Soth and Cameron at the Science Museum

Earlier this month I visited the Science Museum, London, primarily to see the Alec Soth (pronounced as in ‘both’, I believe) exhibition, ‘Gathered Leaves’. This is the award winning American photographer’s first major UK show and brings together a decade of work covering four projects.

The exhibition opens with ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’, a series of documentary portraits, landscapes and interiors described as a “modern twist” on the American road trip. With his use of a large format camera and all that it imposes on the process of image making, Soth’s photographs follow a tradition of American documentary that can be traced back through the likes of Stephen Shore, William Christenberry, Joel Sternfield, and even as far back as Walker Evans.  His images have a sense of ‘place’, of quiet forgotten spaces and other lives. Whilst there is certainly tension, a sense of ‘moment’, the very nature of large format photography imposes a high degree of formality over the picture making that more candid, ‘shoot from the hip’ approaches often lack. Thus the portraits have a quality of connection, of intimacy. The subject is participating in the interaction and is entirely compliant; we have permission to be there, to look, to share in their humanity. These portraits are juxtaposed with wide-open, empty landscapes and carefully composed interiors which have a great deal of subtlety in their detail. They are not ‘snapshots’, they are careful, precise and measured studies. Colour is important too, but not exaggerated or over saturated colour. It is more muted realism than bold statement, lending a level of authenticity that more overt ‘self conscious’ colour might undermine.

Melissa, Flamingo Inn, 2005 © Alec Soth

These qualities are also prevalent in the second series, ‘Niagara’. We are told that this is “the site of spectacular suicides and affordable honeymoons…” and here Soth adds still life to his repertoire with photographs of found texts along side the portraits and studies of dilapidated hotel facades, to reflect associations of love and despair. All this is juxtaposed with the spectacular, timeless backdrop of of the falls themselves.

The third project offers something of a departure and moves beyond the image making itself. Having become preoccupied with the case of Eric Robert Rudolph (known as the ‘Olympic Park Bomber’) who was believed to be hiding out in the wilderness of the Appalachian mountains, Soth began researching survivalists and hermits, and subsequently developed his own instruction manual ‘How to Disappear in Amerika’. This led onto his book ‘Broken Manual’ and this underpinned the photographic project in which he sort out hermits and recluses and photographed them often dwarfed by or disappearing into their environment. In some cases the subject is entirely absent, merely suggested through the details within the space. Soth claims that he is drawn to these people, he identifies with them and the idea of escape. “There is definitely a self-portrait aspect to this…”

© Alex Soth

The final sequence is Soth’s most recent work and is presented under the collective title of ‘Songbook’. Here the artist revisits his origins as a newspaper photographer and combines this with his ever present notion of the road trip. Collaborating with the writer Brad Zellar, he acts as pseudo journalist, collecting stories and two self published newspapers/magazines from the confines of their motel rooms. In this series it is the style of imagery that changes, moving away from the large format studies of the previous projects toward more conventional photo-journalism, reminiscent of Robert Frank, or Bruce Davidson.

Soth’s photography is most definitely American and by this I mean exploring American themes, tapping into an American consciousness. A key element that runs through this work is the notion of space, of the vastness of the landscape, of the sublime, and this is reinforced through the scale of the prints and the spacing within the gallery. I found myself fascinated by these images, by the overriding sense of emptiness and isolation, visually, physically and emotionally.  For one who lives on a crowded island moored off the coast of Europe it seems a world away; these spaces don’t really exist in Britain.

Reflecting as I journeyed home, I concluded that this exhibition features some exceptional and engaging individual images, especially the portraits, but that is not the whole story. I believe that the real strength of this work is the assemblage, the synthesis of the ‘project’. What Soth delivers here is an abject lesson in not only how to create beautiful photographs, but how to combine them and how to present them as a coherent and meaningful body of work. It will come as no surprise that I highly recommend this show.

'My Niece Julia, Full Face', Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867

Currently on display in the adjoining gallery at the Science Museum is a new exhibition of work by the C19th photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Presented under the title ‘Influence and Intimacy’, this show features work from the Herschel Album, originally compiled by the artist as a gift for her friend the scientist Sir John Herschel.

I have always found Cameron’s photography difficult to assess. As a student I had often read that her portraits were remarkable and innovative representations of her sitters, and yet much of her work involved re-inventing them for the camera as literary or mythical characters. She seemed to oscillated between intense studies, individual head shots of ‘notable’ subjects and romantic tableaux reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite painting in which the identities of the sitters seem to be of little or no relevance to the original intent. The latter perhaps bare greater testament to Cameron’s powers of persuasion to second whoever happened to be available at the time, than to any notion of ‘portraiture’. Additionally, the technical quality of her work was a best variable, certainly compared to others of the period such as Thomas Annan or ‘Nadar’ (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon). Her pictures were often blurred and the plates seemed to have been inconsistently prepared/developed, and not by design; Cameron did not always enjoy the patronage of her contemporaries in the photography fraternity. All this had led me to question the significance attributed to Cameron’s contribution to photography.

'Iago:Study from an Italian', Julia Margaret Cameron,  1867

This was my position when I first visited Dimbola Lodge, but as is so often the case with visual art, seeing the work ‘in the flesh’ challenged this point of view. Standing in front of the original prints many of which I was familiar with through reproductions in books, I found something extra, something vital in her portraits and I felt that the prints although technically ‘flawed’ had an aesthetic that was both engaging and appealing. I came away with an entirely different and far more positive appreciation. So it was that I approached this new show at the Science Museum with a degree of anticipation, but I am afraid to say that I was in for a disappointment. It could be that my expectations were heightened by my Dimbola experience, or maybe I had reached my saturation point coming as I did straight out of the Soth and into the Cameron without a break for a cuppa, but I couldn’t help feeling somewhat underwhelmed. There were plenty of images on view (perhaps too many), supported by artefacts and information about both Cameron and the collection, but it all seemed a little disjointed, a little dilute, not least in the fact that there seemed to be to be a number of images represented by more than one version/print. Don’t let this to put you off however, especially if you have never seen any of Cameron’s prints up close. I’m just not sure that I could recommend making a special journey. I did find something of interest, in the later work from India made at the end of Cameron’s career. These were quite different, perhaps not stylistically as they share the same romanticism of the earlier studies,  but definitely in purpose. Here we see genuine documentary, photographing the ordinary ‘native’ population, not as characters in a fictional tableau, but as representatives of a real culture and a real history; they are the very opposite of the work at Dimbola for which she is most remembered.

'Group of Kalutara Peasants', Julia Margaret Cameron, 1875

‘Gathered Leaves’ commands a ticket price of £8, relatively reasonable for London prices, you can book in advance here. I went on a Friday without booking, it was very quiet and I was able to go straight in (expect it to be busier at the weekends). The Cameron is free to enter and both shows run until 28th March 2016. If you really want to make a day of it, you might also consider the ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ which opens this weekend at the Natural History museum, just next door, although at £15 the ticket price is significantly higher.

*Dimbola Lodge, Freshwater, I.O.W, was Cameron’s residence for much of her photographic career and is now the home of the Julia Margaret Cameron Trust. Further information about this museum and its collection can be found at www.dimbola.co.uk

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