Broken Manual by photographer Alec Soth is a compelling series that was created over a four-year period, from 2006-2010.
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.
The resulting work is a group of portraits of men and the landscapes they inhabit that are poignant, disturbing and mysterious.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With these photographs, Alec Soth creates a world without departure points or destinations and the reasons for a retreat are varied and irrelevant.
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.
The series exists in that split second before the second-hand snaps, eternally floating in the silent state of being.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In 2010, the Walker Art Center mounted a comprehensive exhibition with an accompanying catalog entitled From Here To There, Alec Soth’s America.
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.
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.
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.
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’.