I’m so out of the photobook-reviewing game… Apologies in advance to Mr. Soth, for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration, and get ready for a few long-overdue, rambling, and internally inconsistent comments on A Pound of Pictures.
Alec Soth’s excellent YouTube series—the formerly fairly-regular one with the notecard titles—was a good friend in 2020. I value Soth’s voice and viewpoint, and found his monologues both informative and strangely comforting during that strangely normal-feeling time. More recently, Soth got busy promoting this book and my interest in photobooks, and photography-in-general, has waned a great deal,* and I haven’t watched a Soth video in months. It was great while it lasted, though, and maybe Soth and I will find our ways back to producing (Soth) and consuming (me) his great content again one day.
Anyway, most of my ideas about A Pound of Pictures comes from a half, probably mis-remembered Soth lecture on Eggleston’s Democratic Forest, and his later talk on his process for the book. Really, I should probably go back and watch those, refresh my memory and all, but… nah.
On one hand, A Pound of Pictures feels like something of a departure for Soth; on the other, it’s a strong return to his form and process. In my memory of it, A Pound of Pictures has a looser feel, more of, if not “snapshot” exactly, then little-d democratic feel, in the sense of Eggleston, maybe, which is something of a departure for Soth. In addition, the pace, overall, is somewhat more rambling than his earlier work, like driving down back roads in middle America sorta, or like sifting through a crate of random photographs you bought from someone on eBay or CraigsList (Soth) or scanning your dad’s or grandfather’s negatives and slides (me), or that’s how I remember it anyway.
At the same time, and in the same way, it’s much more a return to form, a return to the open/back road; back to finding interestingly normal-looking people with normally interesting backstories, making those sorta blank-faced, characteristically Soth-ian portraits everyone knows and loves; back to spotting nice “new topographies” or Robert Adams-insprired landscapes; back to the work for which Soth is well known. It all looks like Soth, as it should, and in ways that I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating sorta doesn’t, or doesn’t quite. And overall, it seems Soth found his way again, or maybe backtracked some, after the crisis-of-confidence that led to I Know How Furiously.., and if you don’t believe me or understand, Soth’s newer Gathered Leaves Annotated contains A Pound of Pictures, but makes no mention of I Know How Furiously…. Anyway.
The idea that became A Pound of Pictures started, as Soth explains over and over again, as an attempt to look for some unity in the United States, or at least explore the lack thereof. He set out to follow the path taken by the funeral train that carried President Lincoln’s body from Washington DC to Springfield, IL, a hundred-fifty-odd years ago. That project devolved or convolved or covaled into hunting and gathering vernacular photographs, and it’s probably all the better for it. Soth eBay’d, CraigsListed, and stumbled upon people with photographs to sell, and he bought them, pounds and pounds and pounds of them. Some of the experience of meeting the people and sifting through mountains of largely-discarded photographs is reproduced in the book, and the hardcover edition contains a handful of pictures reproduced from Soth’s collection.
A small note on these reproductions: the book is sort of subdivided into 5 sections with single sheets of end-paper bound into the book, and the hardcover comes with 5 pictures. In the flip through, you’ll note that I found the first picture on the first of those end-paper pages; the rest were all shoved together on the third or fourth endpaper. I don’t know why, but I sorta wanted them to be placed with purpose, to have some deep, mystical meaning or something (and, thinking again, maybe they were?). Of course, this is too much to ask: who would do the placing? Soth? an assistant? some intern at Mack? For hundreds or thousands of books? And how would the “five randomised replica vernacular photographs” be selected, ordered, etc. to provide some meaning? No, James, you’re not special and there’s no special meaning: it’s a product and you’re the consumer. That’s it. Full stop.
This is cynical, of course, but it’s not false. The work means something, for sure, and even if I don’t quite get it—and regular readers of this blog know I don’t—Soth’s work means a great deal to me and I “get it” however I get it, more or less. But Michael Mack is a publisher, and Mack Books is a corporation for profit. I’m sure they (and Soth) made some money off of the book, as they intended, what with it being an Alec Soth book and all. There’s not much more to it, really. And I digress… Apologies. A Pound of Pictures really is a decent Soth book, and I’m privileged to have a signed hardcover with the randomized reproductions shoved in.
Enough of that. Above, I claimed the work to be both a return to form and a departure from Soth’s earlier practice. For the return aspect, as I said, Soth got back on the road, back to his peripatetic practice, and it seems that Soth found himself again. But after looking again at the book, I’m not quite so sure about the departure side any more: the democratic aspect isn’t quite there, really. Sure, some of the pictures are a bit looser, maybe, than classic Soth might’ve allowed, but none of it rises to the level of Eggleston.** I think maybe he wanted to loosen up, but edited himself back into his Sothian corner. I sympathize, for sure, and know how hard it is to get out of your own way. And this isn’t a criticism, either, or if it is, it’s not one of Soth, and I really should re-examine books before I sit down to write a review…
Anyways, I liked A Pound of Pictures and think it’s the most Soth-like Alec Soth book to come out in a handful of years. Damned by faint praise? Maybe, and ymmv, but I’m a Soth fan and the book works for me.
Overall, A Pound of Pictures rates a solid 4 stars.
Mack printed a ton of these, and hardcovers, signed copies, and softcovers remain available direct from Mack and probably at various and sundry retailers worldwide. If you’re not following Soth on YouTube, and you have any interest in photobooks or photography, do yourself a favor and at least watch a few of his talks. He knows what he’s doing and knows what he’s talking about, and even if you don’t agree with him, his viewpoint is worth thinking about.
*I replaced the photobook obsession with music gear gas… I’m having fun not making much music with all the toys I’ve acquired with my photobook budget… smh.
**Eggleston’s Democratic Forest has been on a wishlist for a long time, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about…