Photographer Alec Soth has titled his new body of work Songbook. It’s not a songbook, and it’s not even exclusively about music, but ideas of what music is—what it means in our lives—animate the entire project. When you look at Soth’s striking new photographs, you’re likely to find yourself contemplating the music of life.
Soth, a Minneapolis resident who works out of a St. Paul studio, may be the most famous visual artist ever to come from Minnesota. One of the most acclaimed photographers working anywhere in the world today, he was the subject of a career-spanning exhibit at the Walker Art Center in 2010 and is showing his new work in a new book as well as overlapping gallery exhibitions in New York, San Francisco, and Minneapolis—with upcoming shows in Denver, London, and Berlin.
Best-known for striking portraits like those in the Sleeping by the Mississippi and Niagara series, Soth is also adept at landscape and documentary photography, and his interests span various media: books are a primary vehicle for his work, and with his most recent major project—Broken Manual—he even ventured into sculpture.
For the work that became Songbook, Soth paid a multi-week visit to each of several communities across the country, working in the style of the great photojournalists and documentary photographers of the early 20th century. Working with writer Brad Zellar, Soth self-published dispatches sharing his experiences; the work seen in Songbook, exclusively black-and-white, is drawn from the photographs taken on those trips.
Why the theme Songbook for these images of 21st-century American life? The title is meaningful in at least three senses.
First, there’s the literal sense. Many of these photographs depict scenes where music is being made, or is clearly present—members of a high school band wield their instruments, an elderly man dances with an invisible partner. In the book, song lyrics are among quotations interspersed with photographs. In that sense, Songbook is an exploration of what music means in America now. By counterposing jubilant scenes—often featuring music-making—with stark photographs in which subjects’ faces are often obscured, Soth evokes music as a soundtrack to the full spectrum of the American experience.
That, in turn, suggests a more mythic sense in which the title is apt. A songbook is a collection of tunes that often span a career, or a large body of work; the word is associated with some of the great American songwriters of the twentieth century, several of whom (including Johnny Mercer, Lorenz Hart, and Sammy Cahn) are quoted in Soth’s book. The title Songbook draws a connection between the present-day Americans depicted in Soth’s photographs and their predecessors of a century ago; it seems to argue for a certain universality to the human experience.
In comments published in Artforum, Soth suggests a third, very contemporary, sense in which the title is apt: by divorcing these images from their original settings, even from Zellar’s text, and placing them in a new context, Soth has created what amounts to a remix. “With most pop records, there’s always been an understanding that there will be singles, removed from the album and experienced in a number of different ways. What’s different in the digital age is that every song has become a kind of single. It’s only those die-hard connoisseurs who buy an album and listen to its originally intended sequence. This also holds true for photography, and Songbook is well suited to function in this universe.”
That comes full circle to the physical manifestations of this work, which Soth likens to bound songbooks and vinyl albums. Glimpsing his new images online is certainly a very different experience than seeing large-scale prints, which you can do at the Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis from today through April 4. (Soth will be present at an opening reception tonight from 6:00-8:00 p.m.)
Soth’s subjects have a commanding presence in these prints, some as large as 54″ x 72″. The portraits and landscapes are striking, but I found myself most fascinated with Soth’s party pictures. In one photograph taken at an upstate New York foam party, dancers’ features are obscured and they seem almost sculptural as frozen by Soth’s flash: they become surreal abstractions of revelry. In two photographs taken on crowded dance floors at high school proms, the pictures’ large scale invites you to explore these teenagers’ interlocking but separate stories. The poignant Prom #2. Cleveland, Ohio (2012) freezes one girl alone in the crowd, sandwiched among couples dancing affectionately (not to say libidinously) together all around her.
In the back of that photograph, a boy looks straight at the camera, as though wondering what business we have looking at a photograph of this moment—a moment that, like music, is at once very public and deeply private.