The PhotoBook

October 7, 2011

Alec Soth – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Alec Soth 2011 copyright – published by Edizioni Punctum

What do you have when you mix a Midwestern American Photographer, a Nineteenth Century English Poet, a prominent Italian city and a French titled poem = Alec Soth’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (a.k.a. LBDSM)

Earlier this year Soth resided for a short time in Rome to complete a commission for the tenth FotoGrafia Festival Internazionle di Roma and the resulting photographic project was exhibited at FotoGrafia di Roma in late September 2011 in conjunction with the publication of the hardcover book by Edizioni Punctum. As a frame of reference, the FotoGrafia di Roma commission is an opportunity to portray of the city of Rome with total freedom of interpretation.

As a Prolog to writing the commentary on this book, I had the opportunity to join Soth at his presentation at FotoGrafia di Roma in late September this year at the MACRO Testaccio. Soth stated that he was becoming more interested in how to construct books as a narrative and questioning the order and sequencing of the photographs in a book. As an example, could he throw all of the photographs up in the air and depending on how they fell, might that result in the image sequence? (Although to me, LBDSM does appear to have a subtle order to the sequence, but that may in fact maybe due to my ability to construct a possible sequential narrative). Soth also stated that introducing something out of context (which for me is the pineapple in LBDSM) might create some cohesion, reminding me of Ed Ruscha’s phtotobooks, most famously “Varous Small Fires {and Milk}”), for which Ruscha has stated, “Milk seemed to make the book more interesting and gave it some cohesion”. 

Rather than directly investigating the city of Rome as been Soth’s prior photographic style, he opted to instead focus on one of Rome’s more interesting literates, abet similarly short-lived, the Englishman John Keats (1979 – 1821) and culled out his poem La Belle Dame sans Merci. Although Keats lived in Rome for only the last four months of his life, he seems to be inexplicably tied to this city, perhaps as this is where he is buried and from where he penned his last romantic missives to his most well-known love, Fanny Brawn. Although Soth has utilized Rome to set the stage for his narrative, the poem was penned while Keats still resided in London.

La Belle Dame sans Merci direct French translated into English as “The Beautiful Lady without Pity”, representing the Fatal Woman, or as alluded to in the original French poem, the woman as a mysterious witch. Keat’s poem, much like Soth’s photographs is loaded with enigmas. I enjoy one description of Keat’s poem in Wikipedia, that again like Soth’s photographs, “it avoids simplicity of interpretation despite simplicity of structure.”

I find one of the more interesting photographs early one is the contemporary homage to the similar Roman photograph by Ruth Orkin photograph. This may also become a Soth trademark, as in Soth’s earlier book “Broken Manual”, he recreated a Robert Frank photograph (window, Butte Montana) in homage to Frank’s photobook, “The Americans

This is a great re-photograph of a classic Fatal Woman in Rome, but the inclusion of the man holding the pineapple on the left side of the frame creates a lot of tension for me. The reason for the pineapple is not apparent to me in this photograph, but ties in later, and the pineapple is not really associated to individuals in Rome (trying to remember if I have ever seen someone walking Rome holding a pineapple in this fashion), which seems too awkward and forced.  Nevertheless, I will admit the inclusion changes up the Orkin inspired photograph and creates a subtle tension that seems confirmed with the photograph of the smashed pineapple sequenced later in the interior plates. For me, this is an homage to Ed Ruscha on how a pineapple might provide “cohesion” for a book.

In the middle of the book, Soth provides a non-photographic image, a page with the plate number XV in white text on an orange field with the identifying caption “During my time in Rome, I wanted to make a beautiful picture of the city. But I found it impossible. The city was too beautiful to photograph”. Interesting, I first felt that this was meant to passively satisfy the Fotografia commission, as in the past, the resulting bodies of work have been a documentary style treatise of some aspect of the built landscape of Rome.  A second way to evaluate this plate is to consider the work of Susan Evans’s “The Story” (2001) as narrated by Nathalie Herschdorder; “In the absence of images and presence of words, (Soth) tells a story already known to everyone, questioning the omnipresence of (Rome) pictures in our society as well as their use in the media.”

The last photograph I would like to call attention to is the portrait of a mysterious woman (plate X, Georgia) with her mouth open and forming a distinctive heart shape, with the fumes flowing out; symbolic of a woman who is in the process of casting her spell on the unsuspecting “pale kings and princes”.

The book object: The large, thin, hardcover book was printed in four-color lithography and bound in Rome Italy, with numbered plates and captions provided in the Titles & Notes section. The book was curated by Marco Delogu, with essays provided by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Francesco Zanot, with the text provided in English.

best regards, Doug

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6 Comments »

  1. [...] Alec Soth 2011 copyright – published by Edizioni Punctum What do you have when you mix a Midwestern American Photographer, a Nineteenth Century English Poet, a prominent Italian city and a French titled poem = Alec Soth’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci (a.k.a. LBDSM) Earlier this year Soth resided for a short time in Rome to complete a commission for the tenth FotoGrafia Festival Internazionle di Roma and the resulting photographic project was exhibite … Read More [...]

    Pingback by Alec Soth – La Belle Dame Sans Merci « Camera Works — October 8, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

  2. Get work as always.

    Comment by Tim — October 8, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

  3. [...] Alec Soth – La Belle Dame Sans Merci via The PhotoBook [...]

    Pingback by Photography Links for The Week of 14 October 2011 | N O T I O N — October 14, 2011 @ 10:11 am

  4. [...] is an opportunity to portray of the city of Rome with total freedom of interpretation.” The Photo Book add a [...]

    Pingback by Double Cuddle | Graham Walzer & Nathanael Turner + Blog & Publishing — October 16, 2011 @ 3:50 am

  5. [...] the commission the previous year in 2009 and the subsequent influence of Tillim and Papageorge on Alec Soth who received the commission the following year in 2011. All three utilize a documentary style, [...]

    Pingback by Tod Papageorge – Opera Citta « The PhotoBook — January 19, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

  6. […] more information check out the blog post at phot(o)lia and the review by Douglas Stockdale. On photo-eye you can still get a copy of this great […]

    Pingback by La Belle Dame Sans Merci | Lost in Publications — September 20, 2013 @ 3:14 pm


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