Alec Soth — Sleeping by the Mississippi (MACK) — Text by Felix Wilson
Thirteen years since Steidl first published the original, Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi has been reissued, in almost identical form to the first edition, but this time coming via London imprint MACK. Copies of the first three editions have been scarce for a while, and the book joins some other notable titles being reissued by MACK this year.
Now the work is again widely available, it feels like a good time to offer a reappraisal, to give its tyres a kick and see how much the reflection in the rearview mirror can tell us.
Thirteen years is a short time, but the United States has never seemed more like a foreign land. From a distance, we’ve watched the social climate deteriorate and a sense of shared possibility dissolve along the fracture lines Soth treads, almost naively, as he feels his way around the great watery cleft running through the middle of the USA. Soth doesn’t so much grapple with issues like racism, incarceration, religion or class as he identifies and recognises them as fragments of a shared human experience marked by suffering.
As we move through the book, there isn’t a clear narrative or a single organising principle to the images. It’s a work that meanders and is stronger for it. Though there are several recurring motifs in the series – the crucifix and the mattress most noticeably – these serve several ends, knitting the work more tightly together with explicit connections between images and suffusing the sequence with a sense of pathos.
The portraiture is superb, finding vulnerability and shared strangeness of human experience in remarkable and disparate people. The tension between individual characters, their wider body of work and their role in serving Soth’s vision only heightens the experience for the viewer, without deprecating either. Soth’s strong awareness of the medium and its history, as well as his feeling for the cultural moment, will continue to offer viewers insights and inspirations.
Working around the great river has allowed him to build a work upon powerful and peculiarly American mythologies: Huckleberry Finn, Johnny Cash and Charles Lindbergh, the dreams of a nation built upon the contradictions of the Constitution declaring all men equal and the ongoing legacies of slavery. Soth is gentler with the United States than Frank, more empathetic to individuals than Arbus, and his vision of life is both more mundane and more subtly enigmatic than Sternfeld.
This project adds another layer to the myth of the river, an accumulation of feeling that we cannot, probably, live up to our possibilities. But equally we cannot live without hope for transcendence, as improbable as it might be. Highly recommended.
Alec Soth — Sleeping by the Mississippi available for purchase here.
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