New York

Alec Soth

In 1999, photographer Alec Soth left his hometown of Minneapolis to take a voyage down the Mississippi River, and found on its banks a world at once ancient and brand-new. He discovered submerged mattresses in dark sloughs in Arkansas; mustachioed men in soiled jumpsuits in Minnesota; overstuffed easy chairs and old pornography in Iowa—the ingrown evidence, in other words, of a peculiarly American brand of dilapidated romance.

Soth’s work represents an old-fashioned kind of imagemaking, fitting into a long line of itinerant photographers running from Carleton Watkins to Robert Frank, all of whom prowled the nation’s byways and riverbanks in search of their now-iconic material. This tradition lost a little steam during the past two decades but has recently shown signs of rebirth, in the appreciation of artists such as Robert Adams, William Eggleston, Steven Shore, and Joel Sternfeld, as well as the rediscovery of “straight” photography by both the pioneers and second-generation practitioners of the staged or cinematic. Judging from the hyperactive reception of Soth’s work—it’s ended up in the Whitney Biennial, on the cover of Blind Spot, as a solo show at this gallery, and as a Steidl monograph—the art world is eager to anoint a new generation of fresh, road-ready practitioners.

These are scrupulously accomplished photos that straightforwardly sound many of their genre’s keynotes: chipped paint, sun-bleached curtains, old signage. Among the more memorable images: an abandoned bed frame in Louisiana covered in creeping, blooming swamp lilies; a picture of a faded portrait on the wall of a blighted room, complete with bare lightbulb. When figures enter Soth’s frame, they are almost always rich specimens of the rural grotesque, the dispersed citizenry of Sherwood Anderson and Carson McCullers: In one photo, a pinheaded bodybuilder sits with his rottweiler in a grandmotherly kitchen; in another, a woman in a bouffant poses with a framed photograph of wispy nimbus clouds that resemble an angel. In general, Soth manages to avoid teasing condescension in favor of something plainer, offering tentative, hedging accounts of his interesting personalities without much in the way of urbane editorializing. A youthful caution and polite evasion of judgment permeates the work.

Whether depicting colorful oddballs, the shabby landscapes they inhabit, or some combination thereof, the American road photographer’s real subject matter is always America itself, in all its eccentricity. Like his predecessors, and with much the same eye, Soth comes to praise his neighbors for their strange religiosity and diverse forms of alienation, discovering in the heartland, yet again, a world of funky places and forgotten dreamers, one generation following the next.

Jonathan Raymond