Alec Soth ventures into the Woods

Soth's Black Line of Woods hopscotches through an epic Southern landscape

Like the photographer himself, the characters in Alec Soth’s Black Line of Woods are mostly outsiders and wild men. As part of the High Museum’s Picturing the South commissioned works series, Soth’s images hopscotch through an epic Southern landscape from Texas to Kentucky to Georgia. Soth bypasses major thoroughfares and big cities and instead concentrates on the bearded survivalists and rugged hermits he finds on back roads and in dense woods. Through Soth’s 8-by-10-view camera lens, the South emerges as idiosyncratic, peculiar, and seething with the dark undercurrent of human frailties played out on a geological scale.

“E.S. Knoxville, Tennessee, 2006” is emblematic of Soth’s considerable powers of perception. Clad entirely in camouflage, a lone figure stands facing away from the camera on a sort of ridge among a grove of chokeberry trees. Debris litters the ground around his feet as he looks down on a desolate streetscape barely discernable below. The visible signage — Waffle House, Shell Station, Adult Video — signify every roadside truck stop from Biloxi to Blacksburg. It’s impossible to tell where personal narrative ends and cultural anthropology begins.

Among the most striking images is “Enchanted Forest (45), Texas, 2006.” In it, a cable strung through the trees in a dim forest powers a single bare light bulb, illuminating the trees and a rumpled patch of AstroTurf below. It’s an image of almost unspeakable mystery, capturing the absurdity and the beauty of an unseen life lived in isolation.

Soth walks a number of tightropes in Black Line of Woods. How does a Minneapolis-based photographer document the American South and not reproduce the clichés of pastoral nostalgia or exploit a mythology of backward country folk? The jury’s out on whether he’s successfully avoided this pitfall in every case. Still, Soth's captured enough oddity (a discoball hanging in the woods in “Enchanted Forest (36), Texas, 2006”) and tenderness (a man cradling a cat in “S.L., Garfield, Arkansas, 2007”) to give us a thick and complex vision of our own part of the world.

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