Alec Soth, Broken Manual @Sean Kelly: A Review Conversation with Richard B. Woodward

JTF (just the facts): A mixed group of 26 black and white and color photographs, framed in grey wood and unmatted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space, the entry, and a single side room. All of the works are archival pigment prints, mounted either to paper or 4 ply museum board, all in editions of 7+3AP. Sizes range from 10×8 to 70×56 (or reverse). There are 13 black and white and 13 color images in the show. The images were taken between 2006 and 2008. The exhibit also includes an installation of Broken Manual limited editions and other ephemera related to the project. In a darkened side room, a 57 minute documentary called Somewhere to Disappear (here) is on view. A trade edition of Broken Manual is apparently forthcoming from Steidl (here). (Installation shots at right.)

Rather than following my normal format, today’s review of Alec Soth’s new show at Sean Kelly will once again take the form of a casual, but hopefully thoughtful, conversation. Regular readers might remember that I experimented with this collaborative approach in a recent review of the Jeff Wall show at Marian Goodman (here), where I went back and forth with longtime photo critic AD Coleman. As a reminder, this structure has no pre-sets – it’s an open ended discussion that leads wherever the ideas might take us.

I’m happy to say that Richard B. Woodward has decided to join me for today’s conversation. Woodward is an arts critic who contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, where he often covers major museum shows of photography from around the US, normally in longer format reviews containing a mix of historical background and artistic explication. His writing is also easily found in any number of photo books and exhibit catalogues from the past decade or two, where his essays provide lucid context and critical interpretation. I’m overjoyed to have lured him away from the tactile pleasures of the printed page and into the freewheeling online realm, at least for the moment.

DLK: I have to admit up front that I didn’t come into this show completely cold. Like many other collectors I’m sure, I had seen several prints from this series in the Weinstein Gallery booth at last year’s AIPAD and had also encountered a number of reproductions in the exhibition catalog from Soth’s retrospective at the Walker Art Center in 2010, so at some level, I knew what I was in for before I arrived. But with that caveat, I will say that I most certainly got a fuller experience of the work in this gallery show than I had previously felt.

My first reaction was at some level less about the photographs themselves as individual works (we’ll get to that in a moment I’m sure) and more about the overall mood that they create in tandem. To me, Broken Manual is an obvious progression from and intensification of the atmosphere of The Last Days of W (Soth’s previous project). We’ve clearly moved on from exhaustion (in many forms), political cynicism, tempered anger, and angst to something altogether more desperate and personal. While there is of course something action oriented about the desire to flee and disappear, I felt the heavy weight of powerlessness in this show. It’s as if these people (all men that I could see) have banged their heads against the metaphorical wall for so long (without anyone listening) that they have finally given up and retreated to the margins and wastelands of America. Whether they’re hermits, survivalists, hippies, government haters, conspiracy theorists or just plain crazy (by some definition), they’re living in a roughly similar emotional landscape, and Soth seems to have found a sense of deep empathy for parts of what made these men want to be alone. So my point is that the pictures are really capturing an abstract state of mind, and any particular authentic reality in the photographs is just a symbol of that frustrated psychological atmosphere.

RBW: I appreciate your asking me to trade fours with you on the bandstand in your club. I’m new and somewhat averse to on-line media (I don’t even have a Facebook page) but your blog is among the few that I regularly read, both to catch myself up on shows I’ve missed (you see everything) and to compare my reactions to your intelligent takes.

Like you, I had seen this body of Soth’s work before. I saw his retrospective last year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, his home town, and Broken Manual was installed as part of that. The selection was, if I remember, somewhat larger but also presented in a subdued, grayish atmosphere. There were probably 10 pictures from the series in the catalog, From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, that aren’t here.

I like this version better. It is, as you say, a deepening and a concentration of the glib and cynical tone in The Last Days of W and it’s also a logical progression from Sleeping by the Mississippi. The mood here is more crushingly sad than at the Walker. (I’ll see if I can explain why later.) We can talk in another exchange about his techniques for treating people who are not as economically advantaged or emotionally stable as he is, how he has earned their trust and whether or not you think he has betrayed it, and whether or not that’s inevitable.

But his choice to focus on men who choose to live apart from American society was smart and full of photographic possibilities. As types, they populate both our 19th century history (the Western prospector, the crazy hermit, persecuted religious sects such as the Mormons, various utopian communards) and our tabloid culture of paranoid loners and political lunatics. There was Eric Rudolph who blew up abortion clinics and attacked the Atlanta Olympic Games and went on to survive in the North Carolina woods for years. And, of course, there was “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski who is alluded to a couple of times in the show.

Soth is one of the most thoughtful photographers around, a guy who is always wrestling with the question of where to stand in relation to his subjects and how to keep the documentary tradition vital so that he can poke his nose where it doesn’t belong and still have a clear conscience. I wonder if you felt, as I did, that one of the strengths of the show is that one feels Soth is tempted by the idea of abandoning his life as a dutiful Magnum member and breadwinner in order to go off and live in a cave. He’s trying to empathize with these men, even a skinhead neo-Nazi, and, like Arbus, he keeps asking himself, “hmm, what would happen to me if?” He sees the appeal of getting away from home, and working. In fact, that’s what he’s doing here. How different is a photographer on the road from a guy holed up in the desert? Being both inside and outside is always a hard act to pull off. How do you think he succeeds at that?

DLK: Watching parts of the documentary running in the darkened side room made me conclude that Soth got the balance generally right, not too far in (thereby losing a sense of wider perspective), and not too far apart (with the danger of a smug mocking eye). The trust he built with his subjects seems to have been easy going and genuine. That said, the installation of ephemera in the first room wouldn’t look as manic and serial killer crazy as it does unless Soth had become somewhat fascinated by the whole culture he was exploring; I don’t want to speculate on exactly how far he was drawn in, but I think he imbibed enough of the kool aid to at least intellectually understand some of the motivations. I thought some of the best moments in the film are when nothing happens, and Soth is wandering frustrated in search of something or someone he can’t seem to find; the project takes a more obsessive tone at that point, which seems somehow appropriate for the subject matter. I do agree that Soth’s overall commitment to and engagement with “disappearing” makes these pictures more successful than they would have been at arm’s length.

The only image in the whole show that I think comes to close to the exploitation line is the portrait of the tanned, naked man standing in the water lily pond (the titles of these images are universally unhelpful for identification purposes). I actually think this is a very powerful image (especially printed as large as it is), juxtaposing the swastika tattoo and Garden of Eden setting, but I do wonder a bit about the coaxing that occurred to get this shot. Of course, I don’t know the back story to the photograph, but it seems pretty unlikely to me that the man came up with standing naked in the pond all by himself. That isn’t to say that he wasn’t a willing participant; on the contrary, I think he probably was, and the starved for attention quality that many of the men have is an important and unexpected discovery that Soth makes in these pictures. While the other portraits in the show are of course somewhat posed (he’s using a large format camera after all), this is the only one that seemed a bit unnatural to me. But maybe that risk taking (by both sides) is what makes it more memorable.

RBW: I think the project is rife with exploitation, as is any project with a gross imbalance of power between photographer and subject. And most projects are! That’s the nature of photography. The opening for the show at Sean Kelly was packed with friends of Soth and other photographers who were a world apart from the subjects in the pictures. I wonder if any of the lost souls featured here has seen the work and, if they have, I’d be curious what they thought of it. I doubt any of them would be too upset. Even the fellow standing naked in the water, with shaved head and swastika tattoo, seems proud of himself and would be probably be OK with seeing himself on the walls of a Chelsea gallery.

One of the many things I like about Broken Manual is that Soth has recognized this problem of the portrayer and the portrayed, and his photographs reflect that. There is a blurry portrait that suggests it was taken with a long lens, as though these are men of whom we are slightly afraid and who are slightly afraid of us. There’s a surveillance quality to the picture. Or it could indicate an early phase of his getting to know these guys: he could only see them from afar, stalking them in the woods as though they were Bigfoot. Other pictures, including the one you cite, and another of a bearded man sleeping, show a much greater degree of trust.

He has approached these men as if he were an anthropologist. He reveals not only their portraits but their abodes, reading matter, tools (including a sex toy) and their attempt to dress up or glamorize their surroundings. The saddest picture in the show to me was the mirrored globe hanging off a branch in the middle of nowhere. Soth has photographed it in the grayest, flattest light so that it barely reflects anything. Not many disco parties in that neck of the woods, I’m guessing.

DLK: I very much agree that the grainy, out of focus photo of the bearded man in the woods captures something important about this whole project. I think you’re right on as far as the feel of voyeuristic surveillance it employs, as well as the stalking, fleeting glimpse it offers. It’s indistinct, and marginal, and just out of reach, and yet the American flag bandanna around the man’s neck somehow opens up other narrative possibilities: is this a veteran, or perhaps someone fiercely patriotic, troubled by an America that seems to have lost its way, whose only logical response was to reject it and head for the hills?

The still life images are a bit of a departure for Soth I think. Not only are they in black and white, but they are set against blank backgrounds, just like Taryn Simon’s Contraband series. And in a sense, they have an affinity with that project, in that the objects are outside societal norms in one way or another: conspiracy videos, a makeshift knife, a welded iron helmet almost medieval in its roughness, a slug dragging a trail of slime, a sex toy. I absolutely see the resonance of these objects as part of the larger story, but I wonder if they would all be as powerful if taken out of context and forced to stand alone.

I also agree that both the disco ball and the light bulb in the lonely woods are achingly sad. Here I think the return to black and white is very effective; draining away the color makes the blanket on the forest floor or the rocky camp site seem even more dismal and gloomy. Here’s where the glamour and romance of disappearing really meet the harsh reality of being alone; time seems to stand still in these pictures, in a bone tired, dispiriting way.

I’m not sure if it’s just a quirk of this particular hanging, but with fewer portraits as a percentage of the whole, I think the places (the white cave with hangers, the house built into the rock wall, the dome in the desert, the house boat covered in lights, the single light bulb interior with graffiti) and objects start to act like stand-ins for invisible people. The eccentricities pile up, but they are harder to hold on to. The photographs are indirect portraits of their owners, which when taken together as a group, takes me back to the project as an exercise in abstraction, of using symbols to document a continuum of specific behavior that all converges on an underlying set of interlocking emotions.

RBW: I like your idea that the objects are stand-ins for people. The things these guys have taken with them into the woods are not only tools, they’re also totems. A single light bulb would be a fairly grim source of illumination in a room. Hanging from a tree it’s both a surreal symbol of civilization and an indication of one man’s extreme isolation.

But I don’t understand what you mean by “exercise in abstraction.” Soth is trying to evoke a sense of loneliness and rejection and self-exile strictly through traditional documentary means: portraits, forensic or evidentiary pictures of habitat and possessions. One of those techniques would only take us so far in setting a mood about a way of life. Portraits alone couldn’t transport us to that emotional place without a lot of obtrusive text telling us what to think about the economic plight of these guys. And the light bulb, mirror globe, sex toy, boat, coat hangers, slimy slug would be too allusive–too Taryn Simon–if seen alone. You’re right that what power these objects have derives from the context and conjunction with the portraits.

The published survivalist material stacked against one wall is another documentary technique, even if it’s not photographic. The array of pamphlets and books is a sign, as you say, that Soth has burrowed deeply into this culture. He also may want to show us how many kinds of crazy there are. As I wrote before, hermits have existed throughout our history and developed their own eccentric culture. In the 1950s and ‘60s men built fall-out shelters as they prepared for nuclear war. The survivalists in Soth’s photos don’t seem to conform to any single political philosophy. They’re not all neo-Nazis or Tea Party extremists or disappointed Left-wing radicals or hippies gone to seed. But many are clearly paranoid. I was interested to hear in the documentary from the old guy who expected Obama to be assassinated as a pretext by a cabal for a government take-over.

The books help to show that these men aren’t just camping and they’re not homeless. They’re serious and determined to live apart, and they have allies in the fringes of the business world. Preaching the apocalypse can be profitable. On various radio stations and on the Internet you can find advertisements now for a Food Insurance outlet selling “gourmet” meals guaranteed to last for 25 years. The company is endorsed by Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Economic or ecological collapse is not as unthinkable as it was 20 years ago, and some people have already begun to build their arks for the hard rain that’s gonna fall.

DLK: I like the way Soth has captured the broad diversity of these characters, but still retained their elusiveness. Most of the photographs are the opposite of traditional portraits: eyes closed, walking away into a thicket of brambles, camouflaged in a ghillie suit, dwarfed by towering trees or overgrown greenery. Soth has effectively matched his unconventional compositions to the marginal nature of his subjects.

By the way, I didn’t mean “abstraction” to represent anything more than the simple idea that all of the works here attempt to depict something which is underneath and invisible, and therefore a step away from the literalness of what they are and a leaning toward the metaphorical of what they might represent. The pictures themselves are of course not abstract in the visual sense, they are documentary (broadly defined) as you point out. All I was trying to get at was the representational aspect of trying to convey complex emotion, which to me ends up being somewhat “abstract”. I’m probably in the semantic weeds here, so let’s move on.

Overall, I came away from this show impressed with Soth’s dedication to an unruly project, and with his ability to consciously broaden his photographic toolkit to include more subject matter types and aesthetic approaches; I certainly got the impression he was pushing himself beyond his comfort zone. From my vantage point as a collector, I’m always trying to get my head around the difference between the durable and the forgettable, and I think there are at least half a dozen photographs on view here that will likely age very well indeed, that will retain their power to startle far into the future (even when taken out of context) and will be emblematic of the particular embittered times from which they came. Many of the others will likely fill the role of quirky supporters, especially in book form where they can be additive to the overall mood. I imagine a certain slice of collectors will find this work too far out there, a bit puzzling and hard to categorize. For the most part, I found Broken Manual compelling and original, and I was left wondering whether this body of work is the terminal end point to a line of thinking that began many years ago for Soth, or whether it is some kind of intermediate transitory stage, where he has been flexing his artistic muscles a bit with a tough problem, only to pivot and apply those new strategies and techniques to something altogether different in the future. As a show, I think it cements his reputation as a leader, and leaders don’t always take the obvious path.

RBW: Here are a few last thoughts.

I agree that Soth is working on the edge of where his core artistic beliefs and training have taken him. He and several other members of Magnum, including Susan Meiselas and Jim Goldberg, are rethinking what it means to document a culture. The danger is that in trying to encompass more by nibbling around the edges of a subject to get at “an overall mood,” you take a lot of lesser photographs instead of a few dazzling ones. I don’t see any great pictures in the show, although I see a number of good ones that mesh nicely and, as you say, “half a dozen photographs on view here will likely age very well.”

He’s also, as you say, “a leader.” From what I observe and hear, he’s very generous to other photographers. His drive to succeed to work hard has not blinkered him or turned him into an egomaniac. He has an expansive attitude about what documentary photography can be and he seems dissatisfied with the status quo. I expect lots more good work from him.

We haven’t talked much about the size of the prints and how unexpectedly large or small some of them are. My first reaction upon seeing the print of the ship was, ‘why so big?’ Then, on closer inspection, it won me over. If it were smaller, you wouldn’t see the detail of the jerry-rigged wiring on the masts and the quite unglamorous domesticity that life on the water affords. (Soth must be attracted to living on a boat or being near water, as the theme turns up repeatedly in his work.)

I wasn’t sure what he gained by mixing black-and-white and color. (The black-and-white prints here are actually, as I understand, just dialed down color negatives, not made from “true” black-and-white negatives.) Then, I decided this is another way for him to keep us on our toes and not let us think we could immerse ourselves in this alien world. If everything were color or everything were black-and-white it would be much easier to feel he was a reliable guide around these men. To revert for a moment to artspeak, he was revealing his camera and photography as a mediator, and not an inclusive or impartial one.

I was a little disappointed that he didn’t include here any of the videos he has made. Several were in the Walker retrospective and they revealed what a smart, goofball he can be. They might have disrupted the sobriety of this show and we can see those aspects of his personality in the film about him that’s playing in the first gallery. Still, I thought he could have mixed up his approach and complicated the mood even further with more irreverence.

The subject of men driven by a need to remove themselves from society has been taken up by writers (Jon Kracauer’s Into the Wild) and by movie makers (Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter) but I don’t know that many photographers have attempted it. Joel Sternfeld’s Utopia project is much more sociable. Soth has to solve the problem of showing absence and emptiness and anomie and detachment and hostility, and that’s hard to do in a photograph. Too many others, when they decide to document, say, the homeless, will take portraits and maybe the makeshift shelters they construct, leave it at that.

Soth has tried to come up with a more nuanced solution and I applaud him for it. Like you, I see it as transitional in his development. I’ll be curious to see what his next project will be. The choice of subject often determines what you photograph and how, and it’s usually the hardest decision to make. I have a hunch we’re going to see more video.

Thanks again for inviting me for a chat in your digital man cave. Let’s do it again.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The smallest 10×8 images start at $5000, and generally increase in price according to size, reaching $28000 for the largest 70×56 prints. Intermediate prices include $6000, $9000, $15000, and $20000, with a couple of images NFS. Soth’s work has begun to appear in the secondary markets more consistently in recent years (a handful of lots each year), with prices ranging from roughly $4000 to $22000.

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Read more about: Alec Soth, Sean Kelly Gallery, Steidl

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Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 59 photographic works, generally framed in beige wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. (Installation shots below.) ... Read on.

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