Thursday, August 13, 2009
Alec Soth at the High, and memories of a monastery
Art traditionally archetypalizes. This is so even in the astonishing documentary photographs of the civil rights movement that were the chief feature of last year’s “Road to Freedom” exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum: somehow, in the midst of massive and obviously unrehearsed moments of violence against demonstrators, more than one photographer captured pictorial compositions so energetic yet perfectly balanced that Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson would be hard pressed to replicate them.
The twelve photos of Alec Soth’s “Black Line of Woods,” the newest in the High Museum’s “Picturing the South” commissions and the nucleus of what has now become Soth’s larger project, are somewhere in between the documentarians’ decisive moments and the careful set-ups of the Crewdson generation. Soth has sought out the isolates, the marginal by choice, the sorts of characters who might have shown up in a slightly less Gothic version of the Flannery O’Connor stories from one of which the title of this exhibition is taken. He has chosen the poses and the natural lighting carefully; one detail shot of an otherwise unaltered portion of an improvised encampment was clearly made when the shadows were less extreme.
Soth has gone out of his way to conceal even his consciously chosen social references, so far as titles go. “Murphy, North Carolina,” 2006, is a photograph of an unremarkable building and van in late sunlight, but the site in Murphy is the one where Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph was apprehended after a long and fruitless search for him in the deep woods.
Soth states in “Five Questions for Alec Soth” on the High’s website that “I wanted to investigate this romantic notion of escape, but I didn't want it overly politicized. Rudolph represented one extreme version of this escape fantasy.... I also wanted to look at more spiritual versions of escape. So, in northwest Georgia I visited a monastery. Elsewhere I photographed hermits whose intentions were neither political nor spiritual—folks who just wanted to get away.”
The most memorable apparent hermit of the series is a grey-bearded gentleman who appears surrounded by his fruit-filled tomato vines in “S. J., Nubbin Creek, Alabama,” 2007.
Soth aestheticizes his marginal places and sometimes renders them symbolic, as with the fragile-seeming clean, well-lighted place overshadowed by a literal black line of woods in the photograph that introduces the sequence, or the single light bulb hanging over what looks like a blanket or a sleeping pallet in an otherwise virgin-seeming woodland. Like the disco ball visually echoed by a basketball in “Enchanted Forest, Texas,” 2006, that light bulb implies a story that is left utterly untold.
In the case of the Eric Rudolph-related convenience store, it is the untold story that lends romance and/or a sinister air to the image; in the case of the lights in darkness, it is the image that conjures up an imagined narrative. And that tale may well be more wonderful than the real back story.
“F. P., Resaca, Georgia,” 2006, the photo above (©Alec Soth and courtesy of the High Museum of Art), is the quintessential meeting of Soth-imposed romanticism and a back story that is perhaps even more wonderful than the image.
F. P., whoever he may be, is an Orthodox monk from the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension, which has maintained a legitimate affiliation with one Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction or another since its foundation by, I believe, a group of converts to Orthodoxy. (Many would-be Orthodox outfits have ended up being, ironically enough, jurisdictionally heterodox, but not this monastery.)
The monastery in Resaca is situated in a hilltop house from the 1950s surrounded by woodlands. It first gained national prominence as the house of the computer programmer monks, who realized that at the time of their 1977 arrival, some of them had computer skills and equipment that their neighbors did not. They earned income by processing accounts for local businesses.
A visit to the website of this monastery, of which I had seldom thought since visiting it decades ago, reveals that the monks are as tech-savvy and concerned with traditional spirituality as they ever were, though by now there must have been some degree of generational turnover. Apparently Soth established a particular rapport with the monk who is most practiced at photography, who helped him do the setup for the photo of the robed monk alone in the line of woods. The monastery’s darkroom facilities are reportedly impeccable, regardless of the monastery’s current digital focus.
The once much-noticed miracle-working icon of the Virgin continues to weep tears of fragrant myrrh, but no longer as frequently as it did in the days when it was lent to nearby congregations seeking intercession.