Soth was talking about his Gathered Leaves exhibition, which I saw at the Science Museum a few months back, and blogged about here. Having spent some time looking at the work, it was interesting to hear about his motivations and how he went about the projects. Gathered Leaves is a reference to photographs being fragments of life, discarded as they become old.
Soth uses the road trip as a metaphor (his words) for photography, although I would say the trips are more about allowing himself space to explore ideas. He said that in his first project, Sleeping by the Mississippi, he was not self-aware, and simply wandered the landscape, picking out subjects that caught his attention. When asked whether his work is Landscape or Documentary in style, he replied that mostly he thought of it as Portraiture. In Niagara, he explored themes of love and loss. The notes that he collected helped him to give a voice to the people he made photographs of. Without the notes, he felt the project was too two-dimensional and lacking in depth.
Broken Manual is about running away. He has produced it as a secret manual, aimed at men, about leaving their lives behind them and setting off to explore their inner lives. Soth said that at the time he was very preoccupied with the concept of the inner life. He also said that he is a project photographer, not someone who works on many different things at the same time, and that each project has an internally consistent form and content What I had not fully appreciated before was how each of his projects is based on a fantasy persona, which may or may not have elements of Soth himself within them. In Broken Manual, he collaborated with a (fictitious?) person to produce something that is much more than a series of photographs. There is a lot of other work in the project too – books, artefacts, etc. For Songbook, his most recent project, he assumed the persona of a newspaper hack wandering across the States, looking at small-town stories.
During the Q&A session afterwards, Soth was asked about whether success had begun to limit his freedom to choose his own subjects. He said that it was a constant tussle to keep control of his work. He was also asked about whether he felt he was exploiting his subjects, and responded that he thought not. He always spends some time with them before making the images, and they are not cruel in the way of Bruce Gildin. When questioned about whether his images are storyboarded, he replied that his way of working was more of a treasure hunt, though I was not sure how much posing went on once he had found them.
Edward Burtinsky has defined Soth’s work as interior. He is exploring his own thoughts through photography – it is effectively an illustrated journey through his mind. This resonated with me, and came up again in the Richard Misrach lecture I attended later the same day. I am not a religious person, and would call myself atheist, but I am interested in the connection between people, the land and history, on the one hand, and the energy that binds us all together at the quantum level, on the other. After this discussion, I felt energised to go out and explore these ideas further in my own work. There have been hints of the themes in many assignments already, and it seems to indicate my direction of travel.