New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 8 March 7 to 13, 2012

An Off the Grid Road Trip
Alec Soth
Broken Manual
Don Burmeister
2008_08zl0238 by Alec Soth. Source:
Alec Soth, "2008_08zl0238" 2008

The American road trip as a photographic genre might well have had its origins with Walker Evans in the 1930’s, and certainly reached its defining moment with Robert Frank’s peregrinations during the 1950’s. Stephan Shore and then Joel Sternfeld brought large-format color cameras along on their trips in the 1970’s and 80’s, and, of course they, Lee Friedlander, and countless others continued the road trip tradition into the 21st century. Alec Soth represents a younger generation (he was born in 1969), but he seems to share the same “I will travel out into the American wilderness and find great pictures” ethos as his predecessors.

Road trip photographers seem to be of two schools. One, typified by Robert Frank and Stephan Shore, seem to be driven primarily by personal or esthetic concerns and are mostly interested in getting photographs with an underlying psychological unity to them. Others seem to be more subject driven, with an open, whatever means necessary, documentary approach. Soth falls into the later category; his photographs include landscapes, found still-life and portraits, all related by context, not a particular photographic style. In ‘Broken Manual’, as in his earlier series, the subject is odd people, the things they make, and the places they live.

More specifically, the theme of this show is hermits, survivalists and utopian dreamers, mostly in the American West. Given today’s art world-academia complex, simply taking pictures is not really enough anymore, and Soth duly surrounds his photographs with an elaborate ‘context’ that includes an pseudonymously published survivalist handbook, and a large collection of books and ephemera dealing with living off-the-grid. Plus, we are treated to an hour long high-def video documenting Soth in the act of producing the photographs in the show.

2008_08zl0107 by Alec Soth. Source:
Alec Soth, "2008_08zl0107" 2008

Seen by themselves, most of these photographs lack much life. The view from the Unibomber’s cabin site is majestic, but no more so than many other Montana scenes. Images of individual survivalists tend to turn them into icons rather than people, the one exception being the nude study of a young man with a swastika tattoo on his arm.

While there are some interesting pictures, the video steals the show, literally bringing the people Soth photographs to life. Soth himself is a personable man, and the video rather touchingly shows how he approaches and deals with people he has sought out, not a few of whom are lonely, mentally unstable men. ‘I’ve been living through hell’ one tells Soth by his barricaded doorway. With it’s gorgeous imagery, (and somewhat overwrought original score), the video itself is in a popular documentary genre – men doing jobs that have to be done, driving trucks to Alaska, or catching shrimp in the depleted Gulf. In this case, the traveling photographer seeks out the mysterious Great Image. Unfortunately, as in those TV docudramas, sometimes you come back with not too much to show for all the effort.

Alec Soth
Broken Manual

Sean Kelly Gallery
528 W 29th St.
Chelsea         Map

212 239 1181

Friday, February 3 to
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Hours: Tues-Fri, 11 to 6; Sat, 10 to 6