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Mother and daughter, Davenport, Iowa from Sleeping by the Mississippi (2017)Courtesy of the artist and MACK

The story of a mother and daughter working a brothel in Iowa

Magnum photographer Alec Soth revisits his debut series and tells the full story behind this haunting twin portrait taken in the early 00s

When you think of Alec Soth, you think of his strange, haunting depictions of midwestern USA. You think of photojournalism that tiptoes into territories of fine art; that awkward, visual romanticism. You think of the worlds he captures, worlds that no other photographer has really been able to inhabit in the same way: behold, everyone, Alec Soth’s Alternate America, it’s as mythic as it is mundane.

In 2004, the Minnesotan photographer shared Sleeping By The Mississippi, a meditative visual record of road trips he made along the eponymous river during one of life’s numerous limbo periods. With his debut book, Soth – who became a member of Magnum in 2008 –  tackled dreams, death, art, sex, crime, and religion in his depiction of America’s Third Coast, entangling raw documentation with a desolate visual poetry. It was a muted, maundering epic, of which remains embedded in the collective consciousness – 13 years later, the book is still as important as ever.

From September, a MACK edition of Sleeping By The Mississippi will be available to buy, while an accompanying exhibition will run at London’s Beetles+Huxley gallery from September 19 – October 21. The former includes two new pictures that weren’t included in previous versions of the book, while the show marks the first in London dedicated solely to the famed photography series.

To mark the exhibition and the book’s new edition, we asked Soth to pick a single photograph from Sleeping By The Mississippi and share the story behind its inception. Below, Soth discusses “Mother and daughter”, a haunting, twin portrait taken in 2002 featuring a girl and her mum in Davenport, Iowa – both of whom happened to work in the same Davenport brothel.

“I had to go into this place (knowing) I was going to have to give some sort of excuse as to what I was up to. So, I walk in and there’s this little old lady behind the desk and I say, ‘I want to take pictures’... and she’s like, ‘well, that’ll be good publicity!’” – Alec Soth

“At this point, I had been photographing for a while. I was like, ‘I’m gonna do whatever I wanna do – just follow my curiosity wherever it takes me’. This was a good example. So, I saw this brothel, in Davenport, Iowa, of all places. Iowa is classic middle America; it’s also the town where my father is from. I just didn’t think of it as that kind of place. I saw it – I was curious and just followed that curiosity. 

I had no reputation, no credentials. I wasn’t working for anybody, but I was too old to call myself a student. I had to go into this place (knowing) I was going to have to give some sort of excuse as to what I was up to. So, I walk in and there’s this little old lady behind the desk and I say, ‘I want to take pictures’ and she says, ‘what for?’ So, I say, ‘I’m from Minnesota and I’m doing this project, following the Mississippi river...’ and she’s like, ‘well, that’ll be good publicity!’

I spent some time, at first, just photographing in the different rooms inside. There were these women and clients coming and going, so I took a number of pictures there. It was when I was taking a big, group picture that I learned that there was a mother and daughter working at the same place. So, I ended up making a picture of both of them. 

For me, the construction of the picture is telling. I’m using this camera where I can move the focus in different ways – not just in a strictly vertical frame, but I can move it through space. You’ll see that the mother’s toes are in focus, then it follows up her leg. You see the cigarette in focus and their eyes in focus, but their feet are out of focus. That’s important, particularly when you see this as a larger image: it really kind of carves these figures out of space and gives them a certain kind of physicality.

“In the book, you’re just given this caption: ‘Mother and daughter, Davenport, IA.’ None of the pictures have, next to them, big stories. I battle with how much story I want cos a photograph usually functions without that” – Alec Soth

One of the things that I did while photographing, is I would have people write down on a sheet of paper what their ‘dream’ is. With almost everyone I photographed, I did this. I remember the daughter’s dream was to become an RN – a registered nurse. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure the mom said something along the lines of, ‘I’m done dreaming.’ A little heartbreaking.

In the book, you’re just given this caption: ‘Mother and daughter, Davenport, IA.’ None of the pictures have, next to them, big stories. I battle with how much story I want cos a photograph usually functions without that. Sometimes I almost don’t want too much. Of course, just the title – ‘Mother and daughter’ – shapes the way you read the picture. That’s almost enough; you want the viewer to fill in the gaps. That’s the kind of difference, in my mind, between journalism and poetry: you give a complete story in journalism, whereas in poetry you just lay out these little pieces and let the reader assemble it. 

Just knowing it’s along the Mississippi, knowing it’s a mother and daughter… you have enough information, you create the rest. But there is something otherworldly about it, sure. For me, it’s the physicality of the image. The intertwined legs, the prominence of these three-dimensional legs, the faces of different ages, yet they aren’t that different – all of that holds it for me. Then, there’s the little detail, where they’re both sitting on a towel: this green towel which contrasts with all the red. That’s the kind of little-hidden detail that I always enjoy, but then it also sort of gives me the heebie jeebies looking at it.

“(At the time) I wasn’t making a big point about it in reference to the Mississippi or Middle America or anything like that. I was just curious – and following up on that” – Alec Soth

(At the time) I wasn’t making a big point about it in reference to the Mississippi or Middle America or anything like that. I was just curious – and following up on that. But, in retrospect, it sort of made sense to end up photographing both prisons and this prostitution along the river… It’s not wildly meaningful, but I just think it’s instructive of how curiosity leads to meaning, rather than the other way around. 

I take a lot of portraits, but they’re usually of individuals. It’s really hard to make a great portrait of two people – the intensity of the gaze between the viewer and the subject is so strong that another set of eyes can affect that. I think this one functions well as a double portrait, the daughter’s gaze is just so intense. For me, it’s this place I go to first and what locks me in, but then the movement around the picture, the mother, the colour differences: it just works as a whole.”

See more work from Sleeping By The Mississippi below:

From September, a MACK edition of Sleeping By The Mississippi will be available to buy, while an accompanying exhibition will run at London’s Beetles+Huxley gallery from September 19 – October 21

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