Alec Soth – Songbook

Reading Time: 12 minutes

 Soth talks me through the stories behind the images, some of which you couldn’t make up. A hospital for Cabbage Patch Kids in Cleveland, for example, and a snow globe repairman in Northfield. Then there’s the community of pensioner aviators with specially-built garages, so that they can bring their beloved airplanes right into their homes. “As crazy as the US is, I’m a big defender of it,” he says. “People were incredibly welcoming, and so often without even asking why I was there. Songbook leaves me feeling good about how rich America is in terms of its variety. It’s kind of a cliché that everything is becoming malls and McDonalds. You just have to drive a little bit, ask a few questions and it’s strange, surprising, and endlessly fascinating.”

One picture shows the meeting of a local ‘Optimist Club’, where the guest speaker lectured on over-population, landfill and starving children. “It wasn’t exactly optimistic,” laughs Soth. “When I saw it in the advance notices of the paper, I was really curious – I mean, what does it mean to be an optimist in this world? Well, I can tell you. It generally means to be about 70 years old and pretty crusty. It was like a skit.”

Humour is actually a crucial ingredient. The book opens with a guy called Bil – he must be in his seventies – in Sandsuky, Ohio, leaning into a partner-less dance, with his arms stretched out to the side and a huge grin on his face. The picture is joyous, and clever too, as Bil’s body leans into the title page, inviting you in for a turn.

“One of my goals was to bring that humour in – some of it is dark humour, but there’s also real joy,” says Soth. “I have a naturally morose tone to my work, a sombre quality that exists here too, but I don’t want to take the same picture over and over for the rest of my life. I do have a pretty robust sense of humour and I really wanted that to be part of it.”

I mentioned Robert Frank earlier, and I want to mention him again, because if Songbook is about brotherhood – and there are several pairs of men in the run of images, as if to emphasise this point – then in many ways, Frank is Soth’s darker, more brutal twin. Both of them collect, as Frank ably described, “things that are there, here and everywhere – easily found, not easily selected and interpreted”. And Frank too, when he made The Americans, spoke of wanting to creating a “more sustained form of expression”, that didn’t depend “on that one single image”.

In a Q&A with Interview magazine last year, Soth spoke of his concern with the direction in which photography is headed. In conversation with fellow photographer Austin Nelson, he outlined the difficulty in making meaningful images when everyone has a camera. “You used to have to be a chemist to be able to be a photographer,” he said, “and now it keeps getting easier and easier and easier … if an eight-year-old can take a picture, how do I add meaning to that?”

After Broken Manual, he decided to move away from his familiar practice and experiment a while. He played with video, digital, disposable. He also investigated the idea of the iconic photograph, making an extended response to Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. He’s gone on record saying he shies away from them, and I wonder if he still stands by that. “When I said that, I was pretty bitter about it” he admits. “I kind of like individual pictures more than I used to. I want the iconic image as much as anyone. I want that to happen, but it seems fruitless to chase after it because, you know, they come on their own. They’re like an added bonus. It’s like a little gift from the gods when you get one.”

Did Songbook restore his faith in photography more generally? Last year he compared photographs to pop songs – terrifyingly ubiquitous and liable to get lost in the digital flood. “Going back to a more traditional form of storytelling helped, yes,” he says. “Shaking things, up, doing things in a different way, seeing the world in a different way, I really did fall in love with the making of things again.

“I gave a talk a year ago to some high school students and they were so excited about photography, and I thought, who am I to say there are too many pictures? They’re thrilled to be discovering the world, and that’s great and it’s still totally valid. It’s about stopping with the navel gazing and not living too much in the world of your craft, getting outside of all that.”

He’s also made a point of fine-tuning his way of working. “I’ve found that doing small things alongside big projects is key. To sustain myself creatively is to not give myself over entirely in one way or another. And I like to try things that really knock myself out of the park. Who cares if you fail? There was a project after Broken Manual that didn’t exactly pan out, but this work came out of that.”

It sounds as if the self-doubt that plagued his early years is no longer a problem. “Oh god, talk to my wife!” he says. Soth and she, a nurse, met when they were 15. “How sweet,” I say. He laughs. “It’s funny, women always say that. Men are like, ‘really?’”

As we’re finishing up, I have to ask about the skywriting. Vast, beautiful letters that spell the word ‘JESUS’ in already dispersing cloud, over the most humdrum of motels in Kissimmee, Florida. Did that actually happen?

“Yes, and all I could think was, ‘Oh my god, somebody’s writing in the sky’, frantically looking for something in the foreground, and there he was – I kind of love this – a guy just walking into the room. Who knows why he had the chair out there in the lot. The combination was incredible.”

I can’t remember the last time I saw skywriting. It seems God quite literally intervened. “I know” he says. “And this is why; this is the thrill of being a photographer out in the real world. Just every once in a while these things happen, just un-frickin-believable.”

Songbook is published by Mack

Songbook will also appear as part of a retrospective at Media Space at London’s Science Museum opening in October.

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