AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS - Alec Soth and others in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin
A certain meaning and format has come to be associated with the term "American Photographs" which seems to reflect the detached and laconic fashion in which a number of important photographers there have portrayed their society.
This meaning has evolved as a body of work stretching from Walker Evans (one of whose own photobooks was in fact titled "American Photographs") through Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld and Alec Soth has taken shape over the last 70 years. "Photographs from within America" comes closer to defining this meaning: a lyrical, detached and often sideways exploration of the soul of America through the photography of the mundane - that sometimes tacky and tasteless yet somehow dignified and always human reality of life in America. The photobook was the chosen format for this work, allowing a narrative to emerge from photographs sequenced to lead - visually and metaphorically - from one to the next.
This body of work is not sufficiently engaged to be labelled documentary photography - although the basis of "American Photographs" was surely laid in the documentary tradition - nor is it in the tradition of overt social comment. These forms must always particularise their subjects in order to make a message clear. The tradition of 'American Photographs' is more in the nature of an aesthetic investigation which moves beyond the constraints of documentary and social photography through the universalisation of its themes.
The aesthetic purpose behind American Photographs is vividly on display at two (coincidentally) thematically related exhibitions currently running in Wisconsin. As the gateway state to the American mid-west, this is surely fitting. The Madison Museum of Contempoary Art is showing From Here to There, a retrospective of Alec Soth's photography while the Milwaukee Art Museum has Postcards from America - pictures of Milwaukee and surrounding communities, from State Fair to women labourers, by Bruce Gilden, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Martin Parr, Paolo Pellegrin, Mark Power, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jacob Aue Sobol, Alec Soth, Zoe Strauss, and Donovan Wylie.
The exhibition of Minneapolis-based Soth's work is certainly significant. It surveys Soth's work from early mono large-format portraits, mainly taken in Minnesota in the 1990s and in which he found ways of overcoming his shyness in order to photograph people, through to his very latest projects. Several concerns run through all this work. His Niagra project comprised photographs of urban scenes, decaying motels and everyday shots of couples - mundanity which contrasts bleakly with the romance and grandeur of the Falls. A photograph of the Surf Ballroom from 1999, where Buddy Holly played his last concert, summons up the ghost of an American icon. By the 2000s Soth was using an 8 x 10 inch view camera to capture more portraits in Minnesota and Wisconsin, perhaps now more focused on extracting elements of poetry from the everyday. The emptiness of corporate life is evoked in his 2009 multiple candid photographs of The Loneliest Man in Missouri. His book Sleeping by the Mississippi casts the river as a metaphor for his (and other peoples') journey in life. A series of 33 photographs of movie theaters returns to the theme of American culture expressed through the aging built environment. His latest project explores people who life in remote, unforgiving place, way from all others and completely off the radar.
Soth is one of eight leading Magnum photographers commissioned by curator Lisa Sutcliffe to respond to the city in the own way over the course of a year. Bruce Gilden, Susan Meiselas and Martin Parr came to Milwaukee last summer, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jacob Aue Sobol and Donovan Wylie came over the winter and Jim Goldberg, Alec Soth, Paolo Pellegrin, Mark Power and Zoe Strauss were in the city this spring. Art and photography students acted as guides to the photographers and Milwaukeeans were invited to share leads with photographers via social media sites. Goldberg, who was looking for particular types of unsung personalities, pursued subjects via Craigslist, Facebook and word-of-mouth. The photos were turned round rapidly for the exhibition in order to respond with immediacy, to share pictures publicly and to create dialogue along the way.
In his extensive portrayals of British life and culture, Martin Parr has shown over many years that the American Photographs aesthetic is not confined to Americans and he responded enthusiastically to the idea of taking pictures in Milwaukee, particularly of the Wisconsin State Fair. Bruce Gilden, who is very well-known for his harsh flash-lit street portraits, took tight, candid street portraits, exploring non-conventional standards of beauty by focusing on people who might be thought unattractive or apparently worn down with worries. Goldberg created a video that draws on the Google Maps-style surveillance we've become so accustomed to. Meiselas was interested in looking at the lives of women in factories. Pellegrin's abstract work looks at Milwaukee from its deserted rail and industrial yards and Donovan Wylie made this remarkable image of the Milwaukee freeway intersection. This is an innovative exhibition in taking the risk of commissioning original works by contemporary artists with relevance to a time and place and engaging the community.
Alec Soth, From Here to There,
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from September 13, 2014 through January 4, 2015
Postcards From America, Milwaukee Art Museum, July 10–October 19, 2014
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