“To me the most beautiful thing is vulnerability”
Art and science are often considered to be diametrically opposed – but it is here at the London Science Museum that Alec Soth, widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost documentary photographers, has opened his first major UK exhibition.
Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth, now preparing for the second leg of its UK tour, brings together a collection of the artist’s major work in a four-part showcase. It includes pieces from projects spanning eleven years, from Soth’s breakout series Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) to his most recent project, Songbook (2015).
Soth’s career, the broad scope of which we are treated to in this collection, strikes me as being focused on bringing together disparate and sometimes conflicting narratives. He is masterful in his approach to the grey area, at interrogating and detailing the space between absolutes. That we live primarily in this difficult, ambiguous space is what makes Soth the ‘greatest living photographer of America’s social and geographical landscape’.
As a viewer, the result is at times haunting, dense, uncomfortable. Sleeping describes and beautiful but desolate America. Its photographs occupy themselves with vacant spaces: bare mattresses, an empty gas station. Its portraits show sitters alone, or partnered to the viewer with hard, direct gaze.
For Broken Manual (2010) Soth explores the lives of hermits and survivalists; those who shun community and fear surveillance. In Songbook, he returns to the world they oppose as the all-seeing eye, covering 21st century America through “dispatches” printed in self-published newspapers.
Loss and longing – internal experiences which occur only in the grey place between to have and to want – run through Soth’s work like an optic nerve. Their presence is less a pain than a prick, a kind of quiet persistence that asks us to consider our relationship to the image, to its subject, to the difficult space between the binaries of good and bad, happy and sad, love and hate.
There are very few of us viewing the exhibition on this wet Monday afternoon. Spaces that hold art are like libraries; quiet in a reverent way, suspended on occasional swells of taut coughs, shuffling feet. I’ve been dancing quiet steps with a young man who started two or three photos ahead of me but who, by the time we reach Soth project Niagara, I have caught up with. We are both looking at the display case in the middle of the room.
Niagara (2006) casts a complex gaze on a contradictory town. Here, Soth spent time photographing the motels, inhabitants, and eponymous falls of the city which sits on the US/Canadian border. His photographs evoke Stephen Shore in their suburban desolation, all angles and perfect lines. His portraits show hard-eyed lovers, some nude, defiantly un-Beautiful. Punctuating the photographs on the walls, and preserved in the display case, Soth offers up their hand-written love letters.
The young man and I are both reading. The letters are anonymous but real; Soth collected them as he photographed, from strangers in bars and motels. Viewing them demands a voyeurism more potent than viewing the image of the man with his genitals splayed. Early declarations of superlative love, terrible poetry, explicit sexual desires, pleading, bargaining, vitriol, resignation. The full spectrum of human love and loss spreads open under the display glass.
To the love of my life: I just wanted to tell you that you take my breath away. You’re amazingly perfect…
Can we please try to talk about all this?
Dearest Rick, this is a very hard letter for me to write.
“This is so funny,” the man says, suddenly.
In a way that’s hard to stomach, he’s right. There’s no chronology in Soth’s display. When one letter reading What we have had has been very precious and special to me, is followed immediately by another declaring You shine like the light of the sun! I can’t live if living is without you! perhaps the truest reaction is to laugh coarsely. Out of the blue, I find myself saying: “I have one of these.”
It’s sitting on a shelf in my bedroom, folded in half with my name penned neatly on the front. He wrote it in his best handwriting before he left.
I haven’t been sure what to do with it. Perhaps some visitors to Soth’s exhibition are amazed that a man in Niagara would keep a letter that concludes, I hate you always. Take Care and Drop Dead. The truth is that loss is by nature obscure. We rarely plan for it, we never experience is voluntarily. It is a veiled, unfathomable place. The kind of place Soth’s work narrates most vividly; where it lights the way.
The man and I regard each other for a moment. Then he holds out his hand for me to shake, tells me his name, and asks me what I make of the exhibition.
“To me the most beautiful thing is vulnerability”, Soth has said. The photographs in Gathered Leaves are beautiful, no doubt; the painstaking work of an artist with technical prowess and an exceptional, distinct visual voice.
In bearing the vulnerability of his subjects – from the images of a young woman alone on Valentine’s Day in Sleeping and a naked, swastika-tattooed skinhead in Broken Manual, to the unflinching insertion of living personal history in Niagara – Soth offers Gathered Leaves as testimony to his assertion.
The man and I spend some time talking about the work, and the other exhibitions on show in London, and our own practice. As he leaves his hands me his card.
I have to be somewhere else too, but I return to the glass case. In Niagara, as elsewhere, the permanence of the photograph and the written word are at odds with the inconstant fidelity of love.
I imagine reconstructing the letter on my shelf into art. I touch the place where that is possible.
Here is the grey space, Soth offers. Now you must ask: How can it be navigated?
Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth exhibits at the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK, April 22nd – June 26th 2016.
Soth’s work is also on show as part of the Open Road exhibition at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, until May 30th 2016.
Rosa Furneaux is a photographer and writer based in California and the UK. Connect with her @rosajoyous on Instagram and Twitter, and via her website www.rosajoy.com