present: Making the Break with Alec Soth

by Andy Sturdevant

Alec Soth, photographer and subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, sells zines on his website, and that’s exactly what he calls them. Not “art publications,” not “self-published books,” but zines—like a 1990s-era punk band, or a kid behind the merch table at an all-ages rock show. In most circles, that particular word fell out of use sometime around the end of the Clinton administration. If we are to believe the arguments of anonymous Wikipedia contributors: “It can be argued that the sudden growth of the Internet, and the ability of private web-pages to fulfill much the same role of personal expression as zines, was a strong contributor to their pop culture expiration.” To claim (or reclaim) the word is to take on the mantle of low-tech, lo-fi righteousness most often associated with defunct subcultural groups of the late 20th century.

Of course, these zines are not Soth’s work, in the strictest sense. They’re made by one Lester B. Morrison, a pseudonymous writer who has collaborated with Soth on his newest publication, Lester’s Broken Manual. These zines’ various titles—Library for Broken MenLonely Boy MountainLonely Bearded MenLester Becomes Me—are printed and stapled 5.5” x 8.5” booklets of drawings, collage, found material, and graphite smudges, dealing explicitly with concepts related to survivalism, and the more abstract, underlying ideas of escape, violence, and loneliness; collectively, they form a sort of first draft of the Broken Manual. “As many of you know, we published Lester’s first zine, Lost Boy Mountain, last December,” Soth writes on his blog, “Little Brown Mushroom.” He adds, with what one senses to be a great deal of amusement: “It went on to be named one of the best books of 2009.”

The new work, Broken Manual, is itself very zine-like in its most basic format: it’s a paperback, tape-bound at the spine with the title that appears to be crudely lettered-on with a Sharpie. The text throughout—supplied by Morrison, and covering the “Steps to Disappearing” utilized by “hermits and hippies, monks and survivalists”—is printed in uniform, 12-point Times New Roman font, and it looks very much like something printed off a laser jet at Kinko’s. The text portions appear on stock green and pink, 8 ½” x 11” paper. With the exception of the high-quality reproductions of Soth’s photos of shacks, mountain vistas, and survivalist ephemera throughout (and the imprint of Steidl, a well regarded German photography and fashion publisher), Broken Manual looks much like the sort of thing you might see for sale at a gun show.

Beyond the basic formatting of the central print piece, the full edition of Broken Manual comes placed inside an inconspicuous larger book, one of those 1960s Time-Life Treasures of the Vaticankinds of coffee table books, hollowed-out by hand; the paperback fits snugly inside the larger volume, hidden from view. I heard about certain stoner kids in my high school who supposedly kept their glass pipes and stashes in such custom-made books. I have also heard of gun show-types stashing their firearms in similar volumes, putting them on bookshelves, hidden from home invaders or ATF agents but ready to be withdrawn at a moment’s notice.

Much of this is reminiscent of the sort of low-tech, lo-fi righteousness most often associated with anothersubcultural group of the late 20th century, on the opposite end of the socio-cultural spectrum from where punk rock zines situated themselves—the survivalists. You may recall the various quasi-libertarian fringe-dwellers who seemed to be a favorite topic of the national news media in the period falling roughly between the 1992 raid on Ruby Ridge and the Y2K panic—frequently lone, often violent separatists like Randy Weaver, David Koresh, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh and Eric Rudolph. Violence and ideology aside, both the zine and the survivalist movements found common ground, actually, in their embrace of a DIY ethos which spawned a rejection of a broken-beyond-repair mass culture and the impulse to create its alternative.

Alec Soth recently invited me to come by his St. Paul studio and have a look at Lester’s Broken Manual. His studio is in a nondescript, one-story building in the Midway neighborhood, just over the Minneapolis-St. Paul border. If the Archbishop John Ireland had had his way in the 1890s, this precise area would have been the site of the Minnesota state capitol, uniting the Twin Cities into a single conjoined metropolis. Instead, the capital lies five miles east, and downtown Minneapolis five miles west, with the Midway area between them an oddly featureless, unglamorous stretch of the cities that often feels neither here or nor there.

One whole wall of Soth’s in-studio library is covered with used, oversized coffee table books, hollowed-out and awaiting the placement of a copy of the Manual inside. He grabs one from the top of a stack, and opens it up. “Each one has to be glued by hand,” he explains, “and it’s an ordeal.” The pages are glued together on the sides, and then the guts are removed with a router. He has an associate doing this for him on dozens and dozens of these books, all of which have been purchased used. Apparently, it has been more difficult than expected to find coffee table books large enough to accommodate the Manual, so once he has found a winner, he buys as many copies of it as he can find. Preparing each of these oversized volumes for final publication is a slow process.

There’s a physical gravity to these books, as objects, that seems to be at odds with the direction mass-market books are going. “Yeah,” Soth agrees. The future of photo and art books “is going to be online-only, or you’re going to have to have some physicality. The print-on-demand thing is ridiculous.”

It’s true. The idea of millions of individual books that only fifteen people buy is unappetizing. TheManual offers one way to escape such ephemerality and ghettoization, perhaps. It’s absolutely an art object, and a lovingly crafted one at that. There’s nothing on-demand about it. However, the object is quite crudely formatted, too—an imperfect artifact. “The book was never intended to be thorough. It’s fragmentary,” Soth says. “It’s a broken manual; it doesn’t work.”

The idea of such a document came to Soth several years ago, while traveling around the South on assignment for the High Museum in Atlanta, shooting for a series called Picturing the South. He was perhaps thinking in broadly romantic terms, as one does while spending time in the South, about Flannery O’Connor’s writings on crossing behind the “black line of woods,” and about Eric Rudolph, the Olympic Park bomber and fugitive that evaded capture for years in South, living behind a grocery store and stealing food from dumpsters. Soth says it wasn’t Rudolph’s hateful politics that attracted him, but the idea of his evading capture for so long. After that, other figures began to come to his attention, as well—the Kentucky monk, Thomas Merton, for example—all of them figures notable for their repudiation of culture, for finding escape routes, and generally withdrawing from the mainstream of contemporary life. More and more, the project, the subjects he shot, had less to do with a sense of place, the South in particular, and instead focused on tearing the notion of “place” out of the pictures. In its place was a weird, desperately lonely, shadow America. In fact, as he worked on it, the project became more and more about tearing things apart entirely. “At a certain point,” he says, “It’s not about photography.”

2006_03zl0016, 2006 by Alec Soth

Of course, as appealing as the fantasy of escape and a wholesale separation from the demands of contemporary existence is, it’s just that: a fantasy. “I mean, I’m not going to leave my children,” Soth assures. Even if one is to enter the margins, as many of his subjects have, what then? There’s rarely a total rejection of society by these volunteer outcasts, and especially not a rejection of others’ attention. “There’s always a need for other people,” Soth says flatly. “Running away doesn’t work.”

And, here, we come to his collaboration with Lester B. Morrison, Soth’s pseudonymous collaborator, who provides the text of the Manual. It is Morrison’s voice which preaches, in the book’s introduction, that “if you want to be free, you need to make THE BREAK.” I say Lester B. Morrison is pseudonymous because “Lester B. Morrison” is a pseudonym. Lester says so right in the book: “When things get official, you can use my full name: Leslie B. Morrison,” he writes. “That way the paper pushers don’t know if I’m a man or a woman.”

Soth tells me Morrison’s not quite “made the break” himself yet, actually; rather, he’s caught in a sort of suspended state, between polite society and the wilderness. Of course, there are those who suggest “Lester B. Morrison” is a pseudonym not for an unseen collaborator, but for Alec Soth himself—something Soth politely but firmly denies. “The Lester thing,” Soth says when the subject comes up as we talk, chuckling to himself under his breath. “I’m not sure what to do about that. There’s so much different information out there . . .”

We sort of look at each other, and I actually panic for a moment. I am not sure if I am being invited into the joke, or if there even is a joke. Soth smiles. “There’s a lot of layers,” he says resolutely. “For example, no one ever seems to point out that Lester had a poem in The Last Days of W.,” a book Soth published two years ago.

He smiles again. “And that was some time ago.”


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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2010/2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010/2011