Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi): An Interview with Alec Soth
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April 5th, 2022

By Gregory Eddi Jones

Video stills from #3 Charles, Vasa, Minnesota by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video stills from #3 Charles, Vasa, Minnesota by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

Obscura Journal Contributor Gregory Eddi Jones recently interviewed Magnum photographer Alec Soth in advance of his Obscura Curated Commission drop, Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi). They discuss Alec’s latest commission and how the value of a photograph doesn’t necessarily reside in the image itself.

GEJ: To start Alec, and not to flatter you too much, but Sleeping by the Mississippi is one of the most iconic photobooks in recent memory. Before we get into the details about your process, can you talk about why you decided to revisit the project for the Obscura commission?

AS: Since it was my first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi is the work I’ve spent the most time thinking and talking about. After two decades of lectures, essays and interviews, the project has come to live in my mind as much as it does on the page. What I treasure most about the project is its naiveté. I made numerous creative and business mistakes with Sleeping by the Mississippi. If I edited the book now, I would respace a dozen pictures. I would also change the way I sold these photographs. When I started I didn’t know anything about print editions or gallery representation. But I regret nothing. What is preserved in this work, for me, is the spirit of wide-eyed wandering.

As I started dipping my toes into the NFT world, I was reminded of the feelings of naiveté I felt two decades ago. So why not do something new once again with the same pictures; particularly since the pictures mostly live in my mind.

Video stills from #27 Joshua, Angola State Prison, Louisiana by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video stills from #27 Joshua, Angola State Prison, Louisiana by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: The dissolutions seem like such a destructive act. My initial reading of them was that they represented an undoing of your legacy work almost as if you’re erasing the past, in a way. Is it too cynical a viewpoint to think of these as a form of disownership, or maybe an “un-photographing”?

AS: I can understand that reading. It makes me think of Robert Frank drilling holes in his old prints of The Americans. But I don’t see it that way. I was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s erasing of a Willem de Kooning drawing. A lot of people saw that as an act of destruction. When Rauschenberg was asked how he would describe it, he used a different word: poetry. Another inspiration was Hollis Frampton’s film where he burned his old photographs while telling stories about them. The film is less about destruction than the transmutation of an object to a memory.

Video still from #46 Venice, Louisiana by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video still from #46 Venice, Louisiana by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: Of course there’s a particular beauty that arises from these disintegrations. I’ve actually found it quite enjoyable to pause the videos at certain points where the abstractions feel most visually delightful. And there’s a participatory element that comes into play, as if I become the photographer searching for the right moment to freeze and admire.

AS: I was tempted to do the very same thing! I imagined doing enlargements of specific moments and printing new objects. The desire to save is irrepressible.

Video stills from #23 Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video stills from #23 Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: I know a lot of magicians don’t like to reveal their tricks. Are you open to talking about exactly how you made these video pieces?

AS: It's funny you ask because two nights ago I went to a magic show in Vegas. I thought a lot about this desire to know how something is done. This is analogous to one’s desire to know the story behind a picture. Sometimes I’ll share a fragment of the story because it adds meaning without taking away the mystery. More often I withhold information. What I’ll tell you about these dissolutions is that they required a team of four people in jumpsuits to execute and way more math and science than I prefer to use in my work.

Video stills from #22 Sugar's, Davenport, Iowa by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video stills from #22 Sugar's, Davenport, Iowa by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: Can you say at least if there are any physical remnants left over from this process, something left to keep as pictorial company? Or are they only left to exist as virtual momentos (if I can call them that).

AS: The slate was wiped entirely clean. I consciously resisted the urge to create another object.

Video stills from #12 Saint Genevieve, Missouri by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video stills from #12 Saint Genevieve, Missouri by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: You entered the NFT space fairly recently with your drop of Dog Days Bagota, and now this new work. I’m curious to hear your reflections on the world of the blockchain so far. Have you thought about what the blockchain might mean for photography in the long run?

AS: Photography has always been linked to technology. With the world changing so fast, this can get annoying. Often people place more attention on the new technology than on the art being made with it. Over the years, I found that the best strategy for me is to wait to hold judgment.

I find the musical analogy helpful, particularly since I’m not a musician. Personally I’m happy that bongos and drum machines have a place in music and that they can be heard on iphones, albums or live in amphitheaters. But while all of these technologies are perfectly good, it says nothing about the quality of the art. None of this really answers your question about the future of photography. I honestly don’t have a clue what will happen. But I’m optimistic that good new work will be made in new unforeseen ways.

Video still from #8 Kym, Polish Palace, Minneapolis, Minnesota by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video still from #8 Kym, Polish Palace, Minneapolis, Minnesota by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: What you mention are the things that attract me to space. For me, it’s an acknowledgement of the history of photography as a history of technology. And it’s an anticipation of what flowers might grow from the new soil these tools cultivate for us. Even while NFTs aren’t picture-making tools unto themselves, this new paradigm will undoubtedly inspire new ways of thinking and making. Have you started yet to brainstorm other ways that you might engage with this new ecosystem in the future?

AS: I like your use of the word flowers. It suggests something temporal and fleeting. A big turning point in my thinking was in 2015 when I did an experiment with Snapchat. In collaboration with the Walker Art Center, I sold an edition of Snapchats. A few people purchased images from me which disappeared immediately after they saw them (they weren’t permitted to take screenshots.) The question for me was how I could make this experience valuable to the buyers. It's only for them to know, but I think I succeeded. The lesson, for me, was that the value of a photograph doesn’t necessarily reside in the image itself.

This work with NFTs is an extension of the same idea. So is my collaboration with the musician Dave King doing live performances using photographs. Going forward, I want to keep exploring the value of the experience, whether this results in an object or not.

Video still from #55 William Eggleston, Memphis, Tennessee by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video still from #55 William Eggleston, Memphis, Tennessee by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: There’s a question I’ve been asking myself for awhile, and it’s one that seems good to pass on to you, as for some of us, photography can feel like a religion. Does your faith in photography ever waiver? Do you ever have moments where you stop believing in it, in some way or another?

AS: Absolutely. I fell in love with the craft when it existed in a totally analog universe, but I was just as excited when the Internet came along. I built my own website and later became an active blogger. But something changed for me in the late-aughts with the advent of mobile photography and social media. I went through a very cynical phase with the medium. I remember giving a college lecture and complaining about the oversaturation of images. The next day when I saw those same students excitedly developing film, I felt like such a curmudgeon. My goal nowadays is to get in touch with the feeling those students were having. Whether or not I’m shooting large format negatives or recording digital videos for the blockchain, I want to feel like I’m going on a new adventure.

Video still from #34 Frankie, Ferriday, Louisiana by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video still from #34 Frankie, Ferriday, Louisiana by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video still from #34 Frankie, Ferriday, Louisiana by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video still from #34 Frankie, Ferriday, Louisiana by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: I think the thing that struck me most about this new project is that it doesn’t contain the kind of romanticism that I feel in so much of your previous work. The emotional synergy is quite different, darker even, if not simply beautiful in a different sort of way. I wonder if you see this as part of a larger departure in your practice; the beginning of a larger new adventure, rather than a shorter term vacation, so-to-speak.

AS: It’s hard to say. The only way I grow as an artist is by experimentation. My collaboration with a writer on a self-published newspaper led to Songbook. A small project I did involving non-public performances on a see-saw led to I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating. But none of this was charted out in advance. I follow my intuition and am definitely still a romantic.

Video still from #28 Jessie's Prayer Room, Memphis, Tennessee by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission
Video still from #28 Jessie's Prayer Room, Memphis, Tennessee by Alec Soth from Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi), Obscura Curated Commission

GEJ: Thanks for the great conversation Alec. Do you have any other projects coming up that you want to share, NFT or otherwise?

AS: On April 8th I’m doing a presentation of The Palms, my collaboration with the musician Dave King, at SFMoMA and am opening survey exhibitions of my work in Germany in May and Japan in June. Many thanks.

GEJ: In other NFT photo news, you've recently donated an image to the Imag3Aid fundraiser to help provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Could you talk a little about that picture?

AS: In 2018 I visited Odessa while photographing portraits for my project, "I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating." The picture I made there of the activist Stas Dombrovsky and his girlfriend Sonya became a signature image from the project. After being used in magazines and billboards to promote my exhibitions, it’s gratifying that the photograph can help raise money for this cause.

Alec Soth for Imag3Aid - NFT Photography fundraiser for Ukrainian Emergency Relief Fund
Alec Soth for Imag3Aid - NFT Photography fundraiser for Ukrainian Emergency Relief Fund

To view the full collection of Alec Soth’s Obscura Foundry Commission Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi):

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