After a couple of versions of my Body of Work project that focused exclusively on lost gloves, I agreed with the advice of my tutor that I should widen out my subject matter.
[Side note: for anyone reading this not familiar with the underlying theme of my current practice, I’m aiming to use photography to evoke the feeling of forgetting. As odd as it may sound, I want my photographs to look like forgetting. I appreciate that there is something slightly synesthesic about that idea, but there you go. That’s how my mind works.]
Anyway, once I’d decided to broaden out my subject matter beyond lost objects I looked back at some photobooks I’ve had for a while with a new interest in how other photographers have photographed scenes that I felt had a similar mood. Not long ago I wrote about William Eggleston’s Democratic Forest, which I still think might be the biggest inspiration on the turn my work is taking.
One of the other photographers that sprang to mind was Alec Soth. By happy coincidence, I was having an email conversation with another student (hi Michael!) who raised the idea of an intermittent visual ‘motif’ running through a body of work, and used Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi as his example.
Some of the images in SbtM feel like they are not necessarily relevant to my own work; some of his most famous and memorable images in the series are portraits, and my work is intentionally devoid of people. There is however still much in the series that speaks to me and my current practice.
A closer analysis of some photographs
Looking at the images that resonated most with me, I see some visual aspects and artistic decisions/strategies coming through. It’s not that I intend to emulate them, more that I can see a kind of ‘visual vocabulary’ emerge that may help my thought process in shooting and editing.
Interestingly fellow student Michael pointed out the recurring crucifix motif, while my prominent memory of the exhibition/book was of beds making appearances throughout the series. Turns out we were both right, which tells me that it’s possible to embed more than one recurrent motif in a body of work, and that different people will notice and remember different things. I also noted the repeated use of chairs, in particular chairs glimpsed through open doorways. This suggested a simultaneous curiosity and respect for privacy that I found quite endearing.
Simplified colour palettes
Many of the most visually arresting images had an almost brutally simplistic colour palette. This made them look somewhat visually ‘uncanny’, as such colour tone convergence tends not to be so prevalent in most everyday scenes.
An incongruous detail
For me, some of Soth’s best pictures have something in them that rewards the second viewing, a detail that I wouldn’t always go as far as to call a punctum but is definitely something that gives the image an additional layer of meaning. The broken leg of Christ on the crucifix, the priest’s vestments draped over a chair, the owl on the grave, the flags in the forest meeting spot.
Conjuring the right mood
A lot of the images in SbtM capture the kind of mood I am seeking: a kind of melancholic abandonment or emptiness, scenes and buildings left to run to ruin. I see a strong sense of ‘forgotten-ness’ in many of the photographs. Sometimes it’s by means of negative space, other times it’s via the degradation of the buildings or objects in the scene.
As with the Eggleston inspiration, I don’t see myself trying to emulate the visual style so much as take away a couple of pointers. The main things for me are the simple colour palettes and the still melancholy of some of the scenes. The latter seems to me to be a function of both the choice of subject matter (scene) and specific compositional decisions. Simple, but by no means easy…!
Soth, A. (2017) Sleeping by the Mississippi (4th edition). London: MACK