Issue #181  5/31/2011
Photo Books: Soth's America; Erwitt's Big Small Stuff

By Matt Damsker


Published by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, for the recent exhibition of the same name. Hardbound; $60; 224 pages; approximately 237 color and black-and-white prints, plus 48-page softbound artist's book, "The Loneliest Man in Missouri." ISBN No. 978-0-935640-96-0. Information: http://www.alecsoth.com ; or contact the Weinstein Gallery, which represents Soth, at 1-612-822-1722 or by email at weingall@aol.com .

Comfortably ensconced in mid-career, Alec Soth (rhymes with both) is getting the recognition that befits a brilliant iconoclast and inheritor of the mantle of America's great, unblinking eyes of the everyday: Eggleston, Friedlander, Shore, to name the obvious few. In icy color, Soth builds on their project, carefully framing the banalities of America's overlooked architecture and landscape along with the Gothic eccentricities of its characters, and what emerges is at once random, compassionate, funny, and sad.

This catalogue of his first major survey, which ran earlier this year at the Walker Art Center, is itself a unique artwork, steeped in a new-media sensibility that begins with the joshing, unserious cover art (it includes Soth's email and Website addresses and notes that he is "available for hire"). Inside, the serious considerations of Siri Engberg (who edited this tome and curated the Walker exhibit), Geoff Dyer, Britt Salvesen, Barry Schwabsky and others are more than matched by excerpts from Soth's blog posts, which range from detailed descriptions of his equipment and darkroom ("It really can be annoying," he notes of the interest in photographers' equipage) to charming ruminations about why he likes or dislikes the titles of famous photo books ("'Why Mister,Why' by Geert van Kesteren, 'Yesterday's Sandwich' by Boris Mikhailov--these are titles that match the originality and excitement of the pictures inside.").

Most generously, this hardbound volume contains a small, softbound artist's book in an endpaper pocket, "The Loneliest Man in Missouri," a 2010 cycle of mostly surreptitious shots Soth took of middle-aged men he glimpsed while driving around the state. It doesn't amount to very much, but it is another reflection of Soth's restless energy, and when he nails an image--a figure crossing a street, say, all but shrouded in morning mist--it more than justifies the whimsical quest.

As for the main body of work contained here, its echoes of famous forebears--from Arbus and Avedon to the aforementioned masters--put Soth easily within their realm of greatness, largely because Soth doesn't struggle against their photographic legacy. Guided by this aesthetic past, he wants to take strong pictures that speak beyond the frame, and more often than not, he does. The glum mother and daughter posed with a shopping cart outside of a St. Paul K-Mart, or a black woman garishly tinted by the red leatherette upholstery of a Minneapolis barroom, or the surprisingly Mondrian-ish colors and geometries of a cheap motel room door and windows are images to linger over, and so we do. Indeed, when Soth ventures to a natural edge, as in his 2005 study of Niagara Falls and environs, he finds as much to look at in the faces, bodies and random sights of tourists, overweight (and sometimes nude) brides and grooms on honeymoon, and poolside furniture as in his stunningly crisp gunmetal-blue image of the great falls.

As Siri Engberg notes in the lead essay: "These pictures, unabashedly lyrical, are pervaded by themes of religion, death, sleep, and sex…Soth's particular embrace of the American vernacular is tuned toward small-town curiosities, with an intentional avoidance of major urban centers and the sameness of the suburban periphery…" This seems especially so in a powerful 2002 image of Johnny Cash's shack-like boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, captured under a deathly gray sky that inhabits four fifths of the frame, with bare trees clawing from the low horizon.

That unpeopled icon of American Gothic is especially lyrical, yes, and looks like a Johnny Cash song sounds, but just as lyrical in wholly different ways are the less picturesque sights: an old mattress floating in an Arkansas swamp, the long-limbed Iowan mother and daughter, their legs casually crossed on each other, the New Orleans woman whose red hair, tattoos and floral dress accent the crucifix of Ash Wednesday ashes on her forehead while she gazes up and off to the side. Inevitably, Alec Soth's America seems like the loneliest place in the world, and perhaps it is, but it is also doggedly, drearily, dirtily, and driftingly alive, singing itself.


Published by the Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago, to accompany the recent exhibition "Small, Serious and Otherwise." Hardbound, 62 pages, 55 black-and-white plates. Information: email info@stephendaitergallery.com ; phone: +1-312-787-3350.

This compact catalogue collects a treasurable trove of some of Elliott Erwitt's vintage gelatin silver prints from the 1940s, '50s and '60s, each of them 8 x10 inches or smaller and all of them marvels, in their unpretentious way, of the candid approach he furthered. Given Erwitt's eminence and broad reach--as a commercial photographer, documentary filmmaker and cinematographer—it might be easy to overlook these "small" gems, but at the same time it's striking to note his influential instinct, especially when he opens our eyes to the abstract in the everyday: a cup of spilled coffee, on a Manhattan street, exposed in all its accidental expressionism, or a fish head propped on a board, surreally, somewhere in Venice.

Erwitt never pushes his rhetoric, and that keeps these older shots so fresh. He can be unabashedly sentimental, as in a 1964 handkerchief-waving scene of departure at a Budapest rail station, or street urchin-angels with dirty faces in Italy; and he can be purely, coldly observational, as in a 1949 shot of a hulking automobile, or a Friedlander-esque image of a traffic sign shot from within a moving car. In between, Erwitt is powerfully descriptive, and as a member of Magnum Photos, close to history: his shot of a veiled Jacqueline Kennedy at Arlington cemetery during the 1963 funeral of JFK is classic and endlessly haunting, capturing the widow's restrained grief as few photos of that day were able to do.

Just as powerful, though, are Erwitt's images of the unknown souls who drift through the urban landscape. An open-mouthed man calls a trade above a foreground blur of bald heads on Wall Street in 1945; men and women dance, wearily, in early-50s New York City; a pretty, lonely woman peers at us from the rear of a Prague streetcar in 1964.

"Average people are quite right not to want their picture taken," Erwitt has written. "It's not that I feel any guilt, any sense of using people against their will, but I'd suffer a bit if I thought I was making anyone unhappy…If my pictures help some people to see things in a certain way, it's probably to look at serious things non-seriously. Everything's serious. Everything's not serious."

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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