Alec Soth: NIAGARA

About the size, heft and texture of a family album, Alec Soth’s NIAGARA confronts one at first not with baby photos or prom snaps or wedding portraits, but with a powerful written meditation, courtesy of Richard Ford, that touches on travel, transformation and the spirit-rattling notions of identity and coming of age as experienced through image, mystery and iconic geographies like Niagara Falls. Primed appropriately with self-doubt and narrative wonder, it’s then time to enter Soth’s portrait of human love, dreams and illusion against the backdrop of the Falls. Soth levels his chunky 8×10 view camera on the expected wedding and honeymoon related hoopla, as well the less obvious-motel exteriors under hazy skies and nighttime lights; a single whiskey glass, mostly drained; an inexplicable and sad queue of tiny row houses. His most evocative work, though, comes in pairing portraits of Niagara couples – young lovers caught in a landscape of Lynchian noir or established couples nude, obese and comfortable across carpet and cheap sofa upholstery – with high-powered images of hand-scrawled notes expressing love, frustration, the allure of Gene Simmons. The ending, with an essay by Philip Brookman, and an arty sprawl of notes by Soth himself, feels heavy-handed at first, but in the end it’s an elegant marriage; there’s not a word of text in the book that doesn’t serve to amplify and engage an immersive and compelling documentary project. —Zane Fischer, PhotoEye