Alec Soth, Rhymes with ‘Both’

Alec Soth, Broken Manual[Alex Soth Broken Manual]



When considering how his work formulates, Alec Soth quoted the words of Robert Frank in his Guggenheim Fellowship proposal, “the project I have in mind is one that will shape itself as it proceeds, and is essentially elastic.” Similar to Frank, Soth has been accredited as a ‘documentary photographer’ and thus has earned himself a ticket to the elusive gentleman’s club of the photography world, Magnum Photos. However, Soth himself confesses that, more often than not, his work is too self indulgent to adhere to the connotations of traditional documentary photography; instead, perhaps, his work is that of fine art -and an intrinsic study into the nature of the human condition.

Broken Manual is nothing short of the epitome of this study, presenting an intimate visual glossary of our yearning for escapism. It takes the reader along on Soth’s quest to explore his own desire to run away and through this we are encouraged to consider our own. The desolate imagery encountered in viewing the book detaches us from the fantastical view of the runaway adventurer – who as a child didn’t wish they were Huck Finn? Or in 2007, wanted to cut up their credit cards and kayak through America  after watching Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. The Manual, with help from writer, Lester B. Morrison, is an underground guide to escaping civilisation and almost satirically named ‘Broken’ for it’s inability to truly deliver. Soth’s project comments on life in a context of elective seclusion and its juxtaposition to our necessity for interpersonal connectivity. The hermits he photographed are, through the longevity and distribution of Soth’s imagery, no longer hermits – their faces and fragmented stories  made public through the camera’s presence.

Alec Soth, Broken Manual, Portrait


Through previous work in corpus’ such as Niagara and From Here to There, Soth developed a craving for a level of distance between himself and his subjects that shooting with a large format alone could not give him. In the Broken Manual, Soth captures his portraits by finding the hermits, survivalists and monks in distant scenes and enlarging selections of the images – much akin to the work of artist Richard Prince who rephotographed selections of advertising imagery – and in doing so, enhances the sense of visual distance through the distorted blurs of each face. It appears as if you are viewing the subject through a sheath of gauze which, in itself, is a somewhat romantic visual depiction of their desire to be removed from society.

By the end of the project, Soth claimed (FIT lecture 8/12/2010) that despite it’s hypocritical nature, he wanted to inhabit a cave of his own, but jokily said that due to the recession he  would “feel weird going to a banker and asking for a loan for a cave.” Thankfully, he chose instead to set about the task of designing how the book should be presented. Each primary edition of the manual, of which there are only 300, is presented as the insert to a secret compartment of another unique book – a laborious but equally eloquent alliteration of the book’s theme.

Alec Soth’s work can be found at


Recommended Watch: Into The Wild Sean Penn 2007
Recommended Read: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain


2 Responses to “Alec Soth, Rhymes with ‘Both’”

  1. Good essay.

    More work by Alec Soth can be found at


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