Alec Soth: Canticle for Photography
Posted on November 15 2022
Born in 1969 in Minnesota, Alec Soth, ever since his initial series of works and books - such as “Sleeping by the Mississippi” (2004) and “Niagara” (2006) - has won world recognition that has consecrated him as one of the most influential contemporary authors. Berger’s quote is enlightening because this recent book of his (which collects works made between 2018 and 2021) has on its cover a long pre-title list of disparate themes and subjects that Soth makes us understand to have been his "guiding stars ".
But these are "guiding stars" that, in the editing of the book, he has reassembled like a puzzle (a method that has somewhat become Soth's signature): in this way the thin and tortuous threads that bind these themes appear visible, one to the other, connected in non-linear narrative cycles that advance and retreat, deviate and return, as if following a system of associations similar to the progression of a dream. All this to create a work-book that unravels and composes something like an elliptical and syncopated canticle on seeing and a poetic reflection on the photographic medium, intended as a joyful instrument born from the desire to "save the world" by fixing it and crystallizing it in one click.
«I want this book to buzz like a beehive; but, in the end, what matters most is the teaspoon of honey you get from it." - Soth writes in the Afterword of the book. And the “honey spoon” that runs through the whole volume consists in re-evaluating the amazement and pleasure of those who photograph or observe the world and things, perhaps to draw them. Driving both the photographer and the designer is, in fact, a desire for closeness, the passion of observing and discovering something they want to fix in order to remember it.
To those who repeat the cliché that "everything has been photographed at this point", or to those who insist that there are now too many proliferating photographs in the world and that therefore - as if one wanted to carry out an ecological act - one should only dedicate himself to reflecting on and studying existing images, Soth replies in this manner: photography is born from a yearning that should not be denied. It is, in fact, the enthusiasm of the experience of photographing that pushes him out of the house and to wander around America: so why not bring out such a longing? Why not appreciate and develop it?
As a matter of fact, the origins of Henry Fox Talbott’s photography (photographic collection) probably lie at his frustration, caused by his inability to draw well, through an en plein air sketch, the magnificence of the lakeside landscape of Lake Como: a dissatisfaction that led him to create a new method thanks to which "natural images imprinted themselves in a lasting way, and remained fixed on the paper" (Roberto Signorini, At the origins of photography, Clueb, 2007).
Alec Soth recounts his book was originally born [conceived] from his desire to follow in the footsteps of two giants of US history and culture: Abraham Lincoln and the poet Walt Whitman, only to come across other "theme stars" ”, discovered thanks to his wandering, his instinct and his emotions aimed at narrating photography as a creative act and as a need to fix magical or significant moments in life.
It also welcomes and collects ideas and teachings from photography’s history , especially the American one, citing or taking suggestions from multiple authors, such as Robert Adams, Wim Wenders, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall, Larry Sultan, Nicholas Nixon and others. He also blends, in his projects, instant and,in other cases, staged images (i.e. staged in part or in whole), portraits, landscapes, still life, to create a whole [complete product] that is only his own, even if he has never committed himself to imposing himself with a precise style. On the other hand, Wim Wenders wrote: "The camera is an eye that can look both behind and in front of itself. In front it takes a photograph, behind it draws a silhouette of the photographer's soul "(Once, Costrasto, 2005).
I will give an example, and in my opinion a significant one at that, of Soth's way of working, and the mysteriously evocative outcome of many images of his: after an image of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania - a sort of homage to Walker Evans and the place where he took one of his most famous images in 1935 - he returns to Niagara Falls, exactly where he had taken one of the most popular images in the series Niagara, or Falls 26, from 2005. A famous point which, in his own words, is the one from which all tourists photograph the falls.
This time, however, rather than just photographing this grandiose scenery, we find a girl at the center of the frame who, appearing extremely concentrated and serious, takes a selfie in front of the falls with groups of tourists around her, both to the right and to the left, who give us the shoulders and in some cases appear a bit wavy. The central figure of this girl functions as a magnet that attracts our gaze without returning it to us, because she is looking at herself and behind her at the same time, suggesting how photography can contain an immediate relationship between ourselves and the outside world.
As a matter of fact, he is not afraid to draw from the work of other authors or to recall it: «I use the language of photography and consequently also its history. This is why the voices of others emerge all the time. It is part of my growth process, so it's okay if at times my work looks a little like other photographers’, I still have my own voice "- he tells Zanot. A reference to other authors that in A Pound of Pictures - a book aimed at reflecting precisely on photography - in some cases becomes a real re-enactment of some great authors: thus, in New York, Soth photographs the bedroom of Nan Goldin with a teddy bear and a couple of glossy black and white photographs of Peter Hujar hanging above; or he catches Sophie Calle while she spends, as usual, Sunday sleeping; or even he photographs the dark room of Sid Kaplan, a great printer of the photographs of Weegee, W. Eugene Smith, Robert Frank and Allen Ginsberg.
His is a personal voice that makes itself heard in all his works, even where he curiously seems - or pretends? - not to have noticed. In the book Niagara, at a certain point he decides to insert what he believes should be a "postcard" image, similar in all respects to those that hundreds of millions of people take from the same point, almost without choice. Right there, so he wanted to return to that spot to take the photo of the girl taking a selfie, the one we were talking about. “The cover of any travel guide essentially depicts this panorama. What I find paradoxical is the fact that this is the best-selling photograph of the entire series "- he tells Zanot. Out of curiosity, I therefore undertook the search on the internet for such photo-postcards taken by millions of photographers exactly from that balcony overlooking the falls. Is it possible - I wondered - that his photo is essentially identical, or at least similar, to those taken by all the visitors? After a careful examination, the answer is that, of course, it seems to resemble, but is in reality different, very different indeed.
The hundreds of photos that appear on the internet are in fact all committed to showing us the grandiose and triumphal aspect of the descending water of the falls, that raises a watery dust; all this among bright lights stretched out to emphasize even more the joyful aspect, based on a slightly tacky idea of the natural sublime. None of this happens in the image of Soth, instead immersed in a bluish and declining light, where the waterfall appears as a wound in the dark sea of water in the foreground.
You have the sensation of being on the edge of a sinkhole where the vortex of water rushes into the bowels of the earth while we, in turn, fall towards the darkness of our unconscious. A scene at the same time magnificent and disturbing that troubles our imagination with its ambiguous and metaphorical aura. This is a further demonstration of how stereotyped and empty the statement "everything has already been photographed, let's just take care of the images that already exist" is. Indeed, Soth's image clearly demonstrates that what matters is not so much what is photographed, but above all how it is photographed. Moreover, this interrogative ambiguity also runs through the entire book A Pound of Pictures, where every image, apparently random, is instead found there, with exactness and relevance, in that precise page of the book and not in another, and which nevertheless , instead of showing something immediately understandable, it imposes itself every time as an allusive question mark. And so Soth himself declares: "I have always maintained that the closest relative of photography is poetry, because of the way it stimulates the imagination and leaves the viewer gaps to fill" (Alec Soth with Francesco Zanot).
The challenge of the book is basically that of intertwining his trip to the United States with his need to testify how much photography is a medium based on the impossible desire to preserve a moment, to possess and retain what one has seen and loved. Thus, starting from a project that was supposed to follow the route of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train from Washington to Springfield in Illinois, at the end, of that idea, only a few scattered images remain, such as that of a couple near his grave and that of a plaster bust of Lincoln, unexpectedly tied to a car seat.
As the rest goes, freedom, his camera is allowed to be oriented as if by an inner compass that led him to photograph here and there, but above all to take photographs of piles of photographs, of photographs reflected perhaps on the dashboard of his car, of people who photograph themselves or are being photographed, of people who draw live or who have their bodies tattooed with somewhat magical flowery designs ... But in this context, what are the various photographs, present in the book, of Buddha statues portrayed in unusual places doing there?
They have a place in there, and an important one at that! Being a spiritual teacher for millions of people, the Buddha had placed the importance of awareness and acceptance of the impermanence of things at the center of his philosophical-religious vision. A decidedly antithetical concept to that intrinsic to photography, based on the impossible desire to fix time, to keep it forever. And so our author wanders between Buddhist temples and monasteries asking the monks the following question: "Could it be that photography, with its desire to possess and stop time, is the opposite of what Buddhism claims?". Such was the response of a monk questioned: «No, no, no. I always take photographs. I like them!". In short, photography is alive with its “desiring” ability to go beyond religious and cultural barriers.
Publication date 01 Jan 2022
Publication City/Country London, United Kingdom