Alec Soth and Brad Zellar, LBM Dispatch #5: Colorado

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Little Brown Mushroom (here). Newsprint, 48 pages, with 42 black and white images taken by Alec Soth. Most of the photographs are accompanied by texts by Brad Zellar, and/or by quotes from James Galvin, EE Cummings, Willa Cather, and others. (Spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: While photocopied and small run artists’ zines have long been part of an amorphous underground publishing community, there is no doubt that the explosion of economically viable self publishing options that have emerged in the past few years has dramatically reshaped the photo book industry. While major titles with superlative printing and design may still follow more traditional production paths and release schedules, the do-it-yourself disruption has led to a flourishing of book making creativity and innovation, and a fast moving landslide of publications that don’t look and feel like we expect them to. The five crammed shelves of revolutionary photobooks included in this year’s ICP Triennial are a testament to just how important this phenomenon has become to the way we are experiencing contemporary photography.

The LBM Dispatch series from Alec Soth and Brad Zellar is a fantastic example of how newfound publishing freedoms have allowed artists to follow their own interests more precisely. Their “books” are nearly the opposite of what we’ve been taught to appreciate: they’re big (tabloid sized), they’re printed on cheap disposable paper (newsprint), they’re relatively inexpensive, and they reject the normal “parade of solitary imagery” approach by liberally mixing photographs and text. But by breaking all the rules, what Soth and Zellar have really done is simply matched form to function, molding the in-your-hands physical display to fit the kind of serial storytelling they want to do, which by the way, is a kind of storytelling that they’ve had to reinvent because it’s been overlooked for so long.

At the simplest level, the LBM Dispatch project falls into the long American tradition of expedition and road trip photography. Walking in the footsteps of everyone from Timothy O’Sullivan to Robert Frank, Soth and Zellar have headed out on rambling open ended trips and documented what they’ve found. But unlike their predecessors, Soth and Zellar have brought prose much more fully into the artistic end product; the texts here are not addendums or afterthoughts, but integrated parts of the collaborative storytelling experience. While the James Agee/Walker Evans team is certainly one precedent, I think there is stronger kinship here with the work of Wright Morris, where text and pictures were used with nearly equal brilliance to capture the nuances of specific American places and times.

In this particular issue, Soth and Zellar have driven the roads of Colorado, taking in healthy gulps of mountain vistas and frontier spirit. While their trips clearly have a dose of serendipity, these are not really random moments; they’ve done their homework, read their history, and are looking for certain kinds of encounters that will touch on larger themes. This method of building up a narrative is well suited to Soth’s approach to photography; he has never been one to be pigeon holed into just portraits, landscapes, still lifes, or any other type or subject matter, so this kind of vignette-driven storytelling fits well with his natural working style. While rugged snowy mountains and huge storm clouds are an inescapable part of any portrait of Colorado, Soth and Zellar have dug deeper than the stunning landscape, probing the edges of local communities, common folklore, and the undercurrent of violence seemingly inherent to life in this wide open country.

Many of Soth’s photographs in this book are portraits of people and objects, seen with an open, unassuming honesty that allows a sliver of the surreal to slip in nearly undetected: a bearded man stands in front of an enormous pile of antlers, while another sports a plastic mask of Doc Holliday, and a woman in formal riding gear waits for her horse perched on a set of stairs, while another beams in her colonial frontier dress amid a row of parked cars. Often, the still life objects and places are secondary evidence, physical remains with some additional resonance: a tombstone of a famous cannibal, the path leading to the Columbine High School memorial, a bullet hole in the wall at Focus on the Family, a rusted out, pock-marked car in the dust near the home of the Dragon Man, a plastic bear torso at a local archery club. Each image tells its own self contained mini-story, and contributes to the weaving of a larger non-linear tapestry of collective impressions.

Zellar’s words are equally important to the overall rhythm of this collaboration. Some of his contributions are casual, quirky interviews with the portrait sitters, often laced with nuggets of personal history or pithy wisdom. Others are background explanations, reflections, or poetry selections, incomplete hints of something more, but just enough to give us some context or a narrative handhold to grasp. The cadence of his voice is quiet and conversational, generally pared back to essentials and lacking in showy verbal flourishes, with a soft, poetic irony that is at once true to the facts and open to interpretation. His texts are easy going and approachable, authentically curious in their search for meaning, but appropriately ambiguous and open ended. Perhaps most amazingly, Zellar and Soth have got the artistic balance just right, where the mood of the photographs and the content and style of the prose never compete or trample on one another.

What I like best about this collaboration is that it has produced a truly personal riff on visual storytelling. They have blatantly disregarded the notion that words and photographs have no business mixing together, and instead have embraced the combination of forms as a more flexible method of communicating their own kind of mysterious narrative. They have resolutely camped out in no man’s land, bring prose that is more than a caption but less than an essay into direct conversation with individual images, allowing each photograph to open up further. And they have rejected the notion that such a product need thump down on your coffee table, and have instead offered us a physical form that can be enjoyed with unassuming pleasure. All in, Soth and Zellar have taken a bunch of obvious risks and delivered something of unpretentious grace and genius, a product that elegantly fits both who they are and the way they see the world.

Collector’s POV: Alec Soth is represented by Sean Kelly Gallery in New York (here). Soth’s photographs have begun to appear in the secondary markets more regularity in recent years, with prices ranging from roughly $4000 to $22000.

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