Alec Soth – Songbook

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Many of the images have a retro feel – I’d wondered if some were in fact archival, but no says Soth, “I was specifically after that nostalgia though. I exploited it in certain images.” He points out the picture of a man attending an event to mark the anniversary of the death of JFK in an ill-fitting, 1960s-style suit. His head is out of shot, but a pristine copy of the November 23rd, 1963 edition of the Dallas Morning News is under his arm, and we can just make out the bones of the famous headline, “Kennedy Slain on Dallas Street.”

There are other nostalgic, but less pseudo-historical choices that continue the same vein – a wooden barn in a cornfield that could have been taken a hundred years ago, and a 1950s-looking teenage couple slow dancing. In fact, most of the images feel timeless, dream-like and quite David Lynch in places.

Although it was fun to poke around the Minnesota he grew up in and still calls home, finding the quirky became infinitely easier once he crossed state lines. “Taking on the persona of an outsider, pretending to be this other photographer, that helped too.”

His first test shots were in large format, and colour, “but I wasn’t able to work fast enough. And shooting in black-and-white, which was handy because I could reproduce pictures quickly and cheaply, just suited the project somehow. I wanted a Weegee-like quality – stark, a lot of flash, more in-your-face. Actually, Weegee was a big inspiration for this. I heard an interview where he said, in his unique New York accent, ‘If you wanna be a photographer, you can’t be a nice nelly.’ And that’s kind of true, but at the same time, he had a real joy in social gatherings.”

Soth and Zellar started with a copy of the real local newspaper in each location, cross-checking its listings and notices with a map. After that, it was good old fashioned persistence. “So much of photography is access. It’s really hard to explain to students that, yes, there’s the picture part, but there’s also the getting in. A whole lot of work goes into the story before you photograph it. You ask questions, you poke around and you don’t stop: What’s in that room, what’s behind there, and eventually – boom – there it is.”

Soth has spoken before about the shyness he suffered when he was starting out, working a night-shift in a Minneapolis darkroom by himself to avoid having to speak to strangers, let alone photograph them. It crops up again now, when we discuss how best to get that elusive access. “When I made Mississippi,” he says, “I think I approached people with great nervousness and trepidation, which in a way disarms them and makes it easier to get in. Now, I’ve done this whole thing too many times, and I’m just not nervous about it, so it’s kind of the opposite, where I come in with such confidence, like I’m doing this job and I’m here to do it and I have a purpose, and people just sort of believe in you. A part of me misses that other way in, but it would be fraudulent to act nervous when you aren’t. I think you just use what you have available.”

In amongst the local happenings you would expect to be covered in a community paper (ribbon cuttings, fugitive pets, re-enactors), Soth was struck by how many of these events involved people meeting in the real world rather than a virtual one. It became his theme. “We live in this time of cell phones and screens. How are we faring? Are we lonely?”

He refers to a book that came about 15 years ago, titled Bowling Alone. “This writer [Robert Putnam]’s idea was that when you go to bowling alley nowadays you see people bowling alone, whereas it used to be that bowling was all about leagues; fraternal organisations that have really died away. There is an incredible amount of loneliness in America. We’re a car culture, all these people in little cubes, driving together, but alone.”

Interestingly, this picks up on and expands an idea Soth worked on right at the beginning of his career. His very first exhibition in Minnesota was a series of black-and-white photographs of people alone in bars. Songbook includes an image he took in North Dakota this time around that is a nod to that earlier series, of four men sitting at separate tables in a roadside café, seemingly oblivious or perhaps just ignoring each other as they eat.

Songbook is actually much more optimistic than this sounds. “I started from this point of communal loneliness, but what I found is that actually people still live real lives in the real world, going to dance class or what have you. Community still exists, and the newspaper remains a form of real engagement. It was a complete 180 from the very interior photography I had been doing with Broken Manual, where I was following people who wanted to run away from society. This was about re-engaging. I dedicated it to brotherhood.”