Back to the Mississippi

My tutor suggested I revisit Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, unpick what makes it successful and see if there was anything I could draw from it for my own work.

The canal and the Mississippi are obviously two very different types of waterway, with ‘water’ perhaps being the only commonality. The latter dominates the landscape and shapes the places around it, providing and threatening life with its expansive waters. The canal is contained and calm, with people often oblivious to its existence – it can be easily overlooked.

I looked through Soth’s book several times over the weekend and a number of things struck me.

  • There are no signs of affluence in the photographs, but a sense of making-do and the make-shift. This is embraced in the work. The canal also flows through many areas that are not affluent but is also diverse, passing through picturesque open countryside and more affluent rural communities. There is a choice to be made here – a focus on the less represented margins or a more democratic view. One might be seen as a ‘broken Britain’, the other as a place of contrasts.
  • The portraits included are of ordinary people who seem to embrace distinctive identities or have characteristics that are out of the ordinary. This makes them visually interesting. They are connected by their connection to the river, which dominates the landscape. The canal does not form the same type of broader connections between people as it is not a dominant feature of place. Those that use and work the canal are mostly indistinctive – men and women dressed from the local ‘outdoor shops’, practical synthetic clothing to protect from the elements. I have struggled throughout to find a visual people angle that grabs my interest, but last week had the idea of drawing people in through their words, their tales.
  • While Soth’s theme is the river, he often looks away from it and water is absent from many images. For example, empty interiors, preachers, construction workers. They are held together by the overall sense of water in the book; the juxtaposition reminds me that there is water nearby, even though I don’t see it in the image. It occurred to me last week that I was restricting my images to those that included water, even when there are subjects looking away from the water that are visually interesting. This is an unnecessary constraint – as long as the overall series conveys a sense of the water, I can broaden the range of images. I don’t just see the canal, I see from the canal.
  • Soth’s editing and sequencing of the images creates a varied and interesting visual impact. One thing I particularly noticed was alternate warm and cooler mini-sequences within the overall work. That particular aspect is not necessarily relevant to my work, but the importance of visual variety is.