Ramblin Man: the Alec Soth survey at Walker Art Center

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September 20, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

// Photographer Alec Soth mucks about the brackish backwaters of Americana //


No need to send Alec Soth your tired, your poor or your huddled masses yearning to breath free. He’ll gladly go to them.

The Minneapolis-based photographer is one of the art world’s most heroic traveling men. Now an international superstar, Soth has made his name largely by ruck-sacking it across the nation, hunting for salt-of-the-earth characters like some 19th century American novelist.

Out on the road, he drives with Post-It notes stuck to his steering wheel. The tiny yellow squares provide a loose checklist of things he’s looking for: “unusually tall people,” “prostitutes,” “suitcases,” “lent.” For his enormously famous “Sleeping by the Mississippi” series — which kicks off a superb, 15-year survey of Soth’s work at Walker Art Center — he actually printed and distributed this list on a business card in order to generate leads for future photos.

“He’s got a kind of treasure-hunt process to guide his wanderings,” says Walker curator Siri Engberg, who helped organize the exhibition, entitled “From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America.”

And what does Soth find? Goth kids and prostitutes. Ice fishing porn enthusiasts. World-weary middle managers. Evangelists and cashiers. Brooding hermits squatting in caves and off-the-grid shacks. Basically, all the warts and bleakness of the forgotten pockets of America. The work can be sad. But it’s more often grotesque in a literary sense and deeply, darkly humorous: more Flannery O’Connor than Mark Twain. Or for the Minnesota scenes — the nudie mag-plastered ice fishing camp was shot at the Eelpout Festival in Walker, Minn. — more Coen brothers than Keillor.

Engberg has arranged the show, she says, to feel like “two or three novellas and a handful of short stories.” The novellas are “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” for which Soth meandered down the great river, Huck Finn-style, from Minnesota to New Orleans; “Niagra,” which finds Soth probing the suicidal and matrimonial reasons that draw visitors to Niagra Falls; and “Broken Manual,” his newest series, which documents the fringe-living of loner survivalists. Soth says the project was inspired by the story of Eric Robert Rudolph, the so-called “Olympic Park Bomber.”

Featuring wild mountain men and underground hideouts, “Broken Manual” ends the exhibition. Here, Thoreau’s dream of self-reliance has gone sour, diseased with fear, isolation and meanness. But Soth always leaves room for a wry smile. In one shot of a slipshod bedroom built inside of a cave, he zooms in on the room’s “closet”: a single bar wedged into a craggy nook. A pink plastic hanger dangles amongst its wire cousins. The girlish, homey touch is so wonderfully unexpected, I actually heard a gallerygoer let out a pleased little yelp when she saw it.

In another gem of quirk, Soth sets out to Missouri to clandestinely photograph the sad-sack corporate workers commuting to painfully banal office parks. The goal was to find “The Lonliest Man in Missouri,” which is the title to the brief photo essay. The tragicomedy plays out via titles like “Man in white dress shirt carrying chips” and scenes of perfect Everymen scarfing burgers while driving.

In the end, Soth meets a man named Ed in an East St. Louis strip club, who tells Soth that his birthday is the following day. With no friends or family, Ed has no plans to celebrate. So Soth hires a stripper to deliver the man a birthday cake, provided he can video tape the encounter.

In the surreal clip that ends the essay, Blaze the Stripper listens politely as Ed reads her T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Soth then overdubs Ed with Eliot himself reading the poem. The clip is haunting and overwhelmingly bizarre, teetering between exploitation, rapt fascination and an indictment of shallowness.

If “The Loneliest Man in Missouri” is one of Soth’s short stories, then it’s him at his literary best, as freaky and macabre as J.D. Salinger’s bananafish.

“You know, I secretly wish to be a writer,” Soth told us. “That way I can have this variety. Part of the story can be funny, and then later it can be sad.”