Accompanying Robert Adams’ Turning Back is a 2012 video by Alec Soth (American, b. 1969) entitled Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree. This was conceived as a response to Summer Nights, a 1985 book of photographs taken by Adams during nocturnal rambles near what was then his home in Colorado. According to Adams, “What attracted me to the subjects at a new hour was the discovery then of a neglected peace.” Twenty years old when he first encountered the Adams book, and in search of a comparable “romantic solitude,” Soth also began shooting at night.
July and August evenings pose the optimal conditions for voyeurism, both acoustic and visual, as evidenced in Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree, which is set in Soth’s hometown of Minneapolis. His camera lingers on freeway overpasses, gas stations, and commercial parking lots as it clocks the waning daylight. Soth drifts from these public spaces—scenes of people commuting, running errands, or on a break—to the domestic, all the while absorbing the ambient sounds of the season. With nightfall comes a movement indoors, and the video concludes with a glimpse into a quintessentially American ranch house, lamp aglow in the window and flag on the wall. This is followed by an epilogue taken from the Allen Ginsberg poem “A Supermarket in California,” in which he communes with the spirit of Walt Whitman during an evening visit to a “neon fruit supermarket.” Like Ginsberg, Soth is measuring the distance between his United States and the one lyricized by Whitman. He is also looking at his images alongside the work of photographic forerunners such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Robert Frank. As he has expressed it, “It is better to grapple with your influences than run away from them. I learned a lot about what defines my particular vision by figuring out how it differs from those who’ve inspired me.”
Summer Nights at the Dollar Tree may pay homage to one particular series by Robert Adams, but it comes into especially sharp focus when seen in proximity to Turning Back. Adams’ record of deforestation presents the legacy of westward expansion with great urgency, while, here, Soth studies our relationship to the built environment that has diverted and displaced these natural resources. Symbolically speaking, old-growth forests have been razed to make way for Dollar Trees, but neither Adams nor Soth wants to relinquish the possibility for a renewed sensitivity to one’s habitat.
About the Artist
Alec Soth has been the subject of many exhibitions, including From Here to There, presented at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 2010, and The Space Between Us, a major retrospective presented at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and Fotomuseum Winterthur in Winterthur, Switzerland, in 2008. Among Soth’s monographs are Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Broken Manual (2010), and Songbook (2015). He is a member of Magnum Photos.