Alec Soth has a new body of work out, published by MACK, and some exhibitions of what I assume is the same work. You can examine a preview of the book here.
Soth made his nut with a different project, "Sleeping by the Mississippi" (SbtM) also realized as a book. His method involves an 8x10 film camera shooting color film, at any rate for the two cited projects.
SbtM was built around pictures of people, apparently of mid-to-low economic status, with some environmental shots salted in, all shot along the length of the Mississippi River. The overall sensation is glum, a little despairing. The people look uncomfortable, bored, alienated. While I have no particular insight into Soth's methods, I will note that this is precisely the natural pose a person assumes when being photographed with the clumsy and slow apparatus that is an 8x10 camera. One can achieve different results, but it requires almost supernatural interpersonal/directorial skills.
These portraits are, at best, un-generous. On odd-numbered days I might go so far as to characterize them as cruel. One might imagine, though, that these are the result of the stripping away of a facade, that the very discomfort and alienation that is visible might be an inkling of some underlying truth. We will revisit this idea shortly.
This first work was well received by the Art Establishment. It requires no imagination whatever to suppose that The Establishment very much approved of what appears very much to be an "othering" of the people of the midwestern USA. The work supports the standard narrative of the affluent coastal liberal, that these people are essentially lesser. In modern parlance, we might refer to Soth's early subjects as "likely Trump voters" and be done with them.
There isn't much daylight here between SbtM and some Victorian era photographer coming back from Africa with a bunch of photos of Pygmies.
So now we come to the more recent work. "I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating." We can briskly observe the stupid name, Soth appears to be channeling Fiona Apple here. A quick glance at the MACK web site shows us that Alec Soth and Michael Mack apparently went back to 1937 with a few reams of colored paper. The book is a standard sarcophagus, suitable for inhuming a bunch of photographs in the least interesting possible way, verso blank, recto photo with white borders, no text until the end. Wha?! What! Sorry, sorry, dropped off for a bit there.
Onwards to the pictures, where things do get, in a way, fairly interesting.
Soth is applying the same methods as SbtM, except that he applies them to what appears to be precisely the class of people the Art Establishment belongs to.
Let us first revisit, as promised, the idea that Soth's methods are revelatory.
The new work draws aside the veil from SbtM. If Soth photographs a whore in his un-generous fashion, and thus she looks uncomfortable, we might imagine that we have learned something about whores. When he photographs a king in precisely the same cruel way, we realize that the photographs have nothing to do with whores or kings, but only to do with being photographed by Alec Soth. The artifice of SbtM is revealed fully, we see that it says nothing about the people of the Mississippi River Valley. Had we been paying attention, we would have known this all along, of course, because it is painfully obvious.
But now, it seems practically inescapable.
The second thing to note, or more precisely to wonder at, is what motivates these people to allow Soth to do this to them? These are not poor blokes, these are as often as not affluent people, steeped in their own culture. Surely some aspect is simply a famous photographer wishes to photograph me. Still, I cannot stop seeing the scene in Titanic in which Kate Winslet asks Leonardo DiCaprio to "draw me like one of your french girls." There is an element of slumming here, I feel. Surely some of his subjects, at some level, wanted Soth to work his unkind magic on them.
Regardless, the result is just what it appears. The affluent, the artistically connected, can also appear bored, awkward, alienated, under the gaze of Mr. Soth. He can "other" then just as effectively. Personally, I find this slightly less un-appealing than SbtM, since I identify with the people in the latter, but find little to no common ground with Soth's more recent victims.
But is the work any good?
Certainly this body of work is precisely the sort of thing the Art Establishment wants from its anointed children: More of the same, recognizably Soth, but also recognizably new and different. Produced at a fast enough pace to guarantee supply, but not so fast as to destroy scarcity.
Personally, I demand from my Art that it should reveal to me some new horizon, emotional or intellectual, however minor. I should be in some way enlarged. Soth's work doesn't do that, it reveals only that it's generally miserable and boring to be photographed by some guy with an 8x10 film camera, a fact of which I was already aware. In that sense, it does not strike me as good.
As a Minnesota boy myself, I harbor the suspicion, perhaps the hope, that Soth is being more subversive than he appears.
He made his nut, by, essentially, taking a shit on people despised by the Art Establishment.
Today, Soth is no longer working in the distant foreign lands of the Mississippi, he is right outside the window, shitting in the roses. Whether the Art Establishment will notice, I cannot say. Soth is anointed, and he's producing cash flow, most likely the Art Establishment doesn't care to notice where or how frequently he shits as long as the money keeps coming.
As for Soth, I suspect that he believes his own press releases, because people tend to do that. But maybe, somewhere deep down, he's laughing.
I hope so.