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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Of The Week I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating Photographs by Alec Soth Reviewed by Blake Andrews Taking its name from a line in Wallace Stevens’ short poem “The Gray Room,” Alec Soth’s latest book is a lyrical exploration of intimacy. While these large-format color photographs are made all over the world, they aren’t about any particular place or population. Whether made in Odessa or his hometown of Minneapolis, Soth’s new book is fundamentally about intimate encounters in private rooms.
I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating Photographs by Alec Soth

Mack, London, United Kingdom, 2019.
84 pp., color illustrations, 11¾x13¾".

Since bursting onto the scene fifteen years ago with Sleeping By The Mississippi, Alec Soth has established himself as not only one of the world's most prominent photographers, but also one of the more sensitive souls in photoland.

He has always treated the medium as something of a therapist's couch, beginning with his blog's introverted musing in the late 2000s, and continuing from one photo project to the next. Niagara, Dog Days Bogota, Broken Manual, Looking For Love, and Songbook are as much therapeutic tomes as documentary monographs.

Yuko. Berlin.
As his profile has grown, Soth's ruminations have increasingly spilled into public life. What deep internal paradox will he explore next? It's become a bit of a parlor game in critic's circles. But to date he's managed to stay one step ahead and keep us all guessing.

These days fans are just as likely to find poetry posted to Soth's Instagram as photography. One can't help wondering if perhaps he'd have rather been a poet after all? After all, this business of making portraits requires so much invasive prying, so much confrontation. To be huddled in private over a keyboard sounds better, no?

There have been hints of doubt along, but his latest book, I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating, comes the closest to an outright declaration. "There is something predatory about [portraiture]," he comments casually to Hanya Yanagihara while chatting in the book's afterword. Have I mentioned that the book contains mainly portraiture?

Nick. Los Angeles.
True enough. But the recent portraits come with a twist. In contrast to Soth's previous projects, they show friends, not strangers. And whereas the bulk of Soth's past portraiture has been captured on the fly, in whatever environment he happened to find people, the new work is largely made in domestic interiors, in the homes of his subjects.

For some photographers, familiarity eases the image-making process. Not Soth. "I don't photograph people I know," he tells Yanagihara. "The more I know you, the less likely I am to photograph you." Nevertheless, he's persisted in doing just that, targeting friends and colleagues throughout Europe and the U.S. "It's photo 101. I'm just spending time with a person, taking their portrait."

Leyla and Sabine. New Orleans.
Soth's social circle now includes a generous slice of artists and intellectuals. Nancy Rexroth is here, as is Vince Alletti, along with several well furnished apartments, drawing rooms, and fusty libraries. We have left the world of Charles in Vasa far behind, moving into more rarified social strata.

Whether it's the strata or familiarity, Soth's discomfort is evident. A decade ago, encountering a stranger on the road, he was a master of possibility. But here he seems unsure of the best approach. Some subjects are shot through doors or passages at narrow depth of field, subsuming them to technical device. (The best of this type, Soth's shot of William Eggleston at his piano, is not included here). Some recline or sit, staring at the camera or a thousand yards off, while others are propped among artifacts imbued with personal meaning. Taken as a set of 35 photos, the general effect is rather stiff and formal. Of this Soth seems well aware. Indeed, maybe it's just another personality tic, open for self-examination? "Photography, for me, has always been about separation and this feeling of social distance that I have," he tells Yanagihara. Thumbing the images, one can visualize Soth at the scene, fiddling with the camera, talking himself up to the challenge at hand. Tell me again why I'm doing this. Is it too late to be a poet?

Nancy. Cincinnati.
Ten years ago he might've pushed these situations until he hit paydirt. No longer. "I just don't feel pushy in that way any more….I have a sense now it doesn't matter as much. Enough is enough with the ego gratification." A year off of shooting, along with, has helped Soth mature beyond the blunt aggression of youth. He's middle-aged, happy, and in a better place now. But where does that leave his photographs? To be sure, there are still flashes of brilliance. Leopold in Warsaw is magnetic, as is Chicran in his Budapest bedroom, and Sonya laying across Dombrovsky's lap. Who are these people? That's the question that drives all the best portraits. As for the others here, we don't know these people either, but the answer seems less imperative.

Sonya and Dombrovsky. Odessa.
I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating seems a transitional book for Soth. He's edging away from past endeavors. But toward what, it's hard to say. Whatever comes next will surely embrace his sensitivity and meditative quality —"I'm on the poetic side of the spectrum". Beyond that, we shall see. Soth himself probably doesn't know. But he may have inserted a clue —a prompt to his future self— in the book's opening and closing photos. The first one shows a bird trapped inside a windowed room. The last image shows an empty birdcage.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at