SAN FRANCISCO — Alec Soth’s latest multiyear investigation of life in the hinterlands of the United States is a refined version of the now venerable notion of the photographic road trip. Channeling and updating the work of a number of seminal figures in 20th century photography, Soth assumed the role of a reporter from a fictitious small-town newspaper to catch unusual glimpses of individual lives and communities in the early 21st century.
Alec Soth: Songbook, currently on view at Fraenkel Gallery, is evenly split between large-scale prints of people and landscapes. There are medium-long shots of mundane buildings (mostly abandoned) and close, static portraits of individuals. In other compositions, Soth catches people in mid-action, expressing enthusiasm with their bodies, such as the costumed cheerleader doing the splits after launching herself into the air in “Bree, Liberty Cheer All-Stars, Corsicana,” Texas, 2012, and the lean, half-naked youth dropping upside down backwards on a steep cave jump into roiling water in “Kaaterskill Falls,” 2012. Soth’s landscapes are similarly exuberant: both stark and lush, with only the slightest sign of human presence, such as the kudzu-covered Southern house in “Near Gainseville,” 2014.
In the past, Soth has often focused on the individual, especially those marginalized and living outside mainstream U.S. society. But in many of these photographs, nature, rather than simply social marginalization, is an additional force to be reckoned with, as in the apparently lapsed attempt at homesteading with the isolated wooden house, boarded up and apparently abandoned in a sea of semi-lush prairie grasses, in “Near Williston, North Dakota,” 2012. And not only do we sense natural and social pressures, we also see evidence of those failed schemes and hopes played out in architectural structures, as in the neat walkways and stairways of untenanted motels and their carefully measured out yet near-empty parking lots.
In some ways, though the images in Songbook depict much less obviously marginal characters than in his earlier series Broken Manual and The Last Days of W, the figures in this exhibition are even more isolated in the frame, with all the suggestions of being isolated in real life — despite Soth’s stated goal of seeking signs of community in an era of social media and continuing individualism in the United States. Also unlike those earlier series, the images in Songbook are shot entirely in black and white, though without the deep sense of nostalgia black and white often brings, even while still alluding to it. Soth makes use of the fullest spectrum of light: from almost over-exposed white fields of sand in “Death Valley, California,” 2013, to dark, dark blacks of shadow in many of the series of large-scale prints.
Any photographic essay invested in discovering the state of a bracketed social group in the United States of course echoes Robert Frank’s project in documentary photography, The Americans (1958), as well as earlier progenitors such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans in his American Photographs. But Soth’s effort is more oblique than those earlier projects, and sometimes more obscure, too. His images have a layer of refinement in the crispness of detail and the care in their framing — thus seeking both to have their grit and some polish too. But the occasional odd characters and still odder poses in Songbook rather evoke Garry Winogrand or Diane Arbus, such as the somewhat formally dressed couple facing away from the camera and kneeling awkwardly, wrapped up in a half-embrace on a covered bed, in “Dave and Trish, Denver, Colorado,” 2012, and the unexpected dwarfing of one teenage beauty pageant contestant standing beside three much taller young women with similar postures in “Miss Model Contestants,” 2012.
Soth’s eye frequently gravitates towards partially occluded images, even and especially in portraits: one elderly man’s “comb-over” hides his face entirely with long, grey hair underneath a backwards-facing trucker’s cap in “JR, Leadville, Colorado,” 2013; another man’s face is hidden by the crystal ball he holds up in “The last snow globe repairman, Northfield, Minnesota,” 2012; and extremely small figures of children are barely discernible in a dark doorway of an otherwise deserted cloud-banked motel in “Magic Castle Inns and Suites, Kissimmee, Florida,” 2013. These small turns of play in immaculate fields of light and shadow show Soth’s hand with compositions and images well in control: in some sense counter-intuitive to the exuberant and precarious content often depicted.
The show’s title references the American songbook as written by composers such as Johnny Mercer, but the allusion is nowhere to be seen among the images displayed at Fraenkel. The title does, however, serve as a modest framing device for a book version of the project’s greater scope. In looking at the series as a whole, it becomes clear that the small sampling of images from the larger series chosen for this exhibition almost entirely eschews signs of race and religion (save one single large but fuzzy skywritten “Jesus” in “The Key Hotel. Kissimmee, Florida,” 2012), circumscribing much of the broader range Soth is attempting to cover both socially and culturally in his project.
A final image encountered demonstrates some of the formal and conceptual framework of the project — some other artist’s framed portrait of a man re-shot by Soth in “Robert E. “Bob” Wiatt. College Station, Texas,” 2013. An appropriation almost post-modern in its strategy, the portrait of a portrait tries to show both a slightly disconcerting human —one of the lenses in his eyeglasses is shaded, while the other is clear as he stares cheerfully back at the viewer — and imply his position in a greater system of social constructs barely visible.
Alec Soth: Songbook continues at Fraenkel Gallery (49 Geary St #450, San Francisco) through April 4.