The first time Alessandra Sanguinetti visited Black River Falls to take photos, it felt, she says, “like a strange type of time travel”.
The destination she had in mind was the late 19th century, when a photographer named Charles Van Schaick was documenting life and death in the small Wisconsin town. Sanguinetti first came across Van Schaick’s images aged nine, back home in Buenos Aires, while flipping through a 1973 book called. Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. “It made a big impression on me,” she says. “It made me ask for a camera and start taking pictures.”
A work of historical nonfiction that juxtaposed 200 of Van Schaick’s images with contemporary newspaper clippings, Lesy’s book became a cult classic, appreciated for its evocation of the darker side of the American dream. The book has an undeniably haunting effect with its images of dead babies, women in mourning and gaunt townspeople, testifying to the harshness of Midwestern country life.
But even the more conventional portraits had an effect on Sanguinetti. “The first sentence of [Lesy’s] introduction says: ‘The pictures you’re about to see are of people who once really lived,’” she says. Staring into the eyes of those long-dead Wisconsinites made her ponder mortality, history, and the desire to preserve something of ourselves through photography. “I think that’s still the impulse behind us all to take selfies,” she says. “It’s a reaffirmation that we’re in this world.”
In 2014, after a decade living in the US, Sanguinetti, a Magnum photographer with a lyrical, dreamlike style, best known for her series centered on two cousins The Adventures of Guille and Belinda, made her first trip to Black River Falls. “I went with all my ideas about it, so it felt a bit like being in my nine-year-old mind.” This changed with subsequent visits, as she came to understand the town better and formed friendships with its residents. The ghostly quality of Wisconsin Death Trip however, persists in Sanguinetti’s images, which she now publishes under the title Some say ice.
At first glance, it’s hard to tell when these photos were taken. Some – from a bison in the snow or cutlery arranged star-like on a dusty table – may be a century old. The timelessness is intentional, says Sanguinetti. Only on closer inspection do you see the coaches peeking out from under the white robes of the Sunday choir girls or the satellite dishes on the roof of a clapboard house on which three girls cast shadows.
She tried to avoid social commentary, although as a native of coastal America living near San Francisco, Sanguinetti was intrigued by the insularity of the rural Midwest and the robustness of people’s beliefs and values. “I’m a little jealous of that,” she says, “because I’m constantly questioning everything.”
Mood was much more important, as was capturing that feeling of being out of time. She approached the project, especially in the beginning, like an old-style photographer shooting community events – weddings, funerals, school plays. In her portraits, she tried to create “the same kind of ritual that you would have had [in the early days] of photography, like: OK, this is a special moment. This is the only portrait this person will ever have – the only proof that they ever lived.”