Ten years ago, with Sleeping by the Mississippi, photographer Alec Soth established himself as a master of the 8×10 format; these days he’s known for posting “unselfies” on Instagram. Where others might see creative regression, I see an artist determined to find an effective use for photography in an era when, as he says, “a document is being made of just about everything all of the time.”
Lately Soth has been issuing “Dispatches” in the form of an irregular newspaper created with writer (and fellow Minnesotan) Brad Zellar. Together, they take road trips to distant states and report the stories of the people and the land. They work on their own deadline and produce a self-published broadsheet when they return. The papers are simple — black and white, flash-lit photographs of people and landscapes, accompanied by titles and often a brief text. In Jack. Downtown Dallas. 50th Anniversary of the J.F.K. assassination, we see a boy wearing a fedora and raincoat in front of a nondescript wall, avoiding eye contact. We learn that he was named after Jack Kennedy, and that his parents have taken him out of school to attend the memorial. In 88-year-old Bil (“My mother said she couldn’t pronounce the other L”). Dance N Swing. Sandusky, Ohio, we find a man dancing by himself with a toothy smile, frozen mid-stride, like a wax statue of an unfamiliar celebrity. These are vignettes of ordinary moments rendered extraordinarily.
The Dispatch model — writer and photographer record a strange and perhaps broken world — is not without precedent. It reminds me of Walker Evans’s and James Agee’s collaboration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, still one of the most resonant documents of the Great Depression; and makes me wonder how Robert Frank’s The Americans would have looked if Jack Kerouac had written more than the introduction. I see Soth and Zellar as modern-day folklorists, working in the vein of Alan Lomax, who traveled the world to record the songs and stories of everyday people — particularly cultures he felt were in danger of being lost to radio and television.
Like those earlier projects, Dispatch works because Soth and Zellar are outsiders. “I struggle when I know the words to a place by heart,” Soth told me. “So I’ve felt like I’ve done my best work in the U.S. — but not at home.” Understanding the limits of his project, he resists describing it as documentary:
I feel sort of presumptuous thinking that my photographs of poor people in Alabama are going to matter more than the pictures poor people are making of themselves in Alabama. But there’s no doubting that I’m inspired by the generation of documentarians like Lomax who were doing that kind of noble documentary work. It’s just that the world doesn’t function in the same way. I guess my photographs are a dialogue with that history of social engagement. I’m trying to figure out how I can connect with world, with people around me, in an environment that is very different than it was in the 1930s.
Like Lomax, Soth embraces new technologies and media. When he and Zellar are travelling, they post the day’s photographs and thoughts on Tumblr. All of this activity gives the feeling of news. But is interviewing and photographing a cake decorator, a bull rider and a recovering methamphetamine addict “news”?
“News forces you to go out into the world and encounter other people’s lives,” Soth says. In a society where it is increasingly common to stare at a phone in public, or hide behind headphones, any off-line interaction with a stranger can be interesting. Soth has often compared the experience of going on a photographic assignment to a band going on tour. You hone your craft, connect with strangers, try to gain new fans. “This is one of the great things about photography: it keeps forcing me to butt up against reality,” he says. “The actual experience of going into the world and meeting people wakes me up to the beautiful and horrifying realities of real life.”
The old-fashioned feel of Dispatch makes the project seem deceptively simple: travel to a state, talk to strangers, make pictures of their life on the day you meet. But each trip is preceded by months of research, and now that Soth shoots digitally, he’s generating more photographs than ever. Much of his work is editorial: picking which strangers to talk to, which cities to travel to, which photographs to include. The result is a newspaper in which every person, every fact and every landmark feels important. If you’ve picked up a “real” newspaper lately, that vitality can come as a shock. The people and places recorded here in gray-scale tones read as essential facts. If you tried to summarize this country and left out their stories, it would seem incomplete.