Book Review: Alec Soth's 'Niagara' and the Pretense of American Romanticism
By Andrea Farr
In his recent Niagara, Alec Soth writes, “This book is dedicated to my highschool sweetheart Rachel.” Both a tribute and eulogy to American romanticism and the actual relationships that exist within it, Niagara hurtles towards an eventual and inevitable end, just as the namesake falls weave through their landscape before breaking off, bending, and reaching their plummeting fate.
Niagara carries a façade of sterility; the images, many of them portraits, pose the subjects in a way that creates a knowing separation to the viewer, something that prompts more questions than answers. Look at them long enough, and these images become less about the people, and more about the experience of the onlooker, the destitute selection suggesting a cultural novelty at the crux of their intrigue.
Niagara, at its most self-conscious, is the experience of realizing that, not unlike the actual experience of a visit to a famous site, there is a moment of quiet disappointment when you realize things are not as romantic as they are created in your mind, in the mysterious space between you and the experience. Scratched into the bottom of a page is a note from one of Vladimir Nabokov’s many Lectures on Literature, reading, “Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art.” Pity for the subject, pity for the transient and inaccessible moment, or pity for oneself, is not yet decided.
However, Niagara certainly delivers intimacy in appropriate brevity, and in the context of a much more nuanced argument. As the opening remarks by Richard Ford indicate, there is a particular experience in visiting a place, and realizing the inaccessibility of this place in the time allotted, and how this compounds into a very particular experience of travel. This inaccessibility, and its limiting, restrictive power, prompts a melancholy haze in Soth’s images, haunted by the iconography of love, and desire, and heartache, often times existing in the same picture—a wedding dress without a wearer, a man, alone, climbing into a heart-shaped bathtub, a whiskey glass, half empty—all lonely, singular, and shadowed. Scattered texts give words to these feelings, selected love letters presenting an unflinching range of infatuation, heartache, jealousy, disappointment, and the chance of reconciliation.
What gives Niagara its strength are the shots of the actual falls that provide the necessary propulsion for the series to descend into a deeper, more critical argument about our ability to escape what we know, our relationship to control, and our interaction with the natural forces of our environment. In this case, the natural landscape enacts and informs the human desire around it, constructing a narrative of descent to bolster the images. With the presence of the waterfall imagery, there is an idea of inevitable decline, but uncertainty in the moment of it. Irony carries us to the end, for while there is an endless renewal of water flowing downstream, it, too, is destined for the fall.