One of the defining publications of the photo-book era, Alec Soth’s Sleeping by The Mississippi is a seminal body of work from the recent history of photography. Evolving from a series of road trips along the Mississippi River between 1999 and 2002, Sleeping by the Mississippi captures America’s iconic yet often neglected ‘third coast.’ The mythic American river runs the length of the country from North to South, from Soth’s home state of Minnesota, meandering down into the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico.
Soth used a large-format 8 x 10 inch camera to create his richly descriptive colour photographs, presenting an eclectic mix of individuals, landscapes, and interiors that he discovered along the river’s path. Like Robert Frank’s classic The Americans, Sleeping by the Mississippi merges a documentary style with poetic sensibility. The Mississippi is less the subject of the book than its organising structure. Not bound by a rigid concept or ideology, the series is created out of a quintessentially American spirit of wanderlust. Like Frank, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld before him, Soth drew inspiration from the open road. Soth’s lyricism and tendency toward narrative diverges from the documentary tradition of Shore and Sternfeld, as Sleeping by the Mississippi draws on the American literary theme of the Mississippi as a metaphor for wandering and freedom. Empty beds and abandoned mattresses appear in the series again and again as a leitmotif for dreaming and reverie.
Soth seeks out the reality of ‘middle America’ and often looks to those living outside of social conventions; from Pentecostal churches to prostitutes and prison inmates. His strikingly honest portraits do not flatter or patronise those they capture, but are laced with a gentle humour and tenderness. Sitters are often placed side by side with their most prized possessions. Soth’s medley of portraiture placed alongside soaring landscapes and idiosyncratic interiors allows the series to become a compelling and lyrical exploration of place in the widest sense of the word.
Thirteen years since the book was first published, the artist’s poetic view of middle America has undoubtedly acquired new meanings – ones in which hope, fear, desire and regret coalesce in the evocative journey along the Mississippi River