Artistic Faith and the Photobook: Alec Soth’s “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating,” Part 2, by Robert Dunn

In Part 1 of my piece on Alec Soth’s new book, “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating,” I wrote about how Soth, to get the book going, set out looking for subjects with singular presences, “to have an encounter that is visually strong.” He says he wanted to shoot people who filled up the spaces in their own homes. And more than that, he wanted to bring less of his will and intention to the photos; didn’t want to manipulate anyone but let each shine in their singular way—a difference from his more produced photos, including those in his masterpiece, “Sleeping by the Mississippi.”

So how did he do?

First off, these are clearly Alec Soth photos. The richness yet subtlety of color. The intention (and success) of invoking deep character in each shot, even if no actual person is in the photo, it’s just their cluttered den or a faded pink makeshift doorway curtain, hanging between stove and drier. The quiet and unexplained oddness, here a furious stuffed hawk above a few laundered men’s shirts hanging off the TV cable snaking its way along the top of the room; and in the photo right before it, nothing but a white plant holder set dead-center atop a round table. The gentle perfection of light. And at bottom, the way the human subjects seem to be embodying their essences no matter what they’re up to.

“I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating” is not a radically different book from “Sleeping by the Mississippi”; in a way it’s like an extension, yet also its own work. It also feels to me more mature, though I can’t explain exactly why. Soth is many years older than the man who put together “Mississippi,” and it’s to his credit as an artist that what greater understanding of the world he’s picked up infuses each shot in the new book in subtle but clear ways.

He’s shooting “Heart” the same way he shot “Mississippi,” with his big glass plate camera, but this time he’s mostly indoors. As he puts it in the Guardian article, it’s a camera that was “built for Ansel Adams to photograph the American deserts and prairies and I’m using it in confined interior spaces.” He disappears under an old-fashioned scrim to keep out the light, and spends his time focusing on people’s eyes as he shifts the plane of focus. What does he get from using such an old-fashioned camera, and hiding under cloth? For one, quiet, and a kind of non-presence in the room, which, he hopes, relaxes his subjects. As for the image, probably the same thing a vinyl lover like myself gets when I play a record: something “almost sensual in the way it caresses surfaces,” as Soth puts it; or as I would, a richness, a fullness, that gentle bloom of palpable color and light.

Yet the camera also makes him most definitely there. No escaping the man under that blanket focusing that big lens right on you … or, interestingly (and different from “Mississippi,” in which each shot was perfectly clear), at times not focusing the lens. To the latter point, one of my favorite Soth books is “Looking for Love,” his 1996 photos in black and white. I just pulled it down from my shelves, thinking I’d find the photos had a Provoke-like blur, but I’d misremembered; each shot is clear and in focus. Which makes a shot in the new book of writer Vince Aletti that blurs out the lower right quadrant of his portrait all the more surprising. The focus in the photo is on Aletti’s desk, stacks of photographs, two magnifying glasses, flowers, and a large print of a man’s nude buttocks on the wall, not of the silver-mustached writer on photography. Though Aletti is at best a human streak before his desk objects, it’s hard to argue against this shot being the truest of portraits.

Likewise the final photograph in the main part of the book, one of “Simone” at a blonde wooden table, arranging stones before her. One rock at the apogee of the circle is in focus, but Simone’s hands and top and, most of all, her silver hair are as out of focus as if they’d been shot from a moving car.

Which is impressive. Every photo in “Heart,” whether it’s the two just mentioned above; or the stark portraits of people such as that of a middle-aged man in his white cotton briefs, fluffs of what look like wigs scattered on the floor next to some exercise-looking device; and the dead-eyed stare into the camera of “Hanya” as she lies in her pajamas on a banana-colored pillow; or then on to the portraits without people, instead just the way they live, for instance the two-page spread of a mauve day bed on a worn parquet floor with an old-school telephone on the ground across from a photo of half a large dog on that same-looking parquet … all the shots in “Heart” capture a mysterious center of personality. You can never sum up or reduce or dismiss a Soth portrait. Or forget it.

Or not know it’s a work by Soth. As I said, I pulled “Looking for Love” from my shelves, and I’m looking through it now. Black and white shots most likely developed by Soth himself when, at 26, he worked in “a large, commercial photo lab.” Just photos from walking around his Midwest town. Yet each shot from back then captures a telling moment, some loudly speaking without people in them; yet when people are present, we can read exactly what’s going on … and yet not come close to fully knowing or understanding what the deal is with these characters at all.

Which is Soth’s great gift. His camera, beginner’s 35mm or Ansel Adams–approved 8 by 10, always sees more than we do. And his “writing” capabilities mean he always gives us mostly a rich glimpse of a character in his photos, leaving our imaginations to fill in the rest. In my writing course I always talk about the Hemingway iceberg theory of fiction: how Hemingway shows us only the tip of what’s going on, and through the power of his art we infer or imagine the whole mass. Same with Soth. He’s really strong at portraits that capture our fascination, then lead to our own story-making around the glimpses of character we observe. And as I said above, even his people-less rooms evoke rich insights.

Until we get two thirds of the way through the book, to a full spread of nothing but books on shelves, behind a flood of tattered and forsaken-looking volumes pouring onto the floor. It’s called “Irineu’s Library, Giurgiu, Romania,” and try as I can, I only see chaos and disrespect. It reminds me of when a writer friend of mine years ago bought a used bookstore going out of business on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan and invited everyone he knew to pillage it. Even in my office, where photobooks pile up, I know (almost) where every volume is, and they’re all reachable. Not here in Girugiu. Soth, who always paints with such lightness and grace (even when depicting extremes of human possibility), drops two photos here that just sit like sodden clumps of refuse.

No doubt he has his reasons, and I respect them, but I’m also happy to move along, especially to the two photos mixed in with the final pages of text: a light, floaty spread of pages from the book “Birds of America” somehow nearly the size of a glowing floor lamp before wispy pink curtains (a dollhouse?), and the final shot, “Sabine’s View, New Orleans,” which is an empty wire birdcage before a waxed- or frosted-up window.

No doubt these final photos have meaning, for Soth—and as we enter into the book, for us, even if we can’t explain everything. Each photo implies significance, they carry us beyond ourselves … that is, they do what the purest art always does.

And do we really need to fully understand? If, for instance, we’re looking at a vintage electric organ with sheet music to “Little Red Corvette” spread open atop it, how important is it to tell ourselves a story of how the sheet music came to be there? Likewise, the man in dress shirt, underwear, and socks curled up in a sheetless bed, clutching a stalk of dried seed buds. (O.K., I just asked my wife to help me describe what’s in the man’s hand, and unprompted she said the picture is about desiccation; fair enough.) But even if I choose not to explicate Soth’s photos, just appreciate them and feel them, I do always believe they’re there for a reason. That’s simply how a great photobook artist works: you trust them; you don’t go, What, sheet music of a great Prince song on an organ, so what?; no, you intuitively feel the book is richer for the mystery of the photo.

At bottom, this is the trust we extend to any true artist who has earned our faith: we are willing to take our time to come to “why these photos, in this book”; and more, believe that knowing this will enrichen us. Of course even this simple faith can be tested with any artist’s new work (that flood of books in Romania!); and the artist can lose us if the work isn’t good enough. Fortunately, “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating” redeems all our faith. It is that good.

I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating by Alec Soth can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His latest novel is Savage Joy, inspired by his first years in NYC and working at The New Yorker magazine. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, Carnival of Souls, and New York Street are in the permanent collection of the libraries of the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photograph (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here; prints of his work can be ordered here, follow his instagram here). Dunn also teaches a course called “Writing the Photobook” at the New School University in New York City.