Alec Soth is about as close to royalty as we get in the niche art-photography world (except he didn’t get there by birth, of course), so any major new work he releases is always of interest. What’s peculiar about Soth’s place at the top of the pile is that he is, in essence, a bit of a traditionalist. Soth makes pictures and projects that are fundamentally simple, even accessible, in nature. He doesn’t make much use of complicated text or concepts, and tends to stick to reasonably basic structures for his exhibitions and books. If any of that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t. In fact, it all neatly explains why I like his work so much.
I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating is Soth’s latest book. It presents a series of portraits and interiors that attempt, in Soth’s words, “to strip the medium down to its primary elements. Rather than trying to make some sort of epic narrative about America, I wanted to simply spend time looking at other people and, hopefully, briefly glimpse their interior life.” Published by MACK, it contains 84 pages and, at 30x33.5cm, it’s a large book.
What’s immediately noticeable is how much more colourful this book is compared to Soth’s previous publications. The lettering on the cover is metallic pink. On the inside, the first and last pages are a light, baby pink, and royal yellow pages occasionally break up the sequence of pictures. Furthermore, the pictures themselves contain much brighter and saturated colours, and seem to be infused with light (there are very few hard shadows). What this all adds up to is a feeling of levity - it’s a much happier book. Again, this is in contrast to his previous work - especially his more recent work, namely Songbook and Broken Manual.
Various interviews Soth has given recently, with The Guardian and New York Times, for example, support this theme of new found happiness. Soth reflects that his photographs are “generally considered sad, or somber, or moody, or lonely”, and having experienced, in 2016, what he describes as a “transcendental” experience, Soth decided that he no longer wanted to make work in this manner, and this change is certainly reflected in the new work (additionally, Soth has recently begun using the same baby pink as in the new book, as border for all of his instagram posts - one wonders what effect this has had on his engagement?).
The logical end point of this though, is a lack of tension within the work. Some will likely see a weakness of the work being that the pictures offer very little to resolve within the mind of the audience - at first glance there appears to be less going on beneath the surface than with Soth’s previous work. But, on reflection, I feel this is probably a shallow read of the work. It is worth examining why we so often rely on some sort of internal or external conflict (be it physical or emotional) in art in order to find it deep and/or meaningful. It’s easy to make a conceptual leap from ‘serious subject’ to ‘serious art’, but is happiness in art something we perhaps instinctively consider a bit naive? Especially in our modern world, beset, as we’re all too aware, by political strife and the spectre climate related armageddon. It is worth challenging whether this is necessarily so, however. Comedy, for example, often suffers from a version of the same problem - how can someone be making ‘Art’ when they’re also having a laugh? Grayson Perry was once asked,
I wonder if a lot of people do actually feel that you can’t really be both? Or are we just afraid that we won’t be taken seriously unless we act and make work in a serious manner?
I’m digressing rather substantially here, but I think it’s worth doing so, because it is in this subject where the main interest in this book lies, for me. I believe there is in fact something rather challenging about work such as this - to present a work based on happiness and simplicity is, I believe, rather at odds to current trends in photography, and I can imagine that a lot of people will, at least initially, see this new work as somewhat flimsy. Ultimately, I believe that not to be the case though, and that this work does prompt deeper introspection about the function and nature of art based on, as it so often is, tension or conflict.
However, for me, there remain larger questions about whether this work represents a shift towards a more inward looking attitude, or whether it still looks out to examine the world. Nominally, of course, it does the second - Soth photographs other people, specifically people with greater agency than he would have previously photographed. But the work is also undoubtably about Soth’s inner transformation too, as cited above, so the question remains - is this work about Soth and his approach to photography, or is it about other people and the world at large? The answer is probably simply that it’s both, but I’m just not sure what the percentage mix is. I’m ploughing this furrow because of something the filmmaker Adam Curtis has often talked about recently - about how art and self-expression evolved from being something radical to something that feeds the system, and how this plays in to the conservatism at the heart of the modern world;
“Fonda is fascinating because she’s ‘radical,’ and then she does the next shift, which is to say, ‘If you can’t change the world, you change yourself… That’s the foundation for this modern conservatism: ‘Oh, my God. It’s so terrifying. Whatever we do leads to disaster… and instead of analyzing the world in order to change it, you just monitor it for risk.”
To return to the work in question (and bring this overly long post to an end), the pictures are undoubtably beautiful and interesting, as you would expect from Soth, and in that aspect the work is a success. But it feels to me as if there is at least some of the aforementioned conservatism in this work. I wonder if Soth has taken an interior turn as the world appears to spiral out of control around us? This isn’t a problem related solely to Soth - we’re all involved, and I definitely don’t have all the answers to this problem - but I think the solution is going to involve looking out at the world, and trying to connect with it all, rather than continuing to focus on our interior lives, and it is in that vein I’m left unsure about whether this book hits the mark. It’s also possible I’m reading too much into it all, or even just mis-reading it… I don’t really know, but it has at least made me think.
I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating by Alec Soth is available now from MACK.