Photographer Crisscrosses America To Bring Small-Town Reporting Back To Life

The small town reporter is practically a mythological figure these days. Communities gather in town halls and cafeterias across America, but unless someone in the crowd loves to tweet, it’s unlikely the scene will be recorded.

alec soth songbook
Bil. Sandusky, Ohio. 2012. Archival pigment print. © Alec Soth.

Alec Soth (pronounced like “both”) saw an entry point in this absence. Known for his large-scale portraits of Americans, the Minnesota-based photographer recently set his sights on a timeworn subject: community life. From 2012 to 2014, Soth crisscrossed the country with his friend, writer Brad Zeller. Stepping into the role of local newspapermen, the two dropped into hundreds of meetings, dances and festivals, hoping to capture human interaction in an age of virtual connectivity.

alec soth songbook
Crazy Legs Saloon. Watertown, New York. Archival pigment. © Alec Soth.

alec soth songbook
Near Kaaterskill Falls, New York. Archival pigment print. © Alec Soth.

The resulting collection, “Songbook,” feels like the lovechild of a Dorothea Lange series and a Woody Guthrie song. Rendered in black and white, the scenes look old enough to have been pulled, fittingly, from a newspaper’s archives: from a line of policemen in cowboy hats at an impending execution in Huntsville, Tx., to a lipsticked cheerleader mid-jump. Aging the new is a trick known to anyone who uses Instagram (Inkwell filter, anyone?), but Soth’s images don’t feel disingenuous. Maybe it’s that the unposed moment seems to have gone extinct. These scenes — raw and naturalistic, alternately haunting and goofy — compel for the very reason they might turn a naturalist off: they don’t look real.

alec soth songbook
Bree. Liberty Cheer All-Stars. Corsicana, Texas. Fine art pigment print. © Alec Soth

Starting Jan. 30, Songbook will be exhibited at the Sean Kelly Gallery, in New York, where tableaus of life inside the country are true exotica. Let’s hope someone’s there to Instagram them out to the world.

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