April 2012

Jacob Mikanowski

features

Hermit America: The Photography of Alec Soth

Combining an indefatigable commitment to derelict byways with a magpie instinct for cultural bric-a-brac, Alec Soth might be Americaís foremost domestic explorer. Born in Minneapolis in 1969, over the past decade he has emerged as one of the most acclaimed photographers of his generation. His work has been included in the Whitney Biennial and was the subject of a major retrospective at the Walker Art Center in 2010. Soth makes work in the tradition of the great American road photographers, like Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and his mentor, Joel Sternfeld. This sets him apart from much recent art photography, which has been dominated by exhaustive documentary projects and digitally-altered, posed scenes. Soth still believes that thereís a reason to go out and find things in the world. In the process, heís managed to uncover a country we almost never notice. ††

Sothís first book, Sleeping by the Mississippi, in which he followed the river from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, fit squarely into the Eggleston-Frank road tradition. His newest collection of photographs, Broken Manual, is bit different.†Soth describes it as a guide for how to disappear in America.†His subjects are loners of various kinds, almost all of whom are men who have succeeded at this trick: recluses, runaways, dropouts and shut-ins.†They live in cabins and in caves and on houseboats they build themselves, and they sleep between desert boulders and in old school buses parked far from the edge of town. They are survivalists, monks, burn-outs, spiritualists, gun nuts and fugitives. A few of them are famous. The book includes a view from the Unabomberís cabin and a shot of the parking lot where Eric Rudolph was caught scavenging in the trash after five years on the run. Most, though, are anonymous, and most probably prefer it that way.

A road book about hermits would seem like a contradiction in terms.†But then again, there is a solid precedent for it. Some of the great road photographers themselves became hermits.†Think of W. Eugene Smith holed up in his 6th Avenue loft, or of Robert Frank alone in his cabin in Nova Scotia.†In Broken Manual, Soth salutes Frank with a re-staging of his great picture of the view of Butte, Montana.†In Frankís photograph, framed by gauzy motel-room curtains, Butte looks like Dashiell Hammettís Poisonville or a subdivision on the moon.†In Sothís version, the city is blurred by a mesh screen.†The emphasis of the picture shifts from the city to the room.†Itís the view from a hideout instead of a pit stop, the sort of room where you could spend years waiting for a call that never comes through or a package that never arrives. †

Soth has said that he assembles his books as if they were narratives, but his photographs donít tell stories so much as suggest them. Most of the photographs in Broken Manual come without captions. The few titles that are included donít give much away, limiting themselves to ďRoman, the nocturnal hermit,Ē or ďSidneyís Tomatoes.Ē The tension in the collection comes from a collision of materials of unknown provenance and from situations you canít quite read.†Thereís a boarded-up house with ďKEEP OUTĒ spray painted over the garage, home to the loneliest man in Missouri; a cave with coat hangers; a monk in the woods; an abandoned disco ball. One of the most beautiful pictures shows an adobe house in the desert with a wire bubble on the roof for meditating or sunbathing or whatever you do on the roof in the desert. Another shows a skinhead standing naked in a spring. Soth makes this anonymous young man look like a peckerwood Adam.†Itís one of the few photographs in the collection thatís obviously posed. †††

Itís also one of the few pictures in the collection that seems silent.†Most photo books have a look. They send you somewhere visually -- to a stretch of highway, to a kind of lighting, to other photographers.†Broken Manual has a sound.†Itís the sound of water trickling over the lip of a gully into a cave, of wind rattling the window panes in a boarded up house.†Or itís the sound of a black and white television playing an endless loop of videotapes about avoiding Armageddon and the coming military takeover before lapsing into static or silence. Although his photographs tend to be direct and plainspoken, Sothís style is more lyric than documentary. Usually, Soth stands some distance apart from his subjects, finding a balance between them and their environment. Many of his photographs are of habitats: sheds, caves, converted trucks. Some of the portraits are deliberately rough, as if they were taken by surveillance cameras or photocopied from beat-up tintypes.†Others just show individual objects, culled from some unnamed depot: a homemade knife, a welderís mask, a dead spider, a hollowed-out book. †††

Broken Manual takes its designation as a manual seriously. In addition to photographs, it contains practical advice on how to disappear in America.†Much of it is written by Lester B. Morrison, a possible drug fiend, real-life recluse and Sothís collaborator and alter-ego. It covers the basics of mushroom foraging, hunting for your food and recognizing poisonous spiders.†It will teach you to grow a beard, change your gait (try wrapping tin foil around one of your arms) and keep clear of women.†The goal of these changes is always the same: getting to Lost Boy Mountain. Soth and Morrison never spell out exactly what this Mountain is, but between Sothís photographs and Lesterís drawings of caves and tree houses, itís clear enough. Lost Boy Mountain is a whole swath of the American consciousness, a country inside the country where the hermit, the tramp and the recluse reign supreme. †

Great photographers open up a territory and make it theirs. Sothís America is a place where the Declaration of Independence gets taken literally, where suspicion of tyranny shades into paranoia and self-reliance is an absolute law.†Itís a hidden continent, a hive of self-contained undergrounds, decentered and almost undetectable.†Nonetheless, it has its own ethos and history.†Its modern-day heroes tend to be misfit criminals like the Unabomber, fugitives like Eric Rudolph, or cultists like the Branch Davidians.

In fact, Hermit America is bigger and older than the world of anti-government crazies and end-of-dayers.†Geographically, it is concentrated in the caves and mountains of Appalachia, and it stretches in all directions, across the prairies through the northern woods.†Historically, it stretches back at least to the 18th century. William Wilson, also known as the Pennsylvania hermit, was among its first members.Wilson moved into a cave near Harrisburg out of grief over failing to prevent the hanging of his sister. Told in a popular broadside, his story involves infanticide, charges of bastardry, Benjamin Franklin and a dramatic swim across the frozen Schuylkill River.†It ended with nineteen years ďspent in the bowers of solitude.Ē Another early member was discovered living in the Allegheny Mountains by two Virginia worthies shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War. He claimed to be over almost two hundred years old.†He washed up on the shore of the wild continent in the days of Good Queen Bess and had lived in the cave ever since.†The Virginians plied the unnamed man with rum to learn more, and he told them of his lost loves and of life in Tudor London, but the drink sickened him and he died the same night. †

At its root though, Hermit America is the embodiment of a peculiarly American philosophy, in which individualism borders on nihilism.†Itís a country that can crop up anywhere. You can find it on the edges of any dream of isolation, independence or escape. Itís in the Idaho of Denis Johnsonís Train Dreams and in Constance Rourkeís description of the Crockett family homestead in the wilds of Kentucky, where hunters hid in the cane breaks and panthers crouched in tall sycamores. Itís Julianne Mooreís porcelain igloo in Todd Haynesís Safe and the cave Lenny says heíll run away to in Of Mice and Men; Thoreauís cabin by Walden Pond and the Weaver family compound up on Ruby Ridge.†Itís the desire to disappear under a mountain captured in Bascom Lamar Lunsfordís rendition of ďI Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,Ē and itís the American soul as D.H. Lawrence saw it: ďhard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.Ē †

Unlike other American seekers, hermits donít look for perfection or communion. No vision of a better society animates them. They neither conquer nor proselytize, even if they occasionally lash out. Their country is all around us, and it is usually invisible. Alec Sothís photographs open a door into it, not so much as to reveal everything but enough to suggest the existence of a subterranean world, a secret hiding in plain sight.