Capturing the ethereal beauty of the American south

Capturing the ethereal beauty of the American south
Sleeping by the Mississippi — Magnum photographer Alec Soth shoots the local eccentrics of middle America for his newly reissued photo series, Sleeping By The Mississippi.

Alec Soth’s first venture into the art world started with painting. Then, he started sculpting outside. After that, in college, he encountered photography. More specifically, Robert Adams’ Summer Nights – a book that was “just about a guy walking around at night.” Alec was hooked. That, combined with the solitude of the medium, meant photography was the language for him.

Years later, the Minnesota-born photographer is internationally renowned, part of the Magnum collective, and an author of multiple books. Alec’s debut, Sleeping by the Mississippi, was first published in 2004 and contained photos – of people, places and things – taken along the Mississippi river during several road trips between 1999 and 2002. Now, it is being re-issued by MACK, along with two previously unseen images.

Alec is a storyteller in a poetic way – his documentary images are not placed there to tell you what to think, be grandiose or make political commentary, but rather to leave you wondering about the story behind them. Ultimately, each photograph is born out of an exploration of familiarity – a study of middle America and the minutiae of the lives of people living within it. Now, 13 years after the first publication of the book, we caught up with Alec.

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

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

© Alec Soth/Magnum, courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Beetles + Huxley, London; and MACK.

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

What makes the everyday life of people so interesting to you?
I think photography has taught me to see that way. I remember when I was a teenager, I had this uncle who talked about seeing the lights in the trees. Lights flickering off leaves, this pure light. I remember not quite knowing what he was talking about – but then later, as a photographer, I got it.

You’ve said before that you’re kind of awkward with people. How does that play into your photography?
I don’t struggle in that way anymore, but I think that it was responsible for getting those pictures. I wouldn’t get the same pictures now because I’m not the same person. I think it actually helped people trust me, in a weird way. I seemed very non-threatening. That’s why I say that when I’m reading people I want to photograph, they’re also reading me. We’re picking up on all those cues that we give off to another person. I think my own anxiety existing on the surface like that – people found comforting.

What has it been like to look back at the Sleeping in the Mississipi images?
It’s been good. I still see the flaws in Sleeping by the Mississippi – things I did then that I wouldn’t do now – but I can accept those and see what I like about it.

© Alec Soth/Magnum, courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Beetles + Huxley, London; and MACK.

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

© Alec Soth/Magnum, courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Beetles + Huxley, London; and MACK.

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

Have you ever had a moment that you hit a creative wall and how did you overcome it?
I’m in the middle of one right now as a matter of fact. I haven’t overcome it yet. I’ve done long-term projects and abandoned them and had to start over… Photography is so wrapped up in my identity that if I’m not working I tend to lose my sense of identity and I freak out. This goes from when I was 15. When I had a full-time job and I didn’t produce anything, I would beat up on myself. I’m more trustworthy now, but I definitely still hit the wall.

If someone wanted to get into photography but they’re scared they’re not talented enough, what would be your advice?
It depends on what their ambitions are – if the ambition was to make a living, I’d never recommend making a living as a photographer. If the ambition is a different one – investigation of the world and of oneself, then I think it’s just a matter of time and devotion. Another great thing about photography is the accessibility of the medium. You don’t have to study the technical aspects for 10 years to use it. You can move on to content more quickly.

© Alec Soth/Magnum, courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Beetles + Huxley, London; and MACK.

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

© Alec Soth/Magnum, courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Beetles + Huxley, London; and MACK.

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

© Alec Soth/Magnum, courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Beetles + Huxley, London; and MACK.

© Alec Soth/Magnum, courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Beetles + Huxley, London; and MACK.

Sleeping By The Mississippi is available now on MACK books. You can see the images live at Beetles+Huxley, from September 20 to October 21.

Biju Belinky is Huck’s staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.

Enjoyed this article? Like Huck on Facebook or follow us on Twitter

Latest on Huck

Activists claim victory after major UK festivals drop Barclays as a sponsor
Activism

Activists claim victory after major UK festivals drop Barclays as a sponsor

Groups and artists have been campaigning for Live Nation to drop the bank as a sponsor for Download, Latitude and Isle of Wight over alleged ties to the arms trade.

Written by: Ben Smoke

Exploring the football fanatic culture of the Middle East
Outdoors

Exploring the football fanatic culture of the Middle East

New photo book ‘Football كرة القدم’ draws together pictures from over a dozen photographers to explore the region’s vibrant football culture.

Written by: Isaac Muk

Drag artists unite to get out the vote, babes
Election 2024

Drag artists unite to get out the vote, babes

East London legend Crystal talks to Huck about her new campaign, Vote, Babes! which brings together over 20 drag artists to encourage young people to use their vote.

Written by: Ben Smoke

I interrupted Keir Starmer’s manifesto launch – here’s why
Election 2024

I interrupted Keir Starmer’s manifesto launch – here’s why

One of Starmer’s constituents, Alice tried every way to talk to her then MP about the crisis facing her generation, but he did not listen she writes exclusively for Huck.

Written by: Alice, Green New Deal Rising

Bashy: “My dad kept me alive”
Culture

Bashy: “My dad kept me alive”

In our latest Daddy Issues column, award winning actor and MC Ashley “Bashy” Thomas talks traditional masculinity, learning survival skills from his Dad and ‘making it’.

Written by: Robert Kazandjian

How communities of colour fought back
Election 2024

How communities of colour fought back

Micha Frazer-Carroll examines the challenges that the UK’s minoritised communities have faced over the last five years, and reports on the ways that they have come together to organise, support and uplift one another.

Written by: Micha Frazer-Carroll

Sign up to our newsletter

Issue 80: The Ziwe issue

Buy it now