Few photographers can say the first retrospective monograph of their work was published at the ripe old age of 41. And even fewer can say this all happened less than a decade after emerging on the international photography scene. But then again, in the last decade only a handful of photographers have been as influential to the medium as Alec Soth has been - and when you crank out work at an unprecedented pace and have an apparent book publishing addiction... I say "keep 'em coming". Soth is reveling in the book producing business - just this year I have counted 8 titles with his name attached (not counting his zine publications with Little Brown Mushroom). Not all of them have been great publications - Ash Wednesday, New Orleans was a poorly designed softbound that made me cringe when the copy hit my desk - but many of them have been great, and all of these publications have continued to showcase Soth's ability as an editor and primitive wanderer.
From Here to There: Alec Soth's America is unique in terms of what a traditional retrospective book adheres to. In the public domain Soth is just beginning his career, but what this book offers is not only the projects Soth became known for (Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara, etc) but also the work that molded the path he currently navigates such as Perfect Strangers and At the Bar. The title From Here to There was the title of the first book Soth created - and subsequently never published. It seems appropriate now that this title is being used to celebrate Soth's career alongside the current retrospective exhibition of the same name at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The cover design of From Here to There immediately grabs at your attention - a clever feature that has me thinking anybody passing by it at the local bookstore is going to pick this book up. The cover is loaded with quirky blurbs describing the content inside - descriptions that elude to an America most of us haven't experienced before. Short narratives like "On a Great Slab of Mesozoic Rock" "How To Be Alone and Loved By Millions" and " Grow a Beard and Change Your Gait" will certainly beget a few bewildered book browsers upon viewing the contents inside. This adventurous cover is just the beginning for a book chock full of layers of heavy content. Everything you already knew and ever wanted to know about Alec Soth is accessible within the design of this book - and if you feel you have a few more questions about Soth the book didn't answer, the photographer was even kind enough to provide his phone number and email address - you can't miss it, it's right there on the cover.
Loaded with Soth's old wordpress blog archives, we are given tidbits of clever, often humorous insights into various issues such as how to pick a project title, how to pronounce Soth's last name, and even for you tech junkies, what kind of camera equipment and printing techniques Soth used on various projects. Printed full bleed with bright red ink, these anecdotes and musings are a perfect personal supplement to the well written, but often long winded and repetitive essays that appear in the book. Not to say Siri Engberg Geoff Dyer, Barry Schwabsky or Britt Salvesen's essays aren't insightful or engaging, but there was certainly a lack of coordination on the varying content within each essay. Predominately focusing on Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara and Soth's use of an 8x10 view camera, these essays do not individually offer a wealth of differing information. The discussions of Soth's projects are important within the frame of this book, and so is the topic of Soth's use of cumbersome equipment. How else would we know how diligently this photographer operates in the world? But sometimes less is more, and to read about these subjects multiple times in one book becomes tiresome.
The most insightful written piece in From Here to There is Soth's conversation with Bartholomew Ryan entitled Dismantling My Career. The interview is a great view into Soth's relationship with his subjects, his career as a Magnum photographer, his influences and includes a fantastic story of being invited into William Eggleston's home. The reader is even given a selected bibliography and exhibition list to round out the enormous amount of textual information in a book that is from the beginning, a celebration of Soth's photographs.
Showcasing many of Soth's seminal images, From Here to There also combines the photographer's new projects and publications with Little Brown Mushroom such as Last Days of W. and Lost Boy Mountain. From newsprint to zine, these new publications are an interesting shift in publication aesthetic - leaving the door open as to where these projects will continue to go. A great example of Soth's commitment to the zine publication is a 46 page book entitled The Loneliest Man In Missouri tucked away in the back of From Here to There. This little staple-bound zine is a small treasure and the photographs exemplify Soth as a wandering photographer and creative documentarian. Packed with an abundance of information on Soth and his photographs, From Here to There is an engaging companion piece to his other monographs. From Here to There feels as though it is merely a single chapter in what is sure to be an unusually prolific career - leaving the viewer wondering how Soth's new creative direction is going to play out. This mid-career celebration will certainly not be the last retrospective survey on Soth's work, but it will be a tough one to top in regards to the compelling book design and informative overload wrapped within a series of quirky factoids.
Antone Dolezal is a New Mexico based photographer and writer. His photographs have been exhibited and published regionally, and his writing contributions have appeared in various photographic publications, including Finite Foto and photo-eye Magazine. Antone studied photography, art history and writing at the College of Santa Fe, receiving his BFA in 2006. He coordinates photo-eye Magazine's book reviews, organizes monthly photography salons held at the photo-eye Gallery and recently curated an exhibition for the photo-eye Bookstore. When not immersing himself in the photographic world, Antone can be found living and working in the High Desert south of Santa Fe.