by Luca Fiore
Vince Aletti, a leading photography critic, wrote in the New Yorker that Alec Soth is the most influential photographer of the last twenty years. He may be exaggerating, but the consensus around Soth’s work is beyond question. Not only is he a member of the world’s most prestigious agency, Magnum, and his photos appear in the major American and international press, but his books are considered best sellers. The first editions are collector’s items with unaffordable prices, but in recent years his English publisher has begun to reprint them, making them accessible to an increasingly wider audience. He used to keep a widely followed blog; he now posts mini lectures on Youtube, and has just opened a profile on Tik Tok. And, so far, he hasn’t yet fallen into ridicule.
But it is precisely the form of the book, and he himself confirms this, that contains within it the soul of his work. Soth is not really a photojournalist; rather, he is an heir to the American tradition of “poetic documentary,” whose patron saints, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, succeeded not only in recounting the soul and contradictions of a country, but in sparking the flame of poetry that ignites the world of things by portraying nothing other than what was in front of them.
Soth’s latest work, “A Pound of Picture” (MACK, 2022), was born out of failure. His original idea was to retrace the route taken by the train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s corpse from Washington, D.C., to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, in 1865. On that occasion millions of Americans flocked to see the convoy carrying the body of the assassinated president. Among them was poet Walt Whitman, who for the occasion wrote the elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” in which he asks, “O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?/ To adorn the burial-house of him I love?”
“I was thinking about the Civil War,” he tells Il Foglio, “What the United States is experiencing today is something close to it. I live in Minneapolis, a mile from where George Floyd was killed. And I’ve seen a lot of tension over the years. It would be an exaggeration to say that Lincoln’s assassination reunified the country, but it’s certain that if he hadn’t been killed, his legacy would not have been the same. Today he’s an esteemed figure, for different reasons, by Democrats and Republicans. I wished to reflect on that period and that circumstance that, in some ways, was a way out in a moment of stalemate. But it was an abstract idea and the project foundered and turned into something completely different.”
“A Pound of Pictures,” as Soth intended it, is a reflection on the photographic medium, and little of the “Lincoln Project” remains, such as the image of a bust of the President in a car secured with a seatbelt. The book opens with a photo of a cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is sunset, and in the center of the image, amid the tombstones, a person can be seen with his back to a photographer. The man is Ed Panar, an artist friend of his. The two, Soth says, are discussing the idea of a stereotypical image. The cemetery is one such example. But for Panar, there are no clichés in photography and he is not afraid to take pictures of the place. That is how this photograph was born: the two of them go to a cemetery together, and the former immortalizes the latter in order to understand how one can look at the world without too many superstructures and prejudices. The last photograph in the book, however, is an image taken inside the author’s car. In the foreground is the steering wheel, on which a typed ticket is attached. It was the first picture taken at the end of the first lockdown. Soth recounts that at first he felt he had forgotten how to take pictures. As an aid he decided to reread the advice that Allen Ginsberg used to give photography students in the workshop he held with Robert Frank. And he kept them with him while working. The first two lines read, “Ordinary mind included eternal perceptions.” The last says, “Candor ends paranoia.” In between then are images that in one way or another are related to the world of photography, including portraits of Duane Michals, Sophie Calle, Nancy Rexroth, as well as the darkroom of legendary printer Sid Kaplan and Nan Goldin’s bed, on which two works by Peter Hujar stand out.
“One of the issues that is talked about so much today is that there are too many images in the world,” Soth explains. “At different times in my career I have had to wrestle with this idea. But at some point I thought it’s like complaining that there are too many flowers. Why does one, even today, take the trouble to photograph flowers even though, probably, the fate of those images is to end up, sooner or later, in the trash? According to me it’s because, in some way, they testify to the recognition of a beauty. And for me that, for some years now, is becoming important, rather than stressing the negative aspects. For me, now, it is about celebrating what is there. Because that, after all, gives the possibility of a connection between people.” That was also the goal of the project on Abraham Lincoln: to find connection in a fragmented world. “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that. Perhaps underneath the surface of this work there’s also that. If I think about one of the sources I go back to, Walt Whitman, he was like that, whatever he did: from writing poetry to nursing during the Civil War. In him there is a desire to connect with people.”
“A Pound of Picture” was also included in another book released this year, “Gathered Leaves Annotated,” which gathers all five major long-term projects Soth has done since 2004. The volume, printed on newsprint, also features “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” “Niagara,” “Broken Manual” and “Songbook.” It consists of seven hundred pages in which the books are reproduced in their entirety, including their covers, but to which the author has added handwritten comments, placed captions alongside the photos that were originally placed at the end, and added – in the margins – discarded images that seemed more appropriate to him today. Beyond the curiosities, more or less interesting, leafing through such a book means to immerse yourself in a great account of America of the last two decades. What America is, then, is very difficult to say. “As I realized with the failure of the Lincoln project, I’m not the kind of photographer who goes and tells you what his country looks like,” Soth explains. “For me it’s more about the process, how things happen as you make them. Sure, my books talk about America and say something about it, but I couldn’t really say what. Ours is too big, articulate and complex a country, full of nuances. But one thing I think I’ve realized is that every time I go out to photograph America I end up learning something I didn’t know before, because things were not the way I thought they were.” To explain what that means, Soth takes an image from his latest book as an example. It is of a shirtless black boy in the middle of a tall-grass meadow, bending down to pick a flower with pink petals. “I was in Pittsburgh to photograph Buddhist temples. I arrived at one of them and found that the place was closed. I stopped the car in the neighborhood, and it was a poor area, inhabited by African Americans. I noticed a young couple. They were beautiful. I asked if I could photograph them. She said no. He agreed. After I had taken the photos, I exchanged small talk with them and found out that he usually attends the nearby Vietnamese Buddhist temple. And I couldn’t really imagine a guy like that as a temple-goer. It was like finding something I wasn’t looking for. Does that say anything about America? I don’t know. It certainly says something different than what I thought before.” A note in the book says, among other things, “Photography doesn’t just force me to leave the house, it forces me to leave my head (briefly).”
Reviewing Soth’s books, which alternate between portraits and interior shots, landscapes and still lifes, one often has the impression of being moved. The themes addressed are challenging: dreaming (“Sleeping by the Mississipi”), love (“Niagara”), living outside the box (“Broken Manual”), the religious dimension in the Midwest (“Songbook”). If asked if there was a turning point in conceiving his images, Soth returns to a photograph featured in “Niagara”: it is a portrait of Melissa on her wedding day. She sits outside an anonymous building in her wedding dress. “She had just gotten married in a motel chapel. I took pictures of the couple, then asked to take a portrait of just her. While editing my first book, I realized that my photographs included too many elements. So for “Niagara,” I was trying to work by subtraction. On that occasion, it’s as if I asked myself: can I make a photograph about love that has only one person as its subject? She sat down and took on a much more reflective expression. It was the beginning of a new way of thinking about the work.” The story of this portrait, Soth continues, does not end there: “After years, I sometimes go back to meet or photograph particular people again. I looked for information about Melissa and, on Facebook, found photos of her second wedding. Now looking at this image I can’t help but think about the time that separated the two marriages. Her gaze today seems to be that of a woman thinking about the future.” The idea that you can depict a subject – love, for example – on which light cannot rest and which does not imprint film is one of the paradoxes that has always characterized photography. “I just opened a Tik Tok profile and started experimenting. For example, I filmed myself thinking about the most different things: funny, violent, sad. And I was asking users if they understood what was going on in my head. It doesn’t work. We don’t know what the bride from earlier was thinking about. Maybe what she was going to eat at her wedding lunch. We’re the ones who fill that void. And we do it depending on who we are and when we do it. It’s the viewer who gives meaning to the image, if they want to.”
In this regard, conditioning the way we read images are often the words that are associated with them. Dorothea Lange said that “all photographs – not only those that are so called ‘documentary’, and every photograph really is documentary and belongs in some place, has a place in history – can be fortified by words.” And Soth uses them a lot. Poems, usually. His books have titles that nod to Walt Whitman or quote verses from Wallace Stevens. But not only. Flipping through “Gathered Leaves Annotated,” for example, one comes across a short text that closes “Songbook” and, which, perhaps, can illuminate the rest of his work as well. It is a quote from Eugène Ionesco that says: “The truest society, the authentic human community, is extra-social – a wider and deeper society, that which is revealed by our common anxieties, our desires, our secret nostalgias. The whole history of the world has been governed by nostalgias and anxieties, which political action does no more than reflect and interpret, very imperfectly. No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute. It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.”