I couldn’t resist visiting Alec Soth’s photography exhibit in Paris’s Jeu de Paume museum this week to see how he would present my fellow Minnesotans to an art-inundated Parisian audience. Soth stuck to his usual silent juxtapositions to show Midwesterners in all our frumpy, snow-covered simplicity.
Soth’s exhibit would be a little bit of home, I mistakenly reasoned. Instead, the exhibit drew from four photo series and was “home” only if you consider the geographical bounds for a Minnesota artist to be the limits of the United States (Minnesota, Niagara Falls, and along the Mississippi River) and then stretch the boundary a bit further to accommodate the birthplace of Soth’s adopted daughter (Bogota, Colombia).
The last room held photos from a series titled “Paris, Minnesota,” which Soth did for the 2007 fashion season (January through March.) I forced myself to look at the pictures before the title plaques and guess which photos were from Paris and which from Minnesota. Soth didn’t play any tricks. The shots of a star-studded dinner, suited men, and a dog so valuable it had its own bodyguard were, predictably, taken in Paris. The Minnesota photos were equally unsurprising: an ice skater, a girl in a ski cap, and a parka-clad woman clutching a Coco Chanel bag, posed in front of a strip mall.
At first, I was disappointed Soth didn’t defy convention and take, say, photos of hipsters in Minneapolis and Paris to show their interchangeability. Soth could have upset every smug Frenchman’s assumption that we Americans live in a cultural backwater. Then I calmed down. Mocking Minnesotans is a classic—not to mention lucrative—strategy for native artists from Garrison Keillor to the Coen brothers. Besides, the original audience for the photos was not buying fashion magazines for stereotype-challenging images. And I can always comfort myself with the fact that Paris boutiques sell Red Wing boots and Minnetonka moccasins. If the clientele only realized.