I’ve long been fascinated by Dutch classical landscape paintings, with their sweeping, majestic skies, underneath of which you often find the somewhat barren Dutch landscape, sometimes with a city somewhere small, seen from afar. Art historians and theorists are probably much better suited to talk about these paintings than I am, and I admit I have no idea what they might talk about. For me, these paintings resonate with something inside of me for two reasons. First, these Dutch paintings show a landscape very similar to the one I grew up in. And second, they convey a sense of humility: We like to think of us humans as the masters of this planet, but when we are really honest and step back a little, we actually have very little power.
I see echoes of these Dutch landscapes in Alec Soth’s “Johnny Cash’s Boyhood Home”: The unremarkable, stark landscape, with a house and a shed maybe, plus a few trees, one very prominently in the center, and then there’s the sky, filling up so much of the photo.
There are many great photographs in Sleeping by the Mississippi, and this might be one of the few somewhat overlooked gems, definitely my personal favourite from this body of work (well, OK, I could name a couple of others…).
Needless to say, there’s the title. It’s not Frankie Miller’s boyhood home, it’s Johnny Cash’s. I’d like to think that if it was Frankie Miller’s boyhood home I’d like the photo just as much. In fact I am pretty sure, but of course since I know about the title and since I know about Johnny Cash’s life, I can’t look at the photo any longer as if it was “just” a contemporary mirror of one of those classic Dutch landscapes.
But then again, it doesn’t take anything away from the idea of humility, actually it does add even more of it, because I have always thought of Johnny Cash as a person with a strong sense of personal humility, and I do like his music very much - unlike the tacky parody of its former self that is now being marketed as “country music”.
So there are lots of things coming together in this image, in a very quiet way. You have to take it in a little, you have to look and discover it, and see what it does to you. For me, that’s what makes this photo one of my personal favourites.