Miranda Gavin | Photobook Review #5

Photobook #5
Gathered Leaves by Alec Soth

‘To me the most beautiful thing is vulnerability’
– Alec Soth

US-based documentary photographer Alec Soth’s latest publication, Gathered Leaves, the title of which is taken from a Walt Whitman poem, Song of Myself, (1885), brings together signature works from the award-winning photographer’s oeuvre as a playful photo boxset. As such it not only functions as the catalogue that accompanies the touring exhibition of the same name (on show at the Media Museum London until 28 March), but it is also a collectible object in its own right.

In 2008, Soth founded his own publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom, and he is well known for his experimentation across exhibition, book, magazine and digital formats. A detail of vintage wallpaper, most of which has been peeled back to expose the cement wall beneath, is taken from one of Soth’s photographs and wraps around the box. Inside, there are two layers—the top one containing four miniature facsimiles of Soth’s previous photo books, Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010), and Songbook (2015), three of which are now out of print. Hidden beneath are 28 double-sided photo cards with quotes from an interview with Aaron Schuman on the reverse, and an extra card with an essay by the director of Media Space London, Kate Bush. Thankfully, it all comes housed in a durable clamshell box that protects the various objects and allows for portability.

In nodding to Marcel Duchamp’s, Boîte-en-valise (1935-41), ‘box-in-a-suitcase’, a portable museum and miniature monograph that includes sixty-nine reproductions of Duchamp’s work, Soth also taps into narratives relating to objectness, including scale and size, as well as the history of miniature books—the earliest small format book Diurnale Moguntinum was printed in 1468. Paradoxically, Soth has taken his original photographs, which were shot using a large-format 8×10 field camera capable of producing images that can be printed at a large size without losing detail, and has shrunk them to create his own ‘portable library’ at a size that fits neatly inside the box. The photo cards have been carefully selected from the exhibition to give an overview of the breadth of Soth’s work and have manifold uses: they are a valuable educational resource; they can be shuffled and re-sequenced, allowing the viewer to curate their own mini exhibition and play with combinations and the order of images; and each large-format ‘postcard’ can be framed and hung on a wall.

Revisiting these images, it is apparent how important Soth’s photographs of America’s social and geographical landscape have been to contemporary photography, especially since his first photo book Sleeping by the Mississippi was published by Steidl in 2004. This seminal book has been seen to embody “a moment in which a new and original voice emerged with an unusual ability to transpose subtle and highly personal stories of local American life” but it was also significant in spearheading the current boom in photo book publishing. Indeed, Soth’s influence is so wide reaching that the work of some contemporary documentary photographers could easily be described as Soth-esque for the way it is inspired by his distinctive visual approach.

Historically, American culture has had a longstanding relationship with the open road and the road trip has, by now, become somewhat of a cliché. Yet in Soth’s hands—with his feel for composition, eye for minutiae and palpable sense of humanity—the ‘open-road’ genre has been beautifully reinvigorated. Soth works across colour and black-and-white photography effortlessly and there is a potent sense of place, person and time running throughout his work. Looking at the photo cards it is evident how striking, and somewhat strange, many of his portraits are, and how acutely the American cultural landscape has been experienced and rendered.

MACK publishing has high production values so it’s little surprise that the photo boxset has been put together carefully with a tremendous eye for detail—two of the books use glossy paper stock and two matt and the reproduction of the photographs is of high-quality, even at a greatly reduced size. However in staying faithful to the scale of the original books, the tiny font size used in the essays in Sleeping in Mississippi and Broken Manual make it difficult to read easily. That said, Gathered Leaves brings Soth’s work to those who were previously unable to acquire his long out-of-print books for a budget of £50. Whether you are new to Soth’s work, or a longstanding aficionado, Gathered Leaves is a beautiful object with wide-ranging appeal that will further cement his reputation as one of the 21st century’s most innovative and profound American documentary photographers.

Gathered Leaves accompanies the touring exhibition of his work, currently on show at the Media Museum in London until 28 March 2016.

Photographs by Alec Soth.
Mack, London, England, 2015.
In English. Unpaged, Clamshell box housing four mini facsimile books (4 vol. set), and 28 large-format postcards. 9×8¾”.