I’ve noticed a recurring theme in some of the stuff I’ve been reading and/or re-reading over the past few weeks, regarding the proliferation of photographic images, and how that proliferation changes the way we see and relate to images and to the world. It’s in some respects similar to the case of the 1978 Test, although it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried.
Here are the relevant bits:
Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Soundings from the Atlantic, published in the 1860’s:
Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please. We must, perhaps, sacrifice some luxury in the loss of color; but form and light and shade are the great things, and even color can be added, and perhaps by and by may be got direct from Nature.
There is only one Colosseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed — representatives of billions of pictures — since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins and leave the carcasses as of little worth. (pp 161-162)
Wilson Hicks, writing in a 1950’s Aperture article, “Photographs and Public,” reprinted recently in Aperture Magazine Anthology: The Minor White Years, 1952–1976:
[The] public is inundated today by a vast flood of images which, as Lewis Mumford says in his Art and Technics…has “undermined old habits of careful evaluation and selection.” There is being waged, he reminds us, a horrific battle of man and machine from which the machine has emerged so far as the victor: witness the images mass-produced by still, movie, and television cameras and mass-repeated by the printing press. I say, “witness the images,” but you dare not do that. For, as Mr. Mumford says, if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks. Mr. Mumford asks whether being surrounded by a superabundance of images makes us more picture-minded, and answers no; we develop an “abysmal apathy” because “what we look at habitually, we overlook.” Moreover, he says, picture users, to get attention, resort to sensationalism — “make sensation seem more important than meaning” — and the shockers so prevalent today cause quieter, and better, pictures to suffer. Still further, the image producers have created a ghost-world, Mr. Mumford says, in which we lead a derivative, secondhand life in addition to our real life. This apparitional world is set and peopled with the artificial and the phoney (note many so-called news pictures). Thus in various ways are the sign and symbol of photography devaluated. (pp. 152-153)
I’m not actually killing the father, though I know that’s in there. But I am interested in killing that genre of photography going forward. It exists in the history of the medium that you shoot the mundane and make it beautiful, right? So people used to take pictures of old barns. Now we all see an old barn and we say, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” It’s a photo cliche so you don’t shoot that, but the world thinks they’re beautiful. That sort of goes on through time. And Eggleston took it to another level with a book such as The Democratic Forest. Just anything, and you can find beauty in it. And I agree with that. But the issue is now, in the digital age, it’s relentless. You have thousands of photographers working that way. it’s really hard to have that moment.
One thing I thought about on that little walk is the scene in American Beauty with the floating plastic bag. That scene has become iconic. I photographed a lot of plastic bags on that walk. In a way, they’re like the old barns. We find the floating bag beautiful now because of that movie, but it’s just harder and harder to do that. (pp. 143-144)
Or: Given the proliferation of options, how should I document this cat?
For some, though certainly not everyone, this question is becoming increasingly difficult to answer. The most obvious answer is “don’t document that cat. Enough already.” I’m with you. I’m concerned about how social media documentation changes experience…I think there is good reason for why these types of documentation proliferate: most importantly, to be on social media in all its various forms is, for many, to exist. PJ Rey does an excellent job at explaining why it’s not so easy to just opt-out of all of this. In any case, this is not a post about whether this expansion in the ways of documentation is a good thing, but asking if there is a cognitive limit to all of this. So, again: How should I document this cat lying next to me?….
Can one simultaneously see the photographs, video, audio, and GIFs in front of them in real-time? Can documentary literacy be refined as to intuit between what is most shareable frozen-still versus wants to be stuck in the GIF loop? Can one see the fast Vine video in the sandwich being slowly consumed? Can we keep all of these documentary-affordances and potentialities in our head at once? Is there a limit?
To make this even more complex, we modern documentarians also need to keep all of the different audiences in mind. Indeed, that we now have been connected to large audiences to share our ephemera is in large part why we are being given so many documentary options. To see something as a potential snap (sent via Snapchat) is to already know the taste and expectations of each potential recipient. Vine users are different than your Facebook friends are different than your Tumblr followers and thus expectations multiply within the documentary consciousness.
As the complexities swell, might there be in this ecology of documentary consciousness something to keep mediums of documentation from proliferating endlessly? Is there a point of cognitive documentary saturation? Can we really all-at-once see the world as photographable, GIFable, Vineable, and whatever else comes next? And are those who reach that documentary saturation first at a disadvantage, missing out on the cultural and social capital that social media documentation promises?
As usually, photography’s chronic problem is to believe that its problems are acute. In this case, it seems that photography has, if not always, then from nearly the very beginning, been in the situation it is now: struggling to make sense of a staggering increase in the rate of production of photographs.
Much as with physical goods, I suppose, changes in abundance and scarcity precipitate anxiety about the value of things — compounded in the case of photographs by the dual impact of proliferating photographs on each other and on the world which those photographs represent. But unlike commodities, the value here is not a matter of monetary worth, but of meaning.
For Holmes, it is the value of real places, subverted by cheap access to photographs of them. (Note: Holmes was writing in a tongue in cheek fashion; he certainly was not anti-photography.) For Hicks, it is the value of “quieter, and better” images which is lost in the deluge — and a crisis in seeing itself, in which we dare not “witness,” because we know that “if we tried to respond to all the mechanical stimuli which beset us we should all be nervous wrecks.” For Soth, it is the aesthetic value of photographic subjects, eroded by our very appreciation (and therefore imitation) of it, which transforms the freshly discovered source of beauty into cliche. For Jurgens, it is the value of routine self-documentation (i.e., the successor technologies of the snapshot): for a given thing or experience, how should one record it — and is it even worth doing so anymore?
To put it in terms of Holmes’s signature metaphor: are there too many ways to “skin” a cat? Having perhaps achieved his vision of men who hunt all things worth seeing only “for their skins and leave the carcass,” are we now at the point where the traffic in those skins — what Hicks called the “derivative, secondhand life” of our visual “ghost world” — has also destabilized and devalued itself? It seems like Jurgens would object to Hicks’s dualism, but shares some of his John Henryesque concerns for the limits of the mind.
In summary, does the proliferation of images sometimes depreciate the value of individual images and/or of things? Is that depreciation a problem? And is that problem newly becoming acute and dire? The answers seem positive, but at least in the case of the third question, consensus is not necessarily supporting evidence when it occurs across time.
I am suspicious of millennialisms in photography, because they tend to recur perennially. (This is also the problem with actual millennial cults. If any of them were right, there would be much fewer of them by now.) Of course, just because the end wasn’t actually nigh all those other times doesn’t mean it’s not really nigh this time. But I am nonetheless inclined to follow the wisdom of Nick Fury: “Until such time as the world ends, we will act as though it intends to spin on.”
Tonight, on a very special…
My feeling is that anxiety about too many images takes its particular form from the specific technological and cultural situation at a given time, but is at heart more or less a constant: to put it crudely, the problem is that photography and related technologies have a disruptive impact on what is special. (There’s probably a better term, but I can’t think of it offhand.)
A special person or place, when subjected to mass reproduction and distribution in image form, may become less special, or the way in which it is special, and to whom, can be totally transformed. A special image — whether distinguished by technical innovation or the artist’s style or perceptiveness — is easily mimicked, which eventually removes the special, distinct quality of it, aside from its historical precedence. The stunning moment of beauty and insight becomes the standard subject.
Of course, this effect is inextricable from the basic appeal of photography in the first place, which from the beginning has included the (relative) ease, affordability, and reproducibility of the images it makes possible. The camera has always been a turnkey solution to the problem of the unique. It disrupts the economy of meaning that determines what is special, because it is and always has been a tool for exactly that purpose.
Of course, the presence of perennial problems and purposes does not mean the medium stands still. Rather, they play a persistent part in shaping its progress, for better or worse. I think proliferation anxiety tends to drive a kind of arms race of innovation — an always-escalating quest for new or new-seeming or newly-rediscovered subjects and techniques to distinguish the photographer who puts them to use before they have a chance to become cliches.
Unfortunately, different parts of the audience relate to the medium differently, and react to to its changes at different rates. A great deal of effort and attention goes into knowing what things to be over, and when. And when it comes to rediscovering the old — well, it can get awkward when one person’s current/continuing practice is someone else’s antique novelty. Under such conditions, it’s inevitable that photography’s audiences will grow farther apart, and their vocabularies, judgments, and desires become less mutually intelligible.
I think in the case of photography as art, the result is an incentive to move toward the abstract, the conceptual, and the technical, farther afield from the common use of photographic tools — and away from the devaluing impact of naive imitation by the masses. That certainly seems to be an implication (spoken or unspoken) behind some of the predicted futures of photography. (Alternatively, of course, the naive products of the masses can be laundered back into relevance through appropriation by some credentialed party.)
Stick to your knitting
Coming at it from another side, I wonder: how much of this fear of proliferating images, would be resolved by pulling art out of the equation? Or, rather, the artist? The obsession with the unique, the special, the distinguishing, and the fear for the fate of good images that may go unseen in the vast flood of others — it’s not really fear about the quality of photographs or the limits of seeing. It’s about the status of the photographer as artist and author.
In crafts, familiarity or commonality is not antithetical to worth. In that context, one cannot reasonably qualify a description of something beautiful or useful and well-made with a dismissive observation that it is also derivative. In folk songs and stories, the quality of performance often reflects an ability to skillfully iterate but does not require radical innovation. And while crafts, folk arts, traditional music, etc. may be perceived as belonging to the past, internet memes really work in much the same way — and like folktales and songs, they tend for practical purposes to come from a culture rather than from an individual author, even sometimes in cases where we can definitely identify such an author.
I think this is particularly relevant to the question of documentary consciousness/saturation — because I think it points to the fact that as we all become more and more skilled at producing images, and as we increasingly do so for the joy of it, we rely on the camera less as a documentary tool for memorializing moments and more to produce personal variations on standard subjects as an end in itself. Not to the exclusion of documentation, of course, but in conjunction with it. As with, say, knitting, the result is a practice that is partly aesthetic, partly utilitarian, and which imparts a satisfaction of creation without necessarily implying “creativity” in the sense of innovation.
(Please, nobody start pummeling me with your copies of Knitting for Anarchists; I know that many knitters engage in extensive design work, etc. But as far as I know, nobody points to someone knitting from a pattern and declares haughtily, “You are not a knitter.”)
Well…no. Or, not exactly. In fact, I tend to be on the side of the “quieter, and better” image, too. And I’m copiously on record as resenting contemporary forms of the attention-seeking “sensationalism” Hicks derided, such as the photos that, through a combination of “wow” factor and SEO, rise to the top of Flickr’s Explore.
More critically, I’m concerned for the ability of photographs to let viewers partake of different perspectives (literally and figuratively). One of the most important functions of photography throughout its history is to form connections between people and between communities — even if they have all too often been simplistic and one-directional connections.
That function is not necessarily menaced by the proliferation of images. Take documentary photography, for example: the more universal, common, cheap, and easy photographic production is, and the more people are making photographs, and the more photographs they make, the more chances we have to avoid the great weakness of documentary photography: its dependence on parachuting white guys into any area that needs documenting.
But neither is there necessarily a positive correlation between a more a diverse body of photographs being made and more diverse, broadening photographic experiences for viewers. The increasingly elective distribution channels of the present are only as inclusive and interconnected as we make them. The walls formed by people letting their tastes guide them can be just as solid as those formed by institutional bias and myopia, and numbers alone will not scale them. Someone has to make windows and doors, or at least ladders. It’s a task that gets far too little love.
So anyway, please take about 2-3x the usual dose of salt with everything I’ve said here.
PS: I was also being extremely glib in my comparison of knitting to photography. I did not include fiber arts as an academic practice, or haute couture, which would likely have created annoyingly relevant parallels. Figuring out whether and how those parallels would have undermined my point is left as an exercise to the reader.
But most significantly, in knitting and in many other crafts, there is a direct relationship between the time one must spend in physical work and the result one achieves. Photography is by no means free of work, but the relationship between the time spent in it and the nature and quality of the result one achieves is wildly variable.
The usual read of that is that photography is faster or easier and therefore it upsets balances. I don’t think it’s that photography is faster or easier than other media, so much as that within photography, there is no consistent relationship between the amount, duration, or kind of effort one expends, and what one achieves. I think that inconsistency breeds media-wide insecurity at an hilarious rate.
PPS: This post took me a long time, and in the time between I started writing it and when I hammered into its present, vaguely publishable state, other things have been posted that I really should take into account. But if I stopped to do that, it would be another month before I got this out there, and then the situation would just keep getting more silly. So I’ll just say: read the posts linked here, here, and here.
1: America as Index
Glancing at a few posts from other folks about From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, it seems like it’s almost as obligatory for reviewers to talk about the book’s cover as it is for the essayists in the book to talk about Soth’s 8x10 view camera. It’s a fine and clever cover, to be sure, but I’m really much more taken with the book’s index. Not all photobooks have them — even ones that include extensive prose sections — and it’s always nice to see them. Indices are great because they’re a sign that someone on the other end of the book-making process remembered that books are for getting knowledge into peoples’ heads. The inclusion of an index respects a reader’s time and encourages repeated readings and extended use.
Of course, the index in From Here to There isn’t really an index. Or, rather, it is a fully functional index, but it’s also (mostly?) a joke about indices.
- “Zen, photography as anti-, 142.”
- “Soth, Alec, business cards of. 222.”
- “2007_10zl0006, 47, 197”
- “men, disconsolate, as theme.”
In addition to being amusing, this is representative of the book’s stylistic approach, which throughout is clever and charming, although also sometimes just a bit much.
But actually it’s the regular “list what’s in the book” aspect of the index that I find the most interesting. It demonstrates part of the problem I’ve been having in trying to write usefully about this book and about Soth: talking about Soth means talking about everything.
Well, not everything. But gosh, it’s a pretty healthy percentage. Here, take a look:
Of course, one could make a list of connections like this about any photographer or artist — any person at all, really. But the index is a fair representation of the actual content of this book, especially the four essays about Soth and the interview with him that form the majority of the text. A tremendous amount of time is spent using comparisons and relationships to try to pin Soth down, to define his context — and by way of his context, to define him. Frank, Evans, Weston, Winogrand, Bresson (I mean, really?), Dijkstra, Wall, Ruff, Meyerowitz, Avedon. Wim Wenders, Amy Lowell, Malvina Reynolds. It’s a little like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, except instead of feeling the ears, the trunk, and the tail, we’re trying to determine the elephant’s species by way of his bibliography. And much the same approach is taken to Soth’s diverse subject matter.
Maybe that’s the only sensible way to approach Soth, whose photographic process is list-centric, after all:
[In Niagara:] From an initial search for subjects relating to the notion of love, “the realities of the place” quickly changed his perspective and parameters. He initiated the practice of driving with lists taped to the steering wheel that enumerated things to seek out (“…high school yearbooks, Polaroids, men in pajamas…). He also began to look for souvenirs: love letters and objects collected from subjects that would become a kind of “emotional scaffolding for the project. (Engberg, p. 44)
Perhaps itemization is a principle theme of Soth’s work; maybe it is only appropriate to try to understand Soth in this way. Or maybe it is just that a body of work like Soth’s, dense in meaning and reference, but also enigmatic, even inscrutable, needs to be cross-referenced before it can be talked about.
And yet, I have the sense with some of the essays in this book, that by the time the author is done with with the due diligence of tallying up subjects and influences and cross-references, that they’ve run out of steam for actually talking about Soth’s work itself. Or that the framework they’ve built out of those references is so ponderous that to actually get it pointed in a direction and make it move is just unrealistic.
Even Britt Salvesen’s essay, which is my favorite of the bunch, seems to begin seven or eight times, is largely about other photographers, and closes with what reads like a second or third paragraph composed mainly of nested lists:
Beneath an affectless surface, Soth’s work contains an aspirational core. Taking up such themes as community, connection, and middle America — so laden with political assumptions as to be nearly abstract — Soth presents viable options for art and life. Perhaps these are not the inevitable options, nor the cleanest ones, but he subtly indicates that choosing them will temper other, darker American tendencies toward cynicism, alienation, metropolitanism, and obscurantism on the one hand, and fundamentalism, conservatism, essentialism, and exceptionalism on the other. A man of his time, he externalizes the dilemmas he faces as an artist, a father, and a citizen. His respect for individuality allows him to posit collective identity. Our need for Alec Soth’s America makes it real.
I think it’s an excellent essay. But I think it demonstrates that Soth’s work as a whole is so…involuted, and so intellectually rich, that it’s difficult to approach both thoroughly and deeply.
2: This Swiss Guy
One of the pleasant surprises for me in this book is that Soth managed to sell me somewhat on Robert Frank’s The Americans, a book that I’ve always had a hard time liking very much.
When I first saw Robert Frank, it wasn’t this transformational thing for me the way it is for everyone else. I came to admire him much later. But I think I’m doing very similar things to what he’s doing in a way that’s quite different from, say, Joel Sternfeld. And this is where I’m able to distinguish these things, because Sternfeld is actually more of a social documentarian. He really is interested in the social issues of the day, looking at them and thinking about changes.
I don’t think that’s what Robert Frank was about. I think he was this Swiss guy coming to America, driving around, feeling enchanted and lonely simultaneously, and it just so happens that he encounters America and aspects of it and documents some of that. And then the work is read as a commentary on America. But the work is so much more about the tortured soul of Robert Frank. And that becomes super evident in later work. (p. 145)
I think this is spot-on. While The Americans has obviously played an influential role in the context of documentary photography, and photography as political critique, I don’t find it all that impressive or persuasive if directly examined on those terms. But it’s pretty damn good as a photo essay about travel, recording an experience that is mostly composed of alienation and surface perceptions.
(And yes, I appreciate that alienation and surface perceptions define America as well as the experience of travel — and that the uneasy road trip is as archetypal an American experience as anything. But the book makes much more sense if you keep the “enchanted and lonely” Swiss guy at the front of your mind. The photographs carry the weight of his story better than they carry the weight of a scathing social document.)
Of course, by providing this reading of Frank, Soth is also positioning himself as well. He tends to get — well, whatever the laudatory equivalent is of “tarred with the same brush.” I’m not sure why this is — and I’m as guilty of anyone of doing it. Maybe it’s just the power of American chauvinism in action that photos made in America by and about lonely drivers cannot help being read as social documentary.
3: Find Ourselves in These Pictures
Among the many freewheeling comparisons and connections between Soth and other notable photographers of America that populate this book, this one by Salvesen is probably my favorite:
Although beauty and grace suffuse many of his pictures, others are tough and resistant: Soth makes no deliberate attempt to be easy and pleasing. In this he resembles the predecessors mentioned above. Evans’ neutral frontality was puzzling compared to Margaret Bourke-White’s more sentimental depictions; Frank was a dark and infuriating counterpart to Steichen’s 1955 humanist paean The Family of Man; Shore was a deadpan riposte to bicentennial fervor; and Avedon was an East Coast urban dismantler of Wild West mythology. Soth, in his turn, does not pretend to the comprehensive sweep of A Day in the Life of America. Evans, Frank, Shore, Avedon, and now Soth have submitted American identity to serious questioning while ultimately contributing to it, even enriching it. The viewer cannot escape the challenge posed by these artists: if we want to believe in America as a democracy, as a collective of free and equal individuals, we must either find ourselves in these pictures or admit ourselves outside them.(p. 105)
I tend to dislike accounts of the value of a body of photography based on its function in calling into question American mythology, self-confidence, etc. It’s just redundant, like a gripping photo essay revealing the conspiracy behind the myth of Santa Claus. Demythologization is not bad, but it is rarely interesting in itself, and if it’s treated as a priority in art (either by the artist or by curators or critics) it limits the scope of its relevance to audiences who partake in the mythology or who like to chuckle at the foolishness of those who do. (Also, in the case of the photographers who tend to crop up in this particular conversation, one has to ask: to what extent can American identity be “submitted to serious questioning” by all and only white men?)
But Salvesen’s “we must either find ourselves in these pictures or admit ourselves outside them,” does something different (or at least additional) for me. It focuses not on the relationship between the photographers and the idea of America, but on the relationship between viewers and subjects. And while I can be as jaded and bored as I like about national mythology, this problem all Americans face — the problem of living together with other Americans — is as real to me as it is to anyone, and it is a concrete problem which is actually amenable to photographic investigation.
It’s a particularly good way to approach Soth, whose work, while often as narrow and provocative and judgmental as that of any other photographer of America, is also consistently empathetic, and genuinely interested in people as such. (And not only for their iconic or representational utility.)
For example, consider this photograph:
And Soth’s explanation of it:
But, over and over again, you do see real misery. So then you’ve witnessed the fact that, with these people, something’s broken and that more often than not, there is a real hunger to engage with me. So, if I were to really leave my life, I would desperately miss it, and people. It’s a case of grass is always greener. It’s both being attracted to it, and then when you’re in it, a bit repelled.
And on the issue of the swastika — I asked him a lot about that, and it was so clearly a case of being completely naive. I didn’t want to exploit that as a major topic because I felt like the religious impulse of becoming a monk or something is not that different. It’s just a different shade of the same thing, which is this hunger to latch on to some sort of system. Because there’s always a belief system that’s connecting you to other people.
But you know what’s really interesting about him? You know the older guy who I said lives on millions of dollars of mountain? He was the guy I was going to visit. That young guy with the swastika was living on his property. The older guy is a total hippie. Not Nazi at all. I think he’s gay, and likes having the young guy around. The young guy is a bit lost in life, and he hates his parents, but it shows you — in both cases — how they’re not alone at all. (pp. 137-138)
I think this sympathetic, detailed, and somewhat all over the place approach to his subjects is part of what makes Soth so hard to summarize or to draw concise conclusions about. We expect a narrative to generalize, to organize, to abstract. Because if it doesn’t do those things, it can’t explain. And if it doesn’t explain, we can’t account for its accuracy. I think Soth’s photography explains less about America than any of the other photographers of America to whom he is compared. Which is not to say that he doesn’t provide a true and useful view of it. I’m almost tempted to say that the leaving out the explanation of America makes room in the photos for more actual America.
Although…still only so much of it. Soth’s America is a very white America — not exclusively so, of course, and I don’t necessarily count it as a defect. I’m more concerned with the quality with which he shows what he shows than I am with the demographics of it. And if we’re talking about Soth’s work in itself, it wouldn’t even occur to me as an issue. But if we’re looking at Soth as a name at the end the list, ” Evans, Frank, Shore, Avedon, and” in terms of a tradition of photographers presenting America with challenging mirror images of itself — well, that’s a tremendously white guy list. Which doesn’t say a damn thing about who has made important and challenging photographs of America, but it does say a lot about who America is willing to be challenged by.
4: The Loneliest Man in Missouri
Probably the best part of Alec Soth’s America is the booklet The Loneliest Man in Missouri, tucked into a little envelope on the back cover, like a circulation card in an old school library book.
(Note: Spoilers ahead. No, really. If you aren’t going to buy the book (which I do recommend), you can view the series here.)
While From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America includes some of Soth’s most recognizable work from a number of series, mostly beautiful and reproduced with care, the photos in Loneliest Man are almost all unremarkable in appearance. They would have little recognizable value outside the context of their sequence, which opens with a man urinating against the cement base of a pole, a distant bird in a blue sky, and the handwritten words, “I spent a few weeks driving around Missouri, looking for the loneliest man I could find.”
What follows are mostly photos of solitary men in cars, men walking to or from their cars, eating their lunches, and going to strip clubs. Stylistically, they resemble some of the worst sorts of street photography: voyeuristic without being provocative or informative, and in almost all cases without apparent redeeming aesthetic virtue.
Some photos are annotated with simple captions, and some narrate Soth’s process, like, “I followed this man from a strip club to the casino. He was wearing some sort of complicated medical device,” or, “I think his mustache was fake.” Some of the men’s faces are covered with colored stickers. In between photos of the men, there are photos of related scenes or objects, often from parking lots.
Then, a few pages from the end, Soth finds his “loneliest” man, Ed:
I met Ed at Miss Kitty’s, a strip club in East St. Louis. He goes there 3-5 times a week.
I took Ed to dinner at Ruby Tuesdays. He told me that the next day was his 45th birthday. But he had no plans to celebrate. His parents were dead — no friends but strippers.
For Ed’s birthday, Soth hired one of the strippers from the club to come to Ed’s house, where she sang happy birthday to Ed and Ed read her TS Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The text of the poem is reproduced, and the sequence concludes with a photograph of Ed’s birthday cake.
Loneliest Man in Missouri is invasive, creepy, ugly, and pretentious. It is also moving, contemplative, and genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny. And wonderful. It divorces Soth’s fundamental concerns from the beauty and high technical standards that characterize, say, Niagara. And it somehow — I’m honestly not sure how — manages at the end to humanize the subjects without obfuscating the squirm-inducing nature of the premise or Soth’s approach to it.
It’s not a documentary work. It doesn’t document anything, it’s certainly not evidence of anything. It doesn’t explain or account for anything. It’s a self-portrait by proxy* of a lonely driver. And it’s awesome.
*We’ve talked about Charles and the men in Broken Manual, but in many ways I am closer to The Loneliest Man in Missouri than I am to these people. I live in Minneapolis, I drive a minivan. It was going to be The Loneliest Man in Minneapolis at one point, but then I thought, that’s too easy. And I wanted to go even more to the middle by going to Missouri, but there is definitely a self-portrait aspect to this whole thing. (p. 145)
Until recently, hardly anyone considered why some readers might actually prefer clichés to finely crafted literary prose. A rare critic who pondered this mystery was C.S. Lewis, who — in a wonderful little book titled “An Experiment in Criticism” — devoted considerable attention to the appeal of bad writing for what he termed the “unliterary” reader. Such a reader, who is interested solely in the consumption of plot, favors the hackneyed phrase over the original
… because it is immediately recognizable. ‘My blood ran cold’ is a hieroglyph of fear. Any attempt, such as a great writer might make, to render this fear concrete in its full particularity, is doubly a chokepear to the unliterary reader. For it offers him what he doesn’t want, and offers it only on the condition of his giving to the words a kind and degree of attention which he does not intend to give. It is like trying to sell him something he has no use for at a price he does not wish to pay.
This is quite interesting. While it is aimed at the problem of why people like Stieg Larsson, it is very applicable to photographic contexts, as well. (Would it be too much to say “the problem of why people like Chase Jarvis”?)
If you show the average viewer of photographs (which is to say, an average person in any country which is at least modestly industrialized) a bunch of Chase Jarvis’s work and a bunch of Alec Soth’s work, there’s an excellent chance you’ll get a better response to the former, for largely the same reasons that Lewis enumerates.
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that, in photography, what the photographer or curator is “trying to sell” the viewer will in many be something that the viewer is ill-equipped to recognize. As a result, the viewer will feel that they are being asked to pay a price not only for something they have no use for, but for something which, so far as they can tell, does not exist. And this is not true only for the “unliterary” viewer of photography; consider the critical response initially received by New Topographics.
Are these situations problematic? I think in the case of literature, the answer is, not necessarily. A taste for Dan Brown novels does not preclude a taste for more interesting fare. And in some cases — for example, in the case of Harry Potter — a mediocre work can become a gateway that leads vast numbers of readers on to better works.
In photography, the situation is somewhat more dire, because it is much, much harder for viewers to move freely between the “unliterary” photographic realm and the “literary” photographic realm. There is hardly any middle ground between them, the way there is with books. (I would not personally say “middlebrow,” but I wouldn’t object to it, although I do generally question the derogatory connotation that word is usually burdened with.) Instead of a middle ground, there is a chasm with hardly any bridges across it.
Most people wouldn’t know where to go to find challenging and interesting photographic work if they wanted to. (And what might prompt them to begin to want to?) For many people of the older generations, a good photograph is something associated more than anything else with wall calendars and perhaps magazines. For the younger generation, make that Explore and The Sartorialist.
In a bookstore, one could easily start at Dan Brown’s allotted position on the shelf and then have one’s eye caught by Octavia Butler, or Borges, or JG Ballard, or Kay Boyle, or Ray Bradbury. There are no (or nearly no) opportunities like that in photography. And while that precise example is not easily replicated in, say, Amazon (for which virtual proximity is a function of user tastes, not alphabetic chance), it is still very easy to start with a bad writer and stumble from there to good writers. (Because the tastes of other users are not uniform, “if you like x, you may also like y” engines do not automatically trap users in unliterary ghettos.)
To provide opportunities for everyday people to expand and improve their photographic tastes without making them feel like they are being sold something they have no use for at a price they do not wish to pay is one of the more important frontiers in photography at the moment, and one which few people are homesteading. There are a few notable and interesting attempts — I would possibly consider Pictory to be one and certainly 20x200 is — but I have not encountered any about which I do not have significant reservations.
That said—too briefly—my argument against the set-up picture is that it leaves the matter of content to the IMAGINATION of the photographer, a faculty that, in my experience, is generally deficient compared to the mad swirling possibilities that our dear common world kicks up at us on a regular basis. That’s all.
I’m almost positive I’ve read and blogged about this interview before, but years ago and in another venue entirely. And in any case, this passage bears repeating, because it gets right to the heart of what riles me up about the overuse of the terms “creativity” and “creative” in regard to photography.
However, also bear in mind that Papageorge is not arguing for a photograph as document. He says just before the previously quoted passage:
Don’t speak to me of the document; I don’t really believe in it, particularly now. A picture’s not the world, but a new thing.
“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.
“Fairway Motor Inn” from Alec Soth’s book NIAGARA
Since I have it on loan, I’ll be doing a short review soon of Alec Soth’s photobook NIAGARA. I keep coming back to this particular photo from it but I can’t imagine using it with a review of the book. Finding one photo to represent Soth’s work in NIAGARA will be very difficult, but what I’m sure of is that this photo isn’t it. Not that it’s the odd photo out but others would probably be better. This photo, however, is perhaps my favourite of all the photos in NIAGARA. Somewhat odd since other photos in the book speak to me more but perhaps understandable because I wish I had whatever magic Soth put into this one.
Soth converts the mundane into the fascinating in it. There’s an abundance of lines criss-crossing it, there’s sparse colour except for the red doors which match perfectly with the red Cadillac. Delicious repetitions. The grey sky and light, the patchy wet asphalt, the barren tree; desolate. I’m not sure that the red doors and car manage to provide an uplifting counterpoint to the desolation rather than highlight it. Still, the melting snow is a sign of spring so maybe things aren’t that bleak. “Fairway Motor Inn” still feels colder and more detached than much of the photos from NIAGARA.
But it makes me feel like I’m there. Perhaps in a movie, standing there in the parking lot wondering what’s behind those doors and what the plot is.
Alec Soth is a fantastic photographer, and I was ecstatic to see this photograph — in the form of a gargantuan c print — tucked away in the middle of a miscellaneous bunch of photographs at SFMOMA. I made a point of seeing it each time I went back to go over the “Provoke Era” Japanese exhibition.
It is mundane, luminous, and mysterious. It is full of win.
I really wish I could show you the physical print, but it simply wouldn’t fit in a blog post…
I just remembered that I need to return Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places (which has sparked some thoughts I’ve been meaning to post here) and Roy DeCarava’s A Retrospective (which I really should also write something about) to the library tomorrow. Which means it’s also time to pick a couple more titles to order through the interlibrary loan service.
At first I had almost settled on getting Alec Soth’s book Sleeping by the Misssissippi, as I thought it would make for an interesting follow-up to Shore’s Uncommon Places. Then I remembered that Soth’s website is excellent with, as far as I know, the whole contents of his books up there. So, I browsed a bit, to help make up my mind, and decided that perhaps NIAGARA would be a better pick.
Of course I’m still borrowing one of his books, if I can, since looking at prints and photos in books is superior to looking at them on a computer display. It’s still fantastic that Soth makes his work accessible in the way he does. It’s also a pretty good excuse for me to write a short post about getting photo books through interlibrary loans, put up a nice photo for you guys to look at along with links to virtually virtual photo books.
Apparently also an excuse for me to get too clever for my own good.