Some Largely Unrelated Thoughts on From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America

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)