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Alec Soth’s Iconic ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ 13 Years Later



Alec Soth, ‘Peter’s houseboat, Winona, Minnesota’ from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK

Alec Soth, ‘Maiden Rock, Wisconsin’ from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

“Over and over again I fall asleep with my eyes open, knowing I’m falling asleep, unable to prevent it. When I fall asleep this way, my eyes are cut off from my ordinary mind as though they were shut, but they become directly connected to this new, extraordinary mind which grows increasingly competent to deal with their impressions.” -Charles Lindbergh, aviator (epitaph to Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi)

“I live near the beginning of the Mississippi and have always felt a pull to it,” Soth tells writer Colin Pantall of the British Journal of Photography. “I used to run away when I was 5 or 6, pack a suitcase with books and run away from home. I’d only get a few blocks but it was the whole Huck Finn process, where the north is home and the south symbolises the exotic.”

Thirteen years ago Alec Soth set out on his Deep South odyssey, following the mythic Mississippi river to Louisiana. In truth it was a series of trips, but one that in the imagination adds up to a fluid whole, portraying a worn and faded world and its lone inhabitants. What he created is remembered as a documentation of the forgotten “third coast”, merged with a poetic sensibility.

Sleeping by the Mississippi was first published by Steidl in 2004. America has changed since its inception, though the photographs still evoke something of the enduring quintessentially American spirit of wanderlust and curiosity it first portrayed.

With his The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain has bequeathed to the Mississippi river its enduring connotations with adventure and the wandering spirit. Soth’s photographs are in a sense haunted by this lingering impression of America’s stranger, fading past—both the real and the imagined. His vision of the deep south goes beyond a pure document with its dreamlike, ethereal quality.

Some subjects recall their dreams as the photographer slowly sets up his camera. Peter, whose houseboat home is depicted here, told the artist that he dreamed of having running water.

That slowness was to Soth part of the appeal in using a large-format camera and tripod. It enabled him the time to observe his subjects and to embrace those awkward silences. The process is also reminiscent of the slower pace of life he encountered travelling south.

Soth’s interiors and landscapes are largely devoid of people, though somehow they still feel like portraits. When people do appear, they are often alone. “The work is really about the failure to be alone. The people that I photographed allowed me to photograph them because they didn’t want to be alone,” Soth told Interview magazine. “Nobody really wants to be alone. People need people.”

Notably Soth is one of the few photographers not to leave his hometown in pursuit of the city life in New York.

“I was such a shy kid. Anyone who knows me from when I was young can’t believe this is what I do,” Alec Soth tells writer Fiona MacDonald of the BBC. He started taking portraits after college “it functioned almost as a kind of therapy, which was embarrassing, but it was a way to learn how to deal with other human beings and confront this fear.”

Curiosity was what drove Soth to take portraits of strangers and strange places. He was drawn to those on the margins of society: loners, convicts, self-styled preachers and sex workers. His quiet demeanour enabled him to gain the trust of strangers and access the Louisiana State Penitentiary, and a brothel on Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis.

The artist was forced to overcome his natural shyness when it came to making pictures of a sexual nature. The first of these encounters was with Sunshine, a prostitute working in a motel. “I was terrified to go into it, but I was so curious that I had to go and have a look.”

The resulting images from Soth’s journey are quiet, yet still iconic; they have been ranked with the other great visual representations of the United States, including the color works of Soth’s former teacher Joel Sternfeld and classic Magnum photographer Robert Frank’s bleak portrayal of the 50s’.

There’s also something Whitmanesque about the mood found in Soth’s photographs. This connection is most noteworthy in Soth’s recurring interest in death. Walt Whitman reflected on the cycle of life and death in much ofhis poetry—‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ imagines death as an integral part of life. Soth portrays cemeteries, gravestone and memorial murals; an old hospital bed in a deserted farm house is reminiscent of the time the artist spent at his mother-in-law’s deathbed. Faith too is a common motif; it’s something that becomes all the more significant in this fading, often neglected landscape.

While an important portrayal of the Deep South, the themes found within this book are universal. For while we don’t all live by the banks of the Mississippi, we will all at times know loneliness, comes to terms with our faith, or lack of it, and eventually death. And we all dream.

The recently published MACK edition of Sleeping by the Mississippi includes two new photographs that weren’t in the original, and an original introductory essay by Patricia Hampl.

Alec Soth, ‘Charles, Vasa, Minnesota’ fromSleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Alec Soth, ‘Cemetery, Fountain City, Wisconsin’ from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Alec Soth, ‘Ste. Genevieve, Missouri’ from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Alec Soth, ‘Sugar’s, Davenport, Iowa’ from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Alec Soth, ‘Mother and daughter, Davenport, Iowa’ from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Alec Soth, ‘New Orleans, Louisiana’ fromSleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Alec Soth, ‘Kym, Polish Palace, Minneapolis, Minnesota’ from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017).Courtesy of the artist and MACK

Alec Soth, ‘Green Island, Iowa’ from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

All images © Alec Soth and MACK

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