Monday, May 30, 2022

Something to Look At

In the comments on the previous remarks, I made a note of this specific photograph as the pivotal object in the development of my attitude toward Alec Soth's Sleeping by the Mississippi so I thought I'd take a moment to examine it more closely.

We see two women, seated, legs extended toward the camera. They are wearing what appear to be short robes, and some sort of matching undergarments, all made of moderately sheer fabric, quite short. This leaves their legs exposed. The older woman has two small tattoos and a bandaid on one finger, the younger one is holding a cigarette, probably lit and has an aging manicure. Both are perhaps slightly overweight, but attractive by normal standards. Their hair looks wet and unkempt, consistent with recent bathing.

The younger woman wears moderately chunky high heels.

The setting in which they are seated looks vaguely seedy. The colors, the wall behind, the carpet, all look possible for a home, but taken together give an impression of a commercial or even industrial space with some beat up purple furniture shoved haphazardly into it.

I maintain that the impression is of prostitutes, specifically, "cheap whore" tropes. This photo was in fact taken in a brothel, we are informed, so "prostitutes" is certainly possible.

Why do I think this?

The visual emphasis on the women's legs explicitly sexualizes them. Their attire, the vaguely sexy "sleepwear" or possibly "loungewear" when combined with the chunky high heels hits a lot of sex worker tropes.

Tattoos and cigarettes speak to class. Here in 2022 tattoos are mainstream and hip, having made a long and slow journey from rebellious and counter-culture. Cigarettes have been on a long, slow, decline as a signifier of cool since perhaps the 1970s. Both, at this point and in the 1990s when this was shot, occupy an ambiguous position between "cool" and "dumb cracker."

In this picture, with the absence of any other signifiers to the contrary, I think they lean toward signifying low-class, socio-economically challenged, or whatever you want to call it.

It's tempting to describe the women's expressions as sullen, but I don't think that's it. They're just neutral. This pretty standard Soth portraiture, the expression of a bored but willing subject who's been watching this nervous fellow fiddle with his ludicrously huge camera for, honestly, kind of a long time. They're certainly not mugging for the camera, they're not trying particularly to look sexy. At the same time, neither are the particularly comfortable looking.

Given that all the signs point toward sex worker, the bandaid on the old woman's finger is telling. In fact, her nails don't appear to be done at all. These are neither "high class escorts" nor are they trying to fake it. They look like working class women who happen to be working at the sex business in a fairly low-rent establishment.

This is, it turns out, pretty much exactly the ground truth of the frame as far as we know it.

So why does it make me so mad?

The photo arguably presents something like the truth of these women's lives. They look like cheap whores because they are cheap whores. I like truth, right? Truth is good, isn't it?

What the picture lacks is sympathy. You could call it "punching down" if you like, although I despise that specific way of saying this particular thing. You could call it "exploitive" if you like, though that word is wildly overused.

Yes, these are cheap whores. There is surely, though, more to them than that. Surely there is more depth to these women than their demeaning and despised occupation? Why are we reducing them to four ample thighs and some chunky white shoes? While there isn't anything untrue, or even especially extra-demeaning to the picture, at the same time there is no redemption, no sympathy, no depth of character. The photograph does not particularly mock its subjects, but nor does it cast an iota of warmth in their direction, nor does it particularly acknowledge the humanity of its subjects.

The photo strikes me as needlessly, pointlessly, cruel, in the name of formal design and of some kind of objectivity.

One might tell the truth about these women, and at the same time exhibit a trace of empathy, of warmth. It's been done.

This icy tone strikes me as Soth's signature, and I don't like it.


  1. The two women function as manikins posed for an Alec Soth composition, no more, no less. Dude's channelling Degas or whatever. I see people who present like that every time I go to a Walmart. I don't consider it shocking or provocative in the least. Presumably there was a financial transaction involved. Or Soth's a sweet, charming dude who can persuade hot chics to pose for free -- these two look waay too show me the money, honey.

    You might want to view "The King of Marvin Gardens," for additional *fictional* insight into mother-daughter sex workers. At least there's a story. If Soth was hoping he'd shoehorned some of that into the picture, nah.

    1. Right? It's anti-humanist.

      It's not expressly mean, or expressly exploitive, it's just so disconnected it comes off as cruel.

    2. Finally I begin to see what you are getting at, but only because I sometimes have a similar view of subjects-as-specimens. This is quite an interesting take! I examined this picture more closely yesterday and realized it's a very tight composition, and not the casual snapshot of two bored people it is pretending to be. One thing that is fascinating is the extreme detail of the variegated flesh tones of their legs and feet, vs. their made-up and slightly oof faces.

  2. "This pretty standard Soth portraiture, the expression of a bored but willing subject who's been watching this nervous fellow fiddle with his ludicrously huge camera for, honestly, kind of a long time."
    Seems like this implies that Soth's the vulnerable one here; the women are giving him this great composition when he hardly deserves it.

    1. That's a really interesting way of looking at it. I've never considered how Soth's standard approach necessarily implies a profoundly generous subject, but you're exactly right, it absolutely does.

  3. Seems strange to offer so much information about this photo while omitting its most essential fact: This is a mother posing with her daughter