“To me the most beautiful thing is vulnerability” – Alec Soth

I recently had the incredible experience of viewing three rooms full of Alec Soth’s photography at the Science Museum in London. It was essentially my first connection with Soth’s work, but it was forged strong as I made my way through the beautiful retrospective. The show, Gathered Leaves, is a convergence of ten years and four books of work. It reminded me of home, which is to say, it was distinctly American… but it was also so much more.

USA, 2008. From Broken Manual.

After the exhibition, I read up on Soth and understood (with a little embarrassment) that he is actually one of the leading documentary photographers of today, following in the visual tradition of my own professor at Bard, Stephen Shore, and other American photographers such as Joel Sternfeld and Robert Frank (who, although Swiss-born, had great impact on the American photographic cannon). All three of these masters, along with Soth, took on the great American road trip as their subject matter, their foil through which to examine the country and its infinite landscapes and complexities. Soth’s work in particular exposes the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of people and their environments. He portrays these without overt celebration or criticism (maybe a bit of both) but with a sense of being palpably present to his subjects. In this way, viewers can also feel his presence behind the camera.

Misty, 2005.

His work, for me, is everything that modern photography should be – technically, it pays homage to the medium’s history by using large format film and printing digitally, and ontologically, it is utterly perceptive, lending a world of thought to one instance. When people ask me why photography is a form of art, this is what I imagine in response; the ability to perceive art in a split second out in the world, and capture that precise combination of emotion and thought-process with a camera.

Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002.

The show itself is arranged around four photobooks: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2014). Within these are captured an abandoned bed frame in the process of being devoured by surrounding leaves, a portrait of a red haired woman gazing into the distance with a cross painted on her forehead, reclusive men who have taken to nature and appear to be surviving in the wild, a fully naked couple whose skin is shown in gritty detail, a plaintive love note, and a hotel bed with the towels folded into the shape of swans, “beaks” met in a kiss and many more. All of these images build a comprehensive portrait of America, the place where people may be whatever, whoever, and however they wish.

Two Towels, 2004.

The detail of the prints is just one reason why these photographs are so fascinating. Many are also life-sized, with colors that are not overly saturated but very real, allowing the viewer to step right into the image. But for me, the reason I could not tear myself away from this exhibit was because I was swept along with Soth’s rabid curiosity, the apparent driving force behind his work. Each of his subjects, whether they are object or human, is lent mystery and complexity through his lens, and viewers may sense that he understands them. The beauty of his aesthetic sometimes creates a romantic atmosphere, it appears that he is in love with his subject, but more likely, he is in love with photography itself.
On view at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London until March 28, 2016.

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