Here are some of my thoughts and reflections about the Gathered Leaves exhibition including four bodies of work by Alec Soth at the Science Museum. I enjoyed the exhibition immensely and found it very inspiring in general.
People in landscapes seem a good way to look going forwards for myself, from what I saw in Soth’s exhibition, where people or at least man-made features are apparent in virtually all his landscapes.
Intimacy in Songbook is for me the prevalent meaning he is trying to communicate as well as humanity. The photographs are a combination of technique (black and white with film qualities and inclusion of ‘flash shadows’ behind the portraits in the frame) and connection with the portraits (captured in the expressions), which was why I interpreted the portraits as being so intimate.
The curator said the photographic medium is lonely in that the photographer is separated from the world by the camera but she said it also can be the basis for sharing and is indeed a prime source of sharing on social media nowadays (of which Soth has a large presence). However, I thought Soth somehow transcends this ‘photographers’ loneliness’) in Songbook; you see his passion and relationship with his subjects, as well as in the feature film beside his exhibition at the Science Museum: ‘Somewhere to Disappear’.
I noticed that Soth sometimes utilised a varying-in-strength pictures-in-pictures idea to say something to the viewer and I found the application of the idea was subtle too, where largely the colours inside and outside the picture and the picture within the picture, complemented or mirrored each other; creating a sort of camouflaged consistency, throughout the frame. I thought if I was to attempt further picture-in-picture ideas, I would endeavour to emulate this kind of subtlety too.
One comment in the ‘Somewhere to Disappear’ feature film I found of particular interest to my studies, were words to the effect of: ‘I don’t try to change the world; I leave it how it is. That’s how I like it.’ This, I believed tied in with Soth’s journalistic approach to his photography; even in landscapes, which of course was of interest to me; studying landscape. This made me compare in contrast his work to that of Richard Long, where even though Long’s photographs might well not be his ‘ultimate’ medium to display his work, he intrinsically changes the landscape, whereas Soth: ‘leaves it how it is’. I would argue that is not to say Long’s photographs are not natural in appearance – his sculptures are always a natural, ‘at-one-with-the-landscape’ implementation – but he does still alter the landscape beforehand.
As I understood it, Soth starts off with landscapes, which quickly become interwoven with humans inhabiting these landscapes and they become more intimate because of it. It was interesting to see this and other aspects of his work develop in my eyes as I progressed through the four, chronologically-ordered rooms of the exhibition. However, my favourite room was the first, containing Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), where there was a particularly consistent style in the landscapes and printing was very consistent too – all the prints were the same size and used the same type frames. The main reason I found this room my favourite and inspiring also, was because of the way Soth linked the people and land around the river with each other so effectively, without the viewer really seeing much of the Mississippi. I thought this journalistic approach to landscape practice was carried out in a varied manner too and was something I could learn from. In the past I felt some of my projects had possessed a strong theme throughout, yet maybe too strong because I had kept a bit too stringently to one type of image. For example, with Assignment 3 – Spaces to Places for Landscape, all of the images were very similar in aesthetic and technique With Soth however, his subjects were varied as well as beautifully captured, without losing this sense of an underlying theme.
In comparison to other photography exhibitions I’ve been to (landscapes or not), in terms of background information about each photograph, I felt Soth left out as much obvious information about the photographs, leaving the viewer to make up their minds about the photographs, individually or as a whole, by themselves. However, there were the more missable (compared to the photographs) vitrines on display in each of the four rooms of the exhibition, which gave the viewer a much more insightful view of the thinking behind his work. In particular, the Broken Manual (2010) room had some very cool ways of displaying work leading up to the photographs on display, as well as excerpts from his notes and other people’s, who featured in Broken Manual (2010). Broken Manual (2010) was the third room on show, along with the second room: Niagara (2006). An interesting note for me was that the size of the photographs seemed to increase in dimension of print; particularly from the Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) room to the Niagara (2006) room. I would speculate that maybe Soth was sort of showing, he was more ‘proud’ of his later work than the earlier work or it could simply have been because there were more photographs to fit in the first room.
Photo books or even notebooks were evident prevalently in the vitrines and this made me question how to present my own work; especially considering how well Little Brown Mushroom has done for Soth. Instead of printing photographs on single sided paper and perhaps framing them for exhibitions, Soth combined that aspect of presenting his work (of which I understood he took lots of care in making each print the best he could produce), with publishing his own books to great effect.
Soth, A. (2015-2016). Gathered Leaves. [Exhibition] 6 Oct. 2015 – 28 Mar. 2016. Science Museum, London.