This spring semester Watkins established a visiting-artist lecture series, which included the stellar line-up of Artemio Rodriguez, Natalia Almada, David Hilliard and Alec Soth.
Before settling into a spare Watkins classroom on Wednesday evening to watch Alec Soth’s documentary Somewhere to Disappear, I overheard that his plane to Nashville was delayed. I also heard (or possibly misheard) that he was “looking forward to escaping in Nashville.” My first thought was, “Where does one escape in Nashville?” The woods? Some field? When I consider Nashville’s best offerings for escape potential, I imagine the salt-basin labyrinth it was before the humans came along — when it was just deer licking tunnels to nowhere. That seemed like a good time to escape in Nashville.
That is my way of saying I have no idea where one would escape within Nashville today. But if anyone could make that quest interesting, it would be Soth. In Somewhere to Disappear we follow Soth as he roams around various American woods and deserts searching for the perfect cave home. To be more specific — a cave situated below a treehouse. This is a characteristic mission for Soth, the celebrated Minnesotan photographer, who sniffs out recluses in their hiding places while looking for a hiding place of his own.
In the beginning of the film, he finds a community in the desert, a place where people suffer from “scared-rabbit syndrome,” according to one of its inhabitants. They do not understand why Soth is there, but they talk to him, show him around. One tells him, “I’m an artist, too. My name is Abstract.” Soth laughs and replies, “I’m Realist.”
Then he and the French film crew drive down the road, heading god knows where, ultimately stumbling across something that seems impossible: Soth’s perfect cave room carved into a giant slab of rock. The interior is painted white, making it look like the room has whipped cream for walls. It is very civilized, with a door and windows, a makeshift closet rack revealing empty hangers, a bed. The only thing missing is potted plants hanging from the sills. No one lives there. Soth calls it "the place where you can go and dream.”
After that, he finds a skinhead living in his cave with his dog, two guns and a stack of tarot cards. He allows Soth to take pictures of his abode and himself, naked. The skinhead tells Soth the difference between a peckerwood skinhead and a white supremacist skinhead (a distinction which remains unclear). When Soth leaves, the skinhead gives him a hug.
Soth's subjects are people who have removed themselves from society — out of shame, frustration, to find quiet, to escape. What is it about Soth that makes them feel safe to expose themselves? (I made a note to ask him this the following day during his Watkins lecture).
On Thursday, the day after the documentary screened, Soth delivered a lecture to a packed room at Watkins.
Soth began with a connect-the-dots diagram to illustrate his process of “searching for narrative in the democratic jungle” (a William Eggleston reference, although tellingly Eggleston had called it the democratic forest). Does that mean Soth is dealing with more unmanageable terrain than Eggleston? Considering the steady surge of photographs taken on a daily basis and uploaded to the Internet, he is. There is a such a constant downpour of pictures telling bits and pieces of aimless stories, he has to go out there with, as he put it, his “narrative machete.”
He develops his story arc by going out on the road — a method of documentation that as one of Soth's heroes, Robert Frank, stated in his 1955 Guggenheim Fellowship application, “shapes itself as it proceeds, and is essentially elastic.” Movement creates the event. The dots he connects are charted across maps. Soth drifts towards certain characters, he dreams in strange rooms — and he generously takes the time to tell us all about it.
As he spoke, bouncing back and forth (while maintaining a steady arc!) between his constant photographic conversation with Eggleston and Frank, his documentation of Ash Wednesday in New Orleans, his extreme fear of prisons, his obsession with incomplete manuals and American postcards — I kept thinking about my childhood in Nashville. How does his presentation of his storytelling process take me there? I remember that I used to fantasize about running away from home just so I could return and tell my parents about my adventures.
He wrapped up his presentation by telling us a story that “he was not supposed to tell” about the frustration surrounding the fascinating complications of his current Rochester-based project House of Pictures. Storytelling as a tool to vent. Photography as therapy.
During the Q&A he decided that the perfect note to end on was the one that allowed him to say: “It is all about risking failure.” Then he said: “That’s a beautiful ending to this.” And I realized I never got to ask him how he makes his subjects feel comfortable. Which was a good thing, because when I asked him the question at the group dinner afterward, he told me it was the question he gets asked most. And then I felt like a failure. I felt like one of those billions of random pictures of the same thing, over and over, uploaded to the Internet.
But that was okay, too, because it did not end there. The night did not end with me being a failure. It ended at Santa’s Pub around a pool table, with blissfully horrible singing in the background.
Yes, we took Soth, one of the best visual storytellers in the nation, to Santa’s Pub. I am a terrible pool player, but he made me feel comfortable about that. He has that effect on people.