As any dieter can attest, the scale matters.
In the case of Minneapolis photographer Alec Soth’s sizzling new show, “Songbook,” at Weinstein Gallery in south Minneapolis through April 4, the meticulous printing and generous size of his black-and-white images adds enormously to their psychological effect. At more than 4 feet tall and up to 6 feet wide, many of the images feature people at actual scale, a size that brings compelling intimacy to their sometimes bizarre behavior.
In “Crazy Legs Saloon,” for example, a half-dozen semi-clad revelers in Watertown, N.Y., are splashing in sudsy foam that flies into the air as if they were partying in a carwash. The froth spatters onto the camera lens as if it were a windshield. Looking like a frat house bash choreographed by Matthew Barney, the frolickers must be having fun even though they don’t look especially happy.
Such are the odd ambiguities and subliminal narratives in Soth’s photos, which are often edged with loneliness, isolation, abandonment and the dark. In them we meet familiar types — cheerleaders, football players, veterans, babies — and see places we seldom go, from the oil patch of Williston, N.D., to a rocky diving pool in a midnight cavern.
The 22 photos at Weinstein are a subset of 73 pictures taken between 2012 and 2014, and recently issued in a slim volume, also called “Songbook” (Mack, $60). Many of them come from road trips with his writer pal Brad Zellar as they rambled New England back roads, Rocky Mountain highways, the freeways of California and Texas, and places in between. In the guise of old-school journalists, they settled in small towns, got to know the locals and posted their reports in a sly, art-chic “newspaper” they called the LBM Dispatch (named for Soth’s publishing company Little Brown Mushroom).
Road trip Americana
Soth lets his surrealist eye roam in the book, while the show is a happier event marked by All-American pep, patriotism, flickers of old-time sentimentality, and a tip of the hat to the stalwart virtues of hard work and stoic determination.
In 2013 he snapped “Bree,” a Texas cheerleader at the top of a split-legged jump with her blond ponytail flipped high, her braces agleam and fists clenched in strained triumph. Two bare-chested teen athletes, “Cade and Cody,” ambling across the cracked asphalt of a parking lot in Au Gres, Mich., are the essence of youthful vigor in a dreary, unpromising neighborhood. Slumped on an oil barrel in a Williston, N.D., slag heap, his face and clothes smeared with black gold, “Brian” suggests the kind of hard life those kids might face later. Or perhaps they’ll end up like “Kameron and Joseph,” a worn-out dad in a crushed Stetson and filthy coveralls posing with his hopeful kid in a rundown, bare-bulb hallway in Houston.
Then again, maybe the fates will smile and the teens will enjoy the good life of “Eleanor and Ron,” a long-coupled Cleveland pair happily dining at the Sterles Country House, Eleanor flashing her perfect manicure and faux pearls as big as the polka dots on her frock while rheumy-eyed Ron smiles gamely and drifts off. Sociologists and “Mad Men” decorators of the future will find a bonanza of status detail on their crowded table with its plastic bread basket and cellophane-wrapped Saltines propped against a big mural, signed “Bob,” of a ye-olde Germanic village adrift in an alpine lake.
Two “Prom” pictures, also from Cleveland, are especially telling. Packed into a veritable mosh pit of bare shoulders and cuff-linked shirts, the teens are a mass of random groping, lost girls in satin gowns, and boys embracing boys. Despite racial troubles in the news today, the Cleveland kids seem happily oblivious to any black-white dating taboos, at least on the dance floor. The same ease is evident in the buddy-stance of “Jakeldrick and Edell,” a black horn player and white saxophonist in band uniforms at Dragon Stadium in South Lake, Texas.
Oldsters, too, get their moment, notably in a striking portrait of “Jesse,” medals on his veteran’s cap, walking ruminatively through thigh-high grass in Ohio’s Dover Burial Park. His isolation in the darkness speaks of more than the time of day, as does the engulfing grass so exquisitely illuminated by Soth’s flash and the meticulous print made by his studio manager, Carrie Thompson.
Surrealism and sunsets
Soth’s dark humor and eye for surrealist moments is on display in “Round Rock, Texas,” a weird image of an almost football-sized rock being tossed between two pairs of hands. Then there’s the bizarre house engulfed by kudzu “Near Gainesville, Georgia.” At 6 feet wide, the image is a sea of tangled vines with velvety, palm-sized leaves. The rampant greenery clambers up a tree behind the house and, like Jack’s beanstalk run amok, seems about to swallow the bungalow at the photo’s center.
There’s even a paean to big skies and mountain majesty in a 2013 portrait of a wide road leading into shabby “Leadville, Colorado,” where a cross-topped church steeple thrusts high into sunlit clouds floating over distant snow-capped mountains. As all photographers know, you have to do a lot of mileage before spying such humble grandeur, and even then you’ve got to screech to a halt and click your Ansel Adams “Moonrise” shutter before the light shifts. “Leadville” looks to be a Soth classic.
Soth has built his career on trying to understand the country by documenting it. His early successes, “Sleeping by the Mississippi” (2004) and “Niagara” (2006), were extended photo essays derived from themed road trips tied to iconic bodies of water. The photos in his 2010 “Broken Manual” series were geographically diffuse but linked by their psychological investigation of survivalists, recluses and other outcasts-by-choice. With “Songbook” he casts a wider net and finds in the country’s heartland a typically American cocktail of blithe innocence, plucky self-confidence, hard work, latent violence and reckless antics.
Like all significant artists, he refracts that world through the lens of his own personality and temperament. Like the poets, writers and road-tripping photographers who’ve gone before him, from Walker Evans and W. Eugene Smith to Robert Frank and their confederates, he’s singing his own song his way.