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Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.
– Helen Levitt
Helen Levitt, the undersung but brilliant master of street photography, understood that photographs conveyed as much information about the photographer as the subject. Alec Soth is the same. A Soth photo distils, in a single image, an era, a place, a mood, the politics of the time – and a record of Soth’s own sensibility and personal journey.
Levitt’s dictum could equally describe the evocative Americana that is Soth’s stock in trade. Photography is a form of expression and articulation rolled into one; any photograph, the product of both an internal state and an external event, articulates much more than its subject. What is so fluently communicated is an era, the politics of the time, a place, a mood, a significant detail and, of course, boundless information about the photographer. For Alec Soth it’s an image of so much more than aesthetic, it’s a way, as indicated by Levitt, to express himself, to narrate a journey. Soth’s care and attention, intimacy and exposure has lead him to be claimed as the “greatest living photographer of America’s social and geographical landscape” as his cognisant photographs lock eyes with the public, absorbing them in the detail of America.
Gathered Leaves enamoured me right from the start, where we see something unattainably unique in Soth’s work. We can see there is a passion for what is perceived and the dream of what should actually be perceived. We can see the care and natural ability in each photograph. We are overwhelmed by the curiosity and observation that this camera maestro has.
We start from his first collection, 2004’s Sleeping in Mississippi, where the American outskirts really begin to take shape in my mind. There is a wonderful simplicity in Soth’s work, with a meaning deeply embedded. A stunning simplicity that leaves a deeply ingrained impression on the individual. As we gaze intently we assimilate diverging opinions on a single photograph, quickly reminding us that photography is an art of observation – not only for the photographer but for us as well. I am struck by the bleakness of Mississippi accompanied by photographs of distinctive individuals, rather those that crave the attention. The worn and torn working elements of the state are not concealed by delicate positioning or altered settings; we truly are seeing the sights of Soth’s hometown and the immortalized river from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Many of the photos from this collection stick out in my mind more than others in the exhibition. The image of Johnny Cash’s childhood home is desolate and nostalgic, so entirely captured that you can hear his music leaking from the single image. At the next turn we see portraits of those whose personality shines through as the consequence of the state. A woman sitting idly on a bed, a man on Palm Sunday, a face staring bleakly with a cross on her face; they all resonate through the image with infinite heaps of emotion. With over 55% of the population in Mississippi being religious in some way, in comes at no surprise the clarity in the religious elements of Soth’s photographers. Even in the modern inventions we can see a representation of Christ’s crucifixion for the world to see.
The image that distinctly leapt out at me though was not the one I expected. It was not the one with an interesting perspective or where you’re lost in the eyes of an individual. The photo was one that felt as though it had been torn out of a page in a Steinbeck novel. Flat, open spaces with men working on the land, the clouds ominous and unassuming overhead, no signs of civilization. Perhaps it’s because this seems like such an alien concept to those of us in London, with distractions 24/7 – but the image sticks out giving tenderness to the secluded state of Mississippi.
As we progress into the next collection of the mid-career photographer we see his collection Niagara Falls as a place to show the wounded, the broken and those beaten down by love. After Soth’s marriage to Rachel, they headed to Niagara Falls, a place where couples go for honeymoons and which symbolises sexuality and desire. There is something very tragic about these images as the faces of the ruined are surrounded and overwhelmed by the bland, lifeless atmosphere of these motels. One image, in which a woman is carrying her child, echoes the disproportionate amount of dejection and I can’t help but feel sympathy for their gloom. Another, shows two towel birds facing each other in a shabby motel room. It indicates a feeling of affection between two lovers but instead suggests a similarity to a Tennessee Williams play where the dreamers are falling.
At moments Soth’s work is reminiscent of Steve McCurry’s as both effortlessly bring out the raw human element while simultaneously engulfing the world in a single frame. However, it’s Soth who is more compendious: he pays attention to everything, no matter how obscure, and this includes things that are incongruous to their own setting. A portrait in the Niagara Falls collection specifically is suggestive of McCurry’s work: a girl, an observer, watching the world go by. It’s the image that epitomizes the collection, as it accurately perceives the somber but lustful state that documents the celebratory location of Niagara Falls.
Suddenly we are taken away from civilization and deserted into a world of the desire to escape in Broken Manuals. Soth poses us with the images of monks, survivors and men similar to himself, all dreaming of escaping the world. The male figure is prominent because of what Soth himself connects with and it appears to allow him it encapsulate the personal sensation of loneliness and freedom directly. The collection evokes Robert Frost’s “Birches”: “I’d like to get away from the earth for awhile, then come back to it and begin over.” The tremendous air of nature gives the desire to escape and reconnect with his roots. Nature here echoes as “a medium of separation” both from Soth’s previous work and from the modern world as a whole. Soth documents the freedom of life and nature in such an open way here, we can take a breath and transport ourselves away from everything we are surrounded by.
After the desire to escape, Songbook seizes the happiness of the present. As a worshipper of photojournalism, Alec Soth and a friend, the writer Brad Zellar, travelled across the United States of America acting as journalists for a newspaper. The work that they collected is extraordinary and finds the motif of happiness in music. From the chap in a hat dancing to the child playing an electric guitar in a small church, we see a subject matter that unites each and every one of us. I imagine hearing rock choirs or Cole Porter or Irving Berlin as I wander round this collection. One image is particularly eye-catching. A woman, in black and white, holds her hand to her head and initiates all sorts of questions. Is there agony in the sound around her? Is there peacefulness in the music? Is it all just in her head? It’s a perfect cadence to end with.
For me, Alec Soth stands among the greats. He is no Mario Testino, changing and editing the subject to incorporate the modern-day aesthetic. No, he captures the rawest and purest forms of humanity and the world to which we belong.
Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth continues at the Science Museum until March 23. Tickets cost £8.