Alec Soth: Songbook


Alec Soth: Songbook

By Danica Willard Sachs March 26, 2015

In twenty-one black-and-white pigment prints from the larger photobook Songbook, Alec Soth presents at Fraenkel Gallery a vision of contemporary American community life tinged with melancholy and wry humor. Between 2012 and 2014, Soth played the role of a minor newspaper photographer, traveling the United States to document community meetings, dances, pageants, and festivals for his self-published newspaper The LBM Dispatch (distributed through the website of his independent publishing house, the Little Brown Mushroom) and also while on occasional assignment for the New York Times. Like Robert Frank’s effort The Americans, first published in 1958, Soth’s depiction of American life revels in the space between sincerity and satire. The artist offers little more than a location in each image title, and yet the cumulative result is a feeling of Americanness in photographs that were taken anywhere and everywhere from Kissimmee, Florida, to Redwood City, California.

Setting the tone at the entrance to the gallery, Bree, Liberty Cheer All-Stars, Corsicana, Texas (2012) captures a cheerleader in midair. With her legs in a split and her blond ponytail cascading through the air above her head, she creates a triangular form against a white wall in the background. The earnest, toothy smile plastered on her face seems genuinely friendly and endearing. Installed nearby is another highlight, Bil. Sandusky, Ohio (2012), a photograph of an older man slow dancing without a partner in a room that, due to the framing, appears empty. Both photographs exemplify Soth’s strategic, direct, frontal composition, which invites frank engagement with the subject. Bil. Sandusky provokes a surge of feeling on the part of the viewer; one feels a twinge of empathy at the man’s isolation, but also chuckles at his playfulness.


When his camera is not focused on the individuals populating small-town America, Soth looks to the landscape. Near Gainesville, Georgia (2014) depicts a pale house emerging out of a swamp of kudzu, an invasive plant common in the South. Tall deciduous trees rising behind enhance a sense that the building is being swallowed by nature. Soth employs this visual trope of the natural world encroaching on the human-made one in several other works as well. In Magic Castle Inns and Suites, Kissimmee, Florida (2012), cumulonimbus clouds seem about to overtake a drab motel. The empty parking lot and absence of evidence of guests evokes doomsday, and we even begin to read the ominous cloud as not unlike a mushroom cloud. Scenes like these counter the earnestness of the photographs of people and underscore a fundamental disconnect in the American condition between a desire to make a built world and the whims of the natural one.

There’s no doubt that Soth makes striking and engaging photographs. It is disappointing, however, that what’s on view here is such a limited selection from the much larger project, the entirety of which is published as a book, also titled Songbook, sized to approximate a choral songbook (about eleven inches square) and with several bar lines from Frank Sinatra’s “Dancing in the Dark” embossed on the back cover. Soth sequenced the images with a lyrical flow in mind, and paired them with snippets of song lyrics and poetry. The project marks a departure from his usual reliance on narrative annotations to explain his images; it’s a more free-flowing, less didactic viewing experience. As one flips through the pages, Soth’s “tune” carries here and there, from picture to picture, through small communities across the United States. Along with Fraenkel, Sean Kelly in New York and Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis are concurrently displaying selections from the book—an overt play to drum up print and book sales that is sadly at the expense of the authenticity of the larger project.

Alec Soth: Songbook is on view at Fraenkel Gallery, in

San Francisco

, through April 4, 2015.

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