This study visit was my first in 2016 and featured the renowned contemporary photographer Alec Soth. The visit was hosted by OCA tutor Helen Warburton and was slightly unusual in that we were also scheduled for a guided tour of the exhibition in the afternoon with Kate Bush, Head of Photography for the Science Museum Group (which includes not only the Science Museum in London but also the National Media Museum in Bradford, the National Railway Museum in York and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester).
To begin with, after meeting up in the Media Space cafe, Helen encouraged us to take our time and browse the whole of the Gathered Leaves exhibition at our own pace; this allowed for plenty of discussion between us students and with Helen as we worked our way through the four rooms. We also knew we were to review the same galleries later with Kate Bush so if we had any questions regarding the curatorial aspect of the exhibition, we could direct them at Kate. Helen had prepared exhibition notes for us, including the text panels at the beginning of each body of work.
For the information sheets in relation to Alec Soth, including the text panels for this exhibition please click here.
For me, Alec Soth's work isn't immediately decipherable. Although it is straight photography - in that the images are rarely abstract, and the subjects are clear - I couldn't quite grasp the meaning behind the images without delving deeper into the narrative. This is of course Soth's intention; the work we saw at this exhibition contained narratives which, although hinted at, weren't always obvious or transparent.
There were four separate bodies of work in this exhibition and each had its own room within Media Space. The attached document describes the work in some depth, so I won't repeat this in my write up - I will simply give my own thoughts and feelings on the exhibition.
A point which Helen raised as we discussed the first work, Sleeping By The Mississippi, was how Soth had changed his presentation of the work over the years and it was really interesting to see the books as they changed, not only in style, but in name also. Additionally, for each edition, a different cover image had been chosen. The project was originally called 'From Here to There'. For this exhibition I hadn't really prepared, so my initial comments are really on my observations prior to gaining a better understanding of the work. So without any prompting from without ... the things I noticed about Sleeping by the Mississippi were the repeated theme of religion, colour, the quantity of relatively small images and that the people in the images had names - they were real and Soth knew them - at least to a point. There was quite a variety of images on display, both indoors and outdoors, portraits (of people), landscapes (sometimes containing people, sometimes not). But it was the recurring signifiers of religion which caught my eye most often. Crucifixes appeared several times as did religious garb and written references to god or angels. In some ways this is indicative of the religiosity of the United States, certainly as the river flows through some of the most Christian areas of the country. As the text explains, the underlying themes are of sleeping, dreaming and travel and Soth poetically combines these themes into the work. Going back to one of my first comments - the work it difficult to really grasp without understanding the significance and the interconnectedness of the images.
The second body of work was Niagara. My mental image of Niagara is the same as it is for most of us: the stunning waterfall, which incidentally he does photograph several times in the book. But Soth photographs it as a slightly seedy place; a place for 'spectacular suicides and affordable honeymoons' - as the exhibition text panel tells us. In this room the images were displayed larger and there were fewer of them. There is a mixture of portraits, both of singles and couples - some of whom pose naked (one wonders how Soth achieves this!) There is a recurring theme of love but with more than tinge of sadness and isolation thrown in. Interspersed with the images of people are numerous shots of sparsely occupied hotels and the front doors of motel rooms. Due to the slightly depressing context, none of the hotels look hugely inviting, regardless of how they dress themselves up. There are also numerous written texts on dispaly; love letters from ananoymous visitors or residents which Soth has somehow acquired.
Niagara is beautifully shot and was a pleasure to see.
The third of the rooms held the body of work Broken Manual. Soth describes this work as almost autobiographical and has a 'self-portait' aspect to it and he certainly appears to have empathy for these loners and hermits who had chosen to 'disappear' and live in the American wilderness. This work has a clearer theme and doesn't really require text to give the viewer a good understanding of what the work is about.
The exhibition space for Broken Manual was gloomier than the previous rooms and the walls were painted in a dark olive-grey. Later Kate Bush would describe the room as being designed as a cave to give the feeling of how some of these men lived. This was a more layered project and contained a vitrine in the centre of the room which housed various manuals and texts relating to how to disappear, survivalism and so on. Some were attributed to Soth's alter-ego, Lester B Morrison.
The final exhibition of the four was Songbook and here Soth had initially worked in tandem with the writer Brad Zellar. The pair travelled across the US with Soth photographing local news stories and Zellar writing them up. They posed as small town journalists and created a fake daily newspaper in a 1950s style. The book itself is just the images, stripped of the initial context of a newspaper story, so it becomes immediately difficult to decipher. This is intentional; Soth believes that the images in Songbook 'could live on their own without explanation'. In an interview in the BJP he says, 'There's a real beauty in stripping context. Photography is really malleable that way' (Davies, 2015)
Overall this was a really interesting exhibition to view and although it took a little more research to fully maximise the enjoyment of the work, it was definitely worth the effort.
An interview with Alec Soth as he talks about this exhibition can be seen here.
Davies, L. (2015). Alec Soth - Songbook. British Journal of Photography. [online] Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/03/alec-soth-songbook/2/ [Accessed 7 Feb. 2016].