New York

Alec Soth

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Like many contemporary photographers who have rediscovered the value of the road trip as a route to vernacular culture, Alec Soth encounters out-of-the-way places and people and pushes past documentary investigation into lurid hyperrealism. His new series, “NIAGARA,” 2005, demonstrates not only a knack for convincing strangers to reveal themselves, but also a penchant for channeling personal experience into passive-aggressive pictorial sensationalism. We might empathize with his subjects, but at the same time we can’t stop staring at their naked bodies and impoverished surroundings. This spectacle, tinged as it is with clichés of misery and bliss, seems almost to parody romantic love, and the overall effect is prurient in a way that Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and Stephen Shore—all photographers with whom Soth is routinely compared—never are.

Using a large-format camera that captures every detail, Soth casts his small-town subjects as players in dramas centered on love in its many guises. He also lampoons Niagara Falls, a fabled honeymoon spot, as a destination whose luster has tarnished. Soth shoots ugly motels surrounded by slabs of barren asphalt, but also presents several photographs of the falls that are, by contrast, too beautiful for words. It’s possible to interpret the force of nature as a metaphor for the power of love. But the flip side of love—betrayal, sorrow, divorce—like the tawdriness of local culture, is never far from view.

In Wedding Dress (all works 2005), an immaculate gown is shown on mangled wire hangers suspended above a filthy floor. In Melissa, Flamingo Inn, a young bride sits on a motel balcony, looking stiffly self-conscious in her formal regalia. The Flechs shows a family consisting of two young breeders and their brood of girls, all dressed in identical pink outfits, accompanied by their latest addition, a boy. Rebecca depicts a pathetic-looking young mother standing in an empty parking lot, awkwardly holding her limp newborn child.

Soth’s portraits of lovers take us behind the scenes, into private homes. In Jennifer and Terrell, we discover a naked couple huddled in a corner next to a big-screen television. We meet another naked couple in Michele and James. She appears mortified and looks away from the camera while clinging to her obese husband; he looks straight ahead with an air of self-confidence that verges on the comical. “NIAGARA” also includes three photographs of love letters, one written out of intense pain (I Can’t Go on Like This); one emanating from the depths of remorse (Would You Come Home?); and another expressing mushy, gushy love (To the Love of My Life). Characterized by poor penmanship and grammar, the missives were written by people Soth met in Niagara Falls who trusted him enough to share proof of their emotions. We here confront not only Soth’s willingness to move back and forth across boundaries separating private expression and public consumption, but also our own fascination with the social Other, whose lack of money, education, and general “couth” lends a frisson of seediness.

It’s to Soth’s credit that he blurs the line between fact and fiction, between what he projects and what he finds, between the setup and the found event so convincingly. But it’s troublesome that so much of “NIAGARA” feels like a redux of the sort of invasive explorations of working-class subjects we’ve ogled in the work of other artists such as Katy Grannan and Rineke Dijkstra. Even to viewers for whom these contemporaries don’t resonate, Soth’s realism is so recognizable, if not through our own direct experience then via the likes of reality TV, that it already feels done to death.

Jan Avgikos