Alec Soth coming to the FOMO foto museum in Antwerp, not just your everyday news for the Belgian photography crowd. An exciting buzz of anticipation had been spreading through photography communities, plans were made for the opening evening, tickets for the artist talk were sold out in no time.
Some lucky coincidences later, I had the chance to see the exhibition and hear him talk three times during the opening days, including the artist talk. Beforehand, I knew his name and could connect it to some of his most iconic images, but I never really took time to dive deeper into the work. Afterwards, I went home as a fan and proud owner of one of the last copies of the catalog of this overview exhibition ‘Gathered Leaves’. The exhibition, curated by Kate Bush, was originally set up for the London Science Museum. After that, lucky for us, it has been travelling to other locations. Current stop: Antwerp. Following a circle-shaped design, the exhibition takes you through four crucial projects in the oeuvre of Alec Soth: 'Sleeping by the Mississippi' (2004), 'NIAGARA' (2006), 'Broken Manual' (2010) and 'Songbook' (2012-14).
© Alech Soth, Charles, Vasa, Minnesota from the series 'Sleeping by the Mississippi', 2002
© Alec Soth, Two Towels from the series 'Niagara', 2005
This set-up, combined with the walk-through by Alec Soth, allowed for an intimate look into the interests, strategies and evolution in the photographer’s work. He is a man that doesn’t fall back into clichés, always searching, changing and moving. Always finding different topics and new ways to photograph them. A man trying to be free, from his own rules and the rules of photographic art.
'Sleeping by the Mississippi' shows us his first breakthrough, a project about dreams and dreamers, different stories connected by one river. In 'NIAGARA', a similar process is used (large-format camera, body of water as connecting theme), but this time a new region is explored, a region where love and suicide go hand in hand. Capturing love in a photograph is not easy and is partly resolved by adding love letters to his photographs, a haunting combination. In 'Broken Manual', Alec Soth turns his lens to the fantasy of wanting to escape from society and the inherent failure in this search. People will always need other people. Songbook, in the end, shows us yet another Soth, changing his way of working (working as a group, working with a digital camera with flash) and the resulting photographs (more action, black and white).
Interestingly, the exhibition does not try to hide the changes and processes behind his work, but instead highlights them. We see the first book experiments that came before the famous ones, we see the evolution in the way of exhibiting his work, we see the different themes and approaches to photography. Being able to see these aspects, on top of the work in itself, makes for a very compelling exhibition.
© Alec Soth, Near Kaaterskill Falls, New York, from the book 'Songbook', 2012
In the end, even within their diversity, all projects can be connected. Together they show us the heart of America, a different America than what we are used to see in the media. They show us a fascination for storytelling and poetry (and the struggle between the two). They show us landscapes and portraits and details. They show us an interest in the spaces between us. Last but not least, they give us an intimate look into some of the bigger questions of life: dreams, love, freedom, loneliness, community.
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