Despite the process of photography being somewhat scientific, Gathered Leaves – Photographs by Alex Soth, is on first appearances a slightly surprisingly choice as the latest exhibition at the Science Museum. Alex Soth is a contemporary photographer who takes an innovative aim at documentary photography, and perhaps another (excellent) current exhibition of early images from photographic pioneer, Julia Margaret Cameron, also on now at the same venue is more in line with expectations.
What you may not know however is that the Science Museum Group (SMG) has just announced an historic agreement with the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Over 400,000 objects from SMG’s three-million-strong photography collection will be transferred to join the V&A’s existing collection of 500,000 to create the single largest collection on the art of photography in the world, in their International Photography Resource Centre.
The collection will comprise encompasses exquisite vintage prints, the world’s first negative, unique daguerreotypes and early colour photographs, as well as important albums, books, cameras and the archives of major photographers. There are also of course major holdings of the worlds top photographers from the dawn of photography right up to to the present day.
Alex Soth is one of those artists featured in the collection and this beautifully presented exhibition. Surprisingly its his first ever in the UK; a fitting backdrop to the announcement. Surveying a decade of his work, it features Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006) and Broken Manual (2010) as well as the UK premiere of Songbook.
His work is characterised by a lyrical approach to documentary photography, and a restless experimentation across the many forms that photography can take: from exhibitions and books, to zines and digital media. Soth, who lives and works in Minnesota, also shares the great American fascination with the open road, bringing a fresh perspective to ideas explored in the twentieth century by artists and writers such as Robert Frank, Stephen Shore and Jack Kerouac.
Throughout the exhibition we are in no doubt that we are looking at the work of an American photographer. We recognise the physical landscapes and wilderness of the USA, from iconic sights like the Niagara Falls through to wild forest. We also see the small rural towns, whilst rural and rundown suburbs also act as backdrops for his poetic surveys of American life.
For Sleeping by the Mississippi, Soth set off with his large format camera to travel its 2000 mile course. He drifts lazily down its course taking in dreamers, visionaries and time worn motels. His camera transports us physically and metaphorically via the moving waters and the wandering imaginations and dreams of the regions residents.
Niagara has of course long been associated with both honeymoons and suicides. Soth refers to its ‘intensified sexuality and unsustainable desire’ and grabs snippets of poetry and evidence of passion, people in bars an wedding venues and juxtaposes them with the grandeur of the flowing falls.
Broken Manual explores the desire to run away from civilisation. Researching the web, he discovered a world of communications and manifestos distributed by those who have chosen to withdraw from society: survivalists, monks and hermits. We see some of the documents and Soths own zines displayed in glazed cabinets in the exhibition space. Soth also created his own survival instructions, the Broken Manual and then went on the road himself seeking out people.
He found his recluses in the vast unpopulated expanses of America – from deserts to forests – and photographed them in their solitude, often dwarfed in their settings.
Finally, in Songbook, Soth elucidates modern American life in a timeless black and white. The project emerged from a series of road trips with the writer, Brad Zellar. Posing as local newspaper reporters, over the course of two years they attended hundreds of meetings, dances, festivals, and communal gatherings, the resulting stories published as an ad hoc series of ‘dispatches’ from the different states visited.
Soth isolates his photographs from their original news context, and in doing so, evokes a human desire for interaction in an era increasingly defined by virtual social networks. Funny, fragmentary and sad, Songbook is a lyrical meditation on the tension between American individualism and the urge to be united.
Gathered Leaves – Photographs by Alex Soth is on until 28 March 2016
For more information visit www.sciencemuseum.org.uk