition meet or challenge expectations of a photography show?
- Compare this exhibition with Julia Margaret Cameron next door (much less reference-heavy; less formal)
- Consider own recurring motifs and what this symbolizes on a deeper level
- Research point: American sublime
- To watch: Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus (Jim White)
- Research: Tom Farmer (Dark river, still shining)