The very first image in Alec Soth’s new book, I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating, reminds me of a time when I was five years old, and I convinced my best friend to let her parakeet out of its cage. In Soth’s photograph titled “Cammy’s View. Salt Lake City.” a cockatiel is perched at a closed window. Its head tilts back to look at the camera. Although the animal isn’t in a cage, it is in a corner and the trees that are visible through the window panes are too far away to be in focus. This scene makes me think of my childhood friend and her bird, because that bird was also drawn towards windows. It didn’t seem to know the difference between glass and air. I can remember watching the little animal as it searched for a way out, immediately knowing that I had made a mistake. When we finally managed to catch the parakeet, its entire body was like a pulsing heart. At that age, I was still negotiating the difference between kindness and cruelty, but with the frightened animal in my fist, I felt that the freedom I negotiated for it was no favor. I knew that, rather than concern for the animal, it had been my own curiosity that prompted all this excitement.
Soth discusses a similar breed of curiosity in a Q&A with Hanya Yanagihara at the end of his book. The two consider the inherent power a photographer has over their subject—how that power can lead to capturing someone the way you want to see them rather than the way they’d like to be seen. Perhaps neither is a true representation of the person, but portraiture has a long history of grappling with this tension. That said, Soth seems to struggle less with the question of truth in portraiture, and more with the sense that he’s taking advantage of his subjects. He says that earlier projects felt exploitative of these individuals, and that he “wasn’t taking these people into consideration. Or not enough consideration.” This lack of consideration created what is now most unnerving of all to Soth: distance. Soth says, “Photography, for me, has always been about separation and this feeling of social distance that I have.” But, the publication of this book seems to suggest that distance is no longer what Soth is after.
It’s hard to talk about this project without addressing a breakthrough the photographer had a few years ago in Helsinki. A combination of jetlag and meditation left Soth on a park bench feeling a profound sense of connection. He felt things weren’t as detached as he’d once imagined, and he worried that his work went against this—that it was “just promoting or reinforcing distance.” The experience caused him to give up photographing people for an entire year. This book is Soth’s return, but he’s come back to portraiture with a different set of eyes. He describes his goal as less narrative-based. It’s almost as though he has turned his attention from his viewer to his subject. Instead of concocting a kind of story for us, he wants “to make photographs that [are] loving, and affectionate, and tender.”
To do this, Soth had to spend time with his subjects. For a project at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, he arranged to meet people one-on-one. Sometimes he and the person would take pictures of each other, and sometimes they’d just “play and hang out.” After photographing the choreographer Anna Halprin at her house, Soth decided to stick to visiting subjects in their homes, where they were most comfortable. Witnessing their things, what they put on display, and what daily habits were left out on the counter allowed him more of an insight into each subject’s interiority. With this project, it was important that Soth felt invited. He didn’t want to pry anymore. His goal was to be witness to someone in a moment of comfort.
Soth readily admits that a clear influence throughout his process was photographer Peter Hujar. There is even an homage to Hujar in the image “Vince. New York City.” Behind the blurred outline of a person is a framed Hujar photograph in perfect focus. But while Hujar often photographed his friends and lovers, Soth always stuck to strangers. Perhaps this is why I think of Hujar’s animal portraits when I look at Soth’s recent work. The way Hujar could make viewers empathize with a goose calls upon Soth’s desire to use photography for connection rather than separation. It isn’t just Soth’s portraits of cockatiels that make me think of Hujar’s animal portraits—though those also seem to be in conversation; it’s the mirroring of diagonal lines in both photographers’ work. There are so many angles of repose in this book. Hujar regularly employed the use of slanting lines as he shot photographs of his friends in bed or animals at rest. The slant seems to tease out a sense of intimacy, and Soth plays with this in images like “Nick. Los Angeles.” and “Renata. Bucharest.” Something about the way the subjects are relaxed enough to appear lost in thought—to have almost forgotten about the presence of the camera—invokes a sense that we as viewers can also let down our guard.
The very title of this book alludes to a sense of seeing past artifice. “I know how furiously your heart is beating” is the final line in Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Gray Room.” That line seems to challenge the laissez-faire scene created previously in the poem. It cuts to what is really going on. And that cuts to what Soth conveys with this book: the fact that a heart is beating. We can look at the people in these images, examine their clothing, the room they are in, the clutter—but can we sense how alive they are? As I stare at “Nancy. Cincinnati.” in her paisley shirt with her cat beside her, I must also appreciate that this woman isn’t stuck inside this portrait. She probably got up from that bed. Maybe she fed her cat. Whatever she did, she was and is very much a real person, and Soth wants us to see that just as much as he wants us to see his image.