In her new monograph Some Say Ice, Alessandra Sanguinetti depicts a place that seems to be perpetually enduring frigid temperatures and long dark nights of the soul.
That place, more specifically, is Black River Falls Wisconsin, the town that was the focal point of social historian Michael Lesy’s 1973 cult classic, Wisconsin Death Trip. The influential legacy of Lesy’s book can be felt on practically every page of Some Say Ice.
For those not familiar with Wisconsin Death Trip, it highlights the salvaged wet plate collodion works made by the town photographer, Charles Van Schaick, at the turn of the 20th Century. Van Schaick’s portraits oscillate from mundane to surreal—all the more extraordinary considering they were work-for-hire gigs.
Lesy places short contemporaneous excerpts from a local newspaper alongside Van Schaick’s photographic output. These scraps of text delineate the unusually harsh and tragic fates of many residents while hinting at the struggles, both internal and external, that the individuals in the tradesman’s tintypes may have been experiencing as well. Whether Van Schaick himself realized it, many of his photographs attain a level of intensity and meaning that most artists strive for—something that is augmented by Lesy’s editing and sequencing.
Sanguinetti discovered Wisconsin Death Trip when she was nine years old. In her afterward she writes, “It was the first time my nine-year-old mind understood that many more people had come before me, and I never would have been able to look in their eyes if not for those photographs.” In interviews, she has discussed how this meditation on memory, mortality, and photography, which began at such a young age, has guided her process, dating back to her earliest projects. Starting in 2014, Sanguinetti made repeat pilgrimages to that small Wisconsin town and its environs, working in the shadow of Van Schaick for a period of eight years.
There’s almost an occult feel to some of the images in Some Say Ice and the entire body of work seems haunted by the specters of the past. In Wisconsin Death Trip, Lesy describes the photography of the 1890s as a “semimagical act that symbolically dealt with time and mortality.” That observation is equally applicable to Sanguinetti’s monochrome medium-format images.
Although ostensibly a celebration of birth, the frontispiece of Some Say Ice indirectly references the theme of child mortality in Wisconsin Death Trip. It showcases a homemade circular calendar with a snapshot of a newborn baby affixed to the month of July. Turning the page, the first photo that opens the book proper is of a horse’s torso—almost a perfect mirror image of the opening photo that Lesy selected for his book.
This deliberate echoing continues throughout. One photo eerily recalls a haunting Van Schaick photo of two children who had recently passed. In Sanguinetti’s version, two young boys—brothers, perhaps—dressed in similar outfits, playfully pose upside down with deadpan expressions on an antique two-person sofa. The walls and floor are bare. A hand on the upper right-hand corner of the frame seems to be in the process of ironing and hanging laundry—traditional household chores. Relics of earlier eras are manifold—in fact, there is nothing contemporary about the image at all.
Sanguinetti’s studious avoidance of present-day signifiers such as cellphones imbues her work with a certain timelessness. In this regard, the images provide a throughline to an earlier, bygone era.
The thematic resonances help the viewer make those connections as well: antique guns, deer antlers, sparse bedrooms, people in uniforms (a soldier, two prisoners, a boy scout.) Guided by Van Schaick’s work and her own curiosity, Sanguinetti explores the life of the town. A striking image of three young girls casting shadows on the side of their house is reminiscent of her best-known work, The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. Animals appear throughout in ways that bring to mind her first monograph, On the 6th Day
The images tap into something uncanny that lurks just below the surface of things. Meaning is elusive. The photos are presented without captions and aside from a brief afterword, there is minimal text. Like the world Sanguinetti portrays, the work itself is austere to the point of asceticism. This austerity extends to the front cover, which simply features a tipped-in title card, a small rectangle of white in a glacial sea of black.
In terms of packaging and presentation, the printing is impeccable, coming as close to realizing the full potential of the images as possible. A tipped-in plate on the back cover adds greatly to its collectability. The book is laid out portfolio-style, in a traditional manner consistent with her previous books.
Ultimately, Some Say Ice represents both a departure and a return for Sanguinetti. It is at once something completely new and of a piece with her other major bodies of work. And it’s easily one of the best photobooks of the year.
Some Say Ice by Alessandra Sanguinetti. MACK, 2022. 148 pages, 102 photographs. Hardcover.