I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating is Alec Soth‘s first book since a self-imposed “why am I doing this?” hiatus, and while it’s all very Sothian, it’s also different somehow from his previous work, more personal, more intimate… but let me share the unboxing video before I get to far into it…
If you read any of the press around the book, you know all about Soth’s withdrawal from photography. It was all over everything, and there’s no need for me to go into it. Most of what’s been written comes from an interview between Hanya Yanagihara and Soth that appears at the back of the book. The Guardian has a nice review/overview, as does LensCulture.
In short, at some point after Broken Manual, the LBM Dispatch, and Songbook, Soth had an epiphany while meditating in Helsinki and came to recognize a sort of distance or separation between him (as the famous art photographer Alec Soth) and his subjects (the guy with the model airplane, those young couples in Niagara, the guy dancing alone in a church basement, etc… you know the pictures). He felt like a predator and put his camera down for awhile to think about how to limit this distance, how to represent the connectedness of everything that he felt while meditating next to that lake in Helsinki.
I have this feeling, a dirty sort of feeling, like I want to be flippant or dismissive or something of Mr. Soth’s experience by that lake and subsequent (now-resolved) crisis. I don’t like it, and don’t really believe it. I sympathize with Soth; I empathize in some sense: I’ve faced (and face) similar crises, but I’m not a famous anything and don’t make money off of my art production or renown (or crises), and nobody cares one tot about my crises.
That’s probably it, really. (“Stupid touchy feely stuff,” he grumbles to himself… A single tear rolls down his cheek.)
But I get it, really. Really and truly I do. More or less.
In the 500th episode of “The Candid Frame” Joel Meyerowitz talks about this predatory nature of photography a bit. Starting about minute 31, maybe, Meyerowitz talks about the difference between his way of working (discussed for the first 20 minutes or so) and Avedon’s. Apparently, for his In the American West series, Avedon had some scouts out in El Paso or Laredo or wherever. These scouts would shoot polaroids of people they saw out and about, FedEx the pictures to Avedon. He would make some selections, FedEx the pictures back, and the scouts would hold the people for him, put them up in hotels or whatever. When they had enough people gathered up, Avedon would fly out with his crew, and he’d shoot 70, 80, 90 sheets of 8×10 of the people in front of a big sheet of seamless, looking for that shot.
Meyerowitz worked with his 8×10 on the street, used the camera as a sort of prop to get people interested, and then he’d maybe pose them, move them here or there, focus on the ground glass, then step out from under the cloth and engage with the subjects, talk to them, joke or whatever, and wait for that one shot. That one picture that would capture them, their secret, their soul, whatever.
Now, I think Soth probably worked more like Meyerowitz. I doubt he had a crew of scouts, and doubt he took 80 or 90 pictures. And even though he engaged with people, got to know them, etc., much like Meyerowitz, he still felt predatory.
And so he put his camera away until he found some other way of working.
So for I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating, Soth asked for volunteers, sent out through his network of contacts. He hung out with his subjects, played games, chatted, whatever. Sometimes he would then make a portrait; sometimes he’d shoot their bookshelf or birdcage or a view out the window. And these pictures somehow capture more of an intimate view of the subjects than his pictures in Niagara or Songbook.
A picture of Nancy Rexroth, lying on her side in bed. Her left eye, part of her arm, and the cat peering over her shoulder are in sharp focus; everything else has some blur. It’s a strange sort of portrait. It breathes somehow. Nancy and her cat are alive and present, right there on the page.
A portrait of Galina, gazing at herself in a three-way vanity mirror, three pictures of herself as a younger woman propped up against it, appraising her current self against the younger person that she once was. (I think I recognize the young woman, maybe from a 60s or 70s Bond film or something, but some limited research failed to return anything.)
Several portraits were shot through windows, plants, bookshelves, thereby really placing the person in their physical (and mental? emotional?) space. Additionally, the titles of the photographs identify people by their first names—Nancy, Cincinnati.; Galina, Odessa.—and identifies most interior spaces (and views out of windows) by the person (or people) who live in the space: Ute’s Books, Odessa.; Zibby’s Kitchen, New Orleans—adding another layer of intimacy to the encounter between Soth and his subjects.
I don’t have Sleeping By the Mississippi or Broken Manual, but I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating is quite different from Songbook or Niagara. When I first flipped through it, I wasn’t really sure about it, but now, after some time with it, I really appreciate this new approach and these photographs.
There’s just something about this touchy-feely stuff that appeals to the better, cleaner me, and I like that me better than the selfish, dirty me. So, overall, I rate I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating 4.5 stars.
Thanks partly to Mack and their desire to push as many units as possible, I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating is still available all over the place, so pick up a copy if you’re interested. Unlike Broken Manual, which was printed in a very limited run and hasn’t seen a proper reissue, this new work received wide publication. While that possibly limits some of the value for collectors, it’s good for those of us who just the photography and want to study the physical books, so if you’re one of those, then snag one of these.