Alec Soth

Focusing primarily on work from the past four years, this exhibition was something of a homecoming for Alec Soth, who worked in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’s photographic services department for eight years. It comprised a far wider scope of subjects than those in “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” the 1999–2003 series that brought him international attention, yet the show was permeated by the same romantic sensibility, a sort of everyday dreaminess. At their best, Soth’s portraits capture a melancholic reality infused with a sense of the subjects’ aspirations, longings, and passions—no matter how whimsical or unlikely these may be.

However, the strength of Soth’s work often depends on the connection between subject and photographer. Sam, Santa Rosa, California, 2005, is a commissioned work that shows a boy on a wooded hillside among his improvised playthings. The form of a sheet hanging from a branch plays off that of a log suspended from another branch that juts out at the viewer, which in turn echoes the flashlight the boy holds. While masterful and complex, the composition is so precisely arranged that it almost overwhelms the subject, and one is left wondering which was the artist’s true focus. Sydney, Tallahassee, Florida, 2004, is a potent contrast. A little girl rests her head and left arm on a table, a fake lily tucked into her pink-dyed hair, and seems to be looking right through the fishing-village scenes printed on the tablecloth. Whether she’s spellbound or just exhausted, the otherworldliness of her gaze, emphasized by the sparseness of the rest of the image, is riveting.

Soth is at his best when indulging in the romantic notion of the itinerant photographer, picking strangers out of crowds around the globe and documenting his encounters with them. But the installation of this exhibition was significant too. For example, a portrait of Günter Grass and Gerhard Steidl was positioned at one end of the gallery’s main wall, while its thematic complement, a portrait of photographer Boris Mikhailov, was hung opposite. Adjacent to these portraits of renowned creative men were two of young, unknown Americans with passions of their own. A participant in a contemporary war reenactment that Soth photographed for Life magazine, the subject of Josh, Joelton, Tennessee, 2004, wears fatigues and perches on a tiny camp stool, balancing sandwich makings on his thighs. Kenny and Bill—Bad Newz, Grand Rapids, Minnesota, 2002, shows the eponymous teenagers posing with their guitars against the steel door of a walk-in cooler, perhaps at a restaurant where they bus tables or wash dishes. In both images, dreams—be they war games or rock ’n’ roll—are contrasted with the prosaic realities of PBJs and day jobs.

Hung nearby were two shots of figures in landscapes. In Andy Goldsworthy, Ithaca, New York, 2004, the sculptor is shown gathering icicles for one of his pieces, while Stacy, South Plains, Texas, 2004, depicts a woman standing in a field, blurry sheep in the near distance. Her gaze, like Sydney’s, is arresting, and calls to mind WPA-era farmer portraits. These images bracketed Danielle, Liverpool, United Kingdom, 2004, the central work on this wall and thus the first in many viewers’ line of sight. Here, a young woman in a shimmering formal gown stands on a stair landing whose right angles and striped wallpaper formally complement the Mondrian-like colored panels in another work, Daniel, Niagara Falls, Ontario, 2004, a portrait of a handsome young boxer hung directly outside the entrance to the show. Could the British Danielle be a fairy-tale date for the Canadian Daniel? Ultimately, whatever these portraits might reveal about their subjects is less important than the stories we tell about them.

Julie Caniglia