One of the most compelling voices in contemporary photography, Alec Soth captures offbeat images that uncover narratives of the American experience. From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, the artist’s first major traveling survey in the United States, will be on view at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from September 13, 2014 through January 4, 2015. This exhibition, which was organized by the Walker Art Center in Soth’s hometown of Minneapolis, explores 15 years of Soth’s career, from 1995 to 2010. Featuring over 100 photographs, MMoCA’s presentation includes works ranging from the artist’s well-known and celebrated projects to rarely seen photographs dating to his early career, in addition to selections from his Madison-based Lothlorien Series.
Soth’s working process is firmly situated in a tradition established by such photographers as Robert Frank and William Eggleston, whose work has at its heart the American road and whose images capture the individual in an everyday setting. Soth’s is a distinct perspective, however, one in which the act of wandering, the method of embracing serendipity when seeking out his subjects, and the process of telling are as resonant as the photographic record of his remarkable encounters.
In each of Soth’s images, a story is begun. We are treated to a narrative moment, but not a narrative arc. In Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa (2002), two women confront the camera and the viewer with largely unintelligible expressions. The viewer is able to glean certain information from visual tropes and contextual clues, but the larger circumstance of these women’s lives is not revealed. Soth approached each subject with empathy, allowing a glimpse into the lives of the characters and inhabitants of his America. Working primarily with a cumbersome 8x10 field camera, which elicits remarkable detail and color, he spent considerable time setting up his shots, often allowing his portrait subjects to relax and become lost in their own thoughts rather than performing for his lens. Sydney, Tallahassee, Florida (2004), shows a little girl who appears immersed in her own world. The ethereal color, from the pink in Sydney’s hair to the blue of the bedspread, complement her dreamlike state.
Included in the exhibition is Soth’s breakthrough series, Sleeping by the Mississippi. For this ambitious five-year project, Soth traveled up and down the Mississippi River with an eye towards the beauty found within banal or overlooked settings. These neglected environments often invite stories and speculation, such as the ramshackle structure pictured in Peter’s Houseboat, Winona, Minnesota (2002). The house, which sits amidst an expanse of pristine white snow, looks all but deserted—the articles of clothing hanging outside to dry are the only indication of human activity. Soth, in documenting his serendipitous encounters along the Mississippi, offers us a fragmented yet lyrical portrait of American river culture, an example of which can be seen in his whimsical photograph Charles, Vasa, Minnesota (2002). Perhaps the artist’s best-known image, it shows a man in a worker’s jumpsuit and balaclava amidst a bleak winter landscape. The seriousness of the setting is offset by the two carefully constructed model airplanes he holds, suggesting a dreamer’s mentality.
Niagara, Soth’s next major American project, focused on the eponymous waterfall which long stood as a symbol of grandeur and romance. What Soth found in the aging environs of tourist motels are complex stories that form a contemporary mythology of love, its promises and disillusionments. Misty (2005), for example, portrays a pensive woman whose expression is both fierce and vulnerable, and is illustrative of the artist’s sympathetic portraiture and his ability to capture complex human emotions in a single composition.
In his travels, Soth sought out several settings significant to erstwhile American icons. Journeying to the childhood homes of Johnny Cash and Charles Lindbergh, Soth plumbed the depths and pasts of characters central to the conception of America’s collective conscience. Surf Ballroom, a photo taken in 1999 in Iowa, shows the current condition of last stage singer Buddy Holly ever performed on before his untimely death from a plane crash in 1959. The dramatic lighting and cinematic qualities of the photograph lend visual importance to the story of the quintessentially American figure.
Also featured in the exhibition is Soth’s most recent body of work, entitled Broken Manual, which investigates places people retreat to escape civilization—capturing individuals such as monks, survivalists, hermits, and outlaws. The works create compelling, often dark vignettes that hint at what lies at America’s fringes. Other bodies of work on view include a rarely seen group of Soth’s early black-and-white photographs made in Minnesota; a project presenting a typology of abandoned and repurposed American movie theaters in Texas; a new series focused on women in Louisiana who embrace the Goth lifestyle; and a selection from some more recent series, including Fashion Magazine and The Last Days of W.
Unique to the Madison presentation of From Here to There is the inclusion of Soth’s Lothlorien Series, a group of photographs commissioned by MMoCA for the 2006 exhibition Between the Lakes: Artists Respond to Madison. In this series, Soth focused on the Lothlorien cooperative which occupied a Tudor-Style house on the southern shore of Lake Mendota (prior to a fire that destroyed much of the building in September of 2013). Soth, interested in Madison’s liberal legacy, explored the life and people of one of the city’s 23 housing cooperatives, structured to share costs, resources, and provide a forum for social and political activities. These pictures, like those in each of the artist’s series, probe idiosyncrasies of people, objects, and places he discovers, and present a collective portrait of an unexpected America.
Generous funding for the Madison presentation of the exhibition has been provided by David and Paula Kraemer Fund; Sylvia Vaccaro; Ellen Rosner and Paul J. Reckwerdt; Peggy and Tom Pyle; Sara Guyer and Scott Straus; Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek S.C.; Gina and Michael Carter; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.
Saturday, September 13 · 6–9 pm
MMoCA Night: Alec Soth Opening Reception
Celebrate the opening of From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America with this special MMoCA Nights. Preview the exhibition beginning at 6 pm. MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman will converse with Soth at 6:30 pm in the lecture hall. Afterward, guests will be invited to ask the artist questions about his work and process. Louka will perform live, and hors d’oeuvres from Fresco will round out the evening. Free for MMoCA members / $10 for non-members. more »
Saturday, September 13 · 6:30–7:30 pm
A Conversation with Alec Soth
In conversation with MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman, photographer Alec Soth will discuss his creative process, including his approach to photographing his subjects on location using a large-format 8 x 10 camera.
Alec Soth’s photographs have been featured in one-person exhibitions at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland, among others. In addition to exhibiting his work, Soth publishes books of his photographic series, including Sleeping by the Mississippi, NIAGARA, The Last Days of W, and Broken Manual through his publishing company Little Brown Mushroom. He is a member of Magnum Photos and has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2013. Lecture Hall.
$10 MMoCA Nights admission; free for MMoCA members.
Friday, September 26 · 7–8 pm
Somewhere to Disappear
Somewhere to Disappear is a film that chronicles photographer Alec Soth as he traveled nearly 20,000 miles across the United States for his project Broken Manual. Developed over a period of several years, Broken Manual features images of individuals who have chosen to establish a life alone and live “off the grid.” 2010, France. 57 minutes. Tickets are available at the door 30 minutes before screen time.
Somewhere to Disappear is co-sponsored by MMoCA and PhotoMidwest. Visit photomidwest.org for more information or to purchase tickets for this and other programs organized for PhotoMidwest, including the September 27 screening at MMoCA of In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter.
Friday, October 10 · 6:30– 7 pm
A Little Brown Mushroom Odyssey
Writer and frequent Alec Soth collaborator Brad Zellar talks about the experience of working and traveling with Soth. Soth and Zellar have worked together on such book projects as Conductors of the Moving World, House of Coates, and the seven-part LBM Dispatch, which documents the duo's travels around the United States.
Along with Alec Soth, Brad Zellar is the Fall 2014 Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence at the UW-Madison Arts Institute, where they are co-teaching the course “Truth, Lies, Memory, and Imagination: The Photograph as Story.” Zellar is an author and journalist whose book, Suburban World: The Norling Photos, served in part as inspiration for the Coen brothers’ film, A Serious Man. Among other awards he has received, his book, Conductors of the Moving World, was featured in TIMELightbox “Best of 2011: The Photobooks We Loved.” Zellar also writes for his blog, Your Man for Fun in Rapidan., found at yourmanforfuninrapidan.blogspot.com. Main galleries.
Saturdays, 1 pm
Drop by MMoCA for lively and informal discussions of MMoCA’s current exhibitions. Led by MMoCA docents, these free, 30-minute guided tours provide you with the tools to consider artists’ creative decisions and construct meaningful interpretations of their work. Meet in the museum lobby.
Discover what Alec Soth's careful compositions say about the lives and the places shown in his photographs. Gil Hillman. Docent Gil Hillman.
Explore the off-the-beaten-path aspects of America through Minnesota photographer Alec Soth’s images of people engaged in life here in Madison, along the Mississippi River, and elsewhere in the United States. Docent Dianne Greenley.
KIDS AND FAMILIES
Kids' Art Adventures
Kids’ Art Adventures invite families to make art together in MMoCA’s classroom following guided discussion of art on view in the museum’s exhibitions. Six- to ten-year-olds and their families should meet promptly at 1 pm in MMoCA’s lobby; children must be accompanied by an adult. Space at Kids’ Art Adventures is limited to thirty children and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Kids’ Art Adventures is generously funded by American Family Insurance. more »
November 9 · 1–2:30 pm
How can you capture a specific time and place? What can a portrait tell about a person? Find out by examining the people and places in From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, and making drawing of someone or somewhere important to you.
Learning Centers offer adults and families a variety of resources for exploring its exhibitions. Children’s books and a range of kid-friendly activities promote imaginative engagement with works of art. Families may also use the MMoCAkids ArtPack, a shoulder bag filled with interactive tools for use in the galleries and at home.
For adults, exhibition catalogues and related texts complement documentary video on featured artists. In the main galleries, the video, Photographer Alec Soth, offers a candid interview with the artist in which he discusses his work and preparations for From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America at the Walker Art Center.
These interactive handouts help parents talk about art with their children, encouraging them to think imaginatively about what they see while learning about art and artists. Use Let's look to explore photographs from Alec Soth's Lothlorien Series on view in From Here to There: Alec Soth's America.
The Alec Soth teaching page provides analysis of Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, biographical information on the artist, discussion questions, and links to additional resources. Effective as an introduction to a museum visit, the page also is valuable as an ongoing classroom resource.
Bring your students to MMoCA to engage with From Here to There: Alec Soth's America. Learn more about tours here.