Laure Flamarrion and Arnaud Uyttenhove’s hour-long documentary Somewhere to Disappear opens with a view of its subject in his element. Photographer Alec Soth, backlit and in silhouette, points a view camera out a window. He calls out from the window to a passerby and potential subject, and after some effort, Soth catches his attention, and turns around excited that he made contact. This is an apt introduction to the artist’s method and personality – the reaching out, the enthusiasm, the modesty. And it’s a reminder of what Soth and his subjects leave behind in this film about running away from society.
Somewhere to Disappear is a document of Soth’s Broken Manual project, which followed the stars of men who choose to retreat from the world to varying degrees of success and isolation. Soth is himself a family man, with kids who have produced their own books like The Brighton Bunny Boy (itself about running away). But Soth too is sympathetic to these self-proclaimed outcasts, and in finding that his subjects often desire human contact despite their hermetic lifestyles, captures his own conflict between the allure of escape and the comfort of home.
Soth’s photography first gained a wider audience at the 2004 Whitney Biennial. His debut monograph, Sleeping by the Mississippi, became an instant classic, and he has produced a steady stream of work and even established his own publishing venture, Little Brown Mushroom. Soth was recently honored with a mid-career retrospective at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
When asked what is the message of his photography, Soth answered, “It’s closer to poetry than to essay writing.” This can be said of the film as well: it’s an artist’s road movie. “I want to feel carried, even though I plot out a trip and everything. I always say I don’t know what’s gonna happen because I want the opportunity to be carried. Okay: I’m gonna have an adventure.” This is the wandering photographer’s m.o., as along a country road he hears dogs barking in the distance and tells the cameraman, “I’m just going to see what this is.”
Long shots, as of Soth photographic distant landmarks in Monument Valley, show the loneliness of the project, but the camera crew is right in the middle of it when they encounter those men who live at the edges of society.
Somewhere to Disappear introduces you to men who live in caves, in the mountains, in houses that seem uninhabitable. But they all have something to communicate, about politics or life. That Alec Soth can enter these people’s lives and gain their trust is a credit to his personal vision as well as his personality. He has worried that he’s exploiting his subjects, but his pictures give them a voice, and Somewhere to Disappear gives that voice sound and motion.