Songbook, Alec Soth’s most important work since the iconic Sleeping by the Mississippi, is a revisitation of his beginnings as a staff photographer on a suburban newspaper in Minneapolis. He goes in-depth with Lucy Davies.
Its sequencing took Soth far out of his comfort zone. “It’s very different to something like Sleeping by the Mississippi, where there’s a geographical sequence – not perfectly – but more or less north to south. I knew Songbook required something more musical, and so I had to sort of feel my way through it rather than chart it out.” That geographical quality is still here, “but I broke it apart: the geography is everywhere. That idea of place, of America, it functions well for me, and part of that is the American tradition in photography that I’m so aligned with; it’s just in my DNA at this point.”
Most obviously, the images arc and then fall, and become darker and darker, “getting kind of chaotic,” says Soth. “It ends in a surreal lightness, like the next morning, everything’s gone, daylight.” Repeated motifs, such as animals and mist, work as a sort of refrain in the run. There are also little contained passages, so we have a woman in her in a tiny plane, a parachutist, both on the ground, then some sky writing, of which more later. Other images work as a means of transition, changing gear from one state or subject to another. The book has a pace – or perhaps I should say a beat – all of its own.
“Photography is so static as a medium, the opposite of music” he says, “but that’s where the book form comes in – it allows for rhythmic patterns and passages. It’s taken a lot for me to open up to that and know how to feel it. It’s problematic, hard to articulate. How does a musician explain rhythm, like why they put the sounds together? It just feels right.” He references Walker Evans, explaining that “he talked about working lyricism into a documentary style, like [the poems of] William Carlos Williams. They’re both of the real world, but lyrical. That’s the closest I can come to explaining the quality I’m trying to get here.”
Some of Songbook’s pictures, or variants of them, previously appeared in a self-styled, small-town kind of newspaper that Soth began publishing in 2012, alongside writer Brad Zellar. It began, as Zellar told Vice in 2013, as “a lark and an experiment”, where he and Soth went back to their beginnings as photographer and reporter on suburban newspapers to explore first the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, where both started out, then Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and the Three Valleys. Sometimes Soth would combine the trips with commissions that came through Magnum Photos, of which he became a nominee in 2004, and a full member in 2008. “I was doing editorial work for people like the New York Times,” he says. “So using a journalistic style and approach – it combined really well.”
To begin with, the pair would only pretend to be working under the patronage of a newspaper (they went as far as having fake business cards printed). “It might be surprising in this day and age, but a lot of these areas still have a functioning local newspaper” says Soth. “If I said I was working for the LBM Dispatch, the people didn’t always understand what it meant, but it didn’t really matter, they were used to the idea of it, and I guess after a time I took on the presence of that sort of photographer, so they trusted me.”
In Ohio, they began a real publication, with daily deadlines. “It was a great experience,” says Soth. “Brad and I would make these intensive two-week trips, gathering stories during the day, holing up in our motel rooms at night, putting the paper together and matching pictures to stories. The inclusion of an image was first and foremost to complement the story, so sometimes I would deliberately use a weaker picture because the story needed it.”
Songbook, then, was his chance to do the opposite. “That was my place, where I could choose pictures that worked photographically; that could live on their own, without explanation.” Evidence, the groundbreaking artist book self-published by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel in 1977, working with record images found in institutional archives, was a big influence. “There’s a real beauty in stripping context,” says Soth. “Photography is really malleable in that way.”