"Martha and Anthony 2004" from Alec Soth’s Niagara
Each time I’ve turned the last page of Alec Soth’s Niagara I’ve been left feeling what I can best describe as contemplative. It sounds terribly cliché but that book makes me think about life – my life and life in general – and being human. I never see Niagara as being gloomy but that may be entirely despite the sequencing of its photos. You’ll see a couple of photos of motels, motel exteriors, motel interiors, scenes from Niagara, a portrait or two – quite possibly of a couple – and then Soth hits you with the falls.
We could go on a veritable metaphor safari with the photos of Niagara Falls. The river flows to the falls, unstoppably. It all falls down in the end. And I guess that’s how life is; we live it and then we die. Me being accepting of that may be why I don’t see Niagara as a gloomy work. It’s certainly tinged by melancholy but, for me, that’s about as far as it goes down that path.
What lies behind the pictures is more intense, as Soth describes in this interview with Roger Richards in The Digital Journalist:
"Before ever having been there I liked the place. I wanted to explore the scenes of love, and approach it with a kind of lyrical sensibility," says Soth.
But what Soth found was much more than he had bargained for. “After the fifth trip, I was done,” he relates. “The Mississippi work was fun. But here I was having negative experiences. After the fifth trip it was hard to go back.”
Soth says that as the work progressed it became like a downward spiral, and became darker and darker in tone.
"There’s this one guy named David. He may not be in the book … his girl committed suicide. He had this collection of love letters … the letters were so raw." Soth said the work was becoming too dark. He had wanted to maintain the sense of melancholy without it becoming so intense. But it was becoming harder to do.
The melancholy may never become too intense in Niagara but it is nonetheless an intense work. The sequencing of the photos, the manufactured romance of the motels and, perhaps most of all, the people in the portraits, again coupled with the landscapes of the falls. It all brings out feelings of emptiness, loss and futility. But I also find a hope of redemption in Niagara. Probably because of Soth’s portraits, which are never less than sympathetic. They show people I don’t imagine having much in common with, but in a way which makes me stop and look again. To transcend first impressions or even knee-jerk prejudices.
I picked the photo above because to me it illustrates as well as any one photo could what I write in this post. But I hope I also managed to illustrate thoroughly that Niagara isn’t a book of portraits anymore than it is a book of landscapes. If you haven’t done so already, please visit Niagara on Alec Soth’s website and look through the photos. It’s worth noting that although the selection of photos there is excellent the sequencing is not the same as in the book. Some photos from the book are also missing and some photos on the site are not in the book.