For Alec Soth, a member of the prestigious Magnum collective of photographers, photobooks are the basic building blocks of his photography and in Antwerp he explores the relationship between the book and the wall. The exhibition “Gathered Leaves” is constructed around what Soth calls his four primary products: the photographic series “Sleeping by the Mississippi” (2004), “Niagara” (2006), “Broken Manual” (2010) and “Songbook” (2014) that each have their dedicated room at the FOMU.
Alec Soth: “Gathered Leaves” comes from a line out of Walt Whitman's poetry. I didn't want to present a retrospective, but preferred to focus on the four photobooks that are primary for me. The “gathered leaves” are all pieces of paper that have been gathered together; it was like raking leaves into four rooms. Each room displays the prints from a particular photobook on the wall, but there is also a table with the photobook and other materials.”
“Sleeping by the Mississippi” is the oldest photobook on show in Antwerp.
Alec Soth: “Like “Niagara” and Niagara Falls, the following photobook, the Mississippi is a location that evokes something special for Americans: It reminds us of Mark Twain, of boyhood and the romance of travel. The book and the prints displayed on the wall are the result of several road trips along the Mississippi, a river that has its source in my home state of Minnesota and flows across America all the way to Louisiana.“
The book table displays several editions of this photobook as well as a video screen that allows you to flip through the photobook. “I wanted to show the feel of the book” Soth says.
Photobook two is “Niagara”, the Niagara Falls are portrayed, but “this is not a book about Niagara Falls” Soth explains. “It's about love and romance and a feeling of Fifties nostalgia symbolised by Niagara Falls: for Americans it's a destination of honeymoons long ago, all pretty faded. The area is full of motels that evoke this Fifties atmosphere.”
The series includes one photo of Niagara Falls: a masterpiece but taken on a spot where eight million other people have stood to take their snap of the Falls. Soth wanted to hear people's voices so collected love letters some of which are on display too.
“Broken Manual” signifies a major break in Soth's work. This series shows the growth in the artist's talent. In “Sleeping by the Mississippi” Soth was still discovering how to stage an exhibition. He wasn't famous either. All the prints are the same size too.
Alec Soth: “Broken Manual meant a break in my process of work. There was a big change in practice. The idea was to provide a manual for men who wanted to run away from their lives. The series is more cryptic, fragmentary and broken. It's not regionally focused either. The way the prints are hung has become more important as I now possess better knowledge on how to show works.”
The manual contains photos in colour and in black and white, some with text, some with gloss, and all with different textures. The photobook was sold hidden in oversized books. In Antwerp we find “Broken Manual” in a hollowed out copy of The Times Atlas.
Alec Soth: “During the making of this series I was followed by two filmmakers including the Belgian Arnaud Uyttenhove. They often provide extra context, so I wasn't obliged to cram everything in.”
Their film is screened at the end of the exhibition.
“Songbook” is the final photobook presented in Antwerp. It reflects a change of heart after the escapism of “Broken Manual”.
Alec Soth: “I felt “Broken Manual” had become too inward-looking. I wanted to create something more outward-looking and collaborative. I travelled seven states together with writer Brad Zellar publishing newspapers devoted to state-based issues and community life.”
Here the colour has disappeared from the prints. It's all black and white. Soth says he was eager to evoke early press photography:
“There's a quality of nostalgia as a result of the black and white. People think this was the time when we still had community. But even today we don't all live in the digital bubble and people still gather.”
Alec Soth was born in Minnesota in the American Mid-West in 1969. He groups his varied activities under the umbrella “Little Brown Mushroom” that he describes as an experimental incubator. He operates a popular Instagram account and is a member of the photographer's collective Magnum. Soth is one of the few American photographers in this select club not based in New York or California. The collective that currently counts some fifty members uses a rigorous process to select who can join. At present Belgian photographers like Carl de Keyzer and Bieke Depoorter make up the largest group of non-Americans.
Soth also created his own workshop, the Winnebago Workshop that is a mobile art school for teenagers focusing on storytelling and photography.
“Gathered Leaves” runs at the FOMU, Waalse kaai 47 in Antwerp until 4 June. The exhibition curated by Kate Bush is produced by Media Space/Science Museum and was earlier also on show in Helsinki.