Since “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” Soth has produced five more big books—multiyear projects he likens to novels—and nearly thirty other publications, including newsprint special editions, collaborative projects, a Magnum-backed fashion magazine, and catalogues. (I was the subject of a deliberately out-of-focus portrait in his book “I Know How Furiously Your Heart Is Beating,” from 2019.) His industry is impressive, but the output alone doesn’t make him worth paying close attention to. Even before he became a full member of Magnum, in 2008, it was obvious that Soth saw himself as a new sort of photojournalist. Each of his big books takes up a topic (honeymoon heaven and hell in “Niagara,” living off the grid in “Broken Manual”) and follows it like a stream of consciousness, wherever it might take him.
The results can seem random, but in the best way, and this serendipitous approach has become Soth’s signature. It’s also, for better but more often for worse, the most obvious mark of his influence upon the photo world. Gathering forty or fifty images—portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, interior views—in a loose, allusive sequence has become the default position of most contemporary storytelling photographers. But it’s not as easy as it might seem. For every terrific book in this style (see Sam Contis, Rahim Fortune, Peter van Agtmael, Justine Kurland), there are ten pointless failures. (Wolfgang Tillmans was there first and most brilliantly, but he was never interested in narrative. Nan Goldin, previously the most imitated photographer around, rarely gets out of her own world.)