Behind the Camera: Alec Soth’s “Broken Manual”

Posted on July 13, 2011

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A fortress retreat from Alec Soth's "Broken Manual" project

When I spoke with photographer Alec Soth in May,  I forgot to ask him if he’d ever read Robinson Crusoe. At the very least I wanted to suggest that he take a look at Jonathan Franzen’s recent New Yorker magazine essay about the novel, which Franzen calls “the great early document of radical individualism.” I thought Soth would be interested, since he is one of the foremost contemporary chroniclers of the American strain of radical individualism.

Soth’s 2004 book Sleeping by the Mississippi is a journey through a land of overlooked places and the people who inhabit them. Though he was certainly not the first artist to go looking for the American soul along the Mississippi, his work there produced a singular vision: Soth’s American heartland was a place where independence and loneliness cohabit, sometimes easily, sometimes not. Stylistically, the work was rich in narrative possibilities—Diane Arbus meets Walker Evans—and it marked a turning point in the documentary genre.

Soth joined Magnum Photos in 2008 and took what had been a large-format fine-art career into the 35mm world of photojournalism. His most recent project, called “Broken Manual,” spans both genres: In it, he explores the world of survivalists and others who have gone off the grid—who, as Soth puts it, who “want to run away from their lives.” The work, called “stunning” by the New York Times when it was featured at the AIPAD art fair in March, is being collected in a new book from Steidl. A film documentary about the project, called Somewhere to Disappear, is set to open in May at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto.

"The Arkansas Cajun's Backup Bunker," from "Broken Manual"

From "Broken Manual"

From "Broken Manual"

From "Broken Manual"

Besides the large-scale exhibition work, the book from Steidl, and the documentary film, there is a very limited-edition book, created by Soth himself, which has already sold out. That version is as much object as collection—a book nestled within another book. “It’s supposed to be a kind of manual, something that you can hide, and it’s broken because the whole idea of retreating from the world doesn’t work,” Soth says.

And yet it has its powerful appeal—powerful and enduring. In his expansive New Yorker essay, Franzen notes the romance of Robinson Crusoe’s isolation and his “practical solutions to the problems of hunger and exposure and illness and solitude.” The ideals of solitude and self-sufficiency are almost a birthright for Americans, preached by Thoreau and turned into iconography by the Marlboro Man. The lure of solitude has other facets as well, of course–such as the desire to simply run away.

"Charles, Vasa Minnesota," from "Sleeping by the Mississippi"

“To some extent, all this comes out of a personal place,” says Soth. “I say it’s my midlife-crisis project. I’m 41 and I’ve got two kids, and lots of responsibilities. There’s part of me saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great just to check out?’

In that regard, it’s interesting to compare Soth’s images of survivalist culture with his earlier images of dreamy loners along the Mississippi—particularly with what may be his best known image, “Charles, Vasa, Minnesota,” which show a grown man retreating from the world with the model airplanes he makes and adores.

Charles represents “the more romantic version” of the impulse to flee reality, says Soth. “Broken Manual,” he says, “is a darker, sadder version of the story.”

Instead of Thoreau, Soth prepared for the “Broken Manual” work by reading the missives of Eric Rudolph, a.k.a. the Olympic Bomber, who spent years hiding from the F.B.I in the Appalachian wilderness. The project came about, in fact, when Soth was commissioned in 2006 by the High Museum of Atlanta to photograph in the South. One of the places he documented was Rudolph’s hideaway. After the High Museum work was finished, he expanded the scope of the project, photographing survivalists across the country through 2010.

A portrait from "Broken Manual"

The mask from "Broken Manual"

The work is fragmentary—black-and-white and color, images of different sizes, portraits and landscapes. “I wanted to suggest the brokenness of this world,” Soth says. There are images of ingenious cave dwellings and artifacts suggesting the forlorn nature of existence off the grid, including an artificial vagina. One of the objects Soth photographed, a menacing-looking homemade helmet, so intrigued him that he tried to buy it from its owner. “I threw a lot of money at him,” Soth says, “but he wasn’t interested in selling.”

Ultimately, says Soth, the fantasy of detaching oneself from society and the infrastructure of the modern world gives way to reality. “It’s almost impossible to do it—impossible because you need other people,” he says.

And yet….In Arkansas Soth met a survivalist from New Orleans who had staked out a place chosen specifically for its elevation. “He forsaw a major portion of America being flooded and people moving to the north,” says Soth. “When I took that picture he just seemed kind of funny—ha ha, ha. And then you see tsunami hit Japan, and you’re like, well, hmmmm.”

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