When is a photography book like karaoke night? When it’s Alec Soth’s collection Songbook. The book consists of black and white images originally made as part of the LBM Dispatch, “an irregularly published newspaper” made by the photographer in collaboration with writer Brad Zellar and distributed by Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom publishing imprint. As Soth notes in the acknowledgements, Zellar’s words are a strong presence in the book, but a reader coming to Songbook without any knowledge of the Dispatch will fill in their own lyrics.

Which is where the karaoke part comes in. Selected lyrics are provided in epigrammatic excerpts from Cole Porter and other great songsmiths, and these occasionally wistful lyrics are in stark counterpoint to subjects that often seem to have clouds hanging over their heads. A portrait of beauty pageant contestants with their whole lives in front of them is not far from the image of a weary man walking alone by the roadside. In the Dispatch project, these photos were frequently accompanied by quotes from their subjects, with some context provided in essays by Zellar. But removed from that context, the photos seem even lonelier than they did when originally published.

The book’s first image is of a gray-haired man smiling at the camera and dancing with an imaginary partner in what looks like a nondescript warehouse. The photo was first published in a Dispatch that focused on Ohio, and while the index at the back of the book simply identifies the photo as of “Bil. Sandusky, Ohio,” its first appearance included Bil’s backstory. The suave 88-year old dancer told Zellar, “One night in the late ‘40s, I went out to see a band and this girl came over and asked me to dance. I told her I didn’t know how, and she handed me a card for an Arthur Murray studio. I stopped into the place the next week, took my first dance steps at the age of 28, and have been dancing ever since.” With that context, this photo is a charming portrait of a gracefully aging smoothie, but without it, you see the perhaps sad spectacle of a man dancing with an imaginary partner.

Soth and Zellar’s original project took them across America, their journey partly inspired by the catalogue of “grotesques” in Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio. Songbooklikewise tells a story of American alienation, Soth editing this body of work to tell an even darker story than in the dispatches. A few pages after Bill appears in the Ohio issue, there’s a wonderful image of karaoke night at a Moose Lodge in Clyde, Ohio (Anderson’s model for Winesburg). But Songbook doesn’t offer such levity.

Zellar wrote in the Ohio dispatch that Bil’s autumnal joy may be the exception in America. “Since early winter we had been talking and thinking about community and people’s search for real-world connection in a country where loneliness seems increasingly to be an epidemic more corrosive than the popular culture which fuels it.” But he also noted, suspicious of their own experimental design, “were we, in fact, looking for what we expected to find? … we were not finding much joy in the heart of the country.” But in the same essay, Zellar writes that they did find a connection. After the pair were challenged to a game of tabletop shuffleboard (which they lost, but just barely), Zellar applied to become a member of Moose Lodge 393, and was approved.

Since his first monograph, Sleeping by the Mississippi (2002), Soth has travelled deep into America in search of subjects, who are often downtrodden and forgotten but always observed with compassion. Songbook is Soth’s 21st century Winesburg, a beautiful portrayal of a nation’s loneliness and isolation, designed as a handsome “songbook” without songs. But as Soth and Zellar demonstrated in their Dispatch project, there are plenty of voices and songs behind the scenes. If you look anywhere in America you will find the alienation on view here. But if you look for it, in America as well as within these pages, you will also find community and connection, every voice singing their own song, melancholy or hopeful.

Editor’s note: the book’s first printing is already sold out, but for now it can still be purchased for under three figures on the collector’s market. But Soth’s books are highly collectible, so if you think you want this book and can afford it, act now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Stephan Mathieu and Ekkehard Ehlers: Heroin

Originally released in 2001, these experimental electronics are as eerie and timeless as e…