When President George W Bush was asked how history might judge his term in office he reportedly replied, ‘History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.’ Rarely has he been so emphatically correct. But in the meantime (before we all die, that is) a verdict of sorts is delivered by Magnum photographer Alec Soth’s latest project – The Last Days of W.
Salt Lake, Utah © Alec Soth
The 30-odd photographs that comprise the series are on show in Zurich until 17 January, and are also available as a self-published tabloid size newspaper. All the pictures were taken in North America during the past eight years of Bush’s occupancy of the White House; many of the images are culled from editorial commissions for titles that include the New York Times, GQ, the New Yorker and the Telegraph Magazine.
The two opening pictures indicate the tenor of Soth’s statement. The first is of a section of staircase in a vandalised, or damaged, institutional interior in which glass from trashed panes collects on the floor. A heating unit is mangled; wallpaper is peeling (or the paint is flaking). All that remains of the handrail are drill holes and a shadow on the wall. Decay makes its advances.
The second image is taken inside a (male) dormitory in Northfield, Minnesota; a notice counsels against inflicting sexual violence. It is another institutional interior, unpeopled but in use. An iron has been left out, and the television is on. From the wall-mounted screen Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, conducts a live press conference from the Pentagon. Bizarrely, a floor lamp – and even the iron – seem to face away from the screen. Like the televangelist in Robert Frank’s famous picture of an empty Carolina café, Rumsfeld blathers to no-one.
Considered together Soth’s two frames suggest abandonment, the spectacle of militarisation, public neglect…
Josh, Joelton, Tennessee © Alec Soth
As might be expected from any attempt to appraise Bush’s legacy, the references to the military multiply. Elsewhere a lad in fatigues looks less than bellicose as he prepares sandwiches for a sweet tooth; a group of uniformed men merely pose for photographs; here’s a desert-camouflaged Humvee, but made from Lego; an elderly Texan stands forlorn in a drab field while inspecting a scale model of a missile. The cumulative effect is to suggest an ironic remove, a wry detachment, from the militarism and triumphalism of the Bush era – a period in which the United States could claim responsibility for 48% of the world’s total defence spending.
Grand Twin Cinema, Paris, Texas © Alec Soth
In much the same way, irony pervades the photographs of North America’s social landscape. The sign on the Grand Twin Cinema reads “Welcome to Downtown Paris”, but the parking bays are empty and the stores have closed. The shop next door is beginning to lose the letters from its façade. The Avenue Theater in Dallas has reopened as a Cash America pawn shop promising payday loans and the promise of a cheap lawnmower. Soth’s centrefold shows a meagre firework display exploding against a Wyoming nightscape, but outshone by Chevron and MacDonald’s logos. And the Star-Spangled banner flies upside down in Ontario’s Tent City, a makeshift response to the more permanent problem of homelessness.
Camp Purgatory, Ontario, California © Alec Soth
Besides brief captions, the only text to accompany the pictures is a poem from a (presumably pseudonymous) Lester B. Morrison which concludes:
Now the ranch is quiet,
These are the last days of W.
Many of the photographs evoke a similarly stilled, ruminative, even resigned, mood. When he visited the Olympic Training Centre in Chula Vista – purpose built for $65 million – Soth chose not to photograph peak performances from any of the centre’s thousands of athletes. Instead a lone figure lies in the shade besides an empty running track – more plausibly convalescing than strengthening or toning. For, as Soth has put it, ‘during these last days of the administration, what is the point of protest, satire, or any other sort of rabble-rousing… mostly I feel worn out.”
Perhaps the best that can be hoped for from W’s last days is that they end – as another poet once said -– not with a bang but a whimper.
The Last Days of W is at Haunch of Venison, Zurich until 17 Jan, 2009
Viewable online at: http://www.alecsoth.com/lastdays/pages/frameset.html
The newsprint publication of The Last Days of W is available ($17 & postage) from: