Through his retrospective assemblage of early photographs taken in Minnesota during the nineties, the celebrated photographer of everyday America looks back to a time of beginnings, a time when everything seems to gently fall into place.

Alec Soth, Untitled, from the series Looking for Love, 1996. Courtesy the artist

“One day, I imagined, a stranger would fall in love with me” writes Alec Soth, introducing his photobook, titled Looking for Love, 1996, as a deeply personal document. “After a day in the darkroom, I would head to the bar. More darkness, yes, but I was comforted by that boozy, underwater world and the solitude I found among strangers.” Published in 2012, the collection of photographs revisits 1996 through the prism of his early work produced during the period when he was starting out as a photographer in Minnesota. In its retrospective gaze, the work is a meditation on beginnings—not only the beginning of a newfound career but also the beginning of, and fundamental longing for, a new love.

The photographs in Soth’s work depict the unexpected and coincidental moments that bring strangers together. We encounter expressions of love in all their myriad forms—the kiss, the dance and even the daring gift of a cocktail cherry to the lips. Longing, triumphant and insecure, they speak of the universal desires to love, and to be loved. In a photograph of people playing cards, two players hold a twenty-dollar bill. With one player clasping one side of it firmly with his fingers, the other simply touches the bill’s other side with a single finger. The bill folds, balancing awkwardly in a moment of connection which is as inhibited as it is liberating. In another, a hooded teenager clings onto a lover with her arm wrapped around his. Though her possessive embrace radiates the comfort of holding a loved one, her expression is at the same time vulnerable as she leers into Soth’s lens, as if to ask, “This is mine; where is yours?”

Alec Soth, Untitled, from the series Looking for Love, 1996. Courtesy the artist

“The photographs in Soth’s work depict the unexpected and coincidental moments that bring strangers together”

This latent fear of losing a moment so precious is something which permeates Soth’s work. With love comes the anxiety of losing it. Weaving through various social settings, from bars to high-school proms to singles parties, Soth balances photographs of couples with the solitude of lone figures, set amongst the backdrop of a desolate Minnesota. A photograph of a woman flirtatiously playing with her hair in an attempt to entice a man at a party sits on the opposite page of a gothic teen stood alone outside a nightclub. It is a consistent juxtaposition throughout Soth’s photobook, and serves to heighten its fragility and underlying melancholy­­. After all—as the precarious dollar bill reminds us as it is tentatively exchanged between hands—some win and some lose.

Soth’s photobook leaves us with J. Alfred Prufrock’s lamenting declaration from his love song: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”. Prufrock’s cry harks back to Hamlet’s facetious remark to Polonius, which likens the reclaiming of his youth to a scampering crab in reverse. Like the searching “pair of ragged claws”, Soth also looks backwards… backwards to a time when possibilities were new and open. This was around the time when Soth himself was getting married. As much as his work is about looking for love, it is also about looking for 1996. Whether an attempt to relive its moments or a realization of such an impossibility, it serves as a materialization of one’s search of a lost time. It was also Prufrock who self-convincingly proclaimed the words, “There will be time, there will be time”.

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