Wanderlust: Photographs by Alec Soth
North Carolina Museum of Art
Through June 30

The French term flâneur (literally “one who strolls”) originally applied to shiftless dandies who could wander Parisian streets all day at leisure. However, Walter Benjamin and other cultural theorists flipped the term in the 20th century.

Precisely because he lacked a specific purpose, the methodical flâneur could bring a default curiosity and close attention to a complex modern world that moved and changed too fast to completely apprehend. The American flâneur never really caught on as a trope, but Minneapolis-based photographer Alec Soth should be nominated for the role.

Wanderlust, an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art, is a selection of 15 of Soth’s chromogenic prints from the collection of Allen G. Thomas Jr. in Wilson, N.C., 13 of which are from Soth’s series “Sleeping by the Mississippi.” From 1999 to 2002, Soth traveled the 2,300-mile length of the river from Minnesota to Louisiana, photographing people and places and gathering their stories in the 10 states the river passes through. In an interview, Soth described the photographs as “a series of scenes in a lucid dream,” capturing their epic, surreal truth.

The remaining two images in the show are from his “NIAGARA” series (2004–05), for which Soth took portraits of Niagara Falls newlyweds and the honeymoon hotels they stayed in, as well as images of later, married life.

Both series record a deep sense of place and the difficulty of finding meaning in one’s life. Many of Soth’s places are empty and many of the people look lonely and spent. But there’s a persistent humanity running through each image, like the unstoppable (and unpictured) current of the big river. Soth somehow stays out of the way of that current.

Soth’s clarity is remarkable. His subjects are centered and generally look directly into the camera, hiding nothing. There’s the sense that if you hopped in the car today to visit some of the people in these pictures, they’d still be sitting on the same crappy couches with the same expressions on their faces. Soth uses only the available light, so interiors have the same dimness as your living room and the sunlight in exteriors seems indirect and dulled by Midwestern humidity.

Gathered along one wall of the gallery, four portraits and one interior directly relate to religion. “Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana” (2002) is the central image, depicting a scruffy preacher gripping a worn Bible in one hand and a yard-long palm in the other. His pants legs bunched atop his black shoes, he poses contemplatively beneath a snarl of wisteria in front of an unkempt lot. A yellow cinderblock, a pile of blackened boards and some corrugated roofing are scattered behind him. He seems both exhausted and spiritually activated.

A different energy comes from “Bonnie (with a photograph of an angel), Port Gibson, Mississippi” (2000) sitting in a simple blouse and skirt. In her lap, the bouffant-styled subject holds up a photograph of a cloud that, if you squint a little, looks like an angel with its arms up and flowing wings. Bonnie exudes a beatific smugness, looking straight into the camera with the certitude of a true believer.

Such certainty is absent from “Adelyn, Ash Wednesday, New Orleans, Louisiana” (2000). Unlike Soth’s other subjects, Adelyn’s eyes are turned away and upward, gazing into the sky. Her head, marked with an ashen cross, is tilted back so that she seems almost tortured by faith, or by the desire for it.

The religious set shares a corner with an image of death, and also the exhibition’s ultimate flâneur image: “Cemetery, Fountain City, Wisconsin” (2002). The twilight landscape pictures a cemetery nestled into a hillside behind a gas station, but Soth’s considered composition brings out horizontal striations in the image that reveal layers of social and philosophical meaning. No one in a hurry could have taken this picture.

Reading the image from top to bottom: Beneath the dim sky, the tree line of a snowy rock face catches the changing light; as the sheer face begins to level, power lines cut across snowy, open ground; the photograph’s pitch black equator is a thicket of spruce trees planted close together throughout the cemetery; the headstones are visible in an undisturbed blanket of snow beneath the spruces; and along the bottom of the image is the blindingly lit canopy of a gas pump island.

Sandwiched between electrical and gas layersenergy supplied from dead plants and animalsthe human cemetery is placid and nearly unnoticeable, it blends into the landscape so well. The bright evidence of the living, however, is incongruous and harsh against the hillside. “Cemetery” points out the inevitability of death while providing a reminder of the rapidly expiring fact of living.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Strolling down the river.”