Reflections on mortality: Alessandra Sanguinetti on her ​eerie images of the midwest | Photography

The first time Alessandra Sanguinetti visited Black River Falls to take photographs, it felt, she says, “like a weird type of time travel”.

The destination she had in mind was the end of the 19th century, when a photographer named Charles Van Schaick was documenting life and death in the small Wisconsin town. Sanguinetti first encountered Van Schaick’s images aged nine, at home in Buenos Aires, leafing though a 1973 book called Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. “It made a huge impression on me,” she says. “It made me ask for a camera and start taking pictures.”

Lesy’s book, a work of historical nonfiction that paired 200 of Van Schaick’s images with contemporary newspaper cuttings, has become a cult classic, valued 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 rural life.

Young men sitting upside down on a chintzy sofa

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 were once actually alive,’” she says. Staring into the eyes of those long dead Wisconsinites made her reflect on mortality, history and the desire to preserve something of ourselves through photography. “I think that’s still the impulse behind us all taking selfies,” she says. “It’s a reaffirmation that we are in this world.”

A man holding a stuffed fish on an overstuffed armchair

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 little bit like being inside my nine-year-old mind.” That changed over subsequent visits, as she came to understand the town better and struck up friendships with its inhabitants. The ghostly quality of Wisconsin Death Trip persists, however, in Sanguinetti’s images, which she is now publishing under the title Some Say Ice.

A calf drinking from a baby bottle

At first glance, it is hard to tell when these photographs were taken. Some – of a bison in the snow or cutlery arranged starlike on a dusty table – could be a century old. The timelessness is intentional, says Sanguinetti. It is only on closer inspection that you see the trainers peeking out beneath the white robes of the Sunday choirgirls or the satellite dishes on the roof of a clapboard house on which three girls are throwing shadows.

Three women in dresses and Miss Jackson County sashes

She tried to avoid making social commentary, although as a resident 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 bit jealous of that,” she says, “because I’m constantly questioning everything.”

Three young girls making shadows on the side of a wooden house

Mood was far more important, as was capturing that out-of-time feel. She approached the project, particularly at the outset, like an old-style photographer recording community events – weddings, funerals, school plays. In her portraits, she sought 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 one and only portrait this person is ever going to have – the one and only proof that they were ever alive.”

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