After Niagara and I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating, and even though I probably should’ve spent the money in some other way, I figured the bookshelf (and this collection of reviews) wouldn’t be complete without Alec Soth’s first major book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, so I went hunting…
Now, to be honest, during the first flip through while unboxing the book, I had several moments of deja vu. I knew what picture was coming next, whole chunks felt familiar to me, there was very little surprise to any of it.
After turning off the camera, I went to the bookshelves and looked, checked through the to-be-reviewed stacks, looked on the coffee table, almost sure I had inadvertently purchased (and unboxed) a second copy, but no! I had never held this book in my hands before… It was my first time. How can this be?
Well, that’s the way it is with the most famous photobooks, I think. You’ve seen it all already, many times, over and over again. They’re famous for a reason. And given my long-time appreciation of Soth’s work, well, it stands to reason I would’ve seen many of these pictures before.*
I’m not sure what I expected from Sleeping by the Mississippi, really. I know it’s one of the classics, oft-referenced, and despite being less than 20 years old, it’s mentioned in the same breath as American Photographs and The Americans (in Anne Wilkes Tucker’s afterward, anyway). Maybe it lives up to that high company, maybe.
Evans and Frank, if I recall… I should pull the books out and look, why not…
(Later…) Evans and Frank showed us the breadth of America: rich/famous, poor/unknown, uptown/downtown, this side of the track and the other. Soth’s photographs, though, and maybe it’s the location, maybe it’s something more in the ethos, have a poverty to them, a sense of being left behind or passed by (or flown over). The people and places all look a bit wasted, polluted. The whole river, wild and dangerous despite a century of Corps of Engineers meddling, looks almost placid. When you get to the guy fishing, my first thought is “you’d eat something out of that?” as if people fish only for food and never for a good reason to stand in the sun and shoot the breeze.
Maybe Evans and Frank were inspirations for Soth. They were for everyone else of his (and the one earlier) generation. But rather than American Photographs or The Americans, I’d put Soth more in there with American Surfaces, with its greasy breakfasts and filthy toilets. By the time Shore made his cross country trips, things were starting to turn, the American dream was feverish and twitching, and Soth’s pictures are an America that’s asleep and nobody’s sure if they’re ever going to wake up.
If my first flip through of Sleeping by the Mississippi brought about deja vu, and my second and third (fourth even) viewings left me a bit hollow, if understanding, now, after 2-3 hours over 2 days, maybe 8 slow flip-throughs, I think I almost get it now, and this series/photobook I think is as great as all the press and mentions suggest. I get it. I understand why Sleeping by the Mississippi is one of those books. The sequencing is great, with the repetition of beds, sinners and saints, cemeteries and wild, fertile places, and Soth’s ability to get in there with people is unquestioned.**
Overall, Sleeping by the Mississippi rates 4 stars.
Most of the 2017 Mack printing is, I think, something of an open edition and it’s available all over. If you don’t have a copy, you might want to pick one up. Photobook collectors definitely should (first editions are available for several thousand…); photobook enthusiasts probably should (I sorta count myself among this group); photographers interested in contemporary-ish Americana/Travel/Large Format/Color/etc. photography might get something out of it too. For everyone else, well, many of the pictures are on Soth’s website, albeit in a different order, and you can see most of the pictures online too.
*Also there’s the From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America catalog that I picked up years ago, and I haven’t checked, but I suspect many of the pictures from Sleeping by the Mississippi appear there, and probably in much the same sequence.
**Honestly, while the pictures in I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating are somewhat more intimate and personal, I’m not certain there’s much of a difference, from a viewer’s standpoint, between the portraits there and the portrait of Sunshine or the Mother and Daughter or anything in Niagara. I’m probably missing it.