In Pursuit of an MFA

Alec Soth's Songbook signing at Sean Kelly Gallery. (photo: Theresa Ortolani)
Alec Soth’s Songbook signing at Sean Kelly Gallery. (photo: Theresa Ortolani)

Twelve trudge 1.4 miles, post-blizzard, from Bryant Park to Chelsea. One of many stops, along the way to an MFA.

Joanna Lehan’s Survey of Contemporary Photography stormed Sean Kelly Gallery for Alec Soth’s exhibition, Songbook, on opening morning. Fortunate to have engaged in an impromptu conversation with the artist – I think he was empathetic to our cold shivering selves – we took the opportunity to discuss with him his thoughts on the evolving publication platforms, the relationship between image/text and the role of MFA programs.

At the Songbook signing the next day, I gave Alec a copy of my book Endurance, and he responded: “You’ve published a book, with another on the way? Why grad school?” Dumbfounded, I didn’t have an answer at the ready. His question led me to engage in a series of interviews with esteemed curators, gallerists, critics and artists – in the hope of gaining deeper insight. Perhaps, by week’s end, I shall have a better answer.

I’ll kick off this Monday morning with my essay: On Songbook

Alec Soth's Songbook signing at Sean Kelly Gallery. (photo: Theresa Ortolani)
Alec Soth’s Songbook signing at Sean Kelly Gallery. (photo: Theresa Ortolani)

On Songbook by Theresa Ortolani

The acquisition of language marks a child’s progression toward agency. One’s capacity to understand and use language provides us with the rudimentary tools necessary for survival within a community. The more nuanced and multiplicious one’s languages become, the more power one has the capacity to wield. But, even before words are formed, a child first learns to smile, laugh, cry, flirt – to satisfy basic needs. The infant is a performer. He sings for his meals of mother’s milk day and night, night or day.

It is this kind of lyricism that Soth seeks in the Songbook score. The essence of imagination. Desire at its core. He brings his subjects to the pages of Songbook, and printed large-scale, to the walls of the Sean Kelly, Fraenkel and Weinstein galleries, where the work is concurrently presented. Meanwhile, the viewer projects whatever he wishes onto the images. Pure delight, melancholy, irony, solitude. All readings are within bounds, as the story is shelved, and paradoxically allowed to unfold.

Soth, accompanied by writer-friend Brad Zeller, assumed the role of small town reporter. Together, and sometimes with a third, they entered communities, camps and festivals across the country, storytelling along the way. But, the exhibition’s press release tells us, “with Songbook, Soth has stripped photographs of their news context in order to highlight the longing for personal connection at their root.” Still, despite being photographed digitally, the images are printed in black and white, reminiscent of the pages of a newspaper, music score, or piano keys. Shorn of text and color, the images, removed from their original context, invite viewers to improvise their own stories.

During an impromptu conversation between the Bard-ICP MFA class of 2016 and Soth at the Sean Kelly Gallery, I ask him to comment on the relationship between image and text: “Brad Zeller has a very sophisticated understanding of photography. The way the text works with images; he’s great about not stepping on the images, and hopefully my pictures won’t step on his text…. I love trying to figure it out [the relationship between image and text], but I also love pictures on their own and leaving the mysteries wide open. And so this book was really about that; Songbook is just open-ended lyricism, where you can just bring whatever you bring to the pictures. In a lot of ways, I think I’m having my cake and eating it too, and you can do that with photography in some ways because it can work on different platforms.”

Much like the tension between individualism and the desire for unity that Songbook depicts, image and text also seek balance within our multitude of contemporary platforms of communication. “Texting” calls only for language – the written word – though at times, seeks the aid of emoticons to establish tone. Instagram begs for the absence of text, while Facebook is a dance between both image and text.

Rooted in tradition, Soth, a truly contemporary artist, is fluent on all platforms. As an accompaniment to the exhibit, Soth took over Sean Kelly’s Instagram account, posting pictures from his daily life using his phone. @SeanKellyNY, #SKNY

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” – John Berger 



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