Gathered Leaves – Photographs by Alex Soth, The Science Museum, London

26 February 2016 § Leave a comment

This post is also published on CELLOPHANELAND* (link here)

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 whilst 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 the sort of thing we are expecting at the museum.

Alex Soth Sleeping by the Mississippi www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum

What many 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.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Sleeping by the Mississippi

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 Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum

Alex Soth is one of those artists featured in the collection and this beautifully presented exhibition, surprisingly his first ever in the UK, is 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.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum 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.Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Living by the Mississippi

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 run down suburbs also act as backdrops for his poetic surveys of American life.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Sleeping by the Mississippi

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.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Niagara

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.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Broken Manual

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.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Broken Manual

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 in seeking out here people.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Broken Manual

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Niagara

He found his recluses in the vast unpopulated expanses of America – from deserts to forests – and photographed them in their solitude, drafted in their settings.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Songbook

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.

Alex Soth Gathered Leaves www.cellophaneland.com The Science Museum Songbook

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

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