Sleeping by the Mississippi
January 19 – March 16, 2006
This exhibition presents a selection of work from Alec Soth's photographic journey Sleeping by the Mississippi. For this project, Soth traveled along the meandering route of the Mississippi, photographing people and places along the way. The journey he documents starts in the wintry north with Peter's Houseboat, locked in frozen water, and makes its way through the Lenten season to the south, ending with the image of an empty bed frame in the swampy bushes of Venice, Louisiana at Easter. Although not the main subject of the photographs, the Mississippi River provides a poetic and narrative backdrop for Soth's wanderings. Once a thriving source of the American economy and cultural imagination, this mythic river, as seen by Soth, is now a rather worn and faded place. The people we see in these photographs are not the faces of prime-time, but those of an entirely different America found along the backwaters of this great river-road.
The series includes everything from landscapes to interiors to portraits. While the photographs are certainly documentary in nature, the title of the show hints at the fact that Soth's vision is fueled as much by poetry as by reportage. There is a quiet, dream-like quality to the work. Soth's landscapes are not grand vistas wishing to inspire awe (such an image is tacked wistfully to the faux-wood molding of Girardeau, Missouri), but places of contradiction and tension. Time has not always been kind to these rather stark and inhospitable places. The cold, grey-blue skies of winter are only gradually punctuated with small bursts of color as we move towards spring.
The process of making these photographs is complicated and involved. Alec Soth uses a large-format camera that creates 8x10 negatives. This very large camera produces photographic prints with extraordinary clarity and detail, but also requires a slow, cumbersome set-up that limits the number of photographs Soth can make on any given day. Each image requires negotiation, dialog, and trust between photographer and subject.
Among the people we're introduced to in these images are Charles, flying model airplanes on the roof of his house in Minnesota, and Kym, sitting slumped within the enveloping red warmth of a bar, the white light from the window revealing an icy coldness outside. Bonnie, the preacher's wife, sits self-composed on her couch, proclaiming her faith in a gilt frame. In a very different living room we're confronted with a mother and daughter sitting next to each other in image much too close for comfort: one looks out at us, defiantly provocative, the other, quietly resigned. And finally, we see Patrick, utterly beautiful in his second-hand suit, palm frond at hand, ready to prepare the way.
The imagery that punctuates this river narrative revolves around beds and boats—around going places and staying put. It encompasses Saturday night and Sunday morning; the seedy and the sacred. On this journey downstream, we encounter images of longing and of flight, of resting places and a constantly flowing current. In the muckiness of spring and the eagerness of Palm Sunday we are led to the edge of the sea at Easter—the empty bed frame simultaneously the end of the road and a new beginning.
These images ask fundamental human questions: who are we, where do we belong, where are we going? In Soth's work, home is transitional, floating, submerged. Dreams are of far places, flying away, and a better life. And yet, Soth repeatedly captures a quiet dignity and empathy in the here and now of the idiosyncratic people and places he photographs.
Gallery Director, Bethel University