Alec Soth

Dreaming down the River

The Mississippi is one of the world’s longest rivers. Its source is in northern Minnesota and it crosses ten states before arriving at its delta in the Gulf of Mexico, 160 kilometers south of New Orleans, having covered almost 4,000 kilometers. It has spawned many stories and myths, and has inspired countless artists: Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn got up to his tricks on its banks; in “Big River” Johnny Cash follows the tracks of a woman who has stolen his heart; with the Delta Blues the river actually produced a music style of its own, rough and intense, with passionate vocals and a penetrating rhythm. In the course of a number of years, Alec Soth photographed the different life styles along the river, focusing on the people who live on its banks, and their dreams.

Alec Soth was born in Minnesota, and this is where he grew up and still lives. He has always been fascinated by the expanse and power of the Mississippi, as well as by the countless little stories surrounding it. Seeking out these stories between 1999 and 2004, Alec Soth repeatedly followed the course of the Mississippi – equipped with a plate camera and a lot of time. This is just what he needed to gain the trust of the river folk and create the right intimate mood that typifies his work. The result is 46 brilliantly composed photographs that have none of the steamboat Romanticism about them. Alec Soth presents the countryside and people on the banks of the Mississippi; his pictures speak of poverty, decay and individual fates. For example the butch bodybuilder Lenny: The construction worker who earns a little money on the side with erotic massages, poses for Soth, his chest bared and accompanied by his rottweiler. His son was killed in a car crash; working out is his therapy – he dreams of turning 100 and looking just as good.

Dreams are the leitmotif of this series because they always offer a way out of a tough everyday life. Alec Soth has repeatedly photographed beds, mattresses and sofas – those purported retreats from the here and now. It is not a coincidence that he calls his series of photos “Sleeping by the Mississippi”. Soth’s photographs offer a deep insight into the emotional life of an entire society and its inhabitants: The viewer can see the dreams in the eyes of the people, can discern their innermost thoughts in their eyes, so filled with yearning and melancholy. “Sleeping by the Mississippi” focuses on that dream of fortune – but it never becomes a reality on the banks of the Mississippi.

Biographical information

1969

born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

1992

Bachelor of Arts, Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York

2006

finalist of Deutsche Börse Photography Prize

lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA