Photo Books

Alec Soth, Joseph Szabo, Laura Letinsky

BY Vince Aletti, May 1, 2015

Alec Soth’s first job as a photographer was on the staff of a suburban newspaper in his home state, Minnesota, documenting what he told one interviewer were “often stupid events: ribbon cuttings and parades, city council meetings.” He returned to that gig on his own terms in 2012, going on the road to publish seven editions of The LBM [Little Brown Mushroom] Dispatch, his version of a local newspaper, in collaboration with the writer Brad Zellar. Now condensed and refined in Songbook (MACK), that project continues the oddball American journey Soth began with Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), touching down in Texas, Georgia, Ohio, California, and a few other states in search of community – a “connection to the social web” that still exists off-line. What he found was both ordinary and peculiar: proms, beauty contests, sermons, lectures, ceremonies, parades, and landscapes. Photographed in black and white, many of these events seem to be in quotes – not ironic exactly, but with a vernacular spin, as if they’d been rescued from the files of a small-town paper. Although Soth talks about the influence of Walker Evans and the FSA crew, much of the work recalls Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, all the more so now that it‘s been separated from whatever journalistic underpinning Zellar provided. Songbook’s captions tell us little but the picture’s location and, occasionally, the first names of the people there. So we’re left to imagine just what brought three children together to romp on daybeds in Kissimmee, Florida, among a mess of stuffed animals and wrinkled clothes. Or what Rich, in Del Norte, Colorado, is doing with that enormous pile of antlers.

The mystery behind Songbook’s images is typical of Soth’s work; he doesn’t like to explain too much. Here, he’s happy to tweak our memories of generic picture-press material, but he’s also reframing the original LBM Dispatch images in order to create a very different mood – one that’s more romantic than reportorial, and “open-ended” instead of narrative. Brief excerpts from American pop standards (“Skylark,” “Night and Day”) are sprinkled throughout, a soundtrack from another era, accompanying what he calls “this dance with nostalgia.” “My work is about longing,“ Soth says, in this case for a sense of connection, no matter how frayed or tenuous. In his acknowledgements, Soth salutes Zellar as “my brother in the extra-social community of anxiety and desire,” and that’s the cohort he seems to be addressing most directly in this witty example of the New Photojournalism.

Also recommended: Rolling Stones Fans (Damiani) by Joseph Szabo, the former Malverne (Long Island) High School photography teacher whose Teenage (2003) became a cult book for fashion stylists inspired by its ’70s authenticity. The pictures in Fans (an expanded version of a 2007 book) were taken in the midst of the roiling crowd at a 1978 concert in Philadelphia, where Szabo always manages to zero in on a face, a figure, or a couple whose expressions cover the (not always stoned) gamut, from bewilderment to euphoria. Like his subjects, the photographer was totally in the moment, and the energy and empathy he brings to it makes his images vibrate.

Laura Letinsky, who has been deconstructing the tabletop still life for some years now, takes a giant step into abstraction with the work collected in Ill Form & Void Full (Radius). Her pictures of a finished meal’s scraps, stains, and dirty dishes went from accidents to arrangements. In this new series, the table all but disappears under compositions of cut-up photographs that dispense almost entirely with actual objects. What remains looks like a disintegrating Irving Penn – a casually elegant bit of disarray in a space so flat and unmoored that it could be in a zero gravity module orbiting Mars.