soliloquy: photos of american monologues

Small vignettes that serve as a form of Americana that bend the universal into the national.Taking an extravagant oral style of the past and coaxing it into sensitive human revelation.  Whether one considers them Mark Twain or an even older tradition, Alec Soth turns back the shiny wrapping of modern pop culture to reveal an older almost classic tradition in his manner; what Greil Marcus termed “the old weird America”. Character had always been a great American subject; character bound up in legend, from the Yankee of the fables and the fabulous Davey Crockett to the novels of Henry James.Until the dawn of the twentieth century the poetic temper had been dominant in the country, nourished by a sense of legend.

The American imagination had invested the commonest preoccupations and homeliest characters with an essential poetry, and as literature became defined in the New World, the poetic strain arose as the major strain, the only notable American literature. There have been elements of the mind which have made an almost continuous American preoccupation. A singular unengagement with the outer world. American isolationism and even loneliness in all its defiant poignancy is based on the genuine subject of fantasy: the evocation, the obsession, the complex and indwelling emotion. What Soth does in photography is to place the psychological narrative within the realm of poetry within the photographic composition. Many of his portraits evoke the revealed characters, fantasies, and patterns of mind or feeling that appear in an early comic folk-lore, and have survived into our era.

soth:A few years ago a major collector pulled me aside to offer some advice. "If you want success in the art world," he told me, "the key is to find your thing and never change." His advice almost had me vomiting on his Hirst, but he was probably right. The commerce of art isn't much different than the commerce of handbags. It is all about showing off the brand. One wonders how the collapsing markets might affect the larger universe (or is it a ghetto?) of the photography world. Will gimmickry and branding become less prominent? Will documentation take precedence over decoration? Will people start caring less about the bag than the stuff it is carrying? Read More: image:

Siri Engberg, finding a poetic connection in the works, writes in the catalogue for Soth’s Walker Art Center exhibition: “photographs have historically been powerful tools for suggesting the narratives in our midst. Soth is an artist who has the patience, curiosity, and tenacity to uncover stories in his work, but also the restraint to not tell them fully.” Soth’s images are in some ways the photographic equivalent of haiku: a subtle compilation of meticulously edited cues with the ability to capture a vague and ambivalent emotional essence of a moment while infusing it with rich, visual detail. When seen together in the context of the series of works, these images create a more traditional narrative. Read More:

Alec Soth (2008):Last September, Republicans from around the US marched into my backyard - St. Paul, Minnesota. I managed to get access to the Republican Convention with press credentials loaned from someone I met at a demonstration (don't ask). Within five minutes of working my way through the various security measures, I found myself walking down the same hallway as Karl Rove. In a flash I saw my future before me. With one stoke of my carbon-fiber tripod, I could take this menace out. My photography career might be over, but I'd at least I'd make my mark on history. Needless to say, I chickened out. So now I'm back to looking for more modest marks to make....Read More:

—In no other country in the world is the love of property keener or more alert than in the United States, and nowhere else does the majority display less inclination toward doctrines which in any way threaten the way property is owned…In America the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them….I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America….As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?…(Alexis de Tocqueville )

Soth:Yes, although, one thing I’ll allow myself is great freedom in terms of the way the work is read or what have you. I just found that at a certain point I wasn’t a photographer on a mission. I’m interested in something more like poetry in that the work can be interpreted in different ways. I’m cool with people taking whatever they want to take from it. There would be more reconciliation necessary if I was trying to alter the political infrastructure of Colombia. There is some of it, just not as much, certainly the commerce side of it, it exists (laughter)....But then it flips and then you have an audience and people buy work and that’s great. But there’s all this crap that comes along with it. And you just don’t have that same kind of purity of intention, it’s a little bit lost, it’s different. Which is not to say I make work for the market place. Read More:


Alec Soth:In the course of the interview, Buck says: “I believe there are two kinds of photographers. There are those who look at other peoples work and there are those who don’t. I’m not one to look at someone else’s work. I find it more distracting than helpful. I tend to be generous with young photographers and I’m open to meeting with people but I don’t really look at my competitors work.”…

soth:And it’s funny because Sleeping by the Mississippi in Europe is read as some sort of social commentary, and I never intended to have it be that. But that’s fine. And here I was, actually doing it. I just felt exhausted. As a society, we were beaten down. And I just wanted to get that feeling of being worn out. At the time, I didn’t know which way the election was going to go, and it was hard to be optimistic. So, yes, it’s just a marker of that feeling. But, for myself, I wouldn’t say that the “loneliness on the road” stuff is really caused by the more political situations. read more: image:

…Though I wouldn’t use the word ‘competitor’, I also wonder if seeing too much contemporary work is problematic. I once had an assistant, Phillip Carpenter, who said something I’

never forget. Phil started off as a musician in Nashville. He was surrounded by a ton of talent and learned about everything going on. But this knowledge, he said, was eventually damaging. Phil explained that the best musicians often come from nowhere. They are in their parent’s basement in Idaho, don’t really know how to hold the guitar, and consequently develop their own peculiar sound….

Soth ( on Niagara Falls project):But what Soth found was much more than he had bargained for. "After the fifth trip, I was done," he relates. "The Mississippi work was fun. But here I was having negative experiences. After the fifth trip it was hard to go back." Soth says that as the work progressed it became like a downward spiral, and became darker and darker in tone. "There's this one guy named David. He may not be in the book ... his girl committed suicide. He had this collection of love letters ... the letters were so raw." Soth said the work was becoming too dark. He had wanted to maintain the sense of melancholy without it becoming so intense. But it was becoming harder to do. Read More: image:

So here is the question: If limitation spawns creativity, is the limitless resource of the Internet a good thing? Does it do more harm than good to read all these blogs? Read More:


---You’ve shot a lot of people and places in the South. Whenever shooting less fortunate Southerners, how often do you consider that you might be taking a photo that will later look like you were exploiting stereotypes? AS: Often. WOW, what a topic…and that’s all we got folks. You see, here, we could have explored the topic of exploitation of subjects and intentions, ...Read More: image:

When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. Read More:

Read More:

Alxis de Toqueville ( 1831):Without exception, travelers to the United States found the most striking feature of the American character to be the obsession with business and wealth. The travelers cite this preoccupation with money as the reason for other “American” traits, such as their hurried manner, serious expression, and even their loose morals. Some writers attribute the quest for riches and commitment to hard work to their puritan roots while others found the business practices of Americans completely sacrilegious. Surprisingly, many travelers also see a dependable, honest kindness running through this severity and downright greed. Another curious observation is that despite their personal stiffness, in regards to decorum in social situations, Americans are very informal. This is a discrepancy none of the travelers recognize or account for. Lastly, in physical appearance, the Europeans find the women ugly and Americans in general of a gray and sallow complexion. They also suffer from bad posture….

---The diversity and contrariness of the American character was exactly what de Tocqueville celebrated: There is perhaps no country on earth where one meets fewer idle people than in America, or where all who work are more passionately devoted to the quest for well-being. . . An American will attend to his private interests as though he were alone in the world, yet a moment later he will dedicate himself to the public’s business as though he had forgotten them. At times he seems animated by the most selfish greed, and at other times by the most ardent patriotism. The human heart cannot be divided this way. The inhabitants of the United States alternately exhibit a passion for well-being and a passion for liberty so strong and so similar that one can only believe that the two passions are conjoined and confounded somewhere in their souls.---Read More: image:

…The American preoccupation with money cuts across regional and class lines and inevitably leads to dishonesty. Thomas Hamilton goes so far as to contend that Americans chose the dollar sign over the cross. “Whenever his love of money comes in competition with his zeal for religion, the latter is sure to give way…The whole race of Yankee peddlers…are proverbial for dishonesty” …

…Underlying these traits is also a genuine, heartfelt kindness that is frequently complimented by all the travelers. Combe observes: “We have found the servants and landlords in the inns of New England cold and reserved in their manners” . However, he goes on to attest to their intrinsic amicability and overall kindness and sees their serious manner as a remnant of their Puritan origins. In the same way, Alexander Farkas sees the removal of artificiality and the political responsibility that is part of being a citizen in a democratic nation as the main reasons for the Americans’ stiffness….

soth. mother and daughter. Iowa. 2008. ---Like Poe and Hawthorne and Henry James, though with a simpler intensity than theirs, Emily Dickinson trenched upon those shaded subtleties toward which the American imagination long had turned. "I measure every grief I meet with analytic eyes." Anger, hope, remorse, the weight of the past, the subtle incursions of memory, the quality of despair, and fear, cleavages in the mind, all came under her minute scrutiny-- One need not be a chamber to be haunted, One need not be a house; The brain has corridors surpassing Material place.---Read More: image:

…”They are unschoooled in the nuances of etiquette, their bodies are stiff, unbending; they do not know how to express joy or sorrow in their facial expression. But in spite of coldness or awkwardness there is something in their eyes and demeanor which hints at a simple inner dignity. The kindness one senses is the kind of genuine sentiment that cannot be acquired by artifice” .

Juxtaposed to this personal austerity is a pervasive social informality. The travelers recognized the lack of decorum as the direct result of a pragmatic, democratic society. However, they never saw its conflict with the stern personalities of the Americans. Alexander Farkas is astonished and pleased with what he regards as a lack of “surface veneer.” When he pays a visit to President Jackson he is overwhelmed with the absence of decorum. “His simple manners and friendly behavior made us forget we were talking to the chief executive of thirteen million people”. Read More:

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