Soth exposes quiet resilience forgotten corners of America
“From Here to There: Alec Soth's America” was a solo exhibition at the Walker Art Center in 2010, comprising of over 100 photographs taken by the artist from the mid-1990s to the present. The work includes early black-and-white images of Minneapolis working-class taverns, to his well-known series Sleeping by the Mississippi, NIAGARA, and Broken Manual, among others.
One of the most interesting voices in contemporary photography, Alec Soth plays with the tension between photography as art and photography as documentary. His work sits squarely somewhere in between, creating surprising and personal metaphors for the collective hopes and anxieties of post-9/11 America.
"Sleeping by the Mississippi," was the culmination of four-years of road trips along the Mississippi river. Blending quixotic and painterly portraits, landscapes and still-life, Soth documents the poverty, decay and eccentricity of the region.
The "NIAGARA" series explores myths around love, interspersing portraits of couples, families and lonely individuals with the beautiful falls, stale motel interiors and exteriors, and handwritten love letters borrowed from people he met there.
"Broken Manual," on the other hand, documents men who have almost completely retreated from the world to live off the grid, focusing on their few possessions and the environments in which they live.
Though each series documents decidedly diverse subjects in differing corners of the country, Soth offers a distinct perspective born out process as unique as his encounters. On his road trips through America, he embraces the act of wandering and serendipity when seeking his subjects. He is drawn to the loners and dreamers he spots from his car, and on occasion will drive by several times before striking up a conversation.
By using a cumbersome 8 x 10 view camera, Soth slows down the documentary process into a solitary and lengthy production. He spends considerable time setting up his shots, which allows the subject to relax and daydream rather than perform for the camera. With this method, he is able to capture individuals as ordinary as they are, yet extraordinarily poetic and meditative, simultaneously honest and staged. It is often what is not seen in the photograph that leaves us in wonder.
When considered together, these photographs probe the idiosyncrasies of people, objects, and places and capture the overlooked beauty in the banal. They are a documentation of Soth’s own versions of offbeat narratives that comprise the American experience, forming an unexpected sociological portrait of the country.
When describing his work, Soth quoted Henri Cartier-Bresson, who famously said, "The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks." Soth counters this, by stating “I don’t think the world would have been a better place if these photographers had headed off to a war zone. The question is whether you can be a political photographer while you photograph rocks. My pictures don’t have a specific social commentary but I think they have social and political meaning."
Amidst frozen gazes of eccentric and lonely Americans, through static snapshots of neglected interiors and tattered landscapes, Soth exposes a genuinely raw and resilient American spirit. He reminds us of our deep resounding faith in love, hope, and dreams, and of an ability to imaginatively transcend hardships even in the most forgotten corners of America.
Soth founded Little Brown Mushroom publishing house in 2010, where he continuously publishes new photographic work and written form.