SHELF : NIAGARA by Alec Soth April 16 2014, 0 Comments

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NIAGARA by Alec Soth 
Hardcover, 1st Edition 
Steidl, 2006 
144 Pages 

My first true love was with a bookstore. That kind of extreme and inextinguishable longing that so often pervades one’s self so strongly that if you were to separate from the other it would be disastrous for both parties. This particular bookstore whom I fell for was quiet. Smaller than most. Previously an old movie-house, redone to hold books instead of people, there was a marquee awning marking its outside, with the names of new arrivals and bestsellers blinking back in the slightest almost indistinguishable flicker as to catch one’s eye. I can’t say that I didn’t fall for it immediately.

My father introduced me to her. Every Saturday, he would take us, my sister and I, and we would do our normal dance of searching and sifting until we had the one book we were each allotted, and only if we had finished the previous one acquired. Opening the doors and passing the old popcorn stand that now housed staff picks and bestsellers, I would run inside and poke around, through each genre and section searching for that one lucky book that I would take home with me. At that time I was going through a phase of reading the largest books I could find. The reasons being that I grew up next to a Pizza Hut whose BookIt program rewarded children for reading books with free pizza. The larger the book and the more elucidating the report one wrote, the more pizza one was able to acquire- the perfect bribe for a child. So from that and then on it was multiple trips to the library, large books of all sorts, from Crichton and King, to Joyce and Vollman. One day, I found an interesting loophole with this section called “poetry”, a new genre for my six-year-old self. It seemed these books (the anthologies and collected works) were quite large. However, after leafing through one, it became immediately apparent that there were hardly any words in them- a triumph for laziness and my childhood pursuit for pizza! With that, I started collecting books on poetry, either from the library or through my first true love, the bookstore. The books were strange though. They didn’t read like ordinary books. I had trouble in the beginning I must admit. For a six-year-old to try to decipher Edna St. Vincent Millay’s collected works or Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Whitman, Mayakovsky, Cendrars- it was like chewing a mouthful of delicious rocks, the taste and content of which were so scrumptious, but the methods for extracting that taste and simply understanding the work growing to be sometimes painful. It taught me the powerful and unappreciated method of acquiring entertainment- that the more work one puts into something, the more enjoyment and pleasure one can derive from it. A far cry from the instantaneous world I find myself in now, one where things like poetry, certain genres of music, and literature itself are starting to seem old hat in that they can’t be whittled down into an erudite 140 characters or single image to be double-tapped and liked. Back to the story though -the books, the poetry- from where I was to become quite portly with pizza and just as shy.

Reading poetry so much and so often started in me something that is hard for me to elucidate, but I’ll try. It’s not too often that something you see or experience changes the way you see and experience the world, but reading those books and sifting through all those lines of word had that effect on me, more profound than any other experience I’ve done- from wandering naked through nuclear fields in Japan, walking from Frankfurt to Paris, or attempting to live in the Seine. I started to see the world around me with a fragility akin to that of sheets and leaves of glass. Later, upon discovering the work of Sebald, Walser, Marker and Casares, my purview would change to seeing those previous flakes of glass start to become shattered. I was (and still am) an odd kid. Just as then, I’m a bit motivated by food, or its lack thereof, and I still occasionally fall in love with places and objects, like that bookstore and its innards, just as strongly as I do people, examples being either the Film Forum in New York (a second home to me), Alias Books East, Dashwood Books, The Strand, Mercer St. Books- on and on. I am a bit loose with my affections for places and things, but that doesn’t diminish the love I feel for them, it only makes it stronger for the reasons that there are, just as with the world, so many great things to take part in, so many great books and works to absorb that it can sometimes feel overwhelming. Anyway, I’ve gotten off onto a more pretentious tangent than I ever wanted or hoped for. This isn’t about my way of seeing, but how I came upon another’s: Alec Soth.

It was several years ago. I was to meet my friend Erika at a gallery somewhere in Chelsea. Biking across the bridge from my place in Borough Park, watching the sky turn from that last breath of sunset to night. With a bit of extra time until I was to meet her, I went on my usual round of the bookstores in the lower east side and the village. One by one they either closed or I had seen and explored enough until I came upon The Strand on 12th Street. I locked my bike up and headed inside, up the staircase and toward the southeast corner where the children’s books were, a section deserted at this hour, where I could sit down undisturbed in a selected nest of books I would bring to my seat to peruse at my leisure. There is something so quietly perfect about sitting down on the floor of a bookstore and leafing through a book and (if the book is good) slowly dissolving between its covers. I collected a few books and brought the stack back to the place I was to sit. At the time I was working as an archivist for an old Magnum photographer, a post I would unfortunately leave through a series of circumstances I cannot speak of at this moment. Given that entrance into that world- I was able to see and seek out imagery in a new light, much like the same way I was exposed to poetry; a good photobook started to make sense in a way that no other book had. An exercise in reduction or a monolithic tome- each photobook I came in contact with contained images that were like stanzas or entire poems themselves that bridged one after the other to another through a new language of both sequencing and editing that was startling and blinding in a way similar to how light from a river can strike you with reflections of an oval overhead sun. It was a remarkable discovery and one I can still remember fondly, fondling a book in my apartment late at night and suddenly being struck by this new way of seeing- but that is another tangent which I will go into at a later time down the road. This story, I must keep reminding myself, is about Alec Soth and if you’ll bear with me these tangential elucidations, he will arrive in the next paragraph.

I was in my nest with a stack of books, casually leafing through each one until I came to the bottom of the stack where a yellow book was with what seemed to be an obscene amount of text on its cover, but whose design was so entirely intriguing, that I had to pick it up. The book was From Here to There: Alec Soth's America. Leafing through it confused me at first; similar to the first time I went through Eggleston’s Los Alamos. What were these images and who was this person? And then, after a second time, a third time and another I realized that I was so thoroughly engrossed it was as if that aforementioned glass I had begun to see with poetry had shattered, and the poetry of this book, which (endearingly imperfect) had in it its own tangents of text, began to speak softly and quietly while simultaneously screaming. I walked downstairs, paid for the book, and biked away. I missed my meet-up with Erika and headed home where I would pour over the book again and again until I fell asleep.

And like all things simultaneously precious, fresh and new, you want to share them with the people you love in your life. And that is precisely what I did with From Here to There. So why is it that Alec Soth’s NIAGARA is the SHELF entry today instead of From Here to There? Well, I lent the book to a former lover, and after a series of events involving a secret husband, a proposal, a proposed trip to Spain to thwart said secret husband, and numerous other tangential strings which I wont go into here- the book was lost in our separation, left somewhere in her apartment in Chelsea. To this day, I don’t know what it says about my person that I seem to think of and miss the book more often than I do her.

Alas, that rambling introduction and long drawn out story of how I came upon Alec Soth and his book From Here to There seems more fitting a text to tie with his work NIAGARA in a way than any of his other works- the beginnings of my love with a place and the ending of my love with a person.

*     *     *

Superbly sequenced and tightly edited, NIAGARA is Alec Soth’s second major publication with Steidl after his award-winning work Sleeping by the Mississippi. A continuation of that work but also an evolution, it presents Soth working with a more heightened gaze. Famously created with an 8 X 10 view camera, the book straddles the Niagara Falls as another body of water serving as a template for a body of work. On both sides of the Falls’ border Soth finds persons, characters, objects, places and letters and strings them together in an edit and sequence that is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming in the ways one can recognize themselves in each image. Beautifully printed with a leatherette cover embossed on the back with a fragment of a letter so poignant it interrupts you with images of someone you once had and left- the book is a marvel. The last few pages, printed on a lighter, what almost feels to be a disposable sketch paper, outline in facsimile text and unused imagery the NIAGARA project in its entirety.

Well, that’s enough of a ramble which I presume could just have easily been summed up with this sentence: 
I love a love story, and no one seems to write them with imagery the way Alec Soth does. 

- Jason Jaworski
Los Angeles, CA

NIAGARA by Alec Soth - Available Here.

From Here to There: Alec Soth's America by Alec Soth - Available Here.


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