Niagara.
Photographs by Alec Soth. Essays by Richard Ford and Philip Brookman.
Steidl, Gottingen, 2006. 144 pp., 50 color illustrations, 10x13".

About the size, heft and texture of a family album, Alec Soth's Niagara confronts one at first not with baby photos or prom snaps or wedding portraits, but with a powerful written meditation, courtesy of Richard Ford, that touches on travel, transformation and the spirit-rattling notions of identity and coming of age as experienced through image, mystery and iconic geographies like Niagara Falls. Primed appropriately with self-doubt and narrative wonder, it's then time to enter Soth's portrait of human love, dreams and illusion against the backdrop of the Falls. Soth levels his chunky 8x10 view camera on the expected wedding and honeymoon related hoopla, as well the less obvious-motel exteriors under hazy skies and nighttime lights; a single whiskey glass, mostly drained; an inexplicable and sad queue of tiny row houses. His most evocative work, though, comes in pairing portraits of Niagara couples - young lovers caught in a landscape of Lynchian noir or established couples nude, obese and comfortable across carpet and cheap sofa upholstery - with high-powered images of hand-scrawled notes expressing love, frustration, the allure of Gene Simmons. The ending, with an essay by Philip Brookman, and an arty sprawl of notes by Soth himself, feels heavy-handed at first, but in the end it's an elegant marriage; there's not a word of text in the book that doesn't serve to amplify and engage an immersive and compelling documentary project. ZANE FISCHER

This review was originally published in the Fall 2006 issue of the photo-eye Booklist. To learn more about the Booklist click here.
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