Alec Soth – Songbook [Review]

‘Capturing, as ever, the candid beauty and vast scope of the human state, Songbook casts Soth’s broadest reference yet on wider modern society.’

by Ben Dickenson Bampton

In our digitally integrated society, the paradox of our growing detachment from each other, our quest for individualism in spite of community, continues to raise concerns. However, there are few able to describe such issues with the same poignancy as Alec Soth.

Old man dancing alone, Alec Soth.
Come dance with me. (lensculture.com)

With Soth thrusting himself back into society following two years spent embracing self-exile and solace during his Broken Manual project, his images begin to reflect the growing detachment from community in modern America.

Capturing, as ever, the candid beauty and vast scope of the human state, Songbook casts Soth’s broadest reference yet on wider modern society. An elderly man ballroom-dances alone; a pilot, plugged into her headset, wears an expression of dreamy vacancy; a hoard of shoppers stand, quiet and with trolleys at the ready, waiting for a Wal-Mart’s doors to open.

Stark images continue to shock and intrigue Soth’s audiences. A foamy dancehall depicts revellers dancing intimately and semi-nakedly in a portrait of youth’s reckless escapism and desire. On another dance floor, a priest faces a young, short-shorted girl and fails to mask his unease.

Alec Soth Facebook headquarters.
Always online. (lensculture.com)

In a telling photograph of Facebook’s headquarters – an identifiable hub for today’s ‘social’ networks – an isolated figure staggers across a mass of uniform concrete.

With monochrome format giving the images a timeless essence, Songbook is designed to speak lyrically to the viewer. “It’s a journey across the United States, punctuated by quotes from classic songs”, says Soth, reflecting on the rapid change of American culture in the post-industrial era.

Drawing on two influences of The Great American Songbook, offering a retrospective on the lyrics of 20th century music, and the work of US scholar Robert D Putman, whose ‘Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community’ shed light on  disconnection and insularity, Songbook clearly juxtaposes the past and present of American culture.

The project casts a vivid insight into the increasing awkwardness of community and interaction. Once again, Soth’s enchanting compositions – unique in themselves – capture the uncanny essence of what it means to be human today.

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