I was first drawn to Alec Soth’s Broken Manual series, a group of images he made between 2006 and 2010 that captured the hidden, largely unphotographed parts of America and its inhabitants.
It wasn’t the subject matter that resonated with me, rather the way in which these images seemed to defer meaning. Berenice Abbott once said ‘photography helps people see’, but Soth’s images resisted the urge to help me see anything definitive. They didn’t tell me what I wanted to know, or what I thought I should know. Landscapes lacked action; subjects appeared bewildering; and portraits were sometimes blurred. It was as if the very manual – the ‘ways of seeing’ – engrained in our visual culture were, essentially, broken. The promises of a photograph’s assistance with helping me see didn’t apply to this work. Narrative certainty also was tossed. The images instead invoked William Klein’s sentiment when he said, ‘What would please me is to make photographs as incomprehensible as life.’
The degree to which Soth’s work employed a sense of hiding in plain sight forced me to accept, even embrace, their collective emphasis on abnegation and resistance. They don’t seem to play well with others, the way some images do. Where others might try to focus the viewer’s gaze, these images seemed to veer mine in a different direction, off by just a small margin, but nonetheless somewhere unexpected to find or examine that other detail. In that sense, they directed me to a lost place, conferring importance on the thing that really isn’t a thing but is valuable nonetheless. These images drew me close, an effect similar to how the scrivener’s preferring not to has a way of keeping you around to find out why.
Their effect on me stirred my imagination and, it turns out, this was deliberate on Soth’s part.
I had an opportunity to talk with him about Broken Manual, his general approach to photography as well as his influences, and working in the slippery place between fiction and non-fiction. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation.
NC: When I think about a series like Broken Manual, it seems that you are placing people, places, and things in a place of physicality but also in one’s imagination. There isn’t resolution or closure. I wonder if you could characterize your work when you take into account the inclusion of subjects in work like this.
AS: The strategy in Broken Manual was an attempt to further push it away from the subject-documentary approach. For me, it’s that slippery place in the middle that I’m most excited about. I have such an awareness of how even when I use [a photo} in the confines of journalism, it’s already fictionalized. I just don’t have a ton of faith in the image in that way.
There’s an issue with working in this way, and in any way there are these ethical issues, but fundamentally when it comes to real people I am kind of using them for my semi-fictionalized universe that I’m creating, and that’s not necessarily what they signed up for. So it is problematic. And you know, it troubles me. It does. [But] I am happy to be thought of as working in that way. Werner Herzog talks about the ecstatic truth – this higher truth that’s achieved through fictionalizing things. I’m not really comfortable with that kind of bombastic proclamation, but I actually love Werner Herzog as someone who also works in that slippery place in between.
NC: What do your subjects get, or what do you hope they get, in exchange for being photographed?
AS: I think what they primarily get is the encounter. A healthy chunk of what I’m after is the actual experience of being out in the world and having encounters. So they get the encounter, which is unique and not part of everyday life. They get a certain amount of attention and acknowledgement of being worthy of attention. Sometimes they get a print. They get something that I send to them, but I never knew if that was of any value to them. But it’s an experience to be depicted.
NC: You talk about the importance of the encounter, the experience and attention your subjects are getting when they work with you; what role do you think photography plays in shaping visibility in your work?
AS: It’s so problematic because, for starters, I have this encounter and I honestly explain what I’m up to, and I say there’s a chance this could end up in a book or exhibition. First of all, I don’t know if it will be because I take lots of pictures and a vast majority of them don’t make it in there, so I can’t promise [anything].
The funny thing about Broken Manual is my whole idea for that project, in the beginning, was I wasn’t going to photograph people. I was going to photograph these places. I was fed up with all these ethical issues for myself, and I hate bothering people. It’s such a part of my job, and I really wanted to break from it. But then the work, I just realized, [was] flat. It’s so energized by that tension.
NC: It’s almost like your subjects’ privacy, in a broad sense, is maintained through what is being held back, through what your images don’t reveal. There seems to be some resistance to reveal who they are.
AS: That speaks to my increasing interest in not showing faces or people slightly turned away or obscured or something. One thing that I think [and talk a lot] about is a book called Understanding Comics written by Scott McCloud. He talks about [how] in the world of comics, the simpler face you identify with more, and the highly detailed face is another person. I think there’s something similar that happens with grainy, black and white photography that can be more identifiable than highly detailed, large format work. I become more interested in reducing detail at certain times so that you identify more with the subject. Just giving little pieces of information about the person.
For me the whole game of photography is limiting the amount of information so that the viewer, or myself, can [be projected] into that space. It’s why I always use the analogy of poetry rather than novel writing, and leaving these large gaps, so that the viewer kind of finishes the poem rather than having everything described for you.
Natasha Chuk is a New York City-based writer, scholar, and curator. She wrote about Alec Soth’s work in her book Vanishing Points Articulations of Death, Fragmentation and the Unexperienced Experience of Created Objects (Intellect, 2015).