Mystery filling the space between us

Liu Xiaolin
A self-claimed introvert, Alec Soth embraces photography as his way of connecting with people and the world.
Liu Xiaolin

A self-claimed introvert, Alec Soth embraces photography as his way of connecting with people and the world.

“I do believe that consciousness forces us to be someone disconnected from each other,” Soth said during a recent livestreaming talk with Chinese artists Zhang Wenxin and Wang Yishu.

Whereas, making art, or photography specifically, becomes a powerful tool for Soth to retrieve access to that connection.

His first exhibition in Shanghai is currently at the Shanghai Center of Photography on the West Bund, reviewing the past two decades of his visual storytelling.

More than 40 photographs have been selected from some of his well-acclaimed projects, including the 2004 “Sleeping By The Mississippi,” which brought him international fame, and the most recent “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating.”

Karen Smith, curator of the museum and one of the masterminds behind Soth’s show, told Shanghai Daily that the challenge of showcasing his work was to get accurate shades of color when printing the photographs.

Before, what usually concerned her most was how to display large-format artworks on the center’s curved walls.

“The variety of colors reminds me of the texture of painting,” Smith said, referring to the 2010 series “Broken Manual” as an example.

Spanning four years, the project explored places in which people live a reclusive life away from urban civilization.

“The balance of various shades of color, it cannot be done by simply adding white or adding black,” Smith noted, fascinated by the color tones in Soth’s photos.

“Look at the varying shades of green in the light. It’s full of colors,” she said, pointing to a portrait of Anna Halprin. In her nineties, the choreographer sits at ease on a sofa at her home, bathed in sunlight.

“He (Soth) is extremely sensitive to color, which I believe has something to do with his academic background in painting.”

Soth was born and currently based, in his own words, in “a no-man’s land between the suburbs and the country” in Minneapolis. He was introduced to painting and sculpture in 10th grade by an art teacher who “opened the door back to the forest” of creation, according to a post on his Instagram account recalling his first excitement with photography.

In college, he discovered photography by taking photos of his sculptures, and found more joy in taking the pictures.

In 2004, he created a stir with his debut Mississippi series at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Since then, he has worked on a number of magazine assignments for The Telegraph and Vogue, among others. He has also published a dozen photo books, a major display format of his works, in his distinctive documentary style hailing from the American photographic tradition of Walker Evans, Robert Frank and Stephen Shore. He became a full member of Magnum Photos in 2008.

Separation

Entitled “The Space Between Us,” Soth’s Shanghai solo show puts an emphasis on portraiture, to which the 51-year-old has developed his own approach — “separation as connection.”

Smith draws parallels with the blank spaces in Chinese painting, adding that “it brings out the depth of focus.”

The use of mirrors, windows, doors and other partitions also lend to a sense of space, which becomes one of Soth’s signatures. For instance, a portrait of photographer William Eggleston, seemingly lost in thought, was taken from outside Eggleston’s studio (The Mississippi series, 2004). In the recent Heart Beating series, author Hanya Yanagihara was photographed from the gaps between books on shelves; and in a portrait entitled “Galina, Odessa,” the subject was photographed from behind, through the reflection of a set of mirrors.

Reading through Soth’s photographs brings so much joy and surprise, according to Smith.

In a portrait of photographic critic Vince Aletti, Soth unconventionally focused his camera on the desk behind him, rather than on the subject at the front. On the desk are stacks of photographs and writings, and works by late photographer Peter Hujar, a close friend of Aletti’s and a huge influence on Soth.

“It’s quite a subtle composition,” said Smith. “The details reveal so much about the subject.”

“Dan-Georg, Dusseldorf” captures an old man wiping his eyes with a handkerchief; and in “Nancy, Cincinnati” Nancy Rexroth lies on her side, facing the camera. Behind her back hides a black cat.

“Sometimes I cannot help thinking, was this randomly captured or meticulously staged?” Smith said.

It’s impossible to avoid staging in portraiture, the curator said. “But the most valuable part of Soth’s works is that his subjects are so very natural” when facing the camera.

Mystery of photography

The photographer was not able to be on site himself due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, he managed to do a couple of livestreaming talks, and took over the museum’s Instagram account for the week before the show opened.

In a post, he wrote about a 1994 photo of a man holding three large suitcases, which is also on display.

“For me, photography is more about mystery than knowledge. Was this man a genius? What were his plans for those suitcases? Where is he now?”

During the online talk, he elaborated more on the mystery of photography. “The irony of photography is that it first comes out as a scientific tool, a way to observe the world in this objective way ... through doing that, it opens up all sorts of mystery. It’s like looking through a telescope at the stars and it’s factual, yet it makes it even more mysterious.”

“There’s nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described,” he added by quoting Diane Arbus. “And that’s the way I feel about photography.”

Soth describes himself as “a prisoner of photography” — finding it “full of restrictions,” yet keeps coming back to it.

He talked about the crisis of making art in a conversation with Yanagihara, which was published in the New York Times magazine in March last year. After putting away the camera for almost a year, he managed to regain his very first love for photography and “find a new way to engage with” subjects when photographing them, and thus he came up with the Heart Beating series.

“Let’s just remember how much pressure it is for an artist to always exceed oneself,” Smith said.

“In many ways, photography is quite simple: It is the recording of light bouncing off of surfaces,” Soth said when asked about what the art medium means to him.

“To love photography, I need to remember this very simple pleasure that brought me to the medium in the first place.”

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