Grasping at Niagara romance at the WCMA

On display at WCMA, Alec Soth's photographs capture the lost romance of the honeymoon culture of Niagara Falls, as in 'Nicholas' (2005), and 'Terrace Court' (2005).
On display at WCMA, Alec Soth’s photographs capture the lost romance of the honeymoon culture of Niagara Falls, as in ’Nicholas’ (2005), and ’Terrace Court’ (2005).

niagara man“When I took pictures in Niagara . . . I wasn’t really documenting those places,” wrote Alec Soth of his photography exhibition. “There is so much I left out. Niagara has millions of happy vacationing families and I didn’t photograph a single one. I created my own Niagara.” In a series of contemporary photographs Soth explores Niagara, photographing people and places associated with the romance of the Falls that epitomizes the “aftermath of passion.”

Alec Soth: NIAGARA, on display at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) through Jan. 10, begins with two photographs of the Falls themselves. In Falls 08 (2005), the mist from the Falls obscures the city of Niagara Falls, Ontario. Only the tops of buildings are visible, including an ad for Konica Minolta and a sign for Embassy Suites Hotel. The second photograph, Falls 34 (2005), depicts the Falls from a familiar viewpoint – the rushing waterfalls crash down on oversized rock outcroppings in a composition echoed on countless postcards. These pictures, taken with a large-format camera, are beautifully detailed. The palette of grays, blues and browns are inherently muted, yet incredibly rich, seen through the lens of Soth’s camera. A group of tourists stand at Prospect Point, almost infinitesimally small compared to the gargantuan size of the waterfalls. Thus Soth begins with a statement that sets the tone for the rest of his photographs: Niagara is a place of overwhelming power and beauty, but also clichéd familiarity. Its awesome landscape inspires passion, but also struggles in attempts to achieve originality and closeness.

Out of 22 photographs in the exhibition, only three depict the Falls themselves. The rest are pictures of cheap motels, honeymooners and the pawn shop culture that has sprung up around Niagara. Soth’s Niagara is a world unknown to the millions of tourists that visit every year; the actual landscape is an invisible but insidious presence that the people in his photographs gravitate towards. The motels and shops depend on the Falls for business; these couples are flocking to Niagara to find some sort of lost romantic passion. Yet there is no sense of interaction between the actual Falls and the community that has sprung up around them – the two occupy separate worlds that can never be forced together. The affection and worn-down passion between the couples of Soth’s photographs are ephemeral; they are a fleeting impression, a blip in the timeline of the Fall’s life.

In Melissa, Flamingo Inn (2005), a heavyset bride in a wedding gown sits outside a motel, expectantly folding her hands over her stomach. She looks directly at the camera, not with happiness or joyful expectation, but with a sort of weariness that implies stagnation. Soth uses motifs of marriage and love ironically – these things (honeymoons, rings, weddings dresses) that are supposed to symbolize fulfillment of lifelong dreams seem desolate and empty.

The couples in Soth’s pictures are never looking at each other. Each stares at the camera individually, bodies awkwardly touching. There is a distinct lack of warmth between these couples that brings us back to Soth’s perceptions of Niagara – a landscape that is impossible to get too close or attached to.

In Wedding Dress (2005), an outdated, yellowed wedding dress with floral beading and sequins hangs from the ceiling of an unknown room. A hanger attached to the fluorescent lights holds up the train of the dress. The lifted train imparts an eerie sense of realism – this dress is meant for some phantom Niagara bride, any one of the women who occupy the motels of Soth’s photographs.

The romance and passion of Soth’s pictures is almost childlike in its one-dimensionality. One of the most striking photographs is of a love letter, To the Love of My Life (2005). Written on loose-leaf reminiscent of elementary school, the letter is riddled with incorrect grammar and misspelled words: “Your the one for me . . . It’s indescribable feeling. I’ll I want is you.” It ends with: “Love: the love of your life.” It seems as if the letter was written to Niagara itself, expressing emotions that are clumsy and juvenile. For Soth, Niagara is a simultaneously imagined and all-too-real place, impossible to pin down or have a personal connection with.

In an essay on his works, Soth explained his connection to the landscape: “I became interested in the idea of Niagara as a metaphor for love and passion and began exploring those themes,” he said. “Why do people have honeymoons in Niagara Falls? Why is it associated with sexuality and passion and new love?” Through his pictures, Soth attempts to find that personal connection. What he finds is personal, but distinctly disappointing – these are not whirlwind, heady romances of romantic poetry. Yet in the space between the real and imagined landscapes, romances and poetry, Soth has found his own brand of closeness that forces the viewer to become attached to the failed romances and cold majesty of Niagara.