Alec Soth has made his name in the art world as a visual storyteller, walking the line between documentary and traditional art photography. The contents of his photographs vary broadly, consisting of whatever Soth feels is necessary to tell a story, including portraits, scenery, still lifes, even, in the case of Niagara, photographs of love letters. His photographs are arranged in books, each providing a cohesive narrative through images. His works are intimate and often bleak, showing the dark side of the American Dream. They are not without hope, though. Pathos sometimes overwhelms, but there are frequent glimmers of optimism, comfort and love. Soth’s photos present the realities of life in America lyrically yet unglamorously, beautiful and deeply bittersweet.
Soth was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he now lives and works. He received his BA from Sarah Lawrence in photography in 1992. He spent much of his 20s working in a photo-processing lab, working on his own artistic endeavors on the side. He kept experimenting with different styles and formats of photography to find what worked best for him, almost giving up entirely before the publication of his breakout monograph Sleeping Along the Mississippi. He has subsequently published 24 books, forming his own publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom, in 2008. His work is featured in many public collections, and has won many awards, including the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship.
Soth works using an 8×10 large format camera, photographing both in color and black and white. In many ways, Soth’s work is the successor to the well-established American tradition of road trip photography. He often leaves on a trip with a list of items he might find taped to his steering wheel as a sort of itinerary of possible shots. He often ends up ignoring these, finding other people, objects and landscapes along the way that pique his interest. Soth puts a great deal of effort into choosing projects that speak to him and feel genuine to who he is as an artist. He is tremendously concerned with a feeling of authenticity in his work, and has described the process of choosing a project as being not unlike that of choosing a romantic partner: “‘Do I actually connect with this person, or are they just really attractive? Could I really fall in love with them?’ At some point, you have to let your initial excitement settle down, and then listen to that inner voice to discover how you honestly feel.”
In Niagara, Soth tells the story of the Niagara Falls area, on both sides of the US-Canada border. Once a hot spot for weddings and honeymoons, the area is in decline, and the romance is undercut by economic hardship. Soth intersperses photos of often tawdry and dilapidated motels with portraits of couples, photos of love letters and other objects, and photos of the Falls themselves to spin a narrative of love found, lost, and ground down over time. Two Towels, one of Soth’s most iconic images, depicts two towels folded to form kissing swans. This photo was taken at the end of a long day of shooting, when Soth entered his hotel room to find this scene, perfectly lit by the gentle gold of evening coming in through the window. It is a striking image, and one that perfectly underlines the message of Niagara. Soth has written that this picture feels to him “like it was made in a dollhouse;”romantic accoutrements arranged like a set piece, quickly to be dismantled and shuffled into the mundane.
Sleeping Along the Mississippi is the record of a road trip Soth took down the Mississippi River. This is the book in which Soth firmly established his photographic style, finding the overlap between profundity and kitsch. It is fitting that his first major endeavor tackling his frequently revisited theme of Americana deals with the Mississippi, an enormous feature in the American geography and psyche. Jim, Wax Museum, Hannibal, Missouri depicts a wax figure of Mark Twain’s character Jim from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This figure is part of a wax museum in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, which houses 27 wax figures of Twain characters and actual people from his life. These figures were constructed by wax sculptor Martin Krewson (1911-2012) in the 1970s. This photo speaks to the history of the Mississippi region and reactions to it. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the work of American literature about the Mississippi River, and Jim is one of its most complex characters–a well-intentioned yet caricatured depiction of a former slave. The wax sculpture of Jim, in many ways like his character, is an uncomfortable caricature of an African-American man, and Soth throws this into sharp relief by quite literally depicting Jim in sharp contrast to all the blurry faces of the Caucasian figures behind him.In this photo, Soth gives a nod to the role of the Mississippi in the American South’s slave trade, as well as the continuing racism of today. It would be impossible to tell a thorough story of the Mississippi without acknowledging this past, and Soth does this subtly and beautifully through this photograph. He draws out these troubling aspects through the lens of deeply kitschy Americana, perfectly in keeping with the larger aesthetic of the book.
Two Towels and Jim, Wax Museum, Hannibal, Missouri will be offered in a coming sale.
Please contact Revere Auctions if you have an Alec Soth photograph you are interested in selling or having appraised.