I preordered Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves Annotated within seconds of the Mack announcement hitting my Inbox. It was one of the last, if not the last buy-it-now, impulse, knee-jerk photobook purchases of my crazed, fomo-driven, debt-creating photobook collecting hobby (now thankfully on hiatus, if not gone forever). What was I afraid of missing out on? Read on to find out…
Gathered Leaves Annotated brings together 5 of Soth’s major works: Sleeping By the Mississippi; Niagara; Broken Manual (unobtanium); Songbook (acquired long before I started unboxing and reviewing photobooks); and A Pound of Pictures (review forthcoming). The new volume includes reproductions of every page of the earlier books, including the front and back cover, even the end papers, with some outtakes and a bit of commentary from Soth, as well as some of the Brad Zellar’s text from the LBM Dispatch newspapers he and Soth made in the 2000s. To save size and weight, Mack printed the book on newsprint-weight paper, which is probably my only real complaint.
I’m something of a Soth fan and have almost all of his major books, plus some zines and one-offs and various bits, and I was already in NO MORE PHOTOBOOKS mode, but Gathered Leaves Annotated (hereafter, GLA) includes Broken Manual, which I never expect to see in book form. Maybe Mack will reprint it, as they did for Sleeping… and Niagara, though I recall (perhaps incorrectly) Soth saying Broken Manual represented something he didn’t want to remember and that he had no plans to reprint it. Or something to that effect. Anyway: seeing the pictures from Broken Manual, in order, albeit muted slightly by the cheap-feeling paper, and with a bit of commentary thrown in for good measure was, for me, worth the price of admission. As always, ymmv.
Becoming Photography left a nice comment on the unboxing video that nicely mirrors my experience of and with the book, and that sorta encapsulates my whole review: “I like the idea of presenting these 5 projects connected by a loose thread with annotations – but also was expecting more depth, considering how much Alec Soth already shared on these works.” At time of writing, the channel has a mere 13 subscribers* and it’s a shame: they’re doing something quite similar to my channel, albeit without the silly unboxing bit. If you’re into photobooks, do yourself a favor: like and subscribe, as they say.
Anyway, Becoming Photography made a point that is worth examining, if only in brief: 5 projects, connected by a loose thread. What is this thread that connects, runs through, Sleeping by the Mississippi, Niagara, Broken Manual, Songbook, and A Pound of Pictures, and that leaves out, rather conspicuously, I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating? I think it’s a thread of personal examination, of Soth looking into himself and finding things in the world that help expose or unearth whatever he’s struggling with at the time. Soth reported burning out after Broken Manual and Songbook, and I Know… was an attempt to reconnect with people, sort of a look outward that does seem somewhat different, somehow, than the other books.
Now, a better reviewer would go into more detail, or provide some sort of evidence, or really actually try to say something. Apologies, and regular readers know that I rarely go into anything too deeply. Soth is rather chatty about his work, and you can find videos and interviews and things all over about the various works. In the original publisher’s blurb at Mack.com, Soth had this to say about I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating:
“After the publication of my last book about social life in America, Songbook, and a retrospective of my four, large scale American projects, Gathered Leaves, I went through a long period of rethinking my creative process. For over a year I stopped traveling and photographing people. I barely took any pictures at all.
When I returned to photography, I wanted to strip the medium down to its primary elements. Rather than trying to make some sort of epic narrative about America, I wanted to simply spend time looking at other people and, hopefully, briefly glimpse their interior life.
In order to try and access these lives, I made all of the photographs in interior spaces. While these rooms often exist in far-flung places, it’s only to emphasize that these pictures aren’t about any place in particular. Whether a picture is made in Odessa or Minneapolis, my goal was the same: to simply spend time in the presence of another beating heart.”Soth, Alec. Publisher’s blurb for I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating. Retrieved from https://mackbooks.co.uk/products/i-know-how-furiously-your-heart-is-beating-br-alec-soth 8/1/2022
So I Know… really was something different than the first 4 major projects, and I guess the most recent project, A Pound of Pictures, is a return to the earlier mode of working? :shrugs. At the very least, it’s a return to landscape and more anonymous figures. And I’ll leave any further thoughts for my forthcoming review of that book.
Now. I own, appreciate, and regularly go back to 4 of the 5 books included, and so appreciate that they’re all in one volume now. I missed out on, or purposefully skipped, the original Gathered Leaves boxed set of minibooks and postcards (but did acquire the postcards in Soth’s Gathered Leaves grab bag thing some years ago). For one thing, the original was rather expensive; and for another, the mini-books just didn’t seem that attractive. I acquired Songbook and I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating and now Gathered Leaves Annotated new, and preordered signed reprints of Sleeping by the Mississippi and Niagara as soon as they were announced. I like to be able to really fall into the photographs, get in close and really see them, and the detail available in mini book format isn’t conducive to my preferred way of viewing photographic projects. Gathered Leaves Annotated presents the photographs at maybe 75% of the original book size, allowing for close viewing, though the paper stock limits detail a bit. And, again, ymmv.
I’m not knocking the format, though. Given the breath and quantity of material in Gathered Leaves Annotated, a thicker paper stock would’ve made for a thick, heavy, and excruciatingly expensive book. Soth’s reprints go for $75 or more, first editions are hundreds, and this new book, at $60, is sorta cheap in comparison. It’s enough that the slipcover unfolds to become a big poster, a map with pins stuck in it of the rough locations where Soth made the photographs in the book, I think. (It’s interesting, albeit not surprising, to note that Sleeping by the Mississippi contains pictures made nowhere near the great river…) Someone else might pin the poster to a wall and study or admire it. I’m not that someone, and so I’ll leave it carefully folded around the cover and gently slip the book into the shelf alongside other parts of my Soth collection, to be pulled out and carefully enjoyed at rare occasions when I’m not studying books in preparation for a review (or avoiding photography and photobooks altogether, as I’ve been more or less doing since February or March of this year (2022).)**
All in all Gathered Leaves Annotated is a great way to get into Soth’s work, especially for the uninitiated, and for those who missed out on first editions (or the reprints) when they were new and sorta affordable-ish. The paper stock is the only let down, really, and Mack did a great job making the photographs as legible and colorful as possible given the limitations of the paper.
Overall, I rate Gathered Leaves Annotated a solid and recommended 4 stars.
At time of writing, signed and unsigned versions of the book are available direct from Mack, and unsigned copies can be found at various online retailers. If you’re a Soth fan, it’s mostly a no-brainer, imo, and if you’re unfamiliar with his work, it’s the gateway. Good stuff.
*It had 12 when I visited… I subscribed, and then it was 13.
**I’ve largely lost interest in photography and photobooks. I have maybe a dozen rolls of film in need of developing; I have hundreds of photobooks awaiting review. I just really have no interest. I’ve been playing with music lately and won’t bore you with that, yet. Apologies. I expect I’ll get back into photo at some point, if only just enough to clear out my backlog. I snagged all of my Dad’s negatives, and inherited all of my Granddad’s. It might be nice to do something with all that, and alongside my own back catalog. Anyway. Apologies to regular readers who have missed me. If anyone has, they haven’t mentioned it.