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Alec Soth's 'Niagara' Photographs Illuminate Life's Intersections

Alec Soth is drawn to waters with a mythic dimension. In his remarkable debut book, he took photographs along the Mississippi, from Minneapolis, where he lives and works, down to the Delta. In his new monograph, he photographs Niagara -- the falls and the surrounding towns.

There are four images in "Niagara" that reveal the broad vista of the cascading falls in all their vividly colored splendor. Yet, as in "Sleeping By the Mississippi" (2004), the natural landscape isn't at the heart of Soth's art. It's what we make of these landscapes that matters most to him, in revealing intersections of nature and society, people and their places. In his earlier book, he gave memorable shape to the bed frame embedded in lush riverside vegetation in Louisiana or to the tattered houseboat by the shore in Ste. Genevieve, Mo. He is an adept portraitist too, as in his image of the eccentric, strangely charming man in wool hood and paint-punctuated jumpsuit holding a model scale airplane in each hand.

In "Niagara," the boundaries of his territory are smaller but the power of the sites just as palpable. The set of motel doors in the picture opposite the title pages evokes Niagara's 19th-century identity as a magnet for honeymooners. But the cheap architecture of "The Voyageur" suggests the decline from glamorous resort to impoverished town.

Its less-than-glamorous present recurs in "Falls Manor" and "Bonanza Motel," with their stark architecture. But one of the affecting aspects of Soth's series is the way beauty seeps into ordinary scenes, like his view of a another mundane motel ("A-1 Motel") under a twilight sky with thick clouds, mirrored in a deeper blue in its glassy swimming pool.

The couples he pictures -- whether nude or clothed -- look subtly troubled, as if they know that Niagara isn't quite the right place to be romantic. Those photographed individually look just as worrisome. Soth has an evident skill for talking strangers into letting him make a portrait. Some of those he met gave or loaned him handwritten love letters, and these have become haunting elements in his sequence of pages.

Novelist and short-story writer Richard Ford contributes a riveting little personal essay to "Niagara," which isn't about Soth's pictures but is about Niagara. Philip Brookman, a former curator at Balboa Park's Centro Cultural de la Raza and senior curator of photography at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, offers up a concise essay on Soth's project.

The photographer's notes about his pictures are nearly as engaging as the images themselves. Among these brief writings is a quotation from Vladimir Nabokov's "Lectures on Literature," and it cuts to the core of Soth's art: "Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies."


Alec Soth

Steidl/Distributed Art Publishers, 104 pages, $60

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