Alec Soth, Songbook @Sean Kelly

JTF (just the facts): A total of 24 large black-and-white photographs, framed in black and mounted to Dibond, and hung against white walls in the entry area (with a central partition) and the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints taken mainly in 2012-2013, although three date from 2014. Physical sizes range from 30×40 to 54×72 (or reverse), and the prints are available in editions of 9+3 AP.  Two rows of vitrines in the main area display samples from the seven issues of LBM Dispatch (here), the zine Soth publishes with Brad Zellar and Carrie Elizabeth Thompson. A catalog of the exhibition and the larger body of work was recently published by MACK Books (here, 11 ½ x 11 inches, 144 pages, 75 tritone reproductions, with embossed clothbound hardcover, $60). Relatively concurrent gallery shows are also on view at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here) and at Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis (upcoming). (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: From his base in Minneapolis, Alec Soth has in the last decade become a national figure. In his museum talks, editorial assignments for prominent magazines, book and zine publishing via his imprint Little Brown Mushroom, road trips and long-term projects, as well as in his collaborations with the writer Brad Zellar, he has attracted a youth following that is almost unmatched in photography. His ability to be respected in the art world, and beloved by fans beyond it, is similar to what Dave Eggers and Ira Glass have done in the worlds of books and radio, or the equivalent to the multiple platforms of another shy, rueful, big-hearted Minnesotan, Garrison Keillor.

What’s more, few other photographers are as accessible and self-critical as Soth. Behind his camaraderie and sense of humor about himself, one detects a churning intelligence that wrestles with the limits and ethical dilemmas of photography. The cave-like installation of Broken Manual, with its walls of books, hand-mimeographed posters, and other extra-photographic material was effective in its mirroring of his own frustrations as an artist with those of the alienated males he was trying to be a voice for.

The good will he has built up with his long-term projects, however, has largely spared him from critical scrutiny. Judgments about the success and quality of his photographs seem in some quarters almost secondary.

Songbook continues his investigations of loneliness, how it can be allayed in community or physical challenges and yet continue to permeate the routines of daily life. As in Sleeping by the Mississippi and Niagara, this series conveys his affection for America’s rebels and eccentrics, the ungainly young and the obsolete elderly. One of his insights is that Americans who in past eras might have looked content or ordinary in photographs can appear weird or worse because glossy media celebrities now define normalcy.

Soth’s images are frequently more integrated in books than galleries and museums, and that’s certainly true here. The catalog for Songbook has a celebratory pitch and beat, like a funky polka, whereas the towering space and walls at Sean Kelly swallow up his prints, which seem unnecessarily big to begin with. In the portraits of isolated figures—a dancer, a cheerleader, a pair of studly teenage football players, a boy in a hoodie at night on the street—the larger dimensions of the print only highlight the weakness in his frame—a sense that Soth has left too much dead space around the subject.

The decision to go black-and-white is curious as well. Unlike, say, Stan Douglas’s luxuriously retro shows, where noirish monochrome is designed to send us back to the 1940s, Soth’s pictures lack conviction in their tonal emphases. In too many cases, they look as if the color had been removed before he had figured out entirely how everything would look in its absence.

No doubt, the old-fashioned palette is supposed to be nostalgic—militantly so. The catalog includes snippets from the Great American Songbook. These lyrics by Cole Porter (“Night and Day”), Sammy Cahn (“It’s the Same Old Dream”), Lorenz Hart (“Mountain Greenery”), Johnny Mercer (“Skylark”) and Howard Dietz (“Dancing in the Dark”) yearn for love and a rapport with the natural world in voices that spoke to Soth’s grandparents but no longer to his. Only one person in this series is observed staring at a cell phone, which must have taken some doing. The exception is a photograph entitled Facebook, Menlo Park, California, 2013, and this young male at an intersection is depicted from above with his back to us, isolated from the world and oblivious to it.

Soth may also be channeling Pennies from Heaven. In that 1978 TV series and 1981 movie, both written by Dennis Potter, the 1930s characters would break into song, in hopes the cheery optimism of the lyrics would alleviate the drab realities of the Great Depression. Most of these photographs were taken in 2012 when the U.S. economy had yet to recover from the 2008 debacle. Black-and-white helps to enhance a downbeat mood.

The last quotation in the catalog is from Eugene Ionesco: “No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute. It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.”

Sympathetic as I am to Soth’s worries about the destructive impact of social media on both community and solitude, too many pictures here feel as if they are being forced to illustrate this theme against their will. There are several outstanding images in the show and even more in the book: a sudsy dance party in an upstate New York bar; a bank of cumulous clouds miraculously billowing up behind a cut-rate hotel complex in Florida; two group portraits of romance at a high school prom in Ohio, one with bi-racial couples, the other of two gay men locking eyes. But these individual examples are like gorgeous notes in search of a melodic line. They never take the composed shape of a song, much less a book of them.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $18000 to $35000 based on size (plus between $1000 to $3000 for mounting and framing.) Soth’s photographs have begun to appear in the secondary markets with more regularity in recent years, with recent prices ranging between roughly $2000 and $40000.

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Read more about: Alec Soth, Sean Kelly Gallery, MACK Books

One comment

  1. Tom M Johnson /

    Not having seen the show, I appreciated this review.

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