Review – Sleeping by the Mississippi, Alec Soth

Alec Soth (born 1969, Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States) is an American photographer, based in Minneapolis, who makes “large-scale American projects” featuring the midwestern United States.[1] New York Times art critic Hilarie M. Sheets wrote that he has made a “photographic career out of finding chemistry with strangers” and photographs “loners and dreamers”.[2] His work tends to focus on the “off-beat, hauntingly banal images of modern America” according to The Guardian art critic Hannah Booth.[1] His work has been compared to that of Walker Evans and Stephen Shore.[1] He is a member of Magnum Photos. (Wikimedia Foundation; 2017)

I shall begin in my usual way of reviewing two specific photos of Soth, and specifically from his work entitled “Sleeping by the Mississippi” as suggested by my tutor Jayne Taylor. Then I will read a couple of reviews and watch a YouTube video, so that I can build upon my critique of the photos that I select.

Charles, Vasa, Minnesota 2002Fig. 1. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota (2002)

Initial Thoughts:- Narrow depth of field makes person stand out, colours(turquoise, red, green), person not crisp despite narrow depth of field, overalls and shoes paint-stained and tatty, aeroplanes look to be intact and are likely to be radio controlled, both have signs of engines, I suspect that these are both in working action, Charles is proud to present them, they are important to him, is he possibly a retired pilot (aircraft, green overalls, sheepskin head-gear). This is appears to be the second storey of the property (background drops away from the level they are on), and it is possible that Charles will fly the aeroplanes for Soth. There is a pride to these aircraft, they are being shown off to an outsider, and that makes them special and important. These two aeroplanes may be a hobby but they are important and significant to Charles.

I think that he looks after himself, his beard and clothing may make him look unkempt but there is no sign of illness or ill health from the appearance of his skin, and his house appears well maintained. The paint on his house is smooth and doesn’t appear to have flakes or damage. It looks cold, snow lays beneath his feet, but he is warm and is appropriately dressed for the weather. Its winter as there are no leaves on the tree, so it is hard to guess whether this is a secluded woodland home or a wasteland. I suspect that the home is surrounded by wasteland, although I only guess this to be the case, a gut feeling.

Imagine living alone, or with little family, in a found home and in the middle of a wasteland. It’s the middle of the winter. You’re suspicious of strangers, suspecting ridicule at best, violence or murder at worst. And yet you’re standing here, having your photo taken. That says something to me about Soth. He has built the trust of this man. He has been welcomed and accepted, so much so that the man is displaying what is his pride and joy, his two remote-controlled aircraft. Soth is clearly a communicator, he has not just turned up out of the blue with his camera. He has visited the area and planned this shoot. But there has to be more. He has to be an insider to build that level of trust. Why? As an outsider with the best communication skills you are not going to be repeatedly invited back until the trust is built, it’s not going to happen, and without that you will either get no photo or at best a cold portrait, standing on the porch, with gun close by.

This is not a warm photo, but neither is it cold and detached. This man has trusted Soth deeply. It’s highly unlikely that even an insider, but stranger nonetheless, would be invited back unless he had known the family personally. So Soth is an insider, he knows enough of the local area to be considered so, and this has been his footing into him being allowed to photograph. This has been a planned shoot, at the very least there has been planning about how to build rapport so quickly.

The similar tonal range of the paint work, overalls, and colours of aircraft keep the eye central and the focus upon the man. The building acts as an anchor for the eye, and this renders the tree behind Charles as irrelevant rather than a distraction.

 

Fort_Jefferson_Memorial_Cross, Wickliffe, Kentucky 2002Fig.2. Fort_Jefferson_Memorial_Cross, Wickliffe, Kentucky (2002)

Initial thoughts:- Christianity is an overwhelming, imposing and powerful part of this community. The community is less important than the religion. Hope lies in the cross. Why is hope so important in this community? The car looks beaten, the workers are either involved in menial manual work or they are convicts involved in the same work. If the people were had higher importance or social status, then the cross would have less prominence. This is a narrative photo in which Christianity and the Star Spangled Banner are intrinsic. The protestant work ethic underpinning The American Dream. These men are not a part of that American Dream, as it stands they do not matter, and must redeem themselves. Salvation is not their right. They must work for it. Is this to do with the exclusion that is prominent for those in the deep south? Does this relate back to the slave trade, where the whites got rich and exported that wealth to the North, leaving behind poverty and a hard life for those of the South? Or is this about crime and having to earn any right to redemption? Either way these men are “sinners” under the oppression of the cross. The cross is only powerful for some!!!

The cross, white, pure, heavenly – the orange uniforms stand out as being dirty, stained and sinful. These men are laying the road surface as indicated by their rakes and tar brush, but they will not get to walk that road to heaven; They are sinners.

I do not want to explore the technicalities of this photo. They are not important, but the story is. I may have read the narrative incorrectly, but it is all that matters. It reminds me of the symbolism of A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, by Walker Evans which I have previously reviewed. Another fine photo where the narrative was more important than the technicalities.

Reflections upon other sources

Alec Soth reports that he was driving around on one of his road trips around the Mississippi, and what attracted him was the glass room on the second storey of the house. He knocked on the door and it was answered by Charles’ wife, and he agreed that he would come back later when Charles was home. Charles had added different floors to the home and moved the internal structures around. The aircraft were a shared interest between Charles and his daughter, they would build them and fly them together. (Behind the Picture – Alec Soth, 2014)

Soth was an insider in many respects, he was born and lived not far from where the Mississippi begins, in rural Minnesota. So he has an inlet with the people that he photographs. He also has quite specific notes in relation to subjects that he wants to photograph, and has these taped to his dashboard when he is on a road trip. He is awkward and shy but finds this to be something that helps to develop the initial rapport with those he shoots. In the New York Times he reports “My own awkwardness comforts people, I think. It’s part of the exchange.” (Sheets, 2009)

The key point of learning for me from Soth’s account, is the necessity to make photos about subjects that interest you. If you are not attracted to your subject, then you have no connection to build upon. My tutor said the same to me on Friday during my Assignment One feedback session. When we show an interest in another person, whether that is about them as an individual, their beliefs, or about a person’s property, they relax, they give something of themselves back to you. This is also discussed in Creative Portraits (Davis, 2010:24-27), which I am currently reading. It is good for me to hear that Soth is shy and feels awkward around people, but this has helped him to create photography. As someone who is shy, this gives me hope. As it happens, I approached two couples today to ask if I could take their photos. I explained why, and also said that I need to practice my portrait photography because I find it so hard to be around people. It was the connection that let me in.

 

Illustrations

Figure 1. Soth, A (2002) Charles, Vasa, Minnesota At: http://alecsoth.com/photography/?page_id=14 (accessed on 02/10/2017)

Figure 2. Soth, A (2002) Fort Jefferson Memorial Cross, Wickliffe, Kentucky At: http://alecsoth.com/photography/?page_id=14 (accessed on 02/10/2017)

References

Behind the Picture – Alec Soth, (2014), YouTube Video, Magnum Photos, At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cks_13JE3iw&index=131&list=PLjRzIl_KZc4jIw26rwjgIc__29fcXmjay (accessed on 03/10/2017)

Davis, H; 2010; Creative Portraits, Digital Photography Tips & Techniques; Indianapolis; Wiley Publishing, Inc

Keys, R; 2017; Review of “A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania”, by Walker Evans; Online at https://photosociology.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/review-of-a-graveyard-and-steel-mill-in-bethlehem-pennsylvania-by-walker-evans/ (accessed on 02/10/2017)

Sheets, HM; 2009; ‘Trolling for Strangers to Befriend’; In: The New York Times [Online] At: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/02/arts/design/02shee.html (accessed on 03/10/2017)

Wikimedia Foundation Inc; 2017; Alec Soth; Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alec_Soth (accessed on 02/10/2017)

Also Viewed

http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/09/alec-soth-on-sleeping-by-the-mississippi/

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/aug/25/alec-soth-sleeping-by-the-mississippi-loners-preachers-sex-workers-sinners

http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/1180-Sleeping-by-the-Mississippi.html

9 Replies to “Review – Sleeping by the Mississippi, Alec Soth”

  1. I think this is such a thoughtful, perceptive commentary. Analytic, yes, but entering into your imagining of the life of Charles and what it might be like to be him. I think that’s a really good standpoint for being a documentary photographer – to be aware of those different viewpoints and experiences, whilst having empathy for difference.

    I felt pleased for you that you made a connection with Soth and his work that encouraged you to push your own boundaries around being a portrait photographer.. I think he’s a fine exemplar.

    Liked by 2 people

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