I was lucky enough to get a ticket to Alec Soth’s talk at the Science Museum on the opening day of his exhibition Gathered Leaves and I booked a viewing of his exhibition to precede the talk.
Having arrived in London early I had time to go into the Victoria and Albert Museum to see what was on there. The exhibition of Tripe’s work entitled Captain Linnaeus Tripe: Photographer of India and Burma, 1852-1860 caught my eye and so I had a look at it. This is record shooting in its purest sense, undertaken it would appear with military precision and dedication during the years 1852-60 and using an albumen solution for processing, documenting the threatened historic structures of South India, as a means of helping the government make conservation recommendations.
While the photos themselves were fascinating (and many were of buildings no longer standing) it was also interesting to read about the little tweaks Tripe added to his photos. For instance to simulate foliage, in an area where the photographic process he used showed trees as a black mass, he created holes on the negatve to create the illusion of light coming through. He would also paint in clouds, and added ripples to water, when detail had been lost.
The detail, considering the age and the process used, was incredible and also on display was a nineteen foot panorama – a record of the inscriptions on the four sides of the base of the Brihadishvara temple in Tanjore. This was, as far as is known, one of, if not the first, example of a photographic panorama. It seems a shame that the vagaries of government budget cuts (yes they had them then, too) caused Tripe to cease his work but in the relatively short period he was working he has left a very impressive body of work.
Tripe’s biography and examples of his work can be found here:- http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/l/linnaeus-tripe-biography/
I then moved on to the Alec Soth exhibit at the Science Museum.
Gathered Leaves is distillation of four of Soth’s published works, Sleeping by the Mississipi (2004), Niagara (2006) Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2014). The title comes from a Walt Whitman epic poem Song of Myself (1855) *
I say distillation, as there were limited number from each work but the print sizes were such that to include more would have been problematic. As it was, it was possible to see in detail and in space just how good these shots were.
The first collection you come too is the earliest Sleeping by the Mississippi with its repeated motif of beds (in motels, abandoned and in sickrooms). Soth, using a large format camera, has taken shots of the childhood homes of Lindbergh and Johnny Cash (the later shot a wonderful composition of the home against a cloudy sky.) This format (and its shallow depth of field) really isolates the subject and works to great effect in portraits, from prostitutes to preacher’s wife, particularly in the case of Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 2002. There are also some slightly surreal shots such as the door in Hotel, Dallas City, Illinois 2002. What was interesting from a personal point of view was that there wasn’t one image in those shown that I didn’t enjoy or thought was not as strong as the others.
This was also the case with Niagara in which Soth shows both shots of the grandeur of the falls and the tackiness of the wedding/honeymoon industry that’s grown up adjacent to them. More than that, though, he also closes in on the emotions surrounding them both positive, in the case of newlyweds in love, and negative with letters from spurned partners showing real vitriol. He’s also managed to show couples at their most vulnerable (sometimes in the nude) but with a somehow sympathetic eye.
Again there are some poignant portraits here and my favourite was Melissa, 2005 a bride sitting outside what appears to be one of the many motels in the area.
Broken Manual was a bit of a contrast to the preceding work dealing as it did with the desire to run away or be separate from conventional society. There is a fascinating mix of shots in this collection. Ranging from their homes built into the mountains (some of which could feature on Grand Designs) to eerie shots of the men, (including what appeared to be a monk) who have opted for this lifestyle. in the wilderness – sometimes very close up or sometimes distant with the figure lost in his surroundings.
Supporting the pictures was a display case not only of the book itself but also examples of the literature available (how to make flash bangs, how to disappear etc) and as a whole it made a fascinating insight into that community.
The final collection was Songbook described in the description at the exhibition as “a chronicle of 21st century America. It explores the human condition in the digital age: an era when we have never been more connected – yet potentially never more separate.”
All the photos in this collection were black and white shots giving a nostalgic feel to them and indeed, with a lot of them it would, without the information provided, be hard to tell just when they were taken. Again there is the sense of the surreal (a diver; a mismatch of entrants into a beauty pageant and a strangely positioned couple on a bed) and wonderful portrait work (Bil. Sandusky, Ohio for instance) alongside one another.
I really enjoyed this exhibition and my only , very minor, initial niggle, was that there wasn’t more of his work on display but having thought about it I think the choice to be selective from the works was the right one. Thoroughly recommended and a must see.
Later that evening we attended his talk and I have to say Mr Soth came across as a very likeable and committed photographer.
To start with he explained his thinking behind the four main projects on display and explained that his work “comes from a sense of serendipity” and that for Sleeping by the Mississippi he wanted to have a motif of beds and mattresses running through the work. With Niagara he wanted to have a typology, like the Bechers, of motels and rooms. Broken Manual was done when he was “tired of photography” and was his way of retreating from the world as a whole. Songbook is based on “a nostalgia for the past and an anxiety for the future”
He then went on to quite a fun way of giving a talk by spinning a digital wheel on his computer to come up with a random subject. These included his relationship with Magnum; the project Postcards From America; Collaborations with Martin Parr on documenting Rochester USA at the time of Kodak going bankrupt; his ongoing project of storytelling with teens, Winnebago workshop, and a brief film on approaching people to do portraits of. All in all a really great exhibition and talk.
To round off the day I bought Gathered Leaves and had it signed by the very amiable Mr Soth.
I urge anyone who reads this to check out his work – see the links below:-