On Alec Soth’s “Gathered Leaves” exhibit

The American Alec Soth is widely considered to be one of the most influential photographers of our time. I was fortunate to visit his first retrospective exhibition “Gathered Leaves”, held at the Science Museum in London, last February. The exhibition presented images from his four signature series: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2014). Soth is often compared to photographers like Stephen Shores and Joel Sternfeld because of his interest in portraying unusual corners of American society. 

His recent London exhibition was beautifully presented, with large-format images accompanied by artefacts such as texts, letters, and the belongings of his subjects, allowing viewers to access deeper levels of understanding and empathy. 

Soth photographs like an ethnographer, with a compassionate eye and a sensitivity for the people whose lives he portrays. He has a wonderful ability to capture the narratives of his subjects. I wasn’t surprised to discover that he learned his trade while working as a photojournalist for a local newspaper. 

“Niagara” was my favourite part of this exhibit, perhaps because I used to live in southern Ontario, Canada, and the artist revealed an unexpected side of a place that I thought I knew well. 

Most outsiders have the impression that Niagara is a fancy romantic place that attracts honeymooners and foreign tourists. But Soth’s work in Niagara demystifies our typical perceptions of this popular destination. He shows us portraits of locals who work in the town’s casinos and bars, and of newlyweds who were drawn to Niagara by the promise of love, hope and money. But it’s clear from the shabbiness of their clothing and surroundings that these people are barely making ends meet. In many cases they have become trapped and addicted, and they want to change their lives. 

The lives of his subjects may sound miserable, but Soth captures their fragile emotions and turns them into strong, compassionate narratives. 

“To me,” he says, “the most beautiful thing is vulnerability.” In order to capture a subject’s core essence in this way, the photographer must also be courageous and put himself in a vulnerable situation, and so these images are reflections of Alec Soth as well. 

This exhibition at the Science Museum in London ended on March 28th, but the next showing begins April 22nd at National Media Museum in Bradford, UK. For those who have an interest in ‘ethnographical’ photojournalism with a sense of traditional fine art photography, I strongly recommend checking it out.  

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