A a few years ago, Alec Soth, the great witness of American life, decided to retrace the route of the most famous funeral procession in the history of his country: the train journey that transported the 6-foot-4 corpse thumbs up from President Lincoln from Washington DC to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The steam procession has been seen by millions of Americans, including the poet Walt Whitman, who was prompted to write his elegy, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. Soth began his journey with a line from Whitman’s poem in his head – “And what will be the pictures that I will hang on the walls, To adorn the funeral home of the one I love?” – and a notion of “mourning the division in [contemporary] America”.
Soth made a name for himself as a photographer with Sleep near the Mississippi, his historic 2002 journey along the human margins of the legendary river. Very quickly, he found the controversial momentum of his Lincoln project too limited. He continued his journey but instead adopted another freer quote from Whitman: “From this hour on, I order myself untied from limits and imaginary lines, Go where I list …” He followed her eye rather than her head. .
The result is a book, A picture book, which associates freely around some of the themes of this original project. Most of Soth’s footage is taken of roadside quirks – a woman measuring “Michigan’s beefiest sycamore,” for example, or a stranded wedding party waiting for a bus. Connections and themes emerge. One is a feeling of people searching among the wild flowers of wasteland for something unknown. You are reminded that Whitman was a great butterfly hunter – there is a famous photograph of the poet with a moth on his finger (it later turned out to be made of paper). Soth’s moth on an orange segment is quite real, yet another surprised intruder among its footage, staring at you with a predatory warning eye.
A Pound of Pictures by Alec Soth is published by Mack. An accompanying exhibition takes place at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, from January 14 to February 26