Dreaming to get through the night
It was a string of road trips following the coast of one of America’s most famous intersections that eventually gave birth to the masterpiece that is Sleeping by the Mississippi. Over the course of several years, photographer Alec Soth traveled from its source to its mouth, capturing the pockets of life that resided on the banks of the Mississippi River along his way. What resulted from his journeys was a collection of roughly fifty images, each individually recounting their own complicated story but together composing a bittersweet mosaic of unrealized dreams budding along America’s greatest river.
Even before I thoroughly familiarized myself with this photographic series, I felt inexplicably bound to the project. Growing up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, two bustling metropolitan areas that were built on the Mississippi, I have many treasured summer memories spent down by the churning river, exploring its rocky shores. I was already familiar with the landscapes of murky waters and scraggly trees depicted in several of Soth’s photographs. More importantly though, I had witnessed first-hand the oftentimes devastating relationship between America’s grim realities and the American people’s instinctive urge to dream. It is this conflict that is so strongly showcased in Sleeping by the Mississippi.
For centuries, the Mississippi River has played a vital role in the American economy and in the lives of millions. It has provided abundant sustenance and facilitated transportation for those inhabiting the areas around it and has additionally supplied hydroelectric energy and water to several states. As a result of the immense wealth attributed to it, the river has functioned as a symbol of the American dream throughout its life, representing a thriving country in which anything was possible for any of its citizens. However, the brilliance of the Mississippi, as well as that of the communities around it, has been severely dimmed over time by America’s darkest systemic problems. Crime, poverty, illness, and pollution have all taken a noticeable toll on the cities, towns, and neighborhoods scattered along the river. Alec Soth reveals the tragic decay of these once flourishing areas in his photographic project.
Part of the Sleeping by the Mississippi collection, this photograph was taken by Soth in Arkansas. The image depicts three pieces of furniture deteriorating amongst litter in a wooded area. The chairs are set up to face each other just as furniture would be positioned in a typical living room setting. Further fabricating a scene resembling that of a home, two wooden stumps are placed near the chairs, acting as side tables, one of which even has a bottle sitting on top. An American flag hangs above the couch and another is perched near one of the chairs. All of these elements together construct the illusion of a home, oddly placed in a gloomy forest. An unsettling tone is born from the contrast of a space mirroring one that is normally characterized as safe and cozy against a backdrop of an ominous sky and gnarly trees. In this particular photograph, the conflict between a common desire of many Americans to have a nice home and the heart wrenching realities of poverty and homelessness is unquestionably represented. This outdoor living space was most likely arranged by someone who did not have a home they could furnish and relax in for themself but who still wanted to fulfill their dream as much as they could. It is the interaction between an American’s dream and their difficult position that produced this unique set-up captured by Soth.
This country’s most catastrophic issues have undoubtedly suppressed the dreaming of the American population. Many of the photographs within this series show scenes just like the one in Luxora, Arkansas: someone’s dream of wanting a house, being loved, or connecting with a higher power seeping through the cracks of a nightmarish reality. In Charles, Vasa, Minnesota, another American is shown fighting to keep their dream alive under the weight of widespread problems in our country. The image depicts a man dressed in coveralls and standing on the roof of a house covered in debris. As the subject of the photograph, the man stands in the center, staring at the camera, and holding two toy airplanes. The expression on the man’s face is sorrowful and empty, contrasting greatly with the cheerfully colored planes he appears to be playing with. A second contrast between the bright turquoise paneling of the house and the monochrome background is also a striking element of this photograph. These two sets of juxtaposing components illustrate the battle between dream and reality in this image. The two toy airplanes represent Charles’ probable dream of becoming a pilot while the saddened expression of the man, the wreckage littering the roof, and the somber day represent the undesired situation that the man was forced into, a situation in which achieving his dreaming was not possible. It is not evident without context what exactly this man may be struggling with that became an obstacle for him in accomplishing his goal. It can be assumed, though, that mental health issues and poverty contributed to his dream staying unrealized. Although what is truly notable about this image, and countless others of the series, is that though it has not come true, this man continues to dream through his struggling. Throughout this series, it is apparent that our society’s issues are impacting the American people’s dreams considerably, but not their ability to dream. Alec Soth’s photographs firmly show that our tendency as humans to hope for something better is more powerful than any hardship.
Herman’s Bed, Kenner, Louisiana noticeably stands out compared to the rest of Sleeping by the Mississippi. Sandwiched between gray photographs depicting bleak landscapes and unhappy people, this image of a vibrantly colored nook profoundly transforms the overall impression of Soth’s project. It shows life, represented by the bright reds, oranges, and blues of innumerable glittering decorations, existing within the communities that appear almost asleep in so many of Soth’s other photos. This photograph adds the dimension to this project necessary to prove that dreaming persists along the Mississippi River, even if it may be hard to find.
It is indisputable that Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi exposes the realities of life paralleling America’s well-known river. Representative of the country as a whole, the people residing along the Mississippi have been worn down by grueling quotidian battles against poverty, addiction, loneliness, and mental health issues. These problems have definitely hindered the American people in getting what they wish for, but it has most certainly not stopped the American population from dreaming. It is a hard fought battle depicted so fascinatingly throughout this series. Nevertheless, Alec Soth perfectly captured the dreams of American people continuing to sparkle through the darkness of the Mississippi River landscape.
Photographs shown throughout this essay:
Soth, Alec. Luxora, Arkansas. 2002. Mia, Minneapolis Institute of Art, collections.artsmia.org/art/105043.
Soth, Alec. Charles, Vasa, Minnesota. 2002. Mia, Minneapolis Institute of Art, collections.artsmia.org/art/105014.
Soth, Alec. Herman’s Bed, Kenner, Louisiana. 2002. Mia, Minneapolis Institute of Art, collections.artsmia.org/art/105024.