There is an astounding sense of intimacy in the works of Alec Soth. Contained within his collections, from “Looking for Love,” to “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” Soth captures with frank candidness the stark solitarily of individuals looking for answers in modern America and beyond. In each portrait, the viewer gets the sense that they are peering into a story, picking up in the middle – a place they were not necessarily meant to see.
This intimacy is often inverted. The viewer is confronted with the intensity of the subject’s gaze. One shot in “Sleeping by the Mississippi” has the subject, Sunshine, laying on her bed, in her own private space, and it is as if she can see the viewer seeing her. Here, the audience becomes aware of its own voyeurism, and this undoubtedly comes with a certain amount of shame for being caught. Soth’s intimacy is a double edged sword.
While Soth’s photographs are often quite personal, they also take on a more alienating affect in their portrayal of empty spaces. In “The Last Days of W,” this rings particularly true in its portrayal of America during the final days of George W. Bush’s presidency. In this series, shots of ghost towns, empty highways, and tent villages illustrate the ethos of a tired country fraught with recession. In this sense, Soth’s work carries the weight of documentation. However, there is a certain distance provided by the unyielding stillness that permeates most of Soth’s collections, a stillness that deviates his subjects from their actuality. The particular realism of his works is made fantastically foreign.
These fascinating contradictions provide a consistency within all of Soth’s projects. Through their intimacy, his portraits draw his audience into the stories he creates (or captures), but his often bleak images of the space these subjects occupy pushes his audience to arms length. Like an impossibly still film by Antonioni, the alienation of urbanity comes into question. Soth questions modern life through these contradictions – juxtapositions between humanity and the vast spaces it creates, and sometimes abandons.