Photography has a long, complicated and pivotal relationship with the evolution of our contemporary conceptions of self-image, and of our common histories; it has participated in the consecration of powerful myths, ennobled the family, belittled the poor, expanded the globe, leant prestige to ambition, legitimated power, and participated in our own betterment and degradation. Photography is a morally ambivalent tool capable of great influence over our understanding of the unknown, and of ourselves; it encourages us to suspend our disbelief, in spite of our own sophistication, yet it also offers up a meeting place that exists in perpetuity, and that can provide the ground for us to reclaim the terms by which we make sense of the world, irrespective of any prevailing political winds.
In the history of the United States, photography has been integrally bound up with the creation, the successive refinement, expansion and complication of the story of America. The ‘we’ that speaks in the Declaration of Independence proposes a community that will be drawn together (in unequal form) by the force of a story made real in both deed and speech, a community created in the image of a necessary and yet imperfect freedom.
American photography, particularly in the context of the photobook, has sought to contend with these issues, and Alec Soth’s is work that can be understood in the genealogy of photography stretching back through Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects, Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, Robert Frank’s The Americans and Walker Evans’s American Photographs (to mention but a few). Each of these books comprise work that took the question of the relation between the idea of America and the lived experience as a central concern, and that spoke eloquently and with persuasive precision to the difference between rhetoric and reality. As the critic Andy Grundberg wrote of American Prospects, “[w]hat is at issue in books about America is not just the quality of observation, but the construction of history”.
Soth’s work, while equally attentive to the realities of the political economy of its moment, and while sensitive to the way that these are expressed and experienced in people’s everyday lives, is characterised by a pronounced inward turn that seems consistent with the atomising individualism of our contemporary norms. His is not an America that is easily charted between four mapped segments, his is no longer a land governed by the overarching promise written into the founding myths, but is rather an internal and more essentially isolated one – an America that issues from a fundamental neglect. His is not work that seeks to map the continuous surface of a collective reality, but rather describes an interwoven array of individual aspirations fashioned from a loneliness that is deeply characteristic of our time.
The early new millennium America in which Soth has been working has absorbed twenty-plus years of the Reaganite/Thatcherite orthodoxy, a world view that issued from a fervent belief in the apostasy of government, and the non-existence of society. Accordingly it is also a world in which we consume not only products and the diminishing bounty of natural resources, but also the very idea of ourselves. Consequently Soth’s work reflects principally individual and not communal preoccupations, and emerges from an American imaginary that admits the difficulty of hope, and the probability of a certain hopelessness.
The Individual and the Structuring Myth.
We could almost imagine that one single person had seen their life described by the ambit of the work in Soth’s four American photobooks. In essence, we could imagine that the same person who scrawled “I love my Dad Tony I wish he loved me” in Broken Manual had in fact been born along the banks of Soth’s Mississippi, had left home with a new love for Niagara Falls, found heartbreak, set off on the road during the Last Days of W leaving behind a desperate plea for his former love, and finally settled in some resolutely isolated spot in the wilderness.
This congruence, or essential continuity is clearly first and foremost the product of Soth’s particular individual fascinations. However, the long arc of lament that runs through his work is of a piece with a sorrowful and hostile reality that can increasingly be found spreading around us with great ease, and in any number of ways. Soth’s pictures couch hardship within an instinctually romantic and individual experience of disillusionment, but that disillusionment is nevertheless familiar to us all, and is both an index of our self-obsession and a measure of our common aspirations.
It is in this sense that his work is profoundly contemporary – and perhaps a little too close for comfort.
Sleeping By The Mississippi is in many ways a paean to a certain kind of loneliness put into high relief by its proximity to something ambivalent and immense, something like the vast breathing length of America’s most mythical and historically symbolic river. It is a paean rendered not in some bloodless, ironic or deadpan tone, but infused with sincere sensitivity toward the need for dreams to resist the pressures of an all too often indifferent and frequently hostile future. Its principal inspiration and central reference, Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects (1987), not only traversed the broad gulf that separated so many marginal minorities from the grand rhetorical jamboree of American exceptionalism, but found a way to tie meaningfully together the incongruities of vast inequality with the inevitably heedless social fragmentation that resulted from it all.
Sternfeld’s inquisitive lens found casually unattended devastations in literal and metaphoric form, found a deepening separateness between Americans feeding into an ever more persuasive anxiety. He uncovered and patiently described landscapes that spoke to the absurdity of a triumphalist national discourse that governed not only policy, but to some extent the public imaginary of the moment. His photographs prefigured and articulated with tightly controlled passion the dangers of a country splitting into two continents, one adrift in a reality so at odds with the travails of the other. American Prospects despaired of the cloistered mania that insisted on the virtuousness of a properly ‘American’ success that would somehow be ineffable, and that could be attained at the negligible cost of individual ingenuity and graft. That despair expressed itself in its focus on the brutality of the contradiction necessary to label as successful such unseeing faith in so unsustainable an endeavour.
In many ways the bedrock of those images was also loneliness: at times, the loneliness of voluntary isolation (that of the photographer’s or his subjects); at times the loneliness of Sisyphean toil; at times the loneliness of gradual solitary decay; at times a loneliness found in the habit of abandonment as it recurs in the landscape, and occasionally it was the loneliness of sheer scale, and the sense in which that scale seemed analogous to two huge and fundamentally indifferent systems: government, and the natural environment. Although American Prospects is often marked by the contrast between a private paradise and public dilapidation, the work also describes an irrepressible resolve, and ends midway between a note of grievous devastation (in the rusting ruin of a great container ship, and the charnel house of dead whales littering a beach) and an uncertain kind of hope in the quizzical face of an adolescent boy. Even in the arduousness there is the faintest prospect of hope.
In Gatlinburg, Tennessee, November 1980, the photograph that Soth credits as a motivating influence for his Sleeping By The Mississippi work, we see some of the central strands of his later endeavours. Tucked into the lowest edge of the foreground is the van that Sternfeld used as he travelled the breadth of the country making his work. It is outsize against the smattering of saloon cars that surround it in a relatively empty car park that seems small against the profusion of tall trees that flank the surrounding mountains. The typically squat three-story buildings that border the car park are mainly motels and hotels. They are bland, tepid, evidently unoccupied at this late phase of the off-season, somehow anachronistic and unromantic when counterpointed by the easy natural splendour of the autumnal colours that spread out all around them.
Elsewhere in American Prospects Sternfeld photographs the public and private delights of American leisure, but here he arrives at the underbelly, the hibernating small town in the dead of the off-season, and describes the bleak and lonely business of waiting for the spring. In this the picture opens up the vein in which much of Soth’s subsequent work has operated, examining the obverse face of America’s mythical figures: the Mississippi and dreams, Niagara Falls and romantic love, the Wilderness and the sensuous appeal of utter isolation. Gatlinburg, Tennessee prefigures a way into a photographic fascination with a society that has a deep historical habit of moving in and moving on so very swiftly, and with little thought for the circumstances of what is left behind. In a sense Sleeping By The Mississippi, Niagara, Last Days of W and Broken Manual also arrive in the off-season, and wander purposefully but inquisitively around the peripheries to unearth the beautiful and enigmatic complexities of what remains long after the sun has passed its peak. There are traces in the Gatlinburg picture, subsequently developed and sharply expanded by Soth, of the torrid relationship between romance and loneliness, of the interdependence between over-production and over-consumption, but also traces of an obsession with a singular goal (the photographer’s or his subject’s) and a willingness to refashion a life or a landscape in the pursuit of it.
Public & private preoccupations.
A plausible index of the way that a shift in our culture is reflected in the distinctions between Soth’s work and Sternfeld’s can be measured in the change in the address of their portraits. The inward turn in Soth’s work finds expression in the individuated and isolated environment in which he typically frames his subjects. So often in these pictures it seems his subjects are struggling for purchase on their lives, striving to remain upright or to retain faith in their beliefs or dreams, and that struggle is waged outside of the infrastructure of community or nation, is waged alone, and often quietly.
With Sternfeld so often his portrait subjects are interwoven within the broader social milieu in which they work or live, while for Soth his subjects are typically tucked away in some unheralded and unremarkable corner, encountered in the full blush of their carefully cultivated private spheres of living. There is little brashness in the figures in American Prospects – we are more commonly shown a certain studied reserve, by turns harsh, bleak, ironic and monumental. In keeping with the profound cultural shift that separates the America of the early Reagan years from the new millennium, in Soth’s portraits we frequently see a certain unabashed boldness, in posture, dress, and tone. Where American Prospects builds outward from a subdued palette that is of a piece with its painstakingly subdued exhortations, Sleeping By The Mississippi is frequently marked by a brightness that seems harsh and isolating – an assertiveness that stoppers the deep separate quiet of the spaces where Soth encounters it. Dreams are scribbled on paper, painted and pinned onto walls, plastered up on plywood and scrawled across clothing: the properly introspective work of reconciling inner hopes with exterior circumstance is here inscribed on the surface of things in a gesture of stubborn, desperate, often solitary and hopeful persistence.
In Niagara, the colours blue and white give rhythmic structure to the book, but are often at odds with the brash eruptions of deeper or starker hues, paralleling the sense in which his subjects are occasionally at odds either with the rigours of their isolation, with their circumstances, or with the thin romantic platitudes so integral to the symbolism of the place in which they live. The book builds outward from the repeating figure of the pair or twin, a figure that emerges in the rosy half-light of the early morning and is then gradually suborned, compromised, riddled with greater amounts of complexity and remorse. At one and the same time the pictures build up a powerful sense of distance and lonesome desire, a sense of an isolation made up of unrequited affections and sorrowful neglect: buildings stand solitary and in bleak silence beneath banks of indifferent rolling cloud; groups of people are miniaturised and suspended across unbridgeable divides, floating away from us on air or perched at the thunderous precipice of the Falls, deaf to us however loudly we might cry out.
The faces in the portraiture are disconsolate, sometimes bored, recalcitrant, bemused, often riveted by an invisible fascination beyond the frame, or uneasy negotiating the attentions of the lens. This disconsolate air is amplified by the abundant empty parking spaces that ring the empty and anachronistically named motels and inns that seem to carpet all corners of the Falls. A certain dejection, or tremulous insecurity fills the world we enter in the book with a maudlin lament: The Happiness Inn, The Rainbow, the heart-shaped sex tub and the shadowy nude… Here, togetherness is never easy, is often bloodied by cynical exploitation, and is described and experienced as though it were a fatal contact sport. Here every injustice is essentially individual.
The pictures seem to suggest that something in the habit of romantic love is essentially selfish, and that all too often its results are unjust. The manner of the double portraits parallels the oddity of Niagara’s drab industrialisation of romance, so that just as these two small twinned cities covet each other and their franchise of shotgun weddings and sex tourism, so the couples Soth photographs covet themselves — perform, explore and celebrate themselves for us as couples. What is most private is here made brutally public. A relationship premised on the necessity of togetherness here seems to celebrate its separateness.
Where the Mississippi drew together those who shelter along its length, Niagara represents a mutual desire for escape, elopement, the ecstasy of romantic isolation. Just as Soth and many of his subjects have been drawn toward the waters of the Mississippi, they are drawn by the totemic seductions of the Falls. The three major landscape photographs of the Falls themselves wrestle with the inexpressible pull to simply let go, to abandon oneself to the metaphorical lure of that great moving body of water. These are images that surface toward the beginning and at the very end the book, suggesting the regenerative cyclical pull of an irresolvable attraction to a natural force. They speak of a yearning that runs like bedrock through all of the work, and in this book they attest not only to loneliness and isolation, but to the complexity of their relation to love: the difficulty of finding it, retaining it, cultivating and protecting it, sharing it, giving in to it, losing it, and losing oneself along with it…
The Broken Manual.
Broken Manual finds joy, grace and deep contradiction in its lyrical exploration of a male desire for unmitigated solitude, and examines the circumstances, the inevitable traumas and the idiosyncratic beauty that underly the the ascetic life of the contemporary American hermit. Here the photographer confronts his twin: each has been willing to remap the parameters of their lives, and the landscapes in which they live them in order to better serve an irresistible obsession, whether with solitude or the solitary practice of photography. Both are compelled to acknowledge an inevitable imperfection: the manual is broken, the isolation is never absolute. In their way they echo and reflect each other in their individual fascinations, so that the romance we enjoy in the imagery is at once an enticement and a critique, so that we are drawn together with those who have separated themselves from us in the act of viewing them. In this process, the photographs draw forth a lineage of literature and history bound up with exploration and solitary endeavour, stretching back through Robert Frost’s Into My Own, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass to the early journeys of Lewis & Clark.
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
In Broken Manual, the romance of the Mississippi and of Niagara Falls persists and is changed as it seeks ever more solitary expression. Just as the bizarre iconography of romantic love is interrogated in Niagara, so Soth questions the near pathological zeal for withdrawal that leads his subjects to their remote, and yet attainable exclusion. These men were not so far removed that he was unable to reach them – their seclusion is never complete. However drawn Soth might be by the seductions of distance, he is compelled to speak of it in images, and thus to draw it back to the world from which it has fled; however leery of the outside world his subjects may be, they are willing to be depicted within it. By the same measure, however scornful of such absolutism we may be, we are compelled to recognise in it the mania of self-obsession in which we ourselves share.
The sparse, alluring beauty of the solitary figure in the landscape may appear extreme, and in its romanticism of a piece with the iconography of Caspar David Friedrich, but it is at one and the same moment analogous to the POV individualism in which we traffic daily. What gives the work great metaphorical weight is the question it invokes about the world from which these men, and we ourselves have fled. The reciprocal character of the isolation he depicts begs the question intimated in Frost’s poem: from what precisely are we fleeing, and what have we left behind?
Broken Manual speaks to the creeping urgency of a certain malaise, an illness-at-ease with our sufficiency for this earth any more: it invokes our sense of hopelessness, our perennially aggrieved feeling of inundation, and our alternating struggles with hostility and hope. It is axiomatic of our time to crave simplicity, space, and self-determination, but these desires are set against our ecological anxiety, and couched within a historical moment of extraordinary inequity, neglect and abandonment. In a sense the spaces these solitary men have fashioned for themselves imagine a postlapsarian idyll – they anticipate the inevitable accommodations with necessity we would have to make to live in a world no longer capable of sustaining our consumptive civilisation. Yet there is a romanticism to the form that this isolation takes – an eccentricity that suggests some measure of delight in voluntary exile. The images illuminate the profoundly interwoven actions of dreams and necessity in the sustenance of these remote spaces, and manage to encompass both that which is wondrous, and that which has been wounded.
We must inevitably contend with the unavoidable probability that our individuation, our individualism, our social atomisation one from another lends itself to a narcissism that finds cogent expression in Soth’s work. The at times frail delusions he carefully depicts are of a piece with our own carefully tended facades, but so too is the unbreakable habit of dreaming in which his work finds its poetic concision. His photographs may spring from the esoteric fascinations of a lonely boy, but they are intelligible because they share in a language that is the measure of our moment, and our own obsessions.