EAST HARRIET — If not forgotten, the American songbook of a previous century lingers, today, only at the edges of our national consciousness. The sheet music is tucked away in great-grandma’s old piano bench.
Katy Perry is a long way from Cole Porter, but although the tune has changed again and again, the popular themes of American life and song endure: religious faith, the pursuit of wealth and happiness, our unity, our individuality, risk, love. The same themes suffuse “Songbook,” the latest monograph by Magnum photographer and Minneapolis native Alec Soth.
As with previous projects “Broken Manual” and the reputation-making “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” “Songbook” finds Soth once again roaming the byways of America with car and camera. In the small towns, suburbs and cities he visits, there’s a sense that the economy sets the tempo of life, from the allegro of the North Dakota oil boom to the largo of Kissimmee, Fla., where he finds near-homeless families sheltering in the cheap motels ringing the Magic Kingdom.
Soth took some of these photos while on assignment (it was New York Times Magazine that sent him to the oil fields near Williston, N.D., back in 2012) and others while role-playing as a small-town photographer and reporter duo with pal Brad Zellar for the LBM Dispatch, the newspaper of record for their travels. All where shot between 2012 and 2014.
The Weinstein Gallery is showing selections from the monograph here in Minneapolis while concurrent “Songbook” shows are staged at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco and Sean Kelly Gallery in New York City. In the gallery, the large-scale, black-and-white prints are accompanied by a minimal amount of text — nothing more than labels that follow a simple formula: subject, location.
In a video interview posted on the Fraenkel Gallery’s website, Soth said: “I’ve started thinking of photographs as being like a diving board, and you can just sort of bounce off it into this pool of meaning.”
When one of his photos runs in a magazine, he continued, the headline and body of the story confine the image’s meaning to “one little pool.” But when they’re untethered from any explanation of the why or how, these photographs float into a space of free-association.
“What ‘Songbook’ is about for me is keeping it really wide-open,” he said.
Supply your own lyrics, in other words.
While in the past Soth has sought out oddballs and outcasts, here he zooms-in on quintessentially American experiences, like a high school prom in Cleveland. He shoots from the middle of a sweaty dance floor, a jungle of bare limbs and glistening faces, so close that we can follow the teens’ darting glances.
Soth has a remarkable ability shrink the space between the camera lens and the human body, placing the viewer in intimate proximity with his portrait subjects. There’s the young man from San Antonio dressed in a Stetson and a wool-lined Wrangler jean jacket, holding a burning cigarette in his lips while a young woman nuzzles into his shoulder; his smooth chin is just sprouting its first dark whiskers, but he stares back at the camera with brash confidence. Then we’re in the bedroom with Dave and Trish of Denver, Colo., who are dressed like they’ve just returned from a wedding reception and kiss while hidden behind the brim of her organza hat.
Soth is alert to moments of serendipity, like when a skywriter paints “JESUS” in smoke above one of those forlorn Kissimmee motels. Two teenage boys, their bodies toned by summer football practice, stride across a parking lot, and Soth’s shutter opens at the exact moment they’re almost identically posed.
There’s another type of Soth photo, one that excavates the uncanny from the duff of everyday life. A white clapboard house in Georgia looks like its about to be swallowed up by a mountain of kudzu vines. A cliff diver’s leap into a river near Kaaterskill Falls, New York, is framed in such a way that it’s almost impossible for the eye to resolve. Will he be dashed on the rocks or plunge safely into the water?
Soth provides the diving board, but that’s your leap to take.
Alec Soth: Songbook
WHEN: Through April 4
WHERE: Weinstein Gallery, 908 W. 46th St.
INFO: 822-1722, weinstein-gallery.com