Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

Book Reviews

Riverrun – A Review of ‘From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America’

Riverrun. It conjures up an image of a castle set at the intersection of two rivers in the universe of A Song of Ice and Fire. A castle surrounded by woods full of undergrowth, wolves and game trails. A landscape filled with different shades of green, brown and grey. Forested land where both savoury and unsavoury characters alike wander, but are not lost. As I was flicking through From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, I paused at this section of the book called Riverrun. Having just devoured George R.R. Martin’s novels, I was intrigued by the choice of this title. Did it somehow refer to the aforementioned castle? Was Soth inspired by Martin? Does he actually know Martin’s books? But more importantly: which river runs here?

Rather than the Tumblestone and the Red Fork from the novels, the river referred to turned out to be the Mississippi. A river that comes with quite a literary baggage. A river that plays an important role in the American popular imagination. Even if the Mississippi does not always flow through the pictures visually, it at least seems to play an important role in the background. This is most certainly and obviously the case in the series Sleeping by the Mississippi, but it seems to hold true for the other projects as well, no matter how geographically distant they are from the actual river. The Mississippi seems to inform Soth’s practice. This can be observed in NIAGARA, The Loneliest Man in Missouri and Broken Manual. And echoing the description of the riverlands above, Soth’s images contain a significant amount of leaves, branches and undergrowth, as well as desolate landscapes, empty and abandoned interiors, and of course fascinating creatures such as Charles, Vasa, Minnesota 2002.

If anything, Soth is the photographic equivalent of Huckleberry Finn, finding himself floating down the Mississippi almost by accident and encountering intriguing characters en route.

Soth explores America in his oeuvre, and subtly pays tribute to his forebears and American photographic traditions in general. But unlike his predecessors Joel Sternfeld, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Steven Shore, Soth is not going on the compulsory road trip. If anything, Soth is the photographic equivalent of Huckleberry Finn, finding himself floating down the Mississippi almost by accident and encountering intriguing characters en route. Like Finn, Soth never strays too far from the river. He occasionally branches off to go down smaller rivulets, streams or tributaries, but he ultimately always ends up back home. And similar to Finn’s persona, Soth’s photographs are characterized by a mature form of contented sadness and informed compassion.

But rather than experiencing a lazy and warm summer as Finn did, Soth’s images are imbued by a perennial autumn, exemplified by the many shades of green, brown and grey. And occasionally, they hint at a cold and white winter just around the corner. Just like in A Song of Ice and Fire, where winter is always coming.

You need to contemplate some of the pictures, to read some of Soth’s writings, to study a background article written by an expert. And then it is time to drift off again, like the river, and return to it at a later date.

From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America is not a book that you can work your way through in one go. It is a publication that you need to return to time and time again in order fully appreciate it. You need to contemplate some of the pictures, to read some of Soth’s writings, to study a background article written by an expert. And then it is time to drift off again, like the river, and return to it at a later date.

Siri Engberg (ed). From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Hatje Cantz. ISBN: 9783775727501.

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