Songbook by Alec Soth (MACK, 2015)
I want to invite you to dance. Yes, you. Here, I'll show you. Like this.
Tender, innocuous words, yet full of vulnerability, Soth's latest work begins with an invitation. Arms held out, the dance beginning, we're invited to relearn songs we've forgotten or maybe never knew we knew. In many ways, it's hard to write something new about Soth. One of the most celebrated contemporary photographers, Soth's work builds on a long, and rich tradition of American photography—Walker Evans to Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld, Diane Arbus, and more. With each project, Soth has plumbed the American landscape to create works that are deeply personal, but universally resonant. Compiled from Soth's collaborative work with Brad Zellar on the Little Brown Mushroom Dispatches (2012-2014), as well as work as a freelance photographer for Magnum and personal work, Songbook is a tender, but heartbreaking anthology of love songs, ballads, choral anthems, and sing-alongs masquerading as photographs that speak about our yearning for both individual expression and communal connection.
Photographs rely on context, yet often thrive in its absence. While the images in Soth's latest book are closely modeled after newspaper photography of the likes of Weegee or any number of nameless small-town newspaper photographers, here they are presented without their original context. As part of the LBM Dispatches the images were accompanied by pithy and insightful texts by Brad Zellar and in other settings by essays, such as the work from The New York Times. Stripped of their original context, Soth's photographs have a heightened mystery. Although there are often signifiers that place them in the present, the appearance of anachronistic dress or environments confound any easy assessment of their age or provenance. This tone is furthered by Soth's use of black-and white in place of his signature color. Although the images vary in approach and style, the more event and documentary oriented images, like those of conferences, events or church gatherings, reminded me of Bill Wood's Business, a show at the International Center for Photography and also a book by Marvin Heiferman and Diane Keaton, which featured the work of Bill Wood, a commercial photography from the late-30s to 70s in Fort Worth, Texas. Self-consciously modeled on photographers like Wood, Soth and Zellar reported on many local events including self-help conferences, church socials, and town dances. Attempting to see beyond what is often assumed to be American monoculture, they looked for the local. As Zellar put it, "we wanted to see how folks were faring outside the ersatz, isolating communities of office hives and cyber space."
In addition to small town photojournalism, the key visual reference for Songbook, is Evidence, the ur-photobook of decontextualized archival photographs by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan from 1977. Shorn from their original text and accompanying archival context, Mandel and Sultan's images suggest a myriad of possible meanings. Like the odd images used by Mandel and Sultan, Soth's black-and-white images often utilize a strong flash, which not only freezes his subjects, but also places them under a clinical gaze and asks us to look more closely. References to Evidence can be seen throughout the book, but are most present in the more peculiar imagery. In one such image, a man wearing a baseball cap has pushed all his hair over his face and resembles Cousin It from the Addams Family. In another, two hands, cut off by the frame, toss a rock that's frozen mid-air. My personal favorite is a vertical photograph that shows a couple from behind sitting on a bed. Turned towards each other for a kiss, both their faces are obscured. Like a found photograph from the 50s, the image is a vexing puzzle.
Bound in a green fabric, the book is embossed with the title on the cover and the music and lyrics from Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz's "Dancing in the Dark" on the back. As the lyrics on the back cover instruct, "slowly, and with much expression." These are appropriate instructions for approaching the book. Generously proportioned, the book resembles the oversized songbook it references right down to its semi-soft cover. Throughout the book are fragments of song lyrics that guide us along. They help maintain a beat, and bring us back to the melody at hand. Like the images they accompany, they are drawn from the longer songs and offer their own mysterious allure. Save the few lyrics and a brilliant quote by Eugene Ionesco at the end, there is no text in the book. Thankfully, there is a LBM Dispatches book in the works that will include the excellent writing of Brad Zellar, whose writings and collaboration Soth acknowledges in the book as the unseen presence behind almost all the work.
Despite the sense of loneliness that often pervades the work, the people depicted in Songbook are never ridiculed or patronized by Soth's camera. Although Soth acknowledges their quixotic search for fulfillment, expression, and connection, each image seems to be recognition not only of that same longing in Soth, but also an invitation to recognize it within ourselves. This is a theme that is present in much of Soth's work from his breakthrough book Sleeping By The Mississippi to NIAGRA, and more recently, Broken Manual, his darkest work. It is also what makes his work so very American. Soth acknowledges the fragile but powerful bonds that unite us as a nation, while also recognizing our fierce independence. While Soth may bend the narrative of his images to fit his vision, he's created a story that speaks to our post-recession and socially anxious age. In the end, all artists frame a version of reality to tell a large truth. Whether or not that truth resonates is what matters. Fans of his work have no doubt snatched up this book already and don't need to be persuaded, but the work may also appeal to people who don't know his work, or were not persuaded by his previous books. Admirably, Soth has refused to rest on his laurels and has continued to challenge himself. In this new work, Soth continues to explore familiar territory, but shifts directions again. Like the dancer who opens the book, he's asking us to follow, dance, and sing along.