In the run up to Alec Soth’s latest book (I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating in March 2019), Mack were kind enough to reprint his earlier works. Niagara is one of those reprints.
I’m something of a fan of Soth’s work. I came to it late, as with everything else, and sort of only because I thought I was supposed to, or saw that many other people were already fans, and so thought I should be too. This lateness meant that I missed out on the first run of most of Soth’s work (everything before From Here to There, a catalog from 2010, and 2015’s Songbook), and so I’m thankful that Mack decided to reprint them and open the works up to a larger audience.
Niagara is a sort of sad collection of photographs. There’s a sense of hope and wonder in it, but it’s faded, fading, as diffuse as the clouds of mist that blow away from the falls. Back before I was born, and maybe continuing through the mid 1980s, Niagara Falls was the place to elope. The picturesque falls, the roar, the strangely romantic notion of going over the falls in a barrel, all somehow gave a sense of promise or something, I guess.
Other place have this similar, jaded air: think the Poconos, probably an even more obvious honeymoon spot for people of a certain age/generation. Also, to a lesser extent, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where my mother lives, though Eureka has somehow persisted, diversified, moved from honeymoon get away to Baptist Revival, to Biker Heaven. By the time Soth got to Niagara to make these photographs, the hotels and motels looked dingy. Sic transit gloria and all that.
You probably know some of the pictures from Niagara. The heart/swan shaped towels on the motel bedspread; the young woman in a yellow Jamaica t-shirt, standing with a baby in a dingy parking lot; maybe the rearing, angry looking, scary horsey statue in a weedy plot out front of a dingy motel. They’ve made their way into the history books, more or less, and with good-enough reason. Other photographs in the series tell the whole story: young love, excitement, rush, then suddenly over the falls and crashing to the bottom.
Interspersed throughout are love letters and notes Soth collected from people as he drove in circles around the falls. Teenage love letters in curly script become laundry lists of complaints and tear-jerking please to come home. All in all, it’s one of the more obvious (but not too obvious) and well done narrative photobooks I’ve seen, up there with some of Paul Graham‘s work.
The end of this edition (and maybe the original too?) feature several pages of outtakes and Soth’s notes on the making of Niagara. These are particularly interesting to me, they add something, place the making of this art book in the real world with real people, remove some of the mystique from it. Soth is regularly questioned by the police, regularly seen photographing teenagers with a view camera and other highly questionable activities. As someone who’s been chased by security for photographing with a hand camera, I feel some affinity with Mr. Soth, some sort of kinship… I know it’s false, but it’s still there.
Essays by Richard Ford and Philip Brookman open and close the work, respectively, and give some background and set the stage for Niagara, much better than I’ve done here, but then this review is free, and their essays require purchase of the book… ymmv.
Overall, Niagara rates 4.5 stars. It’s a great book.
Thanks again to Mack for convincing Soth to release some very large, near-enough to open editions of his early, long out of print, works, and for producing somewhat larger editions of his more recent publications.* $50 for a reprint is far better for someone of my means than $500+ for a first edition. You can order a copy direct from Mack and at many other booksellers worldwide, perhaps even for less than $50.
*At some future point, expect a review of his most recent I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating.