Raymond Carver once wrote of the realisation that his writing needed to become strong enough to dismiss the wild distractions so dominant in the literature he had grown up with. Rejecting the famous events, the heroic characters and the overthrowing of kingdoms, he approached a more intimate subject, tracing the climaxes, collapses and stalemates that shape ordinary blue-collar American lives. The short story, Kindling, published after his death and drawn from gathered transcripts, half-finished papers and notebooks, tells of the estranged Myers, awkward in another couple’s rented spare room. Treading lightly, and withdrawn from the world, he slowly drafts a letter.
A personal letter – spontaneous, desperate and unguarded – something like those that lie at the heart of Alec Soth’s second book, made among the modest motels and private relationships that border the Canadian and American banks of the Niagara.
While his 2004 work Sleeping by the Mississippi drew upon a journey along the river – and ultimately through a contemporary America – Niagara is a more concise project.
It seems to be a place for ultimatum, for catharsis or confirmation. Though the Falls hum and flow in the distance, they are remote, almost out of sight and unreachable. When they do appear in the book, they are sublime scenes, timeless, beautiful and bleeding with colour. These impressions become natural borders, containing the tensions that build in the small, anonymous rooms that occupy the wonder’s hinterland.
Niagara has several voices. It layers handwritten narratives (with all their imperfections), with the precise reserve of controlled large format photography. By way of attrition, each in their own way elaborates the details and blemishes of intimacy. Once a student of Joel Sternfeld, Soth has mastered the technique and pacing of his former teacher. The roots of his work are found in photographers that came to prominence in the 1980s, exploring the surfaces and particulars of the American land and people. Soth has extended this practice. His work becomes collaborative, with the photographer moving beyond the bright, exotic or pleasantly formal to make subtle and evocative portraiture. Sitters show composure and trust, working with Soth to relate an entwined and imperfect devotion. A couple are portrayed unclothed and preoccupied on a motel floor as cocaine is snorted on television; a young mother, holding a new-born baby, teeters on awkward platform shoes as she stands in a vacant lot.
As a photographer, Soth relates a gentle engagement with his subjects. A young couple lie on a bed of moss. She nestles against her partner’s pale stomach, their hands meeting at the edges of the frame. In what is a beautiful and mature photograph, both subjects return Soth’s attention with a still and trusting gaze. It’s almost unfashionable, perhaps, among the reserve of these knowing times, but this is a work imbued with both humility and a precise craft.
In a previous project, made in a factory, so noisy as to negate any meaningful communication, Soth asked workers to write down the concerns they dwelt upon through the isolation of their working days. Elsewhere, on a Mississippi highway, sitters were asked to write down their dreams as Soth prepared to photograph them. It is a useful strategy, and in this latest work these fragile phrases acknowledge lives at a turning point. In exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in New York earlier this year, these notes achieved a status and scale equal to the portraits and architectural studies.
A critic once wrote of watching Sonny Rollins perform, noticing that “even his feet looked sad”. When happening upon Soth’s architecture, it is embroidered with snow and crazed concrete. Yellow basket seats, coupled like caged birds, extend skywards, with cherry blossom softening rigid concrete shells, and the critic’s phrase returned to me. When photographing interiors, two hand towels are shaped as swans, touching over a flowered bed, a wedding dress hangs from wire in a bare, timber-panelled room, and an invite is extended – to anyone – to ‘Joy’s divorce party night’. There is a considerable twilight in Niagara. As night draws in to leave neon and the last pastels of colour, there is a sense that we are at the end of something, and Soth emphases this by employing Nabakov to introduce his series “… both doomed were we”.
The pleasure in this book comes from its ambition. It follows no singular strategy, it doesn’t deal with the current crises of terror and threat. There is no war here – this is not late photography, dealing with the malevolence of another time. It is an involved work, a committed observation of relationships and their consequences. By inviting Richard Ford to write the essay at the start of the book, Soth nods to a canon of writing that foregrounds such detailed considerations of private, unremarkable lives.
To return to Raymond Carver, (with whom Ford was close friends) the letter Myers begins to write, like some of those that interrupt Soth’s photographs, is asking for the forgiveness of a wife and family he hopes to return to, in a hometown far from his emotional exile. The title of the collection it is drawn from, echoing the moving words in this book, is “call if you need me”.