Alec Soth, “Sleeping by the Mississippi”
Alec Soth (United States, born 1969) creates color photographs of the disparate scenes and people he discovers during meandering journeys along the Mississippi River. Beginning his voyages in the frozen winters of Minneapolis and ending in the sultry New Orleans heat, Soth’s pictures trace a cultural gradation along the largest and most storied river in the United States.
The lumpy, iron-framed bed covered with dingy blankets on the front of this card is Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood bed in Little Falls, Minnesota. Rich with symbolism, this picture initiates themes that reoccur throughout Soth’s series: sleeping, dreaming, adventure, and home. According to Soth, the key to his photographs can be found in the following quote by Lindbergh, written about the twenty-second hour of his transatlantic flight in The Spirit of St. Louis:
Over and over again I fall asleep with my eyes open, knowing I’m falling asleep, unable to prevent it. When I fall asleep this way, my eyes are cut off from my ordinary mind as though they were shut, but they become directly connected to this new, extraordinary mind which grows increasingly competent to deal with their impressions—
Like Lindbergh, Soth is fascinated by the mind’s ability to function at varying levels of consciousness, to “see” without really seeing, and to process without the faculty of reasoning. Letting his body and mind wander along the river, Soth creates a series of lyrical images that capture the spirit of the region that, in many ways, forms the cultural marrow of this country.
River towns, traditionally places of intense energy due to the continual transience of goods and people, now are often far past their economic heyday and have a depressed, unnaturally stagnant, atmosphere. Soth reflects this decline in his pictures of abandoned houses with peeling paint and dusty living rooms, bare light bulbs and left-behind possessions. The objects in his interior studies are often balanced to odd perfection, as if a surrealist hand has intervened in the space: hats hang precariously on chair backs, an unhinged green door is suspended mysteriously upright in the middle of a green painted room, a weathered copy of Vagabond Path rests on a windowsill, its corner pointing towards the outside.
Lurking below the surface of Soth’s images are issues particular to the history of this corridor of the country: slavery, economic boom and bust, and a deep religious undercurrent. The river, symbolically a place of baptism and renewal, serves as a metaphor for Soth’s photographic pursuits. As he drifts from one location to another, he documents rituals—spiritual and secular, private and public—that he finds along the way, from portraits of devout prison inmates and parishioners on Palm Sunday to mantelpieces adorned with family photographs and pictures of religious and political icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Other scenes littered with pornography and empty liquor bottles speak to more seedy forms of ritual. Soth poignantly touches the racial tensions of the history of this region in a picture of a vulnerable African-American teenage girl reclining sensuously on a hotel bed, and a disturbing close-up of the face of a wax figure of Huckleberry Finn’s friend, runaway slave Jim.
Like the river itself, Soth’s pictures flow through stories but don’t form a linear narrative. Soth says that his intention was to create a series of photographs that feel like lucid dreaming, a rambling series of impressions that aren’t quite clear but make some sense. In its embrace of chance, Soth’s approach is reminiscent of author Jonathan Raban’s aspirations for his trip down the River in Old Glory: An American Voyage—to “cast off, let the Mississippi take hold, and trust to whatever adventurers or longueurs the river might throw ones way. It was a journey that would be full of randomness, and haphazard, but it would also have the controlled, insistent purpose of the river current.” Like Lindberg’s plane or Huck’s raft, Soth sees his pictures as vehicles for dreaming.
Alec Soth received his BA from Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, and currently teaches at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He is the recipient of a McKnight Photography Fellowship, a Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, and the 2003 Santa Fe Prize for Photography.
Karen Irvine, Associate Curator