Alessandra Sanguinetti’s melancholic, bittersweet documentation of life in Black River Falls

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All images © Alessandra Sanguinetti, from Some Say Ice (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

 In her latest book, titled Some Say Ice, the photographer embarks on a journey through America’s rural Midwest, echoing ghosts of the past and eye-opening realisations

There is something unsettling, almost sinister about the photographs in Some Say Ice, a new monograph by acclaimed image-maker Alessandra Sanguinetti, published by Mack. In the creases of the book, hiding among the low-contrast monochrome images, a mystery unfolds. It can only be unravelled by becoming one with the striking photographs and their strangely arresting subjects – from wintery, deserted landscapes and frost-coated animals to an unusual, cross-generational cast of people. 

For the New York City-born, Argentine-American photographer, the key to viewing her latest photobook lies in making that mystery your own. “Some Say Ice is completed by the person looking at it,” says Sanguinetti. “That’s the beauty of this profession: you create a new project, put it out into the world and, if you’re lucky enough, this will take on a life of its own.” 

“I started photographing everything and everyone in my life, to keep all of us from disappearing.”

Indeed, this was the case for her when she stumbled across Michael Lesy’s 1973 historical nonfiction book Wisconsin Death Trip for the first time. Set at the turn of the 19th century, the volume narrates a series of sordid, dramatic incidents that took place across Jackson County, Wisconsin, primarily in the town of Black River Falls, at the height of the Second Industrial Revolution. It is an uncanny account of crime, pestilence and mental illness. “The book has a kaleidoscopic feel to it,” Sanguinetti says of Lesy’s volume, which accidentally landed on her lap when she was a child. She recalls feeling frightened by an image of a little girl laying lifeless in a coffin. It was the realisation that “death was real and it would occur to me,” Sanguinetti explains, that led her to take up photography at a young age. “I remember understanding that everyone in that book was long gone, and then apprehensively asking my mum if I too was going to die,” the photographer writes in Some Say Ice. “I started photographing everything and everyone in my life, to keep all of us from disappearing.” Through photography, people got to live on.

Lesy’s book has fed Sanguinetti’s fascination with the rural reality of Wisconsin to this day. “It’s like a house of mirrors,” she says, pointing at how the newspaper clippings, the logs from mental asylums, and the raw portraits – the latter taken by photographer Charles van Schaik – contribute to making it “incredibly immersive”. 

Sanguinetti began documenting Black River Falls and its surrounding towns – including Hixton, Merrillan, Humbird and Alma Center – in 2014. “On my first visits, I told myself I was the town photographer and approached portraying the community with the same reverence to the ritual that was present at Van Schaik’s time,” she says. “[In the 19th century] you could count yourself lucky had someone taken your picture even just once in your whole life.” 

Travelling between California and Wisconsin, the image-maker spent eight years photographing the area. She took the strong realism of her gaze to local high schools, churches, libraries and community events, and occasionally met people through Craigslist ads. Sanguinetti made her way into the towns that had first shown her the melancholic fragility of the human experience.

Throughout the book, embalmed and living animals are ironically lensed from angles that depict them as frozen, further accentuating their already palpable stiffness. Elsewhere, the warmth of the traditional family portrait is replaced by the spectral, staged atmosphere with ghostlike figures. Tracing the life journey of local Midwesterners, the photographer turns her lens to children, teenagers and adults, as well as the elderly, immortalising the curious minutiae of their existence, objects and daily routines in stills that appear suspended in time. 

“My portrayal of Black River Falls and the nearby region is absolutely personal,” she says. If Lesy’s book unveils the isolating conditions those living in Wisconsin were forced to endure at the end of the 19th century – hence presenting the author’s interpretation of that age – Sanguinetti’s attempt at visualising today’s Midwest is as much influenced by the 1973 volume as it is by her own demons. 

Borrowing its title from a line in Robert Frost’s poem Fire and Ice, Sanguinetti’s latest monograph is “about something intangible and universal,” she says, which is a moving exploration of her own fear of death. “My work deals with the human condition, how we choose – or not – to live our lives, how we treat others and change through time.”

Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti is published by MACK

Gilda Bruno

Gilda Bruno (1998) is an Italian-born, London-based writer, editor and photographer. With a focus on visual art and culture, her work has been published by titles including AnOthermag.com, DAZED, i-D, HUCK, The Face, VICE, and Vogue. She also works as an Editorial Assistant on the print edition of AnOther.