The Genius of Photography was one of the first ‘serious’ programmes on photography I had ever watched. F-numbers still baffled me, as did most of the equipment (though I still wanted it). I was obsessed by gear, terrified of nudes and hadn’t yet really looked at ‘contemporary’ photography at all. My parents, aware of my obsession with whatever model of photography I was obsessed with at the time, decided the BBC 4 documentary may be of interest and so left it on one evening. The episode was called ‘Snap Judgements’. It marked the end of the highly acclaimed six-part series and the beginning of an appreciation that would follow me for the rest of my photographic life, for it was here that I first heard the name Alec Soth.
Though around 3 years late to the party, the influence Soth’s work and words had on my very early photographic progression was profound. None of this has any relevance to his latest publication Gathered Leaves, but its probably useful to give context to what may be a slightly biased review.
From Here to There is, in my mind a better ‘intro to Soth’ (well, publication in general) than Gathered Leaves for the amalgamation of high quality written content, unique design and interesting, smaller snippets taken from blogs. Gathered Leaves presents abstracts of emails and quotes that are more or less pertinent to the work presented. The text contributions bring together a diverse array of email snippets, interview transcriptions, recounts of meetings and quotes from various literary references to create a stimulating and provoking publication. The move away from the success of From Here to There’s more academic tone sets this apart as a totally new release, rather than an updated reissue of From Here to There. I read From Here to There cover to cover in two days, re-read it throughout both my BA and MA and have referenced it in research papers, delivered lectures citing passages from it and directed students to it for their research numerous times – not something I can necessarily see happening with the short quotes and abstracts in Gathered Leaves.
I will however direct students to this most recent “not-a-retrospective” for one reason: accessibility. An answer to a question no one asked Gathered Leaves is not, for it is the collectors (and yes, I own up to being part of the problem myself) who have made this publication a necessity.
The collector is so often, especially in regards to the book world, responsible for both the success and death of an artists work. Small editions sell fast, demand intimate knowledge of the world they are born into, receive rave reviews and ultimately die on the few well-stocked shelves of collectors and reviewers. I am a collector and I am responsible. The pride I hold in my signed first editions is exactly the fuel the behind the decisions to limit print runs to unreasonable quantities. We pat ourselves on the back when a book we own goes out of print and becomes sought after and detest four-figure editions that prevent this from happening. I doubt I will ever sell any volume from my collection, the increases in monetary value existing similarly to ‘Top Trump’ point – a vapid gauge of a books ‘value’. Gathered Leaves then is the “Everyman’s Library” edition of Soths work, it makes accessible that which has for so long been out of reach in an elegant and unapologetically beautiful way.
From Here to There’ may be better but it is also much more expensive (now more than when I bought it). Its a highly desirable publication for good reason, but at roughly 3x the price of Gathered Leaves it is not the introduction to Alec Soth it was once so good at being. Gathered Leaves has taken this spot and will I hope, continue to be available for years to come as more people hear Soths name and want to see what all the fuss is about.
The exhibition this box/book accompanies is, whilst I am no aficionado on exhibitions, wonderful. Alec Soth, as I am sure you have already read in all the other reviews of Gathered Leaves, describes the exhibition as the live performance to the book’s ‘Album’, which is perhaps why I don’t generally like exhibitions (I abhor concerts). The curation at The Media Space though was absolutely on point, acutely so in the Songbook section. Sleeping by The Mississippi featured smaller prints on the whole from the rest, which worked well for allowing visual dialogues to exist between the images, preventing a facile sense of grandeur from overtaking work that could so easily lend itself to larger prints. I’m not sure I agree with Soth when he spoke of how Broken Manual is best viewed as an exhibition, though that’s not because the exhibition falters in some way (it absolutely doesn’t) but because the book form is an integral part of the work.
The vitrines in the centre were a full of interesting research materials and notebooks along with various editions of each book almost appearing as precious artefacts. My sense of desire was strong both for and through the work. These vitrines came at the expense of the shows one banal yet major downfall though: lack of seating. I am disabled and suffer chronic pain from standing or walking, but I doubt this is a pre-requisite for appreciating the ability to rest in a 4 room exhibition spanning an artists major works from the past decade or so. The only seating was outside of the sealed walls of the exhibition space meaning my visit was cut unfortunately short. It’s a great exhibition but to be able to really appreciate all of its contents, design and curation a few seats really are needed.
Gathered Leaves by Alec Soth can be purchased here.
Ollie Gapper graduated from UCA Rochester in 2014 with a degree in Photography (Contemporary Practice). He is currently studying an MA in Photography with a long-term focus on photobooks and the American landscape.