Alec Soth’s Broken Manual – Somewhere to Disappear

Alec Soth -- Broken Manual
Alec Soth – Broken Manual

Introduction

Broken Manual by photographer Alec Soth is a compelling series that was created over a four-year period, from 2006-2010.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, Enchanted Forest (45), Texas, 2006
Alec Soth – Enchanted Forest (45), Texas, 2006, from Broken Manual

They reflect Soth’s increasing interest in the mounting anger and frustration that some—specifically male—Americans feel with societal constraints and their subsequent desire to remove themselves from civilization.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, 2006_03zl0016, 2006
Alec Soth – 2006_03zl0016, 2006, from Broken Manual

The resulting work is a group of portraits of men and the landscapes they inhabit that are poignant, disturbing and mysterious.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, Bardstown, Kentucky, 2006
Alec Soth – Bardstown, Kentucky, 2006, from Broken Manual

Soth’s uncanny ability to gain the trust of those he photographs gave him unprecedented access to these notoriously elusive individuals, in moments, variously, of brooding, deep reflection or vulnerability.

Alec Soth - 2008_08zl0047, 2008, from <em>Broken Manual</em>
Alec Soth – 2008_08zl0047, 2008, from Broken Manual

The lives of these two men inspired Soth

The genesis of the work is Soth’s fascination with the life of Thomas Merton1, the Trappist monk. Before his death in 1968, he lived for almost three decades at the remote Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual
Alec Soth – 2008, from Broken Manual

Additionally, Soth studied the years that Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph2 spent evading the authorities in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. In visits to these two locations, Soth realized that both these men’s stories ignited “a fantasy of retreat”.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, The Arkansas Cajun's Backup Bunker', 2007
Alec Soth – The Arkansas Cajun's Backup Bunker&#039, 2007 from Broken Manual

Analysis

Soth photographs monks, survivalists, hermits, and runways. His subjects portray a bewildering lack of modesty, as if untroubled by his presence, rarely looking at the camera as if it were a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, 2008_02zL0189, 2008
Alec Soth – 2008_02zL0189, 2008, from Broken Manual

These seemingly haphazard images reflect the misunderstood in a nonconsecutive narrative – a broken down bus, a pocket pussy, mushrooms, and a stack of VHS recordings carelessly decorated with the writing of permanent markers.

Alec Soth - 2008_08zL0242b (Utah, cave home, side), Broken Manual, 2008
Alec Soth – 2008_08zL0242b (Utah, cave home, side), 2008, from Broken Manual

Soth’s images aim only to re-document the world of the Broken but never to evaluate it. It is like the camera is entirely objective. A wandering monk, clad in black, is dwarfed by the vertical repetition of leafless trees and is, in essence, engulfed by the forest.

Alec Soth - 2008_08zl0238b, 2008, from Broken Manual
Alec Soth – 2008_08zl0238b, 2008, from Broken Manual

A naked man with a swastika tattoo on his arm is enclosed by green vegetation; while standing in a small water body, the man is literally submerged within nature.

Alec Soth - 2006_12zl0138, 2006, from Broken Manual
Alec Soth – 2006_12zl0138, 2006, from Broken Manual

These subjects were not born from nature or raised by wolves. Instead, they are inextricably linked to the society from which they are fleeing, as portrayed by the black clothing of the monk as well as the swastika of the naked man.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, Sidney’s Tomatoes, Nubbin Creek, Alabama
Alec Soth – Sidney’s Tomatoes, Nubbin Creek, Alabama, from Broken Manual

With these photographs, Alec Soth creates a world without departure points or destinations and the reasons for a retreat are varied and irrelevant.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Edel's Hideaway (Summer)
Alec Soth – Edel's Hideaway (Summer), from Broken Manual

Like leaping into a void, Broken Manual captures the ideological sensation associated with fleeing, somewhere between the jump and the fall, here and there, action and reaction.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, Knoxville, Tennessee, 2006
Alec Soth – Knoxville, Tennessee, 2006, from Broken Manual

The series exists in that split second before the second-hand snaps, eternally floating in the silent state of being.

Alec Soth -- 2007_10zl0006b, 2007, from Broken Manual
Alec Soth – 2007_10zl0006b, 2007, from Broken Manual

Soth’s alter ego

Soth’s alter ego, Lester B. Morrison, was borne out of his research on this topic. Morrison created a text—the eponymously titled manual that accompanies the exhibition—written to aid others who, like him, choose to retreat from society and live off the grid in a remote area of the country. In it, he offers helpful hints on everything from disguising one’s appearance to creating a pseudonym.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, 2008_08zl0215c, 2008
Alec Soth – 2008_08zl0215c, 2008, from Broken Manual

Soth, in turn, inspired by Morrison’s manual, traveled the country taking photographs that illustrated Morrison’s ideas. Morrison proclaims3:

Let this book be your guide. Over the last few years, I’ve studied the experts of escape … I’ve included a number of photos by my comrade Alec Soth. When you look at these scenes, try to put yourself in the picture. Visualize your new life on the lam. Before you know it, you just might make the break.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual
Alec Soth – Installation view, Broken Manual, Walker Art Center, 2010-2011

Soth’s documentary Somewhere to Disappear

In 2011, the full-length documentary Somewhere to Disappear4, a film by Arnaud Uyttenhove and Laure Flammarion, was published. The film follows Soth as he travels across America in search of the subjects for Broken Manual.

2 min 11 sec

About Alec Soth

Soth has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions. In 2008, an extensive survey exhibition of Soth’s work was exhibited at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and the Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, Murphy, North Carolina, 2006
Alec Soth – Murphy, North Carolina, 2006, from Broken Manual

In 2010, the Walker Art Center mounted a comprehensive exhibition with an accompanying catalog entitled From Here To There, Alec Soth’s America.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, 2008_08zl0107f, 2008
Alec Soth – 2008_08zl0107f, 2008, from Broken Manual

His work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, amongst others. Soth became a nominee of Magnum Photos in 2004 and a full member in 2008.

Alec Soth - Broken Manual, Somewhere to disappear, 2008_08zl0131, 2008
Alec Soth – 2008_08zl0131, 2008, from Broken Manual

Broken Manual book

Alec Soth entered this world of brokenness like he was a broken wanderer himself and explored the places where people retreat to escape civilization. Soth also developed an underground instruction manual for those seeking to flee their lives.

Broken Manual by Alec Soth & Lester B. Morrison, installation view
Alec Soth with 300 copies of the special edition of Broken Manual at Walker Art Center, 2010
Broken Manual by Alec Soth & Lester B. Morrison
300 copies of the special editon of Broken Manual at Walker Art Center, 2010
Broken Manual by Alec Soth & Lester B. Morrison, view
Broken Manual with open gatefold, “shell” book and signed, limited edition print

Created between 2006-2010, Alec Soth’s book Broken Manual shows his photos of places where people retreat to escape civilization. He took pictures of monks, survivalists, hermits and runaways. Working with the writer Lester B. Morrison, the authors have created an underground instruction manual for those looking to escape their lives.

Broken Manual book by Alec Soth & Lester B. Morrison
Special editon of Broken Manual
Broken Manual book by Alec Soth & Lester B. Morrison
Special editon of Broken Manual
Broken Manual book by Alec Soth & Lester B. Morrison
Special editon of Broken Manual

Made in an edition of 300, each copy of the book is housed inside another, one-of-a-kind book. These signed and numbered ‘shell’ books are unique and cut by hand. Inside the shell, there is also a small booklet entitled ‘Liberation Billfold Manifest’ and an 8×10” print signed and numbered by Alec Soth and Lester B. Morrison. Soth called this ‘Ideal Edition’.

Broken Manual book by Alec Soth & Lester B. Morrison
Special editon of Broken Manual
Broken Manual by Alec Soth & Lester B. Morrison, Walker Art Center, 7 September 2010
Special editon of Broken Manual
Special editon of Broken Manual
2 min 34 sec

All images by Alec Soth unless otherwise noted.

Footnotes

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Merton
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Rudolph
  3. https://www.skny.com/exhibitions/alec-soth2
  4. http://somewheretodisappearthefilm.com/

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