I wanted to give a little bit of space to give my own thoughts on the series of Photographs before commenting on the research I did by reading interviews and articles/books which mentioned Sloth’s work.
It’s worth me mentioning I haven’t seen the Photobook Sloth created for his series, Sleeping by the Mississippi, I have only seen the photos online through the Magnum Photography site linked to earlier. I was unfamiliar with the route the Mississippi river takes so found a map online (the featured image), to help me get a sense of the breadth of the journey. There are a number of images in the series (51 on the Magnum site), I won’t comment on all of them individually, instead I will refer to some as examples of the whole.
Although these Photographs are object or art alone, they seem to me to be best understood together. Across the series the idea of time is explored in depth. There’s the obvious sense of travel given by the name of the photographs, alongside each is included a town or city/state, so you are aware he is moving from the North to the South of the river. There is also a nod to the passing of time in the changing seasons, if you look across the photographs you can spot different indicators of changes in season or temperature and implied time changes. For examples see Peter’s Boathouse, an snow filled image, and the spring blossoms in the background of ,Rev.Cecil and Felicia.
The theme of time is also explored in the different times of day/night in which photographs were taken, an obvious example is, Cemetery, which appears to have been taken in the late evening or fading light.
A different angle, is the exploration of the passing of time seen in lonely or abandoned buildings. There’s a sense of these places being at the mercy of the elements or just fading over time, but there’s also these clues to another time, a past life, objects or pictures, that remain are made a focus of these photographs. We are left curious as to who occupied these spaces, what went on in them, what will their future be? An example is, New Orleans (see photo below).
I’m not sure if this next theme can be included as an exploration of the theme of time or if it’s a separate thing altogether. There is clearly an emphasis on the different people met along the journey. The people we are presented through the photographs, are not ‘ordinary’, Soth is drawn to people who seem to be intriguing, sad, different or eccentric. But he doesn’t seem to create photo’s which have a critical or hash gaze, these are not like Dianne Arbus’s photographs. He seems to look compassionately or empathetically, capturing people as they really are, not exaggerating their state or situation but also not trying to gloss over it. A very striking photograph, Sunshine, focuses on a woman lying on a bed wearing a bikini, she has the saddest gaze straight back at the camera lens. The assumed conclusion here is that the lady is a prostitute (this is confirmed in a interview with Soth, featured later in this post). But there is no sense of judgement or approval in the photographers gaze here, instead it feels more like an invitation to consider her emotional state, to empathize.
A very insightful interview in SEESAW Magazine, The Mississippi: An interview with Alec Soth, August 2004 by Aaron Schuman. This interview seems to cover so much, but a couple of parts really caught my attention. When asked about whether or not he saw the project as a piece of ‘Social Documentary’, he says he’s ‘not entirely happy with’ the project being referred to in this way. He goes on to explain that, yes it does document people and places along the journey and as such it has a documentary element. But concludes that, ‘there are just so many gaps. There is no picture of lavish river condos in Minneapolis, or sky scrapers in St.Lois. I’m aware of those things but I was shaping my own river.’ This series of photographs is not a tourists scrapbook, hastily made snapshots of beloved landmarks or favourite meals or moments. It is his exploration of the parts of places, people, buildings along the journey which capture his attention most. When asked about how he picks his subject or theme for a photograph he replied, ‘To find pictures, I just try to stay attentive to my curiosity. If something makes me turn my head I try to follow up on that’.
In the book, The Photograph As Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton, the series, Sleeping by the Mississippi is mentioned briefly, and his work in general. She says, ‘Soth’s photographs contain an element of the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic…as well as the conventions of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century portraiture, demonstrating that contemporary art photography draws on a range of traditions, both artistic and vernacular and reconfigures them’, (p.15 Cotton 2014).
Reading this comment on his work, I’m aware that I need to continue reading my textbooks in order to understand what is meant by ‘the deadpan aesthetic’ in contemporary art photography!
One final piece of research; an article written by Mick Brown for The Telegraph Online, Alec Soth: One of America’s Greatest Photographers.
I will finish my research there!!