“We’re waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here”, Howard Dietz. The lyricist’s 1931 song Dancing in the Dark, music by Arthur Schwartz, has been performed by them all: Fitzgerald; Sinatra; Bennett; Crosby, Astaire; Krall — but it’s embossed on the back of Alec Soth’s Songbook where I find it. We’re waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here. In a book of few words, it’s an existential line that acts as a binding thread. Soth has dotted the words of only a few other lyricists and playwrights among 73 affirming black-and-white images of America and its people — which is a departure from the photographer’s wordy previous project, The LBM Dispatch, in which he set about the States with writer Brad Zellar, publishing a very different breed of local rag.
Zellar’s idiom may have decamped but, as Alec writes in his credits: his spirit is everywhere. More so, the spirit of The LBM Dispatch is evident — local news; real stories; unfeigned lives and a sense of the tangible in the digital age. There are times here when the American Dream is slipping off the edge of a cliff — times when it beats with Springsteen’s heart. Devoid of their newsroom context, the images that Soth has collated tell their own story, but it’s with that vagueness and existentialism that Howard Dietz recalls. We’re waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here. And waltz they do — school proms in Ohio; a foam party at the Crazy Legs Saloon, Watertown; Miss Model contestants. But it’s when that lack of context is most evident that Soth’s images begin to sing the blues. Who is Jan with her bag of cans at Saratoga Race Course? Who is hooded Billy with his skateboard in Ironwood, Michigan? Whose are the overgrown houses; the lovers; the young cowboys? Alec weaves a narrative of wonder — the existentialist fibre it’s dyed upon: those unfeigned lives shaping their own destinies, waltzing their own triple-timed dance in the dark. Step. By Step.
Born in Minneapolis, Soth has an elegant grasp of the America that foreigners looking in oft find so difficult to grasp. We see Americana, 501s, Cadillacs and drawling accents — the arresting images that bind Songbook tell of a search for self-direction; of community; of despair. Smiles and tears. Births and deaths. But not a step out of time when dancing in the dark. We’re waltzing in the wonder of why we’re here.
Alec Soth, Songbook, is published by MACK.