Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi is a book that manifests itself through the visualization of a border, shifting ambiguously between a theme, the Mississippi River, and a genre, documentary; or perhaps more accurately, an American tradition in primis. In the first case, the theme of the river becomes a narrative space where the entire book takes place; the river as a line of demarcation, from one bank to another, through 10 states, shows a sporadic landscape, at times incomplete, spirited, metaphysical, a place where everything has internal rules, a soul and a destiny that seems to challenge our perception of reality. The actors of this long strip of land include young workers posing in front of a memorial; a woman with a fifties’ hair do holding a framed picture of angel-shaped clouds; a young, semi-naked girl lying on a bare bed; a body-builder in underwear sitting with his dog between his knees. These are only some of the characters that appear between the banks of the Mississippi River – this liminal space defined as impenetrable from a geographical point of view, but whose stories seem to collapse, implode.
The second observation takes place around the matter of genre – documentary – almost implicit in this type of work, where photographic allusions seem so precise (Walker Evans, Robert Frank among many), but in Sleeping by the Mississippi, perhaps, only whispered. Soth’s photographs seem like instant shots of actions to come, which, even in their stillness – sometimes extreme regard the way in which these photographs were collected – appear to be forced breaks of a narration asking to stop, if only for a moment. Sleeping by the Mississippi strikes you as an immense narrative cycle, a possible excuse to build a cinematic journey, made of different episodes within which each story generates other stories and the protagonists’ lives seem to intertwine with each other, without ever meeting each other. It is the unique framework of the Mississippi which unites these stories along a winding/twisting trail – almost evanescent, elusive and undefinable, but eternal and universal, as if it were a Carver’s novel.
website: Alec Soth
review by Francesco Bertocco
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