The Auckland Project

Photographs by John Gossage and Alec Soth
Radius Books, 2011

Reviewed by Daniel W. Coburn

Issue 37

Alec Soth and John Gossage have been a tremendous inspiration to me and to a host of contemporary photographers. When I was a young artist, John Gossage’s, The Pond, taught me how to see the landscape from a revolutionary perspective. Sleeping By the Mississippi inspired me to make portraits during a time in my life when the thought of approaching a stranger to ask for a photograph seemed impossible. The honesty and poetic nature of those amazingly crafted images got me out of the studio and into the world with my large format camera.

It must feel good to be Alec Soth or John Gossage. According to Gossage, Radius, a major publisher of photography books said yes to a book deal before even seeing the photographs. Gossage and Soth flew to New Zealand to hang out with their pal Harvey Benge and make pictures for The Auckland Project. It was disappointing to find that these two artists embraced their journey as more of a vacation than a serious artistic endeavor.

In a 2010 interview titled “Dismantling My Career,” conducted by Bartholomew Ryan, Soth comments on craft as it relates to contemporary photographic practice: “There was a time when making a good picture was difficult to do… and now, I hand the camera to my seven-year-old daughter, I put it on program, and she makes a stunning picture in terms of technical quality.”

Soth makes a good point, but what happens when a project is lacking in both craft and relevance? This is my biggest issue with Soth’s contribution to The Auckland Project. Through a series of digital snaps and hand scrawled notes, Soth uses his wit, and a bit of humor to describe the process of making a portrait while he was in New Zealand. He uses images and text to tell a story, but it’s not a particularly interesting story. Soth is attempting to break from the mode of portraiture employed in his early work. It’s a respectable and noble effort. But instead of attempting to give the world something new, I wish he would give us something important. His narrative is presented in the form of a giant poster, which is a bit awkward to handle. A final, large-scale, portrait is printed on the back. It is beautiful, but it is the only image that is reminiscent of portraits made in earlier projects like Niagara. The poster is folded multiple times to fit in the slipcase and the creases make it difficult to appreciate.

John Gossage roams through the burbs of Auckland looking for poetry, beauty, and irony in the simple things. He presents a disparate set of images, and there are too many of them in my opinion. Most of them represent an acute observation of the everyday. There are photographs of reflections on windows, cluttered storefronts, and boxes of trash. There are photos of pretty flowers and unkempt gardens. The photographs are superficial and somewhat uninspiring, especially in a world where making a technically good photograph is easy.

The Auckland Project consists of two volumes that fit neatly into a sleek vinyl slipcase. The books are thoughtfully designed and the photographs are beautifully reproduced. The presentation and printing are top-notch. It’s exactly what you would expect from Radius Books. I only wish the contents of this book matched its sophisticated exterior. I would recommend this book to those that are looking to own the complete Soth or Gossage library.

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Daniel W. Coburn is a photographer and graduate student at the University of New Mexico.
To view Daniel's photography, please visit his website. Daniel was featured in Fraction Issue 20.
Follow Daniel on Twitter : @danielwcoburn