For ‘Time Out’ Magazine
Alec Soth’s exhibition may be titled “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” but no one sleeps in his photographs and the river makes only cameo appearances. His real subjects are the oddball characters that populate the cities and countryside along the waterway. Starting in Minneapolis where he documents a weight lifter, Soth moves down the river, stopping in Iowa for a picture of a lingerie-clad mother and daughter before arriving in Baton Rouge to capture a man clutching a bible and a branch on Palm Sunday.
Portraits can trigger our inner detective; we look for clues as to why a man stands on his snowy roof holding two toy airplanes, for example. But sometimes settings alone start the imagination racing, as when Sugar’s, Davenport, IA (2002) presents a room with poisonous green walls, a classic ‘70s floral patterned chair and a bright red copy of Hustler on the floor. In the gallery, Soth’s photos of unpopulated interiors infect his portraits with a loneliness reinforced by the time of year when they were taken – the bleak months of winter and early spring.
Surprisingly, apart from a freakish wax figure from a museum in Missouri, all subjects are white. By eliding geographic and racial differences in favor of exploring lives unified by their nonconformity, Soth undermines the lore of life on Old Man River. The photos don’t express nostalgia about the mighty Mississippi and there’s no Huck Finn thrill of adventure. Instead, they focus on people who, despite their hardscrabble lives, assert unique identities with a passion unfettered by circumstance.