Alec Soth: Songbook at Sean Kelly Gallery
Alec Soth has an eye for the fringe and forgotten. He received critical acclaim with his work Sleeping by the Mississippi, a series that focused on lonely souls beside that iconic river. Then Broken Manual splintered from his favored theme of seclusion to escapism, searching for the hermits and runaways that rejected the mainstream first. Now with his recent release Songbook there’s another shift in Soth’s attention to nostalgia for America’s lost sense of community.
Songbook grew out of the collaboration between Soth and his friend/writer Brad Zeller, traveling across the US and compiling “small town” stories for their newspaper The LBM Dispatch. Now on display at the Sean Kelly Gallery, Soth’s photographs have been stripped from their original textual context. In a pristinely white, sparse and semi-industrial setting, Soth’s photos hang without any caption or written explanation. It’s a Larry Sultan move, repurposing the photos, leaving the meaning of each piece open and varied. Viewers find their own response in the ambiguity.
Soth has often struggled with the relationship between text and photography. He’s both longed for narrative and realized his medium resists it. In the actual publication Songbook there are light prefaces between sections–a passage from Sherwood Anderson, a quote from Eugene Ionesco. But as the title suggests, music was the rudder, specifically the American “greats” of the 20th century. This is clear from browsing through the exhibition. One of the first prints you see upon entering the gallery is an elderly man practicing the box step with an imaginary partner. Right beside this is another photo from a bird’s eye view; a sole figure on a concrete pavilion, shuffling to what we imagine is his own hummed tune. Then there’s the Texan cheerleader in her mid-air split, the cheers and “ra-ra-ra’s!” of a pep-rally – a soundtrack for the wholesome American fifties – almost audible while looking on.
Entirely in black and white, Songbook has a wistful quality. Its pictures could easily be switched with 20th century dates. Soth admits this was his desired tone: “That sense of something lost that is also anxiety for the way things once were.” In his Dorothea Lange-esque wanderlust, Soth searched for festivals, dances, and any societal gathering to explore the tension between America’s hyper-individualism and identification with the community. He found pockets of kinship with church groups, pageantry and Abbott’s Magic Company, which give the series a touch of humor. In all, the exhibition is lingering. It’s a blend of sadness, reminiscence and wit that’ll have you wondering why certain pictures – that aren’t overtly unsettling – have you mulling. A must-see.
Alec Soth: Songbook is at Sean Kelly Gallery from January 29th to March 14th 2015, for further information visit here. For further information about Alec Soth visit here and to purchase Songbook visit here.