Many of us, at one point, have felt near our breaking point with the life we live and the sacrifices we have to make in order to even have that life. Escaping our day-to-day, or “the man” at large is at times the sweetest fantasy. Through a collection of portraits of the lives of men who have removed themselves from society, Alec Soth’s Broken Manual asks of the viewer to reconsider the social standards that we take for granted and blindly accept in our lives.
The images make these men and their more basic living situations heroic. One man, depicted with religious garb and standing among a thicket of trees, becomes a nobleman in search of a purer way of life to get closer to god. Another, of 2007_10zL0006 (I love my Dad), seen only through his impact on his ramshackle house, appears to have gone on a self-prescribed psychological retreat to assess his familiar relations without burdening others with his problems. A survivalist to be sure, one’s new accommodations consist of a blanket on the ground and jerry-rigged electricity overhead. Simple living at its best…?
What reinforces the show’s conceptual ideas is how Soth has aligned his process accordingly. Traditionally, there are certain formal rules about how a photograph should be displayed. Standardizing decisions such as matting, framing, processing techniques, and scale across an entire show can formally tie images together quite easily, but limits the ability of each individual image to speak for itself, within and without the show. Soth, however, has subverted these common notions about Photography to some extent, by considering what presentation techniques best serve each photo within the show’s larger narrative.
Variety in colour, saturation and lighting elicit emotional connections with the subjects of each image. Some are sombre and reflective, or matter-of-factly objective while others have a hint of the fantastic. One can see, throughout the show, the deliberateness of Soth’s artistic choices in conveying the notion that it is important to ask why and take agency of our own situations rather than follow the path that some faceless majority has established as “the way”.
Where this is most apparent is with his black and white images of objects, such as 2007_05zL0059 (Edsel’s stick). The presentation of these objects transforms them into relics or historical documents, and angle Soth as some sort of anthropologist, respectfully investigating these subjects and their alternative lifestyles. At first glance, they may seem out of place in a room full of picturesque vistas and men with little facial expression. Without them, however, Soth’s position may appear somewhat exploitative or voyeuristic, and may prevent the viewer from experiencing reverence for the subjects. It is in this manner that Soth has sculpted the narrative of exhibition into complex reflections on life and managed to engage in and question the common practices of the medium he employs.
On view at Loock Galerie until July 23, 2011.