There may be nothing more special than receiving a postcard in the mail—delicate little snapshots, a "wish you were here." It's a form of communication that's fast disappearing, lost to… well, no need to go there :)
But while we entirely advocate dropping even the most ubiquitous of tourist postcards in the mail (rather than getting home, unpacking, finding them, and realizing you never made it to a mailbox), if you want to up your postcard game, and don't want to wait for a vacation to justify it, you might want to get yourself Gathered Leaves Postcards, an exquisite new box set from photographer Alec Soth.
First garnering attention in 2004 with his book Sleeping by the Mississippi, a compilation of images from a road trip along the river, the Minneapolis-based artist has since become known as one of the most important photographers working today. His narrative pictures with intensely personal undertones capture Middle American life in a sublime way that immediately distinguishes his photography.
Soth is known for his humility and has been quoted saying that anyone can take a good picture; he's also said that trying "to assemble a body of work that's layered... is really quite challenging. It's about having a distinct voice."
Soth's voice is nothing if not distinct. His ability to tell a rich, wordless story is evident throughout his career, especially in his subsequent books Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010), and Songbook (2015). All of Soth's books, with the exception of Songbook, are out of print. But, as the subject of a new exhibition, the books were re-released last October in mini versions, compiled in a box set.
Called Gathered Leaves, the exhibition will travel through Europe. Having begun at London's Science Museum, it continues on to the National Media Museum in Bradford, U.K., this week, Helsinki's Finnish Museum of Photography in August, and the FotoMuseum in Antwerp in 2017. But even if you won't be visiting any of those places, you can still take a piece of Soth's work home with you.
Out this month, a new collection of postcards features 28 of the best works from Gathered Leaves. There seems no more fitting work than Soth's for the medium: The subtly personal images will give your written message a touch of the photographer's mysterious intimacy.
Now, get lost in a selection of photographs from the postcard set which we've paired with excerpts from curator Aaron Schuman's lyrical essay from Gathered Leaves (including passages from his emails with Soth, quotes by legendary photographer Walker Evans, and dialogue from a Pee-wee film).
"Our vision of America is so shaped by television and movies. All we see are Hollywood starlets and New York cops. We sometimes forget that there are whole other lives being lived in the middle of America. And some of these lives are really inspiring." –Alec Soth, email interview with Aaron Schuman, August 2, 2004
"I fell in love with the process of taking pictures; with wandering around finding things. To me it feels like a kind of performance. The picture is a document of that performance. But what function does that serve? This is the problem with work like mine – that is more lyrical than documentary. Like poetry itself, it is pretty much useless." –Alec Soth, email interview with Aaron Schuman, August 2, 2004
"Documentary? That's a very sophisticated and misleading word. And not really clear. You have to have a sophisticated ear to receive that word. The term should be documentary style. An example of a literal document would be a police photograph of a murder scene. You see, a document has use, whereas art is really useless." –Walker Evans, "An Interview with Walker Evans, by Leslie Katz," in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, ed. Vicki Goldberg (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1988), p. 358–69
"I'm completely aware of how Niagara is psychological. Once I was giving a lecture about Niagara way back when, and the first question in the audience was: 'How's your marriage?' I was like, well, that's great—that's exactly what I want to evoke." –Alec Soth, telephone conversation with Aaron Schuman, March 31, 2015
"The number-one thing that you'll see if you go to Niagara Falls are happy tourists—just a lot of happy tourists. And I wasn't interested in that whatsoever … That had nothing to do with what I was talking about. So, in that sense, I'm not documenting the place." –Alec Soth, in Google Photography Hangout Masterclass with Alec Soth, hosted by Aaron Schuman, youtube.com (accessed May 21, 2015).
"The beginner is advised to decide on which spot he wishes the subject to stand, and then take up an appropriate position, and wait patiently until the subject, either naturally or by tactful persuasion, achieves the desired pose. Figures should be taken against a suitable background, wherever possible, and not against the sky. Avoid taking portrait snaps of people with their legs closer to you than their bodies – distortion follows and the feet look much too big. As a rule the camera should be held straight and upright, but do not be afraid to experiment and take shots from unusual angles. –"Photography," in The Universal Book of Hobbies and Handicrafts, ed. Sid G. Hedges (London: Odhams Press, 1935), p. 494
"The only hope for me is storytelling—is narrative … I used to give this lecture about how narrative doesn't work in photography. But now, I feel like I have to make it work. I have to find someway to connect these pictures through storytelling. Because stories always have this power, and the connective tissue of stories for me is so necessary … One picture is not enough to tell a story; it's got to be a sequence…" –Alec Soth, 'The Democratic Jungle', Lecture, Flash Forward Festival 2010, Magenta Foundation, Toronto, Canada, October 8, 2010
Pee-wee: There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand.
Dottie: I don't understand.
Pee-wee: You don't wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel.
–Pee-wee Herman, in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, directed by Tim Burton (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros., 1985).
"What we see in Songbook's opening photograph—printed opposite the book's title page—is an elderly gentleman smiling brightly at the camera as he gracefully waltzes with an imaginary partner across a cement floor, past an empty chair, a table, and a white-brick wall, and through the center of Soth's frame; what we read in this image is another matter, and is primarily determined by how Songbook subsequently plays out. But as the opening of a photobook, this lone dancer seems to serve as the ultimate proxy for both the author and readers of such works; he offers us the perfect invitation—to see, to read, and to dance with the images that follow, and at the same time realize that, in doing so, we are simply dancing with ourselves." –Aaron Schuman, "Dancing with Ourselves," for Photoworks: Ideas Series – What Makes a Good Photobook?, photoworks.org.uk/dancing (accessed May 22, 2015)
Gathered Leaves Postcards, $20, mackbooks.co.uk.