Alex Soth: Photographs of Modern Hermits

“For the past four years Alec Soth has been taking photographs of men who, frustrated with societal constraints, flee civilization to inhabit the natural landscape. Soth’s subjects simultaneously emanate anger, mystery and deep-seated vulnerability. In a previous interview with The Guardian, Soth explains his technique, saying, “I use an 8in-by-10 in view camera and I put a dark cloth over my head, so it’s a very slow process, and people have to be still.” He continues, “I like this because I prefer the subject to be quiet and move inside themselves, so they are in a reflective state.”
portrait of Alec Soth
What is the inner life of a hermit like, you ask? There is something unsettling about the men in Soth’s images; they quietly address the interior struggle between savagery and civilization, between masculinity and sensitivity. It is clear that the men place great trust in Soth; the natural urges for both bold masculinity and sensitivity lurk in the shadows of their honest faces. Their haunted, faraway expressions create equally haunting imagery, the wilds of the woods mirroring the recesses of the mind.
soth hermit 3
Born Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1969 Studied Sarah Lawrence College, New York Career high Going into a library and seeing my book on the shelf Career low The summer I assisted a born-again product photographer Inspirations My work is often compared to the colour photographers who emerged in the 1970s. They’re an obvious infl uence, but I’m equally inspired by a wide range of photographers. My answer for today is Josef Koudelka Pet hate Fish-eye lenses Ambition To produce a great book of photographs Dream subject Hermits, Scarlett Johansson, happy people, the Amazon, unusually tall people, Welsh countryside, and on and on . . .
soth 2
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 Unabomber’s 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.
soth hermit 5
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 Frank’s photograph, framed by gauzy motel-room curtains, Butte looks like Dashiell Hammett’s Poisonville or a subdivision on the moon. In Soth’s version, the city is blurred by a mesh screen. The emphasis of the picture shifts from the city to the room. It’s 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 don’t tell stories so much as suggest them. Most of the photographs in Broken Manual come without captions. The few titles that are included don’t give much away, limiting themselves to “Roman, the nocturnal hermit,” or “Sidney’s Tomatoes.” The tension in the collection comes from a collision of materials of unknown provenance and from situations you can’t quite read. There’s a boarded-up house with “KEEP OUT” 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. It’s one of the few photographs in the collection that’s obviously posed.
soth 3
It’s 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. It’s 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 it’s 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, Soth’s 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 welder’s mask, a dead spider, a hollowed-out book….
soth 4
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 “spent in the bowers of solitude.” 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. It’s a country that can crop up anywhere. You can find it on the edges of any dream of isolation, independence or escape. It’s in the Idaho of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and in Constance Rourke’s description of the Crockett family homestead in the wilds of Kentucky, where hunters hid in the cane breaks and panthers crouched in tall sycamores. It’s Julianne Moore’s porcelain igloo in Todd Haynes’s Safe and the cave Lenny says he’ll run away to in Of Mice and Men; Thoreau’s cabin by Walden Pond and the Weaver family compound up on Ruby Ridge. It’s the desire to disappear under a mountain captured in Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s rendition of “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” and it’s the American soul as D.H. Lawrence saw it: “hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”

Unlike other American seekers, hermits don’t 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 Soth’s 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.
soth hermit
For his series Broken Manual, iconic contemporary photographer Alec Soth traveled across the United States in search of modern hermits. He found monks living in ghost towns, solitary hippies dwelling in the woods, and other anxious ascetics who retreated from society into caves, cabins, and isolated trailers for decades, in preparation for the decline of our civilization. Filmmakers Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove documented his artistic road trip in their new film Somewhere to Disappear, riding in the back of the photographer’s van for 20,000 miles, from state to state, from story to story.
somewhere to disappear
See some striking portraits and derelict landscapes from the series, as well as fascinating black and white portraits of Soth’s subjects’ possessions, their tools for loneliness. (Beware of brief artificial nudity.) Catch the trailer to Somewhere to Disappear at the end of the gallery.
soth hermit 2
See also:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: