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Crazy Legs Saloon. Watertown, New York, from Songbook

London Must-Sees: Alec Soth at the Science Museum

29 January 2016 Lydia Cooper

If you haven’t had a chance to see the acclaimed documentary photographer Alec Soth’s exhibition at the Science Museum yet, here is an outline of what awaits visitors at the excellent Gathered Leaves.

Alec Soth’s first major exhibition in the UK gives the viewer a glimpse at a sprawling cultural chronicle of America, reminding us that it is unsurprising his lyrical style has been imitated by so many successive documentary photographers.

The title Gathered Leaves, perhaps alluding to the many different representations of American society that Soth collects and explores, is taken from Walt Whitman’s free verse poem Song of Myself, the paradigmatic American epic. Whitman’s work catalogued and chronicled American experience in a time of heightened tension - the eve of the Civil War - and Soth’s work similarly delineates changing ideas of community, ideology and the individual in the twenty first century. Soth maps out the social and geographical landscape of Midwestern America, paying attention to physical scenery but also human intrigue and character.

The Science Museum exhibition is designed around Soth’s four major books of the last decade, with accompanying materials and editions: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2012-2014). Each book has a different focus - the winding path of the Mississippi, the grandeur of Niagara, the appeal of disappearing into the wilderness, the dynamics of small-town communities - but they revolve around the same universal themes: loneliness, vulnerability, curiosity.

Soth’s methods and influences are as literary as his technique, and the Science Museum’s Media Space is scattered with glass vitrines containing books and other paraphernalia, which illuminate his working practice.  Below is a guide to Soth’s four major books, including what to watch out for in the Gathered Leaves exhibition.

 

Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004)

Soth’s first major book displays his fascination with the winding Mississippi, which is not far from his hometown Minneapolis. The recurrent themes of escapism and dreams are ever-present in this series: we see the boyhood homes of Johnny Cash and Charles Lindbergh, but also everyday dreamers who live along the river’s course.  The symbol of an empty bed appears constantly, whether in dingy motel rooms or entrenched in the waters of the Mississippi itself. In one image, lush greenery gradually overtakes a rusting bed frame by the river’s waters (‘Venice, Louisiana, 2003’). 

The collection also hints at Soth’s interest in rituals: we see devotees with an Ash Wednesday mark, or waving a branch on Palm Sunday. Yet the supernatural and unexplained still permeates this collection, demonstrated by the image of Bonnie, a woman who clutches a photograph of an ‘angel’, a blurred cloud-figure. Bonnie’s confident posture and direct gaze are belied by other images in the collection, which depict futile dreams and idealistic vulnerability.

Venice, Louisiana (2003), from Sleeping by the Mississippi

 

Niagara (2006)

The images in Soth’s book Niagara were taken over the course of seven visits to Niagara, which Soth described as a metaphor for ‘a kind of intensified sexuality and unsustainable desire’. Oscar Wilde described the site of Niagara, a common place for newly-wed American couples to visit, as ‘one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life’. Soth draws heavily on this idea in Niagara, which combines the beauty of the location with a tawdry undercurrent. The motif is present throughout the collection of photographs, which subvert the stereotype of Niagara as a honeymoon destination - and a notorious site for suicide - in their depictions of prosaic existence.

In this series, Soth captures people in bars and wedding venues, the exteriors of motels, and images of love-notes that betray the fleetingness of desire. Describing his artistic process for Niagara, Soth explained that as he circled around Niagara, he had a list of things taped to the wheel: ‘high-school yearbooks, polaroids, men in pajamas...’ He would ask couples to pose nude, ask women if they had any love letters. ‘Most people think I’m a pervert.’

The photographed front of the Cadillac Motel is strongly reminiscent of Eliot’s line about ‘The muttering retreats | Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.’ In Soth’s picture, the indentations in the snow hint at someone visiting, but in the cool reflection of the glass nobody can be seen, not even Soth. A slight crack in the curtains provokes us to wonder what kind of activities might be going on inside, whether someone is looking out right back at us. It is the kind of image that reveals further layers of subtext each time it is viewed.

Similarly, ‘The Flechs’ (2005) shows an awkward family line-up. It was captured directly after Aaron and Nicole left the ‘Love Chapel’, a quick wedding with no photographer. The only guests were their six children from previous marriages, who stand in formation between them. Without this context, the picture prompts you to consider the family dynamics: the five sisters stand in matching pale pink frilly dresses and tiaras, and a small boy in a suit looks confused while they smile sweetly. Soth’s picture compels us to invent our own narrative - what is the newly-joined family’s life like? Are they happy?

The strange kind of voyeurism we experience in ‘No. 48, Cadillac Motel’ and ‘The Flechs’ is juxtaposed with breathtaking images of nature. Soth’s stunning images of the waters of the Niagara Falls seem to suggest limitless possibilities, jarring with the limits of love that are displayed elsewhere in countless broken-hearted and still-hopeful letters, some of which are immortalised at the exhibition in a glass vitrine.

The Flechs (2005), from Niagara

 

Broken Manual (2010)

Broken Manual, a guide to running away and disappearing, is strikingly different from Soth’s previous two books. Soth became interested in a series of survivalists, hermits and monks when he researched Eric Robert Rudolph, the Olympic Park Bomber. Rudolph was a right-wing radical who spent over five years on the run from the FBI, hiding in the Appalachian wilderness. This led to Soth reading various guides, communications and manifestos about wilderness survival, and encouraged him to track down their obscure authors in order to create Broken Manual, including the hermit Thomas Merton. He later encountered Lester B. Morrison, who had been assembling his 'Big Manual', a guide to escaping, and Soth began to take photos to supplement Morrison's book, a work that elucidates his desire to disappear completely, to be invisible. Soth became drawn to the intensity of such an existence, and commented that there was definitely a ‘personal, autobiographical element’ to this phase of his work.

In the exhibition, we see a man standing alone, dwarfed by a huge pine forest. The image appears to be taken from a great distance away, illustrating the separation between us and the reclusive subject. The theme of surveillance throbs throughout these pictures, which intrude on the lives of liminal figures. The titles are all numerical in an anonymising serial code (‘2006_03zl0016’), hinting at something recondite we can’t quite access. In one image, a huge glitter ball dangles from a tree in a quiet forest, with no sign of how it came to be there.

The secluded romanticism we might seek in abject wilderness, popularised by the rise of nature lust and ‘cabin porn’, is contradicted by Soth’s own subjects, who seem to be uncomfortable rather than living an eremitic dream. In a derelict room, next to a dirty rucksack, the words ‘I love my dad Tony I wish he loved me’ are scrawled on a wall, betraying the escapist fantasy as an illusion with a more sinister side.

An odd collection of survival books and other miscellaneous items is displayed alongside these images. Titles such as ‘How to Disappear in Amerika [sic]’, ‘Improvised Weapons in American Prisons’, ‘Strategic Relocation: North American Guide to Safe Places’, and ‘How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found’ indicate Soth’s obsession with a reclusive lifestyle during Broken Manual’s composition.

2006_03zl0016 (2006), from Broken Manual

 

Songbook (2012-2014)

After the isolation and emptiness of Broken Manual, Soth’s next book Songbook demonstrates a desire to reaffirm a human connection. For this project, Soth went on a series of road trips with the writer Brad Zellar; they worked as if they were journalists for a local paper, compiling small, local interest stories at a rapid rate.

With each image, the viewer is still prompted to create a narrative and work out what is unsaid. In the ironically-titled ‘Home Suite Home’, three kids stand frozen in a trashed hotel room: a lamp is askew, there are holes in the paintwork, the contents of a suitcase upheaved everywhere. In spite of the squalidness suggested by the room’s condition, the snapshot is candid and hums with energy and childlike abandon. Yet again, we begin to wonder how these children came to be alone in the room and whether the girl has suddenly noticed Soth’s presence as he takes the picture.

In Songbook, earlier interests in Soth’s body of work are revisited relentlessly: in another image that is not displayed in this exhibition, but which you can view here, the word ‘Jesus’ appears in the sky, etched in fluffy cloud-form above the Key Hotel in Florida. This strange combination of near-vacant car park and mystical sky-message might suggest a newly amused optimism as he returns to the themes of ritual and blind faith.

Soth has explained in interviews that we are often attracted to clichés - swathes of Instagrammed sunsets and Eiffel Towers come to mind - and that whilst working as a documentary photographer, he has taught himself to reject clichés and move instinctively towards images that are unusual or idiosyncratic.  This is manifest in his work, which swerves towards the peculiar and distinctive. One of my favourite Soth images - sadly not on display at the Gathered Leaves exhibition - encapsulates this perfectly. In a sweaty crowd of teenagers at a prom, your attention, perhaps initially drawn to the gay couple in each other’s arms, suddenly fixes on a girl who looks desperately alone, despite being claustrophobically surrounded. Her pained expression crystallises an emotion all of us have experienced: the sensation of floating outside one’s body and feeling totally disconnected from everyone around you.

Home Suite Home. Kissimmee, Florida (2012), from Songbook

 

It is astonishing that Gathered Leaves is the first major exhibition of Alec Soth’s photography in the UK, but one fortuitous outcome of this is that it allows visitors to explore his books as a series of connected movements. It helps us to understand his work cohesively as well as individually, and the dreamy, story-like quality of his photography forms a narrative strand throughout. In Gathered Leaves, you can connect with a vast landscape of humanity whilst appreciating Soth’s fine-tuned, distinctive aesthetic.

 

You have until 28 March 2016 to catch this exhibition. More information can be found on the Science Museum’s website.

 

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