Alec Soth’s Niagara is a seminal work in the landscape of contemporary photography, and masterfully captures both the love and despair surrounding one North America’s most mythologized and awesome natural wonders, Niagara Falls. Working in a distinctive style that blends fine art and commercial aesthetics, Soth creates insightful psychological portraits of the places and people he photographs, and he is widely acclaimed for his traveling series of photographs of “Middle America.” The Niagara series revolves around the idea of all-encompassing passion: it draws both newlyweds and the suicidal, or people who are drawn to the extremes of joy and depression. Reminiscent of cinema and folktale, his hauntingly romantic photographs of just-married couples, solitary strangers and motel room towels allude to a larger narrative that is at once both personal and universal. Niagara is a major work in Soth’s oeuvre, and in it Soth brings together both the fated dreamers and the lonely landscape of the Falls in a masterful collection of photos that speaks to the influences of Diane Arbus, Stephen Shore, Nan Goldin and William Eggleston.
In the present work, Soth has taken the catalogue Niagara and written in notes to accompany his images, giving the viewer a fresh look at the portraits and adding to the stories of the works. Quiet and direct, Soth’s notes have a similar emotional tone to his photos, and they make a personal appeal to the reader that recalls the intimate nature of his portraits. In fact, building a relationship with the subject is at the crux of Soth’s practice, and it is through familiarity that he is able to produce such perceptive images. The long amount of time needed to set up his large-format 8-by-10 view camera is a vital part of Soth’s process, and it allows him and his subject to relax and get to know one another gradually. In the present work, Soth builds rapport with the viewer of the present work in the same way, with slowly meted out comments, handwritten memories and quiet reflections that make one feel as if he were speaking directly to us. Soth’s notes include such wistful musings as his wish that he’d photographed a certain woman alone instead of with her husband, or his comment that both subjects in one photograph had cuts on their arms. Beauty, he suggests, truly resides in such details, even in the face of such a thundering, emotionally environment as the Falls. With such insights, Niagara represents the building of a relationship between Soth and the viewer, one that informs us as much about the artist as about ourselves.
Alec Soth (b.1969), Niagara. Graphite on printed book with c-photographs 12 3/4 x 11 x 1/2 in. Published and executed in 2006.