Thursday, May 19, 2022

Crit: Alec Soth, Dissolutions (Sleeping by the Mississippi)

I was born in Minnesota, but my family left before I turned 1 year old. Later, as a young adult, I returned there for a decade.

More importantly, I lived my childhood with my parents, as one sometimes does, which parents included, as they do, my father. I liked and respected the old man, and he shaped me profoundly, as these things go. My dad was Minnesota to the bone. Poverty, farming, shooting squirrels, eating turtles, Lutheran values, all that business. I consider myself to be, at a modest remove, deeply Minnesotan. I firmly believe one should never, ever, wax too eloquent about how good things are right now, lest you attract the attention of forces beyond your ken. This makes me either Jewish or Minnesotan, and I am not Jewish.

So much for my bona fides.

I hate Sleeping by the Mississippi so hard. It literally makes me angry just to think about it. It has always struck me as a bitter and cruel look at the heartland of America, a heartland I know in my viscera to be both deeply flawed and extremely beautiful. Soth depicts the land and the people with equal brutality, with an unfairness that makes my knuckles go white. Much has been written about this body of work, but for reasons that have never made sense to me we don't hear much about the cruelty and bitterness that infuses it and most of Soth's work. Nobody has any trouble pointing out how shitty and mean Martin Parr's photos are, but somehow this idea hasn't made it to the mainstream of Soth criticism.

Whatever, though. Go look at the pictures if you don't believe me. There's probably more to it than dumb icy cruelty, but honestly I find myself incapable of locating it. I guess there's a certain formal well-made-ness in there somewhere.

tl;dr I take SbtM's cruelty very very personally.

Curiously, Soth himself seems to be a very nice fellow, not unlike Parr.

This is where I am coming from, anyway, so you know. Moving on to the "Dissolutions" project.

This fuckin' thing. Oh my god. It's an NFT project, currently visible on Obscura, at this link. That link will probably stop working within a year or so, but honestly, who cares?

What is this thing? Well, it appears to be the photos from the book, in order, with a couple of outtakes tacked onto the end. But wait, click on one of the photos and wait. What you're actually looking at is a short video, 92 seconds long, depicting what appears to be a print being dissolved in some sort of liquid bath, which will we take to be acid for the present discussion.  Clear liquid flows outward from some center dissolving the colors into blobs as it moves, the blobs float around and smear, and so on.

Is it a digital effect, or did Soth actually dissolve prints in acid and film the result? Again, who cares? It doesn't seem to matter.

Soth offers up this remark:

For my first commissioned NFT project, I wanted to make something that spoke directly to this transmutation of meaning from the physical to the ephemeral. Whether one dissolves the photographic emulsion or converts it to code on the blockchain, the heart of the art is not destroyed.

The NFT project isn't just another way to "collect" the photos from SbtM, which is good. Soth has thought up a wrinkle, an angle, a new thing which is related to the old thing, to sell here. I mean this in all seriousness: Well done, Alec. You put in some actual effort here, thought it through, developed and executed a concept. Respect. Let us examine whether it paid off.

Soth is claiming, I think explicitly, that the acid-bath routine is connecting the work to its new life as an NFT. The work is physically dissolved by acid, by analogy with the digital dissolution into pure concept on the blockchain.

To be honest, this is a stretch. The acid destroys and transforms. The original is gone, something new is offered up, an abstract set of blobs. This is old news, distressing prints like this has a very very long tradition arguably reaching back to the Pictorialists scratching furiously away at negatives.

As such, the one thing we learn from the long tradition of ruining photographs in an attempt to imbue them with meaning is that this doesn't work. It didn't work in 1895, and it doesn't work now. Indeed, it inevitably smacks of desperation. Pictorialism didn't really work for a bunch of reasons, partly because the artists doing it had no clear idea of what the hell they were about, but also because they were willfully working against the essential nature of the photograph. Sadakichi Hartmann's critique of Pictorialist photography is probably a good thing to re-read about now.

But ok, blockchain, digital dissolution, the becoming-of the token, maybe. The blobs made by the acid strike me as not-at-all the original, whereas the blockchain/token thing very much seems to be claiming to be the original in a funny hat. Still, there's some sort of concept here at least, and the fact that it doesn't work for me doesn't mean that it doesn't have some merit. Recall that I am coming at this from a place of incandescent hatred, and make adjustments as appropriate.

What leaps out to me as missing, though, is the link back to the original work.

You can dissolve any goddamned thing in acid, and Soth's concept works exactly as well. I could dissolve my dog in acid and claim that she's now an NFT, although she would probably object and since she is actually stronger than I am and has enormous teeth, the resulting video would be a lot more interesting than Soth's Dissolutions.

I don't see how this dissolution works conceptually unless it bridges the original work into the new thing, somehow. If it provided a link not from "here's some shit in an acid bath" but specifically from the body of work we know as SbtM to the digital world of the blockchain, it would actually make sense. Try as I might, I can't see how this is supposed to work.

I took a shower, to clean my filthy grub-like body, and stood there with hot water pouring over my head monologuing like some cut-rate supervillain:

I'm going down the river, my river, my conceptual Mississippi. There's a bed. There's a shopping cart. Glum dude. Another bed. Lotta beds. Trees and shit. River. River. How does the river, how does this river, become digital? Where's the offramp to the blockchain?

Nothing. I don't see how the river becomes the token via the acid bath. I can't find the link.

To be honest, I can't even imagine what you'd need to make a body of work, as a body of meaning in its own right, connect to the NFT/blockchain world, via this alchemy of acid dissolution. I just don't see how this can be made to work, at all, for anything. It's just shit dissolving in acid and becoming digital. It's the sound of one hand clapping, a book in which by some non-Euclidean geometry all the pages are recto.

In the end, without that connection, I don't see how this is anything more than the dopey gimmick it appears at first glance to be. The connection from SbtM to the acid-bath doesn't seem to me to exist, and I find the acid-bath analogy to the digitalization to be well-executed but in the end unconvincing.

I don't think this thing works.

But then, I wouldn't would I? All I can claim is to have, as honestly as possible, sought to make sense of it, and to have failed.


  1. Not getting the visceral dislike of SbtM! It's a meh photobook that's the template for a zillion gazillion lesser works, and damnable on that basis alone. The photos could have been shot in virtually every one of the Disunited States, making allowances for geography and climate. So it happens to be Minnesota. Nobody cares! It's not a moral or political statement by any stretch, except perhaps in the overwrought imaginations of certain critics. It is dull, dull, dull! I feel hate is too extreme an emotion for this book. Disinterest nails it. Drowning its NFT in a septic tank would be perfect symmetry to the deranged acid bath stunt.

    1. I can identify precisely where I pass from indifference to fury. Or perhaps mild interest to fury.

      "Mother and Daughter, Davenport, Iowa."

      This is the photo of two women, styled and shot so as to suggest pretty explicitly that they are prostitutes. Actually, the implication is more precise: "cheap whores"

      It's an elegantly made frame, it looks very very purposefully made. The conclusion I draw from it is that every element is deliberately placed so as to maximize the insult to the subjects.

      Soth is not a raging asshole, as far as I can tell, but I have difficulty squaring that with the maker of this picture.

    2. If this is the same photo I think it is (caption illegible in flip-thru video), why are these two women necessarily sex workers? And so what if they are? You know who did this kind of thing 1000X better: Jacob Holdt -- in comparison, Soth comes across as a privileged asshole slumming it. Soth is first, last and always a formalist, and his apparent attempt to graft some low-life humanity onto his oeuvre for, I dunno, street cred? is an epic fail. But I don't hate him or his book. Derivative works that do not push photography in a new direction. Ho hum, their name is legion. I simply don't care.

  2. I personally know that the Mississippi is way better than that. Those photos r dumb. But I really like the dissolved things. If I was a lawyer or an architect firm, I'd put giant stills of those all over the entire office with huge DOUBLE white matts, bottom-weighted for dignity, and skinny matt-black metal frames. whooo! (stone seal.)

  3. Reading Sontag's On Photography now, I suspect she wouldn't like it either.