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Gathered Leaves: Alec Soth's Photography of Contemporary America

06/01/2016 17:21 GMT | Updated 05/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Alec Soth is one of America's most celebrated contemporary photographers and this new exhibition at the Science Museum is his first major UK show.

It's a rare opportunity to see a survey of Alec's career to date as it brings together work from four of his most celebrated projects, focused on the United States, that, together, show many sides of a country and a population looking to find their place in a world of constant challenges.

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The display opens with Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), a romantic collection of photos of individuals and locations that evolved from a series of road trips Alec took along the 2000 mile course of this iconic river.

There's no particular driving narrative to this collection of photos. There's the minister's wife clutching her treasured photograph of angel (more an unusual cloud formation to the likes of you and me), the woman in New Orleans displaying the cross that has been pressed into her forehead as part of an Ash Wednesday ceremony, and the shots of Johnny Cash's boyhood home in Arkansas.

But you sense a collective identity in these photos of the Midwest. There's nothing particularly wild or exotic about this landscape - it is a reflection of real life.

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Niagara (2006) sees a more explicit exploration of the reality gap in the American Dream. Here, shots of happy brides and the stunning waterfalls of this famous location are contrasted with its run-down motels and handwritten notes from the broken-hearted. The romantic idyll contrasted with reality.

A personal favourite in this collection was Cadillac Motel, 2005, of one track of footprints in deep snow that lead to the door of Room No.17. No second pair of prints, no track of steps leaving the room. Who knows what is going on behind that door?

Broken Manual (2010) is the darkest of the four projects on show. Here, Alec set himself the task of getting a glimpse into the lives of some of the men who lead almost hermit-style lives in the forests and mountains across the United States.

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The project began with Alec researching Eric Robert Rudolph, the bomber behind a string of attacks on abortion clinics and the Atlanta Olympics in the 1990s. But the project expanded to record the reclusive lives of many of those who had chosen to withdraw from civil society, such as radicals, monks and hermits.

As you look at these photos of these loners, men who live so separate from society, you sense sympathy from Alec. Does he feel kinship with them? Does he identify with their desire to be isolated and alone?

This is a very introspective and intense collection of work - portraits in the American wilderness juxtaposed with intriguing shots of their habitat, such as a solitary glitterball hanging from a branch in a dense forest.

The exhibition closes with the first UK showing of Alec's highly-acclaimed latest project, Songbook (2014). This body of work sees Alec emerge from the isolation of Broken Manual and embrace a project that took him across seven states, capturing images from a myriad of communal gatherings, including dances, festivals and meetings.

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The photography is all black and white and, in contrast to his previous project, Songbook looks at our need to be part of a community, to be part of something bigger and more meaningful than just ourselves.

There's dancing, parties, beauty pageants and cheerleaders. Yet it's the anxiety that we may be failing in this that comes across most - a standout image being one taken at Facebook in Menlo Park, California of a solitary man crossing a vast, deserted cement park. A picture that speaks more than 1000 Likes.

This show covers a huge scope of work that cuts to the heart of who we are and what we're looking for - and comes back with more questions than answers. Impressive, wonderful and quite beautiful.

Science Museum, London to March 28, 2016

The exhibition will then travel to:

◾National Media Museum, Bradford, from 22 April to 26 June 2016

◾Finnish Museum of Photography, Helsinki from 17 August to 30 October 2016

◾FotoMuseum Antwerp, Belgium from 17 February to 4 June 2017

Image Credits:

1. Adelyn, Ash Wednesday, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2000, from Sleeping by the Mississippi © Alec Soth

2. Melissa, 2005, from Niagara © Alec Soth.jpg

3. Alec Soth exhibition © Kate Elliott, courtesy Science Museum.JPG

4. Bree. Liberty Cheer All-Stars. Corsicana, Texas, 2013, from Songbook © Alec Soth