We asked photographer Alec Soth to tell us about a picture that meant something to him, and why. Three exhibitions of Soth’s series Songbook are currently on view around the country: at San Francisco’s Fraenkel Gallery through April 4; at New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery through March 14; and at Minneapolis’s Weinstein Gallery through April 4.
In 1937, Russell Lee traveled to northern Minnesota to photograph lumber camps for the Farm Security Administration. On a Saturday night, Lee went into the town of Craigville and took in the nightlife. He ended up making an iconic photograph of a ruggedly handsome man toasting a few other folks at the bar. This image was later collected by MoMA but made famous by its inclusion in the opening sequence of the television show Cheers. Just as that program glossed over the darker truth of barflies, Lee’s quaint scene belies the realities of the place. Craigville was famous not only for its rotgut saloons, but also its gambling, prostitution, and violence. A newspaper editorial from the time said: “For God’s sake, help us clean up the hell hole of Craig, where they knock ‘em cold with blunt instruments and tuck the lifeless bodies beneath the ice of the Big Fork River to be washed down with the spring thaws.“ Lee made a couple of pictures that suggest the darker side to the logger’s nightlife. In one, a man in a dirty suit sleeps beneath a table. In another, a lumberjack sports a crude bandage around his head after being “rolled” at a saloon. But my favorite picture looks to be made at the very same tavern as Lee’s iconic photo. Instead of a happy crowd, a lone man is slumped over the bar. Instead of a stiff drink, his arms are wrapped around a kitten. I learn from this picture because it is both tough and sweet. But most of all I learn about the power of the detail. As the man collapses into an alcoholic stupor, one sees the kitten gazing at its own reflection.