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 resultant 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 who, before his death in 1968, 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’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. Soth, in turn, inspired by Morrison’s manual, traveled the country taking photographs that illustrated Morrison’s ideas. Morrison proclaims: “Let this book be your guide. Over the last few years, I’ve studied the experts of escape. Let us now praise these lonely men: hermits and hippies, monks and survivalists.” He goes on to explain, “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
About Alec Soth
Soth has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions. In 2008, a large 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, 2006
Broken Manual book
Created between 2006-2010, Alec Soth’s book Broken Manual shows his photos of places where people retreat to escape civilization. He took photos 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 8x10” print signed and numbered by Alec Soth and Lester B. Morrison.