“This is not," Alec Soth says, "a happy-go-lucky portrait of society.”
While Soth's exhibition-guide description refers to only his own series Songbook (black-and-white depictions of small-town life, community gatherings and solitary moments caught in a stark flash), he may as well be talking about the entirety of Pier 24’s latest yearlong exhibition, This Land.
Named after Woody Guthrie's alternative national anthem, the 18-person show takes stock of the United States over the past 10 years, offering up images of lives and landscapes during and after the 2008 financial crisis. Taken as a whole, the exhibition is, in one word, bleak.
But bleak settings and situations make for some truly compelling images. Bruce Gilden documents foreclosed properties across the country, some halted partway through construction. Bryan Schutmaat captures the dramatic effects of strip-mining on the American West. Police detain black men, women and children in Paolo Pellegrin’s photographs of Rochester, New York. Richard Misrach surveys the U.S.-Mexico border, zeroing in on the artifacts left behind by those moving across it. And closer to home, Daniel Postaer’s Boomtown series frames the jarring juxtapositions of extreme wealth and dispossession in San Francisco.
Balanced against these reminders of economic collapse, environmental degradation, police brutality, border politics and homelessness are small moments of unexpected pleasure: a Ho-Chunk girl in traditional native dress; a gas station in Detroit rebranded with the Obama campaign logo; two boys slow dancing at a Cleveland, Ohio prom.