Within the wanderlust embodied in Alec Soth’s photographs is an impulse to uncover narratives that comprise the American experience.
From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America,
organized by the Walker Art Center and premiering in Minneapolis September 12, 2010–January 2, 2011, is the first major U.S. survey to explore the past 15 years of work by one of the most compelling voices in contemporary photography. While Soth’s practice has taken him throughout the world, from Paris to London to Bogota to the Republic of Georgia, the Walker exhibition focuses specifically on his pictures made in the United States. Featuring over 100 photographs, the presentation includes early black-and-white images of Minneapolis working-class taverns, as well as examples from his well-known series Sleeping by the Mississippi, NIAGARA, Fashion Magazine, and The Last Days of W. Also debuting in the exhibition is a major new series, Broken Manual, as well as other bodies of work not exhibited until now.
Soth will discuss his work and the world of contemporary photography with George Slade, curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University and former artistic director at the Minnesota Center for Photography, at an Opening-Day Talk on Sunday, September 12. A complete listing of related programs follows.
Soth’s working process is firmly situated in a tradition established by such photographers as Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Joel Sternfeld, whose work has at its heart the American road and whose images persistently capture average individuals and everyday settings. Soth’s is a distinct perspective, however, one in which the act of wandering, the method of embracing serendipity when seeking out his subjects, and the process of telling are as resonant as the photographic record of his remarkable encounters. When considered together, these pictures probe the idiosyncrasies of people, objects, and places he discovers on his journeys, and form an offbeat and absorbing portrait of the American experience.
Soth’s method of engaging his subjects, he has said, is like “web surfing in the real world,” following leads with the fervor of a detective, and allowing each encounter with a place or individual to segue to the next through a kind of free-associative research. As the journeys unfold, he delves deeper into stories real and imagined. Though rich in detail and often exquisitely composed, his works evidence careful restraint; it is often what is not revealed which most piques our imagination. Working primarily with a cumbersome 8×10 field camera, which elicits remarkable detail and color, he must spend considerable time setting up his shots, often leaving his portrait subjects relaxed and lost in their own thoughts rather than performing for his lens. As a result, the artist’s distanced and sympathetic stance captures these individuals as they are—ordinary people living their lives in the places where he has met them.
Soth first received wide public attention and critical acclaim in 2004 with_ Sleeping by the Mississippi, an ambitious five-year project—also published as a book—in which he traveled up and down the Mississippi River capturing places and people he came across, often with an eye tuned toward small-town curiosities, offbeat characters, and the chance of finding beauty in banal or overlooked settings. _NIAGARA, Soth’s next major American project, focuses on the eponymous waterfall which has long stood in the national vernacular as a symbol of grandeur and romance. What Soth finds at the falls and in the aging environs of tourist motels are complex stories that form a contemporary mythology of love, its promises and failures. Other bodies of work featured in the exhibition include a rarely seen group of Soth’s early black-and-white photographs made in Minnesota; a project presenting a typology of abandoned and repurposed American movie theaters in Texas; a new series focused on women in Louisiana who embrace the Goth lifestyle; and a selection of portraits, interiors, still lifes, and landscapes from more recent series, including Fashion Magazine and_ The Last Days of W.,_ made in locations across the United States.
Featured prominently in the exhibition is Soth’s most recent body of work, entitled Broken Manual, that investigates places to which people retreat to escape civilization—capturing individuals who have chosen to live “off the grid,” from monks and survivalists to hermits and runaways. The series includes literary contributions from author Lester B. Morrison, who grew from the artist’s publishing imprint Little Brown Mushroom Books, and now is a key contributor to Soth’s popular new blog (littlebrownmushroom.wordpress.com). Mining a very different side of the American experience than Soth’s previous work, these pictures and words probe into deeply psychological terrain, and collected as an installation, create compelling, often dark vignettes that hint at what lies at America’s fringes.
The exhibition additionally features a “library” area, which allows visitors further insight into Soth’s process, and includes a reading area for his publications, as well as a display of maquettes for book and ‘zine projects, and short video works. This area also presents ephemera the artist has gathered on the road, including love letters collected during the making of NIAGARA, notes, found objects, and other mementos.
From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America is the first exhibition catalogue to consider the full spectrum of Soth’s work. Featuring more than 100 of the artist’s photographs made over the past 15 years, the book includes new critical essays by exhibition curator Siri Engberg, curator and art historian Britt Salvesen, and critic Barry Schwabsky, which offer context on the artist’s working process, the photo-historical tradition behind his practice, and reflections on his latest series of works. Novelist Geoff Dyer’s “Riverrun”—a meditation on Soth’s series Sleeping by the Mississippi—and August Kleinzahler’s poem “Sleeping It Off in Rapid City” contribute to the thoughtful exploration of this body of work. Also included in the publication is a 48-page artist’s book by Soth entitled The Loneliest Man in Missouri, a photographic essay with short, diaristic texts capturing the banality and ennui of middle America’s suburban fringes, with their corporate office parks, strip clubs, and chain restaurants. The full-color publication includes a complete exhibition history, bibliography, and interview with the artist by Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan.
Distributed by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 155 Sixth Avenue, Second Floor, New York, NY 10013, 800.338.2665 (phone), 800.478.3128 (fax), artbook.com, and available at the Walker Art Center Shop, 612.375.7633 (phone), 612.375.7565 (fax). ISBN 978-0-935640-96-0 $60 ($54 Walker members).
Art on Call: Free Audio Guide
Listen as Alec Soth talks about his series of photographs and sections of the exhibition. Call 612.374.8200 or point your mobile browser to walkerart.org. Look for the Art on Call stop numbers on the labels in the gallery.
Jump into Alec Soth’s Flickr Pool
In conjunction with the exhibition, the public is invited to take part in the artist’s group photography project on Flickr. For details, visit the artist’s blog (littlebrownmushroom.wordpress.com) starting September 1.
About the Artist
Born in 1969 and raised in Minnesota, where he continues to live and work, Alec Soth attended Sarah Lawrence College. He has received fellowships from the McKnight Foundation (1999, 2004) and Jerome Foundation (2001), was the recipient of the 2003 Santa Fe Prize for Photography, and was short-listed for the highly prestigious Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. His work is in many private and public collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Walker Art Center; it has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the 2004 Whitney and São Paulo Biennials. He is a member of Magnum Photos and is represented in Minneapolis by Weinstein Gallery, and in New York by Gagosian Gallery.
From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America is curated by Siri Engberg, Visual Arts Curator at the Walker Art Center. Since joining the staff in 1990, she has organized numerous exhibitions, including solo shows of Claes Oldenburg, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell, Joan Mitchell, and Donald Judd, and co-curated thematic exhibitions, including Art Performs Life: Merce Cunningham/Meredith Monk/Bill T. Jones (1998) and The Home Show (2000). She is curator of Paper Trail (2007) and 1964 (2010) as well as the touring exhibitions Frank Stella at Tyler Graphics (1997), Edward Ruscha: Editions 1959-1999 (1999), Chuck Close: Self-Portraits 1967-2005 (2005, with Madeleine Grynsztejn), and Kiki Smith: A Gathering 1980-2005 (2005). A specialist in works on paper, Engberg has authored a variety of publications on contemporary art, including two Walker-published catalogues raisonnés—on the editions of Edward Ruscha and the prints of Robert Motherwell.
From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America is organized by the Walker Art Center.
Film: Somewhere to Disappear
Directed by Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove
Sunday, September 12, 12 noon, Free
This documentary follows artist Alec Soth as he journeys throughout America in search of subjects—hermits, survivalists, and others seeking a retreat from civilization—during the making of his latest series of photographs. 2010, 35mm, 57 minutes.
Opening-Day Talk: Alec Soth with George Slade
Sunday, September 12, 2 pm, $10 ($8 Walker members)
The artist discusses his work and the world of contemporary photography with George Slade, curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University and former artistic director at the Minnesota Center for Photography.
This lecture is made possible by generous support from Aaron and Carol Mack.
Thursday, October 7
Gallery Talk: Paul Shambroom on Alec Soth’s America,
6:30 and 7:30 pm, Free
Minneapolis-based artist Paul Shambroom provides insights on the work of his longtime friend Alec Soth. Though both photographers conduct extensive research and travel throughout the United States for their work, they offer intriguingly distinct portraits of the country.
Target Free Thursday Nights sponsored by Target.
Free First Saturdays are for Families!
Saturday, December 4, 10 am–3 pm, Free
Investigate the exhibition through a range of activities. Participate in a photo booth, make art with found photography, seek out interesting characters in the galleries, and watch a short film.
Activities are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis from 10 am–3 pm. Gallery admission is free from 10 am–5 pm on Free First Saturday.
Free First Saturdays are sponsored by Ameriprise with program support from Medtronic.
Arty Pants: Your Tuesday Playdate
Tuesdays, September 14 and 28; October 12 and 26
11 am–1 pm
Free with gallery admission; free for members and children ages 12 and under
Participants search the works of Alec Soth for people, places, and things, and make art, watch a short film filled with unusual characters, and hear stories about far-off places. For ages 3–6 and adults.
Arty Pants: Your Tuesday Playdate is sponsored by UnitedHealth Group