Begun in response to the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Turning Back, an exhibition of 164 photographs by acclaimed photographer Robert Adams, will be on display at the Colby Museum of Art beginning February 2nd. According to Adams, “The theme of this [work] is the glory of the natural world and the tragic nature of human beings. The West is gone. What did we do with it? What have we traded for this great forest? What did we get in exchange?” For what he subtitled A Photographic Journal of Re-Exploration, the photographer headed East from the Pacific Ocean, photographing the evidence of irresponsible stewardship and unmitigated greed that he found in the forests along the way. He continued until he came upon a reason for hope in the orchards, pastures, and cottonwoods of Halfway, Oregon, about four hundred and fifty miles east of the Pacific.
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.
A Usable Past brings together paintings, sculptures, and works on paper by self-trained artists working in the eastern part of what is now the United States during the long nineteenth century. Produced and originally circulated outside the elite sphere of fine art, these objects emerged from vernacular traditions that favored decorative aesthetics over mimesis. In the twentieth century, artists, scholars, and collectors came to believe that artworks like these expressed such supposedly quintessential American values as industriousness and ingenuity, and that they also served as native precursors to Modernism. A Usable Past features highlights of the Museum’s extensive holdings of folk art of the United States supplemented by loans from distinguished New England collections. The exhibition includes many artworks from the American Heritage collection of Edith and Ellerton Jette–one of the earliest collections to enter the Colby College Museum of Art.