The Great American Photographer, In Our Own Backyard

The first photograph that I saw by Alec Soth was in the Star Tribune six years ago, a tiny shot of a bearded fellow in mechanic’s overalls holding two model airplanes. The picture had appeared, I believe, on a program cover for the famed Whitney Biennial and the paper briefly mentioned this. The image haunted me: Who was this grown man awash in dreams of flying machines, and how did Soth find him?

Minnesota Monthly proceeded to publish this and some of the other photographs from Soth’s seminal book, Sleeping by the Mississippi. And they now fill the first room of the exhibit opening September 12 at the Walker Art Center, From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. They represent several journeys down the river, from Minnesota to New Orleans, and stand among the most original and moving images to be made in any medium in the last quarter-century: Lindbergh’s boyhood bed; a woman holding a photograph of clouds that she believes comprise an angel; mother and daughter prostitutes in small-town Iowa; a painting hanging in an abandoned house.

But that’s just the beginning. There’s a “Minnesota room” of images from here. And selections from his slightly darker series about Niagara Falls; as he called it during a media tour earlier this week: “A place to get married and a place to commit suicide.”

Photo by AleC Soth, Misty 2005
Chromogenic Print

And then there’s the new work. Several projects have pulled Soth in various directions recently, including a quirky series on Goth girls in Southern states, a wall full of straightforward shots of old movie theaters in various states of decay or transformation (one is now, ironically, a video store), and videos he’s been taking for the New York Times of his ongoing journeys through the strange underbelly of America. In one video, a lonely old man whose only friends are strippers recites poetry to them on his birthday.

The last gallery features Soth’s ongoing work from a commission to shoot the American South. Inspired by the story of Eric Rudolph, the notoriously difficult to catch bomber of the Atlanta Olympics, Soth has documented the various ways in which Americans have sought to disappear, photographing survivalists, monks, and sometimes, he admits, folks on the lam.

The images here, of cave dwellings and tree houses, and holes in the ground—sometimes laughably within view of a gas station or other marks of civilization—put Soth right back in the brilliant if sometimes uncomfortable position of his Mississippi work: Are we to laugh at these folks, who of course can no more disappear from society than a lone wolf can leave the woods? Or are we to speculate, as curiously as Soth approached these folks, about their motives? Why we’ve always produced such impulses, and what our own might be?