PARK RAPIDS, Minn. — Since the Nemeth Art Center rebranded itself as a contemporary art space a decade ago, guests have seen different explorations of color, texture and space in the Park Rapids, Minnesota, gallery.
What they hadn’t really seen, until now, is reflections of themselves.
That changed in late July with the opening of "Alec Soth: Paris / Minnesota."
The show is a collection of images taken in rural northern Minnesota by the internationally known photographer, intended to fill his ideal fashion magazine.
“It’s been really exciting to see these people have these personal reactions to it,” says Tessa Beck, director of the Nemeth.
This is the first time the body of work, many of which are printed large at 40-by-50 inches, has been shown in one space, she says, though many images have become calling cards for the Twin Cities-based photographer.
Soth was nervous about exhibiting the work in areas where it was shot, not knowing how locals would react, Beck says. He didn’t need to be.
“People have been excited,” she says. “I’ve heard some amazing stories.”
At the exhibition opening in late August, a man who once owned a gas station that Soth had photographed showed up with a copy of W magazine that featured the image. The picture, simply called, “Akeley, Minnesota, 2007,” shows the fake fronts of a small pioneer town the owner had erected on the property as a tourist attraction — a selfie site in the time before Instagram.
There are wagon wheels against the wood front shops, a hotel, a church and a mortuary with a coffin propped up in front, all popping against the snow on the ground and illuminated birch trees against the night sky. It’s colorful, yet stark, inviting and eerie all at once.
The former owner of the site, which has since been removed, and his family enjoyed talking to the artist, Beck says.
While the Minnesota part may be on display, the Paris part of the project is only seen in a gallery copy of the W magazine and referred to in Soth’s statement.
He recalls, at the suggestion of his art director, his attempt to shoot a Dior runway show.
“I’d never been to a fashion show before and didn’t understand the backstage politics. Within an hour I was thrown out by security,” he writes. “The more I worked in Paris, the more aware I was of my identity as a lifelong Minnesotan. Rather than being ashamed of this, I wanted to make it part of the project. Fashion is simply the way we present ourselves to the world. For me, the fashion choices of someone in Duluth are as worthy of investigation as those of someone in Paris. I’d go further and say I feel this way about culture generally.”
Soth was traveling in Europe when this story was written and unavailable for comment.
One of the images, “F.L., 2007,” a portrait of a young woman with one of her red braids emerging from a pink Burton stocking cap and flowing over the collar of a pink winter jacket, has become one of his signature shots. As has “Kristin, St. Paul, Minnesota, 2007,” showing a young figure skater standing in her skates in a slushy parking lot against a snowy backdrop.
Many of the photos were taken in winter or early spring, including “Eelpout Festival, 2007,” depicting a man and a woman in insulated Carhartt overalls ice fishing in front of a camper festooned with pictures of naked women.
Soth set his large format camera up far enough back to get a wider shot, focusing as much on the scene and its surroundings as the individuals.
“Alec isn’t pitying or glamorizing the people or the landscape,” Beck says.
His detachment is a signature of his work as he has said his own awkwardness helps melt barriers between him and his subject.
That distance also leaves questions for viewers who may want to know more about the subjects, like the young woman in “Marie, Park Rapids, Minnesota, 2007.” She stands on a checkered floor, barefoot, in a green dress and a plastic lei around her neck, with what looks to be cake smeared across part of her face. She looks awkwardly off camera as if waiting for someone to join her. Is it a school dance? Is it her birthday? Is it a wedding?
Beck has asked locals if they recognize her and she’s actively trying to piece together her story.
Another subject’s story was revealed through happenstance. A retired teacher from Nevis visiting the area stopped in to check out the Nemeth and was surprised to see some of her former students, including a young man, Stephen.
The picture, “Stephen, 2007,” shows him in a dark suit, hands on his knees, seated in a banquet chair against a pine paneled wall.
“That is one of my favorite examples of portraiture,” Beck says. “That image, there’s such a sensitivity in the way Stephen is depicted. He’s delicate, almost birdlike, and that’s contrasted by the high fashion of a Ralph Lauren suit.”
“She was so excited and didn’t even know these photos existed,” Beck says of the teacher’s reaction. “She said Alec captured him perfectly.”