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Alec Soth finds the extraordinary in the ordinary

Alec Soth has a rare gift for transforming glimpses of ordinary life into extraordinary images — and now we have a chance to see some of his finest work.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art showcases the Minneapolis photographer’s work in From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America. On display through Jan. 4 in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, the exhibit offers 100 images from the artist’s first major traveling survey of the United States. 

Organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Soth’s exhibition is a very different kind of road trip.

“I just try to follow my curiosity and intuition,” says Soth, a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. “My work shifts in tone from one project to the next, from documentary work to my personally expressive approaches.”

Utilizing a cumbersome 8” x 10” camera, Soth recorded the images in the current show during multiple trips across America over the past decade. He follows in the footsteps of narrative photographers like Robert Frank and William Eggleston.

However, Soth’s approach and his process of wandering are singular. He carefully chooses random subjects and settings that are singularly subtle in their content.

“If I see something that turns my head, I try to follow up on that,” Soth says. “But a good picture is a magical thing. I equate it to pop music. Just about anybody can write a pop song, but a great pop song is rare and almost impossible to define.”

In addition to the MMoCA exhibit, Soth and frequent collaborator and writer Brad Zeller will serve as artists-in-residence at UW-Madison for the fall semester. The residency will include several public talks and a course for both undergraduate and graduate students on the intersection of writing and photography.

Although From Here to There consists of photographs taken throughout the United States, the exhibition includes several special features. Sleeping by the Mississippi, Soth’s breakthrough series, chronicles five years the photographer spent traveling up and down the Mississippi River capturing images of overlooked settings. 

The series’ most famous piece, “Charles, Vasa, Minnesota,” shows a jump-suited worker wearing a balaclava and goggles against a bleak winter landscape. The subject also has two model airplanes in his hands, offering a sense of incongruity and mirth to the image.

Niagara, another of Soth’s series featured in the exhibition, chronicles the aging tourist amenities that surround the mighty waterfall, inadvertently commenting on the decay and despair surrounding what was once a symbol of romance and love. One pieces in the series is Soth’s favorite in the exhibition.

“Perhaps my favorite image is of Melissa, the bride in Niagara Falls,” Soth says. “She is photographed just after her wedding. But with this picture, I decided to depict her without the groom. By doing so, the picture becomes less about the specifics of her wedding than of her dreams and aspirations.”

The exhibition also features Broken Manual, Soth’s most recent body of work. In this series, the photographer explores the edges of society, the places people go to escape civilization. His subjects include monks and hermits, outlaws and survivalists.

Other parts of the exhibition include some early, rarely seen black-and-white photographs of Minnesota and a series on repurposed movie theaters in Texas.

Unique to the Madison exhibition is Soth’s Lothlorien series, photography commissioned by MMoCA in 2006 that focuses on the city’s 23 housing cooperatives. Among them is Lothlorien, a Tudor-style cooperative on Lake Mendota’s southern shore that burned to the ground in 2013.

Soth anticipates a lot of commentary on the Madison exhibition.

“Some people see it as a critique of America, others as a celebration of looking and just about everything in between,” he says. “I don’t have a specific agenda with the work that I’m trying to express. I’m happy for just about all interpretations.”

On exhibit

The photographic exhibition From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America runs through Jan. 4, 2015, at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., Madison. For information visit www.mmoca.org or call 608-257-0158.

 

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