The Alec Soth retrospective at The Science Museum contains works from four of his most well known projects: Sleeping By The Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010), and Songbook (2014).
As well as being the first major exhibition of his work in the country, this is also the first ever UK exhibition of Songbook.
The first room contains his first and perhaps most well known collection, Sleeping By The Mississippi. A series taken all along the iconic American river, documenting the daily lives of the locals who live inside its wide basin.
Hailing from Minnesota, Soth has an intimate knowledge of this river that runs through his hometown of Minneapolis. In this way this series is partially self-referential, as he is documenting a society of which he is an inhabitant. This familiarity is evident through the photographs, and such closeness would be unimaginable were he not a part of what he documents.
His work shows us beauty in the most unexpected of places, and this series is especially good at showing to us that which we would have never found for ourselves. What is ordinary to these people is otherworldly and exotic for those who live away from it.
The simple lives of people living outside of traditional society are beautiful in their approach to nature, and in their honest simplicity. They live with the existing landscapes, rather than upon them. Their houses are simple and inoffensive to the nature that surrounds them, hermitlike and nomadic.
The works in this series (and indeed most of his oeuvre) instill an unusual air of calm upon the viewer. There is an intense stillness in these works that seems at once both serene and frozen. The expressions and poses seem at first calm, but upon further discovery seem pained, even forced. This is something that Soth himself embraces, as the camera set-up and way he photographs takes longer than most contemporary cameras. This removes the initial pose that is automatic from the subject, and the one captured is of bewilderment and frustration at the process. In this way he is able to take un-posed photographs of posing subjects, and through this he shows us the real person beneath their instinctual façade.
These people have sought out freedom, and somewhere for them to disappear. They are contented with their lot, and all they seek is escape. Soth permeates this community with ease, and is accepted by the residents. Their need to disappear is lifted slightly, and he allows us to peek beneath. In a sense we are voyeurs when we look upon a Soth photograph, for they were always only posing for Soth, and never for us.
“When I think of the Falls as a metaphor, I think of a kind of intensified sexuality and unsustainable desire”
Soth’s love of the work of Diane Arbus is evident throughout, and the methodology of documenting those ‘on the fringes of society’ permeates the work of both artists. One obvious difference is that Soth is primarily a ‘book-photographer’, but in this show he proves that his work is as at home on a gallery wall as it is in a book.
Niagara is the series that fills room two, and in many ways feels like an extension of the Mississippi project. The work is presented slightly larger, but the themes of stillness, calm, and loneliness all appear throughout. Niagara itself appears still and calm, like a blanket of crushed blue velvet.
Two Towels, 2004 is a photograph of a pair of towels manipulated in such a way that they appear as if two swans are kissing, forming a heart in the negative space between them. Tragically comic, this arrangement is clearly shot in some budget motel, the type which is often stayed in alone, or with a guest who is paid by the hour.
The balance between tragedy and comedy is evident in all of his series; in Sleeping By The Mississippi a woman sits amid garish Valentine’s decorations, drinking alone. In Niagara a mirrorball is strung from a tree in a forest, the photograph hung on the adjacent wall is of a shirtless man with a swastika tattoo. This man is one of the subjects interviewed in the documentary Somewhere To Disappear, and despite his fascist opinions, seems timid and delicate.
These people have actively sought a life that is away from the conventional, living entirely as they please. They appear to crave their own freedom, and yet allow (and indeed enjoy) the attention that they receive from Soth and his camera. Isolation can bring freedom, but it can also create intense loneliness. This loneliness is visible in his subjects, through the look upon their faces to their willingness to welcome Soth into their insular existence. These people are escaping ‘traditional’ life for a reason unknown to us as the viewer, and in this they make us fantasize about our own escape, if but for a fleeting second. This is something that pervades most of his work, and in every series in this show there are elements of “American individualism and the urge to be united.”
As a species we crave both freedom and unity, but sometimes we forego one to fully experience the other. Soth has found such people, and their desire to be one with humanity is reminded to them through his intervention. There is a certain delicateness in his work that is suggested by the simple connection between two people who just happen to be together. Sometimes it is nothing more than being in the same place as another person, but in the moment that two people inhabit the same space, they are connected. This connection between Soth and his subjects is profound in its simplicity. They are connected, but only for a short while, and then they are both alone again.
A collection of letters between some of the people he photographs is displayed, and this offers us further insight into these people’s lives. One such letter closes with “Take care and drop dead”.
The brilliant documentary Somewhere To Disappear is shown in its entirety at the exit to the show, and is an exquisite look at some of these subjects. It is quite long (57 minutes or so) and can be viewed at the below here if time is a concern.
Page No 2: “If there was a nice apartment and I have a descent job and you felt happy and thought there could be a nice history together, would you come home?”