A View of the World: Alec Soth, Songbook
Its refreshing to see a Robert Frank-like view of the (American) world today: “staged” is not a term I think of when seeing Alec Soth, Songbook at Sean Kelly. Rather, it is a view of a gritty, sad, exuberant now.
A roaming survey of specific places that seem to pinpoint nowhere in particular are revealed here, in large black and white prints. A favorite is the suds-coated dancers, but many images resonate with a solemnity not usually found in much work today, maybe because some contemporary art can veer towards hermetic and self referential.
Venturing out into the world and aiming to capture a sense of a what’s out there can seem as slightly old fashioned and nostalgic as a rotary phone, but I think it’s important to do, both because I like the work produced here by Alec Soth, and because a “getting-back-to-basics” road-trip approach can still mine stunning views, even today (perhaps it’s important to get outside more: we live behind the curtain of the ubiquitous screen, in whatever form).
But this is about photography. The suds-coated dancers is a stand-out piece (it is prominently displayed at the entrance of the exhibition) for me because of the transformative element of the the image. Covering the throng in free-form sculpted foam, turning their bodies into a fun but grotesque caricature–like stilled monsters, is in contrast with the floating blobs and blips that hang like beautiful snow around them. Its entrancing to see this duality here. Other images seem more monastically direct, like the man dancing alone, grinning, arms outstretched, as if waltzing with a ghost from his past.
The people here are alone, either literally or in crowds. The use of flat, sometimes harsh light from the flash seems to heighten this, isolating the figures from the background. So too do the prints, which seem slightly contrasty and at times are very sharp but seem to retain a bit of “grain” (or noise). The images are loosely framed, aiming to capture the moment, rather than a well crafted composed portrait. The places seem like anywhere-ville.
In sum, they seem to borrow equally from the history of mid-twentieth century photography, and from the “snap-shot” aesthetic. Does it sing? The notes are a bit lonely, quirky, off-key but at the same time directly resonate with some punch. See the prints in person if possible at Sean Kelly or at Fraenkel Gallery, or if not, grab Alec Soth’s Songbook in published form for a view of the world.
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