To me the most beautiful thing is vulnerability.
—Alec Soth

“Gathered Leaves” marks the first major exhibition in the United Kingdom of Alec Soth’s work, covering four important projects of his oeuvre from the last ten years. The exhibition’s achievement is that it allows us to see Soth—who has been widely feted ever since the publication of his first book, Sleeping By The Mississippi—with fresh eyes and a clean slate. It provides an opportunity to trace this celebrated artist’s development from the beginning and ponder his view of photography as “a medium of separation.”

In one of his projects, “Broken Manual” (2010), the medium is very much the message. The work masquerades as a manual written by a singular individual named Lester B. Morrison, intended to help others break away from society and live in isolated peace. The photographs, then, offer a portrayal of just such disparate individuals who have cut themselves off from the “modern” world and live in some kind of harmony with their surroundings. Reminiscent of several other projects on the same theme—Antoine Bruy’s Scrublands or Danila Tkachenko’s Escape—the work succeeds by virtue of the uneasy distance it takes from its wary subjects. In the end, thanks to Soth’s masterful use of the medium, we share in the “broken” people’s metaphysical detachment from ordinary life.

In “Niagara” (2006), the romance of the eponymous Falls—usually a popular destination for honeymooners—is re-viewed and then firmly muted by Soth’s distinctive touch. His delicate ability to transfer vulnerable lives onto the surrounding buildings, artifacts and décor suffuses the entire subject with an emotional subject. Niagara Falls, as Soth notes, is also a place of “spectacular suicides,” and thus the love letters and pleas of the heartbroken that are displayed in a vitrine build upon this feeling that the Falls are a magnet for plaintive souls

The two other projects constituting this engrossing exhibition are Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004) and his most recent work entitled Songbook (2014). Seeing examples of his photographs in large-scale prints spread across the Media Space’s four generously-sized rooms does justice to the strange elegance of his compositions and the peculiar impressions created by the colours that he captures with a large-format camera. What comes across strongly is his eye for mundane and sometimes offbeat deflations of the American Dream, caught in odd moments and scenes that rarely declare intent and never suggest any satirical or wry purpose on Soth’s part. For this very reason, they are all the more disquieting, discreetly and consistently maintaining the right distance between photographer and subject matter.

By the end, we see how Soth’s great feat is the manner in which he manages to make images specifically evocative of a particular time and place and then universally relevant as well. His oeuvre, presented as a coherent body, shows us the importance of listening closely, of remaining keen to the sad beauties of everyday mundanity. This, in sum, is what ultimately justifies Soth’s view of photography as the “medium of separation”—the way in which photographs separate us from our habitual surroundings, which in turn, makes us that much more aware of their subtle yet undeniable pathos.

—Sean Sheehan

Editors’ Note: Gathered Leaves will be showing at the Science Musem’s Media Space in London until March 28, 2016.

Gathered Leaves
by Alec Soth
Publisher: Mack

Gathered Leaves (Mack, 2015) is a box set of the four books—Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara, Broken Manual and Songbook—that make up the retrospective exhibition of Soth’’ work. Be aware, though, that these are mini facsimile books, ranging in size from 86 mm x 112 mm to only 109 mm x 128 mm, and they seem especially tiny in comparison with the size of the prints in the exhibition.

Nevertheless, the box set also includes 29 large-format postcards printed on one side with images from the exhibition and some illuminating text on the reverse. Thus, this is a publication appealing to the collector and the attractive embossed box is unlikely to be ever discarded.

—Sean Sheehan