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Review of Alec Soth's 'Songbook'

“I wanted that nostalgic element...”

Alec Soth's work is commonly talked about as chronicling American life; His work is rooted in fine art but also verges on photojournalism. Enlisting the help of his friend and writer Brad Zeller, Alec for a time posed as a reporter from a fictional newspaper and investigated stories around America. These stories were documented in a series of tabloids distributed by Soth's publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom. He also published the prints separately in a book called Songbook.

“I wanted that nostalgic element,” he elaborates. “That sense of something lost that is also anxiety for the way things once were. That’s really the dynamic – the tension between the communal and the individual, and the anxiety that attends the decline of community.”

Songbook's framework leads the viewer through the lyrical and ritualistic nature of the subject matter. American conventions are revealed in a layered process in a subtle but significant way. From end to end the monochrome tones echo the direction of the work; a nostalgic melancholy and the persistent surrealism of small-town America. Robert Frank and William Eggleston dwell heavily in work as well as traditional photojournalism conventions.

Such conventions were established from the photographs taken during The New Deal project, funded by the Farm Security Administration. The FSA’s intent was educating the public. And so they established a photography program lead by Roy striker, with the aim of documenting poverty, defending federal relief efforts and “Introducing Americans to America.” From 1936 to 1964 the program commisioned work from photographs such as Walker Evans, Gordon Parks and Dorothea Lange.

In 2000, American academic Robert D Putman published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. This monumental book focuses on the increasing insularity of Americans, disconnection from friends and family, and increasing disinterest in clubs or social groups. Community has been replaced with individualism, although more Americans were visiting bowling alleys, many were bowling alone.

Along with Bowling Alone, the canonized great American songbook (referring to no actual book, but a symbol of old-time well-designed lyrics and melodies of artists like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald.) was Soth’s primary influences from Songbook

“I wanted to adopt a musical approach to the arrangement of the pictures,” says Soth. “It’s a journey across the United States, punctuated by quotes from classic songs.”

Alec Soth's Songbook delineates a rhythmically displaced sequence of exchanging extremes of elements in American life. The dissident nature of contrast compels the photos, along with an expansive and experimental turn on inherent symbols of American identity. The images are overwhelmed by electrically luxated energies: sexual, fanatical, ritualistic, breviloquent, psychological, and ecological.

We are shown an array of people, captured in various consummated rituals; from the sud-covered adolescent's debauchery at a foam party to group of Sufi Muslim’s exhausted trek up a hill. Contrary extremes of impenetrable emotions are arranged into an order that seems to rejects a clear projection of discourse.

Soth’s photographic style usually supports a composition that extracts a statue-like stillness and misplacement. This muted appearance creates an iconic boldness that highlights the subject’s estrangement from collapsing social environment.

Emphatically, Songbook climaxes on a number of highly anxious, dark images: the remains of a house, a line of corrections officers walking down a dark road towards an execution. The last photographs leave the American landscape seeming misty and faint, haunted by nostalgia. The final photo is of a small person devoured by the endless landscape of Death Valley.

The final quote rather than a musician comes from Eugene Ionesco, a Romanian dramatist of the absurd. 

“The whole history of the world has been governed by nostalgias and anxieties, which political action does not more than reflect and interpret very imperfectly ... it is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.” 

In spite of Songbook's impish undertones, the implication seems to uphold Ionesco’s affirmation. And so, Songbook solidifies Alec Soth’s place as a champion visual chronicler of contemporary America's nostalgias and fears.

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Review of Alec Soth's 'Songbook'
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