In our digitally integrated society, we face a paradox. While we brag (or lament) our status of being ever-connected, we simultaneously feel a growing detachment from each other. Our quest for individualism, in spite of the online communities we take part in, raises concerns about the future of our sociability. There are few able to describe such issues with the same poignancy as Alec Soth.

For two years, Soth embraced self-exile and solitude while producing his Broken Manual project. In his latest work, he is thrusting himself back into society, while reflecting on a universal and growing detachment from the notion of “community” in modern America.

Songbook focuses Soth’s piercing eye on the ever-present loneliness of today’s society. An elderly man ballroom-dances without a partner; a pilot, plugged into her headset, wears an expression of dreamy vacancy; a hoard of shoppers stand quiet, with trolleys at the ready, waiting for a Wal-Mart’s doors to open on a Sunday afternoon.

Conceptually, the book draws on two principle influences. The first is “The Great American Songbook,” a retrospective on the lyrics of 20th century music. The second is the work of US scholar Robert D. Putman, whose seminal ”Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” shed light on disconnection and insularity in contemporary America. At the center of this intersection, Songbook photographically juxtaposes the past and present of American culture around the ever-vexing question of the individual vs. society.

The stark images come in bursts—Soth has not lost his sharp, ironic penchant for telling detail. A foamy dancehall depicts revellers dancing intimately and semi-nakedly: a silent portrait of youth’s reckless escapism and desire. At Facebook’s headquarters, a universally identifiable hub of today’s “social” networks, an isolated figure staggers across an unbroken expanse of empty concrete.

The book’s monochrome format gives the images a timeless, essential quality—Songbook is designed to speak lyrically to the viewer. “It’s a journey across the United States, punctuated by quotes from classic songs”, says Soth. As usual, Soth’s enchanting, yet understated, compositions offer quiet but insistent perspectives on the state of human interaction today.

—Ben Dickenson Bampton

Songbook
Photographs by Alec Soth
Publisher: Mack
Hardcover: 144 pages


Ben Dickenson Bampton is a writer and photographer from Bournemouth, England. To read more of his writing, be sure to visit his blog at bendickensonbampton.tumblr.com for reviews on photobooks, exhibitions and photography events around the world.