The End of Optimism
From Here to There - Alec Soth
Book Review by Mary Warner Marien
Published by: Hatje Cantz
From Here to There is a compendium covering 15 years of Alex Soth’s work in the form he likes the most: the book. His photographic projects are chronologically sequenced, from the 1990s black-and-white series, Perfect Strangers, which he has called his practice work, to Broken Manual, a group of images showing people who are trying to live outside (sometimes literally) of civilization. The book ends with another, smaller book, The Loneliest Man in Missouri, affixed to its inside back cover.
In the long tradition of American literature and photography, Soth travels the U.S., mostly driving the blue highways and stopping in places like the optimistically named Utopia, Texas, or the riverine sites that were the subjects of his best-known series, Sleeping by the Mississippi. This first monograph, published in 2004, established in the public eye the elusive formal and philosophical values that Soth has pursued and expanded since. In an interview with Seesaw magazine, Soth remarked that some people find his pictures sad. By contrast, he believes that there is something optimistic in the images as well, adding that "This is the way I feel every time I drive past the suburbs and out into the country. It comes as a thrill that there is another way to live."
Like American poet Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology is one of the few good things about attending junior high school, Soth lets his pictures speak unhurriedly, slowly revealing the vigour and veniality of his human subjects and their environments. Soth’s is a fallen world, weedy and unkempt. But like many inhabitants of Spoon River, Soth’s people seem to accept imperfections, especially their own. In the series Niagara, a beatific zaftig bride, swathed in a marshmallow gown, sits serenely on the porch of a motel in Niagara Falls, the tacky honeymoon capital of the U.S. On the pavement that acts as a porch, a slow seeping black mold edges toward her pristine hem. In Single Goth Seeks Same, a young Goth in a long black dress is filling the tank of her shiny black Mustang at a gas station that advertises its fried chicken along with gas prices. The man filling up his truck at the adjacent pump is incurious about the woman. (Today, the most interesting aspect of the picture is not the Goth getup, but the fact that gasoline was selling for $2.35 in 2009 when the photo was made.)
The it-is-what-it-is composure of Soth’s scenes and sitters is not an affectation, but an attitude that falls between the heroizing of ordinary people in humanist photography, and the cynical freaks-and-geeks photography of the post- World War II years. Soth works in this middle ground where eccentricity is an odd form of inner strength, especially in the current era of diminished expectations.
Traces of Soth’s photographer-heroes, William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld, are apparent in Sleeping by the Mississippi, where colour and distance from the subject are used to interpret a scene. The photograph of Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood bed shows a tattered bedspread atop a thin mattress that rests on a somewhat insubstantial metal frame. Incongruously placed on a porch, the homely scene becomes an apotheosis of blues, achieved by the thoughtful framing of the porch floor and wall clapboards: Tiepolo meets Ol’ Man River.
There are no moments of accidental grace in Broken Manual, published by Soth and his heteronymic other, Lester B. Morrison, whose initials happen to correspond to Soth’s blog: Little Brown Mushroom. Working as himself and through an adopted persona, Soth’s focus is less clear than in Niagara or Mississippi. Some of the work is bleary black and white; colour pictures are occasionally drained and hazy. The portrait of Roman, the Nocturnal Hermit, looks like a faded version of Julia Margaret Cameron’s likeness of Thomas Carlyle. A touch of Soth’s predilection for finding hope amidst obvious misfortune appears in a whitewashed cave interior, where someone has mounted a metal rod and hung empty clothes hangers. But most of the pictures are infused with anxiety conveyed by an anonymizing distance of the monks or hermits from the camera. Soth’s photograph of a message left on the wall of the basement of an abandoned house reads: "I love my dad Tony. I wish he loved me". The anguish of that found statement shatters the ‘It is what it is’ feeling of Soth’s earlier work. In Broken Manual, relationships and objects are out of order, as is the book of instructions they came with. And Soth’s America isn’t what it used to be.