Last Days of W. - Alec Soth

Last Days of W. by Alec Soth
Text by Darek Fortas

'The most advanced form of the contemporary consensual state is that which requires the generation of new situations of insecurity to enforce its governance' (Ranciere, 2010: 14).

'We have no intention, however, of making a fetish of democracy. It may well be true that our generation talks and thinks too much of democracy and too little of the values which it serves' (Stallabrass, 2007: 71).

Priscilla, Girl with Skeleton, Los Angeles © 2008 Alec Soth

In 1845 Karl Marx argued that capitalism, like previous socioeconomic systems, would inevitably produce internal tensions which would lead to its destruction. Just as capitalism replaced feudalism, he believed socialism would, in its turn replace capitalism, and lead to a stateless, classless society called 'pure communism'.

The key writers that influence the following essay – Walter Benjamin, Jacques Ranciere and Vilém Flusser – have as a common denominator been profoundly influenced by Marxist philosophy. Because of the failure in implementation of the ideas raised by Marx to form 'pure communism', this philosophical system constantly undergoes a process of adaptation and recalibration. As a related consequence, there is another strong connection between the writers mentioned above: the importance of the photographic image, especially through practices that 'play against the camera' which resist the overwhelming impact of capitalism and challenging power relations in the state.

First Baptist Church, Bemidji, Minnesota © 2008 Alec Soth

Photography is the result of combining several technical discoveries. Long before photography was officially developed, Aristotle described the pinhole camera in the 4th century BC. In 1826 French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce for the first time in the history of the medium produced a permanent, fixed photographic image. Later, Niépce in partnership with Louis Daguerre refined the existing process and on January 7, 1839 the invention of the daguerreotype – a positive process using silver on copper plate was announced.

For the first time in the process of pictorial reproduction, photography freed the hand of the most important artistic functions which henceforth devolved only upon the eye looking into a lens. Since 'the eye perceives more swiftly than the hand can draw' (Benjamin, 1931: 243), the process of pictorial reproduction was accelerated so enormously that it could keep pace with speech, but by 1900, technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art and thus to cause the most profound change in their impact upon the public; it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.

Benjamin argues that even at the expense of the aura, photography and cinema carry the potential to open up art to politicization, which will eventually reverse its total function as a ritual. What is more, Eduardo Cadava argues this structure was profoundly revised at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in Germany, where Fascist ideology turned the plurality of the content of the work of art into highly politicized art. The dominant ideology was then 'instituted and constituted in as a work of art' (Cadava, 1997: 45).

Detroit, Michigan © 2008 Alec Soth

One interesting and challenging extension of Benjamin's thesis regarding politicisation is presented by Jacques Ranciere in 'Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics', where he examines the political potential of an image and the artist's role in 'creating not only objects but a sensorium, a new partition of the perceptible' (Ranciere, 2010: 122). Images occupy a central position in the philosophical concept of dissensus proposed by Ranciere and at the same time, photographic practices that 'go against the grain'
constitute a balancing act in the process of power distribution in the state.

The author describes politics as being contrary to the 'natural order (…) pinning bodies down to a certain time and space, seeing and saying, engenders new subjects, new forms of collective enunciation' (Ranciere 2010: 10). He defines politics as 'cluster of perceptions and practices that shape this common world' (Ranciere, 2010: 152). What is inevitably connected to politics – aesthetics - is explained as a distribution of the sensible that configures our experience and defines our modes of perception. The world of aesthetics and politics is compared to the world of 'forms and actions' and is a key aspect of Ranciere's view, which lies in a re-examination of the significance of the notion of consensus and dissensus. According to Ranciere the consensual mode is associated with 'reality that has only one possible signification' (Ranciere, 2010: 144) and 'the process underlying today's continual shrinkage of political space' (Ranciere, 2010: 72). On the other hand, dissensus is defined as a set of practices which pronounce the importance of dispute over 'the whole process of fictionalisation that takes places between space, time, spoken and written words and visual forms' (Ranciere 2010: 87) .

Alternatively, Ranciere observes that consensus consists in the reduction of politics to the 'police' - the form of the state that acknowledges only the dominant ideology of the state. Consensual politics, instead of being 'the practice of power or the embodiment of collective wills and interests and the enactment of collective ideas' (Ranciere, 2010: 152) reduces the people as political subjects to a non-politicised population, and secondly, it transforms politics into the affair of professional politicians and government experts, that as a consequence marginalizes the participatory potential of the other groups which may have different interests and beliefs to the ones employed by the state.

Martie, Detroit, Michigan © 2008 Alec Soth

The argument regarding the politicisation of art raised originally by Walter Benjamin in 1936 in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' is extended by Vilém Flusser (2007) in 'Towards Philosophy of Photography', who points out that a breakthrough initiated in the relationship between human beings and the means of producing consumer goods during the Industrial Revolution which is of particular significance in the context of photographic practices. Flusser argues that since the camera is a tool that was invented to simulate the human eye and its functionality relies on the theory of optics, and its workings can be characterized as a 'constant function of numbers' that informs a photograph – it is appropriate to question the extent to which photographers are functionaries of the numerical system cameras incorporate in order to translate the outer world into images.

Flusser opens up another perspective from which we can view the photographic medium and raises the question: should the apparatus, besides photographer and subject, be included in the power equation? Going further, to what extent can a photograph be considered as a unique product, different from an apple or shoes? It is essential to draw a division between photographers who are just functionaries of the system, and image makers who, as he says 'play against the camera' (Flusser, 2007: 35).  The photographers manifest the realization of photography's hostility to the ideology and, similarly to the concept of dissensus pronounced by Jacques Ranciere, do not insist on the perfection of one point of view, but rather attempt to realize as many viewpoints as possible. Flusser raises the rhetorical question, 'how far have photographers succeeded in subordinating the cameras program to their own intentions?' (Flusser, 2007: 47).

The Last Days of W. (2008) published by Alec Soth - one of the most renowned contemporary American photographer - provides a particular opportunity to explore the potential of production of political message via the Rancierean concept of dissensus and interrogate the question of power distribution within one body of work.

An important aspect which has to be acknowledged is the fact that the images contained in 'The Last Days of W.' were accumulated by Soth over the course of eight years and were never considered as a one, coherent body of work until their final publication in 2008. Alec Soth is a successful artist whose breadth of work and constant output may not appear conspicuously political. His artistic practice which consists of making images and combining them together into a coherent sequence proposes a particular kind of political engagement.

Looking at artists such as Hamish Fulton, Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long, he became interested by the manner in which Conceptual artists used photography. At the same time, Soth became captivated by Joel Sternfeld's images of American vernacular landscape and found himself particularly drawn to the notion that 'the art [could be] the experience of moving through the world ' (Engberg, 2010: 40) and the function of the photograph as a residue of this act was a turning point in his thinking about process.

Soth's particular embrace of the American vernacular is tuned toward small-town curiosities, with intentional avoidance of major urban centers. 'The Last Days of W.' was self-published as a newsprint in 2008. It gathered together over eight years of his images shot in the United States and it encapsulated an unconventional examination of the Bush administration and its impact on everyday America. Soth's interest in the zine format had evolved out of his practice of producing maquettes and self-published versions of his books and thinking about other forms of dissemination.

'The Last Days of W.' was the first photobook released in 2008 by Soth's independent publishing company 'Little Brown Mushroom', a publication which has a regular A3 newsprint format. Walter Benjamin's notions of reproducibility and the process of distribution of the photographic medium fully unfold in this particular aspect of Soth's practice. Because of the fact that 'The Last Days of W.' was published in the one edition of 10 000 copies, it allows his work in this extremely fragile and rarefied art publication to reach a wider audience and function independently of the gallery context.

The Last Days of W. © 2008 Alec Soth

'The Last Days of W.' consists of three main sections: the prologue, the main body of the book and the epilogue. The prologue which includes a suggestive title cover introduces the viewer to what is being examined. The first image shows an unfinished interior staircase in the building of obscure function. The only way we can identify and authenticate the image is through the presence of the caption at the very end of the photobook situating this space in Buffalo, New York. The date of the photograph also remains obscure, only the publication date for the entire work – 2008 – provides any indication of a timeframe for this and every image. In the photograph, the wall of the building is made of glass, the left part of which shows cracks. The wall's glass fragments are visible on the ground beside the window. The strongest signifier of this first image is the presence of the unfinished staircase which was supposed to lead to the top of the building.

According to Nicholas Mirzeoff’s ideas about methodology which govern the production of meaning in the images, reading the cracked glass in the wall and its fragments laying carelessly on the floor, furnishes the frame with a strong feeling of incompleteness and rawness prompting the viewer to speculate on the original, envisioned function of this building. It also ignites the imagination to create probable scenerios which could answer the question of the broken glass and its fragments laying on the ground as well as the possibility of what can be situated at the end of the 'interrupted' staircase.

Buffallo, New York © 2008 Alec Soth

Soth's usage of the 8x10, large format camera involves considerable attention to the detail and formality of the composition. This particular photograph, despite its indexical nature and compositional simplicity introduces the viewer to the history related to the broken window, which can be seen as a result of an act of disorder and potential resistance towards the American establishment. Also, the unfinished staircase suggests the link between the title of the photobook which can be taken as the unfinished job of George W. Bush administration highlighting the spiritual emptiness and challenging the mythic nature of American democracy, the presidency and the values incorporated in neoliberalism.

'Dorm, Northfield, Minnesota' is the second image in the prologue which shows a dormitory in Minnesota. The main signifiers contained in the frame are the iron which is put on the ironing board on the desk, and the lamp which is under the television on a wall bracket. The television is broadcasting a press conference with Secretary of Defense (2001-2006) under President George W Bush – Donald Rumsfeld. This 'still life' arrangement draws upon the contrast between the affairs of professional politicians and government experts who administer the system and the everyday, while at the same time also it carries the promise of the Rancierean dissensual state, which pronounces 'the practice of power or the embodiment of collective wills and interests and the enactment of collective ideas' (Ranciere, 2010: 152). The most suggestive aspect of the frame - the television broadcasting Donald Rumsfeld above the ironing desk and the lamp - suggest the supremacy and significant influence of professional politics over the everyday existence of most ordinary American citizens.

In the image titled 'Walker, Minnesota', which ends the prologue of The Last Days of W., Soth further attempts to 'contain' the identity of United States. The last image in the prologue consists of a hunting trophy – the bison skull and antlers fixed to the wall with necklaces and fluffy black and pink dice hanging down from the antlers. The bison skulls and antlers draws upon the imaginary of the American South and its hunting culture. In addition, the presence in the frame of the plush dices may signify unpredictability and potentially dangerous consequences of irresponsible political decisions which are rooted in aspirations of political leaders to gain wealth and dominance – which may be symbolised by combining jewellery with a hunting trophy. This can also be read in the previous images. which make Soth's prologue to 'The Last Days if W.' a subtle and accurate metaphor of the United States under President
George W. Bush and also illustrate the great expressive potential of the photographic medium when employed in tandem with the visual intelligence of the author. Instead of reflecting an accurate political statement, this opens up the connotative possibilities of the narrative that suggest the possible intention of the image maker, who at the same time accentuates the importance of the viewer in the process of meaning production by placing him on the side of agency.

Nome, Alaska © 2008 Alec Soth

The main body of the photobook which starts from the image titled 'Josh, Joelton, Tennessee' where we see a young man dressed in army uniform sitting on a stool. The occasion at which this portrait was captured remains obscure, the caption provides the viewer only with the location . Josh is sitting passively on a stool projecting a scrutinizing look at the lens of the camera. His left arm is splayed out while his right one touches his pants. The longer lens which was applied to capture this image leaves the background out of focus and assigns the main importance of the frame to the human subject in army uniform.

When it comes to portrait photography executed with the 8x10 large format camera, it is interesting to analyse the whole photographic process, or as Julian Stallbrass calls it the 'silent theatre' (Stallabrass, 2007: 79) which goes on between the photographer and its
subject before the shutter is opened and rays of light hit the surface of the film. This portrait is a good example of Richard Brilliant’s insight on portraiture which 'may resemble a battlefield, documenting the struggle for dominance between the artist's
conception and the sitter's will' (Brilliant, 1991: 31). The subject looks fatigued and disarmed after waiting for Soth to perfect the composition on the ground screen of the large format camera. His facial expression suggests his patience as a portrait sitter is
running out. Details in the frame which capture the attention instantly are the peanut butter and four slices of bread which are located on Josh's pants which suggest Soth's attempt to intervene in an everyday ritual.

Ron, San Antonio, Texas © 2008 Alec Soth

According to Michael Fallon one aspect of the considerable success of Soth's work is situated in his particular ability to disarm his subjects and capture their essence, that is in part due to the camera he uses – an 8x10 view camera that is large and cumbersome. By the time he has the equipment set up, the subjects have usually gone 'into interior mode' and many forget that Soth is behind the cloth. As a result they are not aware of his gaze and they become less self-conscious, more open. So that while people normally
are guarded against each other and skeptical of encounters with strangers, hiding behind masks of general indifference, with Soth they appear to unmask themselves. In 'Ron, San Antonio, Texas' – the centre of the frame is occupied by the senior citizen who is holding and looking at a small scale imitation of a homing missile.

Similarly to the portrait of Josh mentioned above  there is an obvious separation between the main area of the image and the background which gradually fades away. It is Ron who is the main focal point of the frame, or rather his act of being fully immersed in the examination of the homing missile, which suggest that at this particular moment he was not aware of Soth capturing the image. When looking at the bigger version of this particular image, one notices that the subject looks as if he was questioning and distrusting the imitation of the missile he holds. This image is a continuation of Soth's photographic analogy towards the process of militarization in the United States.

Through the very minimal and simple aesthetic treatment apparent in 'The Last Days of W.', Soth manages to create a body of work in which images, in order to be to be successfully comprehended, require a new conceptual framework for analysis: in which the studium aspect of each photograph suppresses the punctum. As a result of that, the photographs contained in 'The Last Days of W.' require pensive examination, which gives the viewer the opportunity to be fully immersed in discovering the layers of micro-politics, which manifests itself within the boundary of the single frame, as well as through the process of the image juxtaposition which forms the main strength of Soth's practice.

Dorm, Northfield, Minnesota © 2008 Alec Soth

'The Last Days of W.' provides the viewer with deliberately juxtaposed, highly politicised images which provide a cultural source for the future understanding of this very troubled time at the very beginning of the twenty first century in the United States of America.

What is carried specifically by the The Last Days of W. is an image of the United States which

[...] offers a poetic look at the country George W. Bush leaves behind, casts an unflinching eye over a landscape of economic and spiritual poverty [...] and presents some intensely uncomfortable juxtapositions of objects, people and places. Shot in Minnesota and across the United States, the works represent a panoramic look at a country exhausted by its catastrophic leadership. Though Soths pictures are not ideological in the campaigning, party-line sense of the word, he is entirely justified in claiming for them a sociopolitical gravity. (Schmelzer, 2009)

Josh,  Joelton, Tennessee © 2008 Alec Soth

The political resonance of 'The Last Days of W.' gains much by situating the publication in the context of the aftermath of September 11. Contained within this publication are images which show the internal incompleteness of the USA, the political weakness of its citizens, as well as uncomfortable scenes containing religious symbols and images that reveal disbelief in the face of the increasing importance of self-defense and the role of the army. In doing so, Soth manages to produce a body of work that successfully challenges the mythic nature of American democracy, the presidency and the values incorporated in neoliberalism.

Each image in 'The Last Days of W.' is a container of signifying elements which do not propose any one single reading. The photobook constitutes a very strong political statement about the United States of America at the beginning of the twenty first century, and Soth whether intentionally or not, becomes actively engaged against 'the process underlying today's continual shrinkage of political space' (Ranciere, 2010: 72).

What was defined by Michel Foucault in 'Of Other Spaces' as an independent spatial entity or heterotopia can be elevated to the photobook's singular status in the context of 'The Last Days of W.', as it preserves a space which is described by Jacques Ranciere as 'the other' and becomes the constitution of the new, visible and thinkable. The Last Days of W. in these circumstances becomes a spatial object of dissensual activity inserted in the everyday realm and provides the means for Soth's 'faithfulness to the law of Otherness' (Ranciere, 2010: 74) against the monopoly of reality offered by the state.

Walker, Minnesota © 2008 Alec Soth

Alec Soth (born 1969, Minneapolis, Minnesota) is an American photographer notable for "large-scale American projects" featuring the midwestern United States. His photography has a cinematic feel with elements of folklore that hint at a story behind the image. New York Times art critic Hilarie M. Sheets wrote that he has made a "photographic career out of finding chemistry with strangers" and photographs "loners and dreamers". His work tends to focus on the "off-beat, hauntingly banal images of modern America" according to The Guardian art critic Hannah Booth. His work has been compared to photographers such as Walker Evans and Stephen Shore.


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