Petit Journal # 40: "Alec Soth: The Space Between Us"

Since his inclusion in the prestigious Whitney Biennial and the publication of Sleeping by the Mississippi in 2004, followed by that of Niagara in 2006, Alec Soth has enjoyed an international reputation. An associate member of the Magnum agency since 2006, his work is solidly anchored in the world of contemporary art — not that this prevents him from working on occasional commissions and dealing with the narrower time frames and constraints of assignments, such as the one he did for Fashion Magazine (published by Magnum) in 2006. "L’Espace entre nous" (The Space Between Us) is his first solo exhibition in a French institution and provides an opportunity to discover a body of work that, by virtue of its grounding in everyday American reality, questions two of the essential functions of photography: to inventory the real or transfigure the banal.

Born in 1969 in Minneapolis, where he currently lives and works, Alec Soth originally wanted to be a painter. He became interested in Land Art and this led him to photography as he began to document the works he made in natural settings. Between 1989 and 1991 he studied photography at the Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, with Joel Sternfeld, known for his view camera images recording the ways in which America’s social order is revealed in its landscape. Alec Soth developed a strong interest in American photography of the 1970s and in artists like Robert Adams and Bernd and Hilla Becher, who took part in the ”New Topographics” exhibition at the Rochester International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, in 1975.

That landmark show, which presented a variety of approaches to landscape photography, with an emphasis on man’s mark on the landscape, had a lasting impact on his work. For Alec Soth is in effect engaged in a rereading of the tradition of American landscape photography. The series he makes are always the fruit of long stays in the region concerned, which enable him to become steeped in its atmosphere and thus offer a personal vision. Soth speaks of his work in terms of poetic investigation, and stresses the importance of these journeys guided by ”freedom and lucky coincidences.” His implicit reference is to the road movie. Although shot mainly with a large-format view camera on 20x25 film, his often frontal images are relatively unspectacular. Instead, they combine banal contexts or environments with singular figures or strange details. Landscapes alternate with portraits of his compatriots in their private world. They are familiar figures who nevertheless seem to have sprung from nowhere, as if offering a form of vulnerability to the lens.

The title of the exhibition, ”L’espace entre nous” (The Space Between Us) thus describes this shifting relation between people and the environment in which they try to belong and make their mark. This “space between” is the gap that Soth defines as the space of photography: ”I often say that when I make a portrait, I do not ‘capture’ the other. If the photograph represents something, it’s the space between me and the subject.”

For Niagara, a series made between 2004 and 2005, Soth explored the area around the famous waterfalls and probed the myths attaching to them. Traditionally seen as a metaphor of sexuality, passion and reinvigorated love, they attract thousands of couples as a honeymoon destination. Soth’s photographs are thus fraught with emotional connotations. His photos of the falls are accompanied by portraits — of couples posing in the altogether, of families, of a mother with her baby, a young bride, etc. — as well as photos of motels and love letters. “They lived happily ever after”: as seen by Soth’s lens, this old ideal, though it still appears to guide people’s lives, seems to have faded somewhat, the way a sublime landscape becomes a simple backdrop.

With Sleeping by the Mississippi (1999-2002), Soth worked in a state close to daydreaming on a series of images that, while it never traces a distinct narrative line, captures the spirit that inhabits the banks of the longest river in the United States, cradle of the nation’s identity and history. He shows us landscapes that seem divided between rampant nature and signs of civilisation, portraits from which we can sense the political and economic conditions that constitute the reality of the subjects, and rituals — religious or secular, private or public — that he witnessed all along his journey.

A selection of portraits made between 1999 and 2007 give an idea of an ongoing project. At first glance, these portraits have nothing in common with each other: their subjects range from unknowns to artists like William Eggleston and Boris Mikhailov. Each time Soth manages to convey the personality of his subject, while subtly revealing its sociological underpinnings, thus attaining that fragile equilibrium which characterises his poetic and photographic language, between harsh reality and profound humanity.

In 2003 Alec Soth went out to Colombia with his wife to adopt a little girl. When staying in Bogotá he made a book for the child and set out in search of signs of her history and heritage. In this portrait of the city and its inhabitants, entitled Dog Days, Bogotá, we can make out discreet traces of violence and demarcation: a revolver placed on a table, a wall lined with shards of glass. The series takes its title from the photographs of dogs that are interspersed with the other images: for the photographer, who was psychologically absorbed in the complex process of adoption, the animals were substitutes for the views of street children.

The exhibition ends with images made to illustrate Fashion Magazine between January and March 2007, that being the equivalent of a season for fashion professionals. In response to this commission from Magnum, he chose to mix two apparently antithetical worlds: Parisian haute couture and everyday life in down-home Minnesota.