REVIEW: Gathered Leaves – Photographs by Alec Soth

Following on a great tradition of American photographers, the Media Space at London’s Science Museum presents Alec Soth’s first major UK exhibition. Presenting four signature series of work from the last decade, Gathered Leaves is a must see before the end of the month if you find yourself in London. Reviewed by Photo Editor Callum Baigrie.

Divided into four rooms, the exhibition begins with Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), chronicling Soth’s journey down the Mississippi river. Following in the footsteps of Jack Kerouc and Robert Frank, Soth offers a modern insight to the much travelled pathway. A mixture of portraits, such as that of Reverend Cecil and Felicia, to images of abandoned rafts and motels Soth captures the sense that it is a place for all and, eventually, everyone moves on. Also presented are multiple editions of the book.

Moving on to the second room, the next series on show is Niagara (2006). Set centre stage is an awesome photograph of the waterfall, much romanticized as a place of love and loss, elevated above its status as an ongoing natural occurrence. The theme of love and loss is continued through a series of portraits of Niagara’s residents, and a series of handwritten love letters, documenting the very human feelings of love and loss. The most poignant of which, enlarged and hung directly to the left of the waterfall, it reads:
“If there was a nice apartment and I have a decent job and you felt happy and thought there could be a nice history together, would you come home?”

The series overall presents a sense of fragility, not only in the trees fighting for survival amongst the cascading waters but in the love felt in the young and old of the surrounding areas.

The penultimate room takes a decidedly darker turn, with subdued lighting and darker walls. Broken Manual (2010) explores the mystery of the Olympic Park Bomber, and those individuals who decide to turn away from society and become hermits. Producing survival guides and instruction manuals on maintaining anonymity, Soth set out to reach out to some of the hermits he’d researched. Resonating on a level with them, he unearthed his own desire to run away and hide drawn to the intensity of an introspective life. Pulling far away from the subject, the project becomes one of surveillance more than anything. A subtle yet important motif in the series, images are named with codes such as 2008_08zl0063. A bizarre combination of numbers and letters to many, the codes are commonly used by photographers to organise their work, and presents a personal sense as only Soth himself can interpret these codes in the context of his own archives.

Concluding the exhibition, Soth attempts to reconnect with the world with Songbook (2012-2014). Returning to his roots as a newspaper photographer, Soth works with writer Brad Zellar. Traveling around, they hunt down local interest stories and pose as journalists, created ‘Dispatches’ for each town they visit. States covered include California, Michigan, Ohio and finally, Georgia. Following the dispatches, Soth removes the writing by Zellar, working the photographs into a book with song lyrics from the Great American Songbook to create a nostalgic series. Presented alone, the black and white images displayed on the walls of the Media Space definitely give this sense of nostalgia that has been absent from Soth’s previous works. You can definitely get the sense that he is beginning to look back over his career, as well as the photographers that came before him.

At his first major UK exhibition, Alec Soth definitely establishes himself as one of the modern influential photographers. The exhibition expertly juxtaposes the images he produces alone, alogside the publications and surrounding research that resulted in the finished pieces It gives the audience the opportunity to explore the multiple readings of the work, and get into the minds of the photographed. Soth expertly presents the American human spirit, one that has not been glamourised by Hollywood.