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Book Review: Songbook


Book Review Songbook By Alec Soth Reviewed by Blake Andrews At this point in Alec Soth's career, it might be easy to forget that he began as a newspaper photographer shooting general stories for a small-town paper near Minneapolis. That period didn't last very long. He soon developed the blend of large format color portraiture and Americana landscapes for which he is now best known.

Songbook. By Alec Soth.
Mack, 2014.
 
Songbook
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Songbook
Photographs by Alec Soth
Mack, 2014. 144 pp., 75 tritone plates, 11¼x10½x½".


At this point in Alec Soth's career, it might be easy to forget that he began as a newspaper photographer shooting general stories for a small-town paper near Minneapolis. That period didn't last very long. He soon developed the blend of large format color portraiture and Americana landscapes for which he is now best known. Sleeping By The Mississippi established him immediately as a rising star in the art world. Niagara and Broken Manual sealed the deal. His blog, publishing house, and strong social media presence kept his name circulating and hinted at a restless spirit. These strands have combined to make Soth perhaps the most prominent photographer of his generation, the flavor-du-jour in certain photo circles and broadly influential. It's 2015. The photo world is his oyster. Any photo project he undertakes will gain attention. Any book will sell out.

So far so good. But with that position comes intense scrutiny. What will Soth do next? How will he expand into new territory while keeping true to his voice? The way forward is open to possibility but laced with potential pitfalls. This was the scenario a few years ago when Soth threw the photo world a knuckle ball, Broken Manual. It wowed and fluttered across the plate, casting Soth himself as a lonely outsider. The rough mix of formats, subjects, and approaches seemed to portend a future rubric of conceptualism.

With the publication of Songbook, Soth returns to his early photojournalist roots with a collection of civic moments. The photos are captured from all over the U.S., but it may as well be small-town Minnesota. This is the voice of Soth's inner cub reporter, and this is perhaps the book he wanted to make all along.

Songbook. By Alec Soth. Mack, 2014.

Oh, don't act so surprised. In hindsight the clues were there. The peculiar decision to join Magnum, the experimentation with unbound newsprint in The Last Days of W and LBM Dispatches, the ongoing series of self-assigned Americana reporting with writer Brad Zellar. All the signs pointed to something akin to Songbook. Don't let the gold art star and five figure prices by his name fool you. Soth may have shown at Gagosian and shot Paris fashion but those were poor fits. He has always been less concerned with high-brow theory than with the photojournalist's bread-n-butter, human behavior, and to be more precise, American human behavior. The Songbook verdict: Americans are a strange lot, "the lovechild of a Dorothea Lange series and a Woody Guthrie song," in Huffington Post language.

Songbook. By Alec Soth. Mack, 2014.

Songbook has its roots in the LBM Dispatches, for which Soth and Zellar made several trips to specific regions of America as a photo/writer reporting team just to see what they'd turn up. Soth ditched the large format camera, switched exclusively to black and white, and made liberal use of flash. As he explained to Interview Magazine, those technical choices were consciously made to convey a more photojournalistic feeling. "There's a reason that press photographers, even with the development of color film, would work in black-and-white and with flash. You can photograph anything. You can be inside, outside, doesn't matter, you're controlling the light. It gives you great flexibility. That was a primary motivation. But also, I was making reference to the history of photography and Weegee and that tradition."

Soth and Zellar published seven Dispatches over the past few years, and they became the raw source material for Songbook. The photos were carefully winnowed into seventy-three images, and bundled into short visual chapters of 5 to 7 images, each capped with a blank right-facing page and sometimes a phrase or passage. Captions come at the very end.

Songbook. By Alec Soth. Mack, 2014.

The crucial shift from LBM Dispatches to Songbook — and the primary reason I consider it a landmark monograph — is that the photos are stripped of their accompanying stories. Zellar was a symbiotic part of the original team. But he's been axed and the work thus transformed. It's not necessarily better but it is radically different. "From the thousands of pictures I had made over the past few years, I could untangle myself from the specific stories and just swim in the visual. It was a treat," says Soth in Artforum.

With no text, the complete weight of meaning falls on the photographs. The reader can guess the context, and might even guess correctly, but most of the photos remain deliberately ambiguous. A few are downright bizarre. The reader is faced with unresolved images and forced to respond only visually. That's the zen prick heart of photography and the core strength of this book.

Songbook. By Alec Soth. Mack, 2014.

Several critics have compared Songbook to the original tour-de-force of decontextualized photography, 1977's Evidence. There are strong similarities, but I think an even more revealing comparison might be to Suburban World, Soth and Zellar's first collaboration published in 2008 that catalogued the photographs of Irwin Norling, a small-town newspaper photographer in 1950s Minnesota. Sound familiar? Soth wrote the forward to the book and was clearly influenced by Norling, particularly his lack of artistic pretension, but also his faithfully straight depictions of Americana and the human condition. "He seems to be illustrating a fantasy version of midwestern life," Soth wrote. Remove the identifying captions from Suburban World, smarten up the layout and sequence, have Mack reprint it tritone, and you'll get something very similar to Songbook.

Songbook. By Alec Soth. Mack, 2014.

The title Songbook is a reference to The Great American Songbook, which is not actually a published book but a loose collection of canonical songs important to American culture. The musical connection comes quite literally at first — the first four photos get the point across — but then falls into a more metaphorical rhythm. Several short song verses are spiced throughout the book, and the rear cover is a page of sheet music from Dancing In The Dark (the Schwartz and Dietz version, not Springsteen). The book unveils itself in small mysterious clumps like songs on a vinyl album. The title Songbook roots the photos in physicality while promising a particularly American vision.

The songs of The Great American Songbook have each been covered thousands of times by many artists, and with every instance it's an act of reinvention as the self sheds its skin and tries on another. That's been a lasting trait of American culture since its inception. Reinvention, pioneering, and second chances are part of the American mythology, and Alec Soth is no stranger to that dynamic. His career has been one of regular tinkering and identity checks, never quite satisfied with one, curious to try others.

Songbook. By Alec Soth. Mack, 2014.

Through it all he's always circled back to America and its quirks. "No one would deny that photographers should document the Middle East," he writes in Suburban World, "but why not keep one or two in the Middle West?" What makes the country tick? That's a daunting question. Instead of answering it broadly, Soth's photos offer small-town specifics. A quote from Eugène Ionesco finishes Songbook and encapsulates its approach. "It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa."—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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