American Dreamer: Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi

St. Genevieve, Missouri
St. Genevieve, Missouri

Alec Soth’s account of his journey along the Mississippi begins with a boat and ends with a bed. In fact, he appears to suggest that travellers and dreamers share the same restless inclinations, so that travel becomes a kind of dreaming, and that dreaming itself means to set out for parts unknown, even if only within ourselves. But Soth’s journey – his dream – actually has a route planned in advance, along the river that gives the work its title. There are, of course, other great rivers that seem to define places, especially cities; we can think of London and the Thames, or the Seine in Paris. But the Mississippi is perhaps unique in that it is often taken to define a whole continent, and a nation, even for those who have never seen it. Soth’s journey is framed by the river, but is ultimately more concerned with the landscape that it traverses, a human landscape shown against this mythological sweep, and formed by it as well. The pictures tell a kind of story, about escape and the longing for distant places, about everything that has been sacrificed in the name of progress, and even about stories themselves, the way in which the idea of a place – a nation – becomes a story we keep telling ourselves, long after it has ceased to be true. For all his apparent realism, then, Soth is no documentary photographer; if anything, he’s just one more dreamer, but still alert to those places and moments, not always significant in themselves, that speak to us out of history.

How the work came to be made is by now well-known: a young man, struggling to realise his creative ambitions, on the verge of giving up, undertakes a series of journeys along the fabled river, with a big camera and a list of potential subjects taped to the steering wheel of his car. Success unexpectedly follows, turning this humble Midwesterner into a veritable artworld commodity. The relative accessibility of Soth’s work, perhaps most exceptional in its old-fashioned sincerity, has no doubt enabled much of this popularity with audiences and critics alike. His sense of what makes for a good story – both in and about the work – is a quality that Soth has alternately embraced and resisted throughout his career, but Sleeping by the Mississippi is probably the most straight-forward example of this tendency in Soth’s work, and the book itself has become something of a landmark in contemporary photographic practice. First published in 2004, this latest version is a beautifully realised production from Mack, though the news that two previously unseen images would be included in the book, a usual practice to spice up reprints, might have been viewed with some reasonable scepticism. In this case, however, the welcome decision has been made to use these new pictures as ‘bookends’ for the narrative proper, which remains otherwise intact. So, while they don’t really expand our sense of what the work is about, their inclusion doesn’t in any way distract from it either.

Cape Girardeau, Missouri
Cape Girardeau, Missouri

This new edition of the book is actually quite well timed. It arrives just as the very soul of America seems to be up for grabs, and that, essentially, is what Soth’s pictures are about, the patchwork of ideals and myths that serve as the basis for America’s national identity, everything that the country is or wants to be, measured against the potent symbol of the Mississippi itself. Soth is unashamedly captivated by the myth, by the expansive grandeur of this poetic Americana, as well as by the romantic figure of the photographer out in the world. But there is also a kind of elegiac quality at play here; Soth is just cynical enough to recognise the extent to which these ideals often fail the translation to lived reality. The tension between his fondness for the symbols of American idealism, and the sheer hopelessness of its realisation opens up a gap that is visible in single pictures and across the work as whole. Soth has captured something of the dream’s final unravelling, then, the consequences of which have become even more apparent in the years since these pictures were made.  In fact, it is the result of forces long at work to undermine the basis on which the idea of America as a land of opportunity rests, while, perversely, suggesting that with enough hard work you too can be rich enough to screw the system. In short, the myth has always been a myth, and it’s your tough luck if you happened to believe it.

It has also now become clear that besides the impact Soth’s work has had on a younger generation of photographers, he himself is the product of a specific photographic lineage, one that, admittedly, he has never wanted to shy away from. The idea of a photographer ‘on the road’ is a staple of the medium; we might even think of it as genre in itself. The most quintessential example is probably Robert Frank’s book The Americans, but Frank himself was also influenced by the earlier photographic journeys of Walker Evans. It might even seem that photography and travel are intimately connected in the American context, a function of national scale, as opposed to the more urban-centric investigations of, for example, Frank’s European contemporaries. That Soth added colour and the innate formalism of working with an 8×10 camera to this tradition can also be related to the precedent set by Joel Sternfeld, who used a very similar approach. This is not to diminish Soth’s achievement with this work, or to slight the originality of his picture-making, rather it is to situate him, and to put that achievement in some kind of context. By doing so, certain differences of emphasis become apparent as well. There is a sort of ‘post-internet’ sensibility to the work that marks it out when compared to these earlier photographers; Soth in fact once likened the experience of making the pictures to “surfing the web” in the real world. He is simply more aware of the tradition as a tradition, and so he uses national symbols, as well as the conventions of a particular genre within the medium, in a very self-conscious way.

But for all his apparent fascination with everyday America, to say nothing of the road-trip as both a photographic tradition and as an experience, Soth makes one thing abundantly clear – the dream has turned sour. This can’t be concealed by the gorgeous lucidity of his large-format images, which also impose a kind of stillness and gravitas on his subjects that actually makes their seeming isolation all the more poignant. In fact, he rarely shows groups of people together; despite the regularity with which it is invoked in political discourse, community appears most often here as something that has to be enforced, a travesty of the ideal, which we can see with the image of the notorious Angola prison farm, its distant group of prisoners dwarfed by the nearly featureless landscape. But Soth’s subjects are generally alone, lost in reverie like Kym in the corner of a bar, which is perhaps also a reflection of the solitary photographer himself, and a clue to the subjective nature of the work. Those few exceptions where he photographs two people are perhaps all the more telling because of this. The double portrait of a mother and daughter who we presume, rightly or wrongly, to be sex workers, is a complex arrangement of postures and regards. Inevitably we compare the women, so that the picture functions as an imagined superimposition of two moments in time, the younger one being where her mother was, and the mother as the daughter will be, with a few more years and a few more disappointments behind her.

Mother and daughter, Davenport, Iowa
Mother and daughter, Davenport, Iowa

What’s more, it becomes impossible to look at the picture without thinking of the respective answers given by the two women to a question Soth often asked of his subjects, and recounted in the notes at the end of the book. Talking about their dreams, the daughter says she wants to be a nurse, and the mother admits she’s long since given up on dreaming. Now, this may be just an honest acknowledgement of her circumstances – people don’t change much, after all. But seen in the context of the work it also suggests a foreclosure of something fundamental to the very idea of America, its founding mythology, which is the notion of an endless social possibility, a future unconstrained by one’s past or station. And yet it seems like the older woman is just saying what we already know, that dreaming is for kids, those with illusions left to lose. The rest of us have to make do without them. That this information should be, in a sense, extraneous to Soth’s photography places the viewer in something of a difficult position, because reading these brief texts (which don’t necessarily function like captions) changes our response, but also deepens it as well, even as they direct us away from the photograph. These little vignettes are also an example of Soth’s awareness regarding his own position as a photographer within a particular tradition, dramatizing his encounters, so that that we can see something of the construction behind the work, how it was achieved, despite the more or less realistic intention of the pictures.

They also speak to an often-stated ambivalence about photographic narrative, his preferred comparison being with poetry and its accumulation of significant, illuminating detail. So, to say that Soth is telling a kind of “story” here, as I did earlier, would seem to be contradicted by his own view of the work. But I would argue that this depends entirely on what is meant by ‘narrative’ in photography. If we assume that the medium can offer novelistic scope and access to the interiority of his subjects’ lives, then Soth is obviously correct, because of course it cannot. But if we accept that in this case it signifies the careful inter-relation of subjects and themes that go into producing the overall effect of the work – its meaning – then the apparent opposition between ‘poetry’ and ‘narrative’ becomes less relevant. That Soth has considered this inter-relation is, in fact, self-evident.  A specific group of motifs reoccur throughout, in subtly modified or emphasised forms, and they are woven together with several other themes, against the dominant backdrop of the river itself – sometimes seen, but most often not –  to create a structure that can’t be called anything other than a kind of narrative. The way in which these change as the viewer moves through the book is how the story gets told; a given subject in the pictures shown in one way and then later in another will affect our understanding of the theme or idea that a particular motif seems connected to. Narrative, then, is the sum of this relationship between motif and theme.

Charles Lindbergh's boyhood bed, Little Falls, Minnesota
Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood bed, Little Falls, Minnesota

A specific instance of such a relationship, for example the use of beds, will serve to make this clearer. The book opens with an image of a house-boat, that is to say, a boat on which one lives and sleeps; as has already been noted, in the confines of Soth’s narrative the two – boat and bed – become largely interchangeable. The theme here is one of travel and escape as a mode of living, of not being tied down to the work-a-day world, which is what all dreamers fear. Skipping ahead we find an image of Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood bed, a prefiguration of his later travels, albeit by air rather than by water. But we can nonetheless imagine him as a kind of latter-day Huck Finn and a totemic embodiment of the American can-do spirit, rising from humble origins – this bed is a decidedly modest one – to become a national hero. What we might know about his later life, however, suggests a darker note being inserted into the narrative, supported by the other elements in the sequence. And sure enough, the next image of a bed is different again, showing a type associated with hospitals, bare except for a sheet, as if its occupant had recently died. The edge of the sheet doesn’t quite cover an ominous hole in the floor that can’t help but remind us of a grave. The rest of the room is empty except for an old-fashioned television, once the font of collective visions, its screen now blank, and a broom waiting by the door. What has changed in America since Lindbergh dreamed his boyhood dreams?

Next is a portrait of a young woman named Sunshine lying on what is probably a motel bed. Given this context and her outfit we might assume, again rightly or wrongly, that Sunshine is a sex worker, the ‘labouring body’ in its most literal sense. If that is so then the function of this particular bed in the thematic structure that Soth is building here is to say that the site of dreaming – the American Dream itself – has been reduced to mere commercial exchange. Or rather, is revealed as such, because in many ways that has always been the case, and the mythology of individual effort, of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, has allowed greed and political calculation to operate unchecked, as it still does. The final bed I’ll mention here bares this out. It is more the trace of one, a mattress submerged in some desolate swamp, the final resting place for those ideals about the values of comfort and sustenance that human society should represent. The flowery pattern of the mattress is also a mockery of the barren landscape that surrounds it, reminding us yet again of what our ‘comforts’ cost, and how easily they are squandered. The example of this particular narrative thread is just one in the book, and of course the other pictures in the overall sequence change the effect as well, but even a brief reading seems enough to suggest that this is definitely a narrative cast in photographic terms. Perhaps more importantly, the progression also implies a general and cumulative pessimistic tendency, amounting to a loss of idealism.

Adopting familiar strategies and subjects, then, Soth doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, but he doesn’t have to either. Ultimately, what’s unique about the work is the deft balance of sincerity and self-awareness that he manages to sustain throughout. There is no sense of detachment from his subjects and yet he’s never unmindful of how these tropes fit into the tradition of contemporary American photography, as well as how the whole road-trip structure of the work reflects a specific conception of the medium. This dual perspective, along with the folksy charm of his subjects, help to account for the project’s somewhat unexpected popularity. Those subjects are, in themselves, exemplars of a symbolic vocabulary, the American idiom, and Soth’s treatment of them is, again, marked by an understanding of their role in shaping the very the idea of America. He recognises how those symbols might be both used and questioned. So, although his journeys were focused on a particular geographical region, by implication the pictures come to speak for the whole American experience and the mythologies that underpin it. Soth’s ability for find and engage with such meaningful subjects is no less important of course; his connection with them, however brief, is what grounds the work, makes it more than a photographic exercise, or a story well told, though it is that as well. The somewhat old-fashioned, earnest quality of the pictures would perhaps have stood out more at the time, but is still striking today, despite how influential the work has been in the years since.

Venice, Louisiana
Venice, Louisiana

It is inevitable, though, that large swathes of the ‘American experience’ are only hinted at here; Soth is not creating a sociological study and can’t even be considered a documentary photographer. For all his concern with American tropes, this is still a personal journey, undertaken by a (relatively) young artist finding his own voice in the medium and using it figure out something about the place he comes from – that’s part of the tradition too. Soth’s portrayal of his travels down the Mississippi, the places and people he encountered there, is necessarily subjective, then. The pictures are as much a reflection of the artist’s own temperament as they are a measure of the times. Or rather, that they are – and can be – both. Soth is the protagonist of the work, the unseen point around which it revolves, reflected by the solitary characters he photographed. The viewer steps into his shoes, so to speak, and takes the journey with him. The kind of experience he evokes and the landscape he traverses seem archetypally American, the romanticised America of open roads and endless possibilities, one that probably never existed to begin with. Soth is confronting that loss in these pictures, trying to come to terms with it, feeling out its implications. The resulting account is of a place deeply fractured, full of lonely, disappointed people chasing some ideal that can never be realised, haunted by the spectres of violence and exploitation that have long shadowed the American Dream – we all have to wake up sometime.

Alec Soth, Sleeping by the Mississippi, Mack, 2017.

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