Haunting Photos Show Intimate Scenes of Small-Town Life in America

Photographers Adam Lach and Alec Soth share their work in our annual photo issue.

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Aug 7 2017, 1:30pm

For our annual photo issue we reached out to 16 up-and-coming photographers and asked them which photographer inspired them to pursue the medium. Then we approached their "idols" to see if they would be willing to publish work in the issue as well. What was provided, we think, creates a unique conversation about the line of influence between young artists and those more established in their careers. This post features an interview with Adam Lach and his chosen idol, Alec Soth, and an explanation of each of their bodies of work.

In a time of rapid urbanization, growth, and connectivity, is small-town life even still a thing? Are communities still bound by a strong sense of commonality and intimacy? Are individuals' identities still shaped and defined by their origins? The selection of outtakes featured below from photographer Adam Lach's book Neverland suggests that closeness to family and neighbors and one's neighborhood is alive and well.

Lach was born in Poland in 1983. In 2015, he was invited by the city council of Wrzesnia (a town of fewer than 30,000 people in central Poland) for a photo residency. He knew he wanted to capitalize on his anonymity to study the reality of life in a small town.

Photo by Adam Lach/NAPO Images
Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos

In 2012, feeling nostalgic for his days as a suburban newspaper photographer, Alec Soth went out on assignment for the LBM Dispatch, his own self-published chronicle, to investigate the public lives of Americans. Beginning in his hometown of Minneapolis, Soth traveled the country attending community meetings, festivals, dances, and other gatherings to better understand the state of Americans' social lives off-line. "I understand the world of social media," he says. "But I wondered how friends, family, and social organizations function in such an individualistic society."

Soth is perhaps better known for his haunting landscapes and striking portraits of solitary characters, like those included in his works Sleeping by the Mississippi and Broken Manual, but this selection of unpublished photos, taken between 2012 and 2014 for his Songbook series, is reflective of the traditions that have long united us: our desire for connection and the strain between our individual and shared selves. "I'm an introvert and get most of my ideas in solitude. But a lot of the energy in my work comes from the tension created when this introversion brushes up against other people," Soth says. "I was hungry to go out and engage with the world."

Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Photo by Adam Lach/NAPO Images

Adam Lach: Alec, you once said, "This is the never ending struggle, I think storytelling is the most powerful art, for me. I just think there's nothing more satisfying than the narrative thrust: beginning, middle, and end, what's gonna happen. The thing I'm always bumping up against is that photography doesn't function that way. Because it's not a time-based medium, it's frozen in time, they suggest stories, they don't tell stories. So it is not narrative. So it functions much more like poetry than it does like the novel. It's just these impressions and you leave it to the viewer to put together."

How much do you intentionally leave out from your narrative for the recipient to fill in the dots?
Alec Soth: I wish I had an answer. Leave too much space between the dots and you risk utterly confounding the viewer and pushing them away. Provide too much information and the viewer feels spoon fed and disengages. My moods change as well. Just as I might feel like watching an obscure art film on one day and a Hollywood blockbuster the next, my desire to challenge versus entertain an audience isn't necessarily consistent. In the try to find some sort of balance, but there is no formula.

How close do you get to your subjects (psychologically)? are you close with them or approach them with reserve.
I'm wary of suggesting that I'm particularly close with my subjects. I rarely spend more than a few hours with them and usually much less than that. Nor do I generally keep in touch with the people I photograph. That said, there is occasionally the feeling of psychological closeness. I think the fact that these people are not in my day to day life seems essential to that connection.

Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Photo by Adam Lach/NAPO Images
Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Photo by Adam Lach/NAPO Images
Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Photo by Adam Lach/NAPO Images
Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Photo by Adam Lach/NAPO Images
Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Photo by Adam Lach/NAPO Images
Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Photo by Adam Lach/NAPO Images
Photo by Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
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