Rick Poynor | Exposure

Exposure: American Hermit by Alec Soth

2006_03zI0016 by Alec Soth, 2006

We don’t know the identity of the man in the trees wearing the clerical dress of a Greek Orthodox priest, or the location of this forest somewhere in the state of Georgia. The unaccompanied walker is a hermit. He wants nothing to do with us and he has no inclination to be found. The coded title of Alec Soth’s photograph, 2006_03zI0016, which includes the year it was taken, gives nothing away.

The picture appears in Soth’s photobook Broken Manual (2010) and it’s currently on view in London in the Science Museum’s Media Space photography gallery in a survey of Soth’s career. Broken Manual was published in an expensive limited edition of only 300 copies, which sold out, and the trade edition that was meant to follow never appeared. The London publisher Mack has now produced a miniature facsimile, with three other photobooks by Soth, in a box titled Gathered Leaves; the watcher in the forest also graces one of the loose cards that come with the set.

From 2006 to 2010, Soth traveled in search of “broken” men who had decided to quit their old lives, disappear, and dwell alone in the wilderness. He passes no judgement and appears to be highly sympathetic, identifying with the hardships, failures, and disappointments that led them to withdraw from society. He photographs their simple possessions, wooden huts, and the caves they transformed into new homes. A few of the bearded solitaries pose for portraits in the empty landscape. Texts by Soth’s collaborator, Lester B. Morrison, offer wry advice on changing one’s appearance, choosing a location, hunting for food, and shunning the company of women. 

The man’s isolation seems absolute, but the image doesn’t invite our pity. Anyone who has ever stood alone in a forest is likely to have experienced feelings of oneness so deep and satisfying that it’s natural to speculate about a life of self-sufficiency in the wild. Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, published in 1854, is a philosophical lodestone of the American outdoors. Given the priest’s incongruous clothes—hardly the practical attire of a woodsman—there is every reason to consider the opportunity for spiritual contemplation afforded by such a retreat. His transcendental confrontation with nature’s mystery and immensity brings to mind the painter Caspar David Friedrich’s ineffable Monk by the Sea.

Contemporary photography is prone to inflating images beyond their ideal dimensions for the sake of achieving impact on the gallery wall. This is a picture that genuinely benefits from being encountered at panoramic scale. The cage of spindly trees has become the universe, and we can ease a little closer (but not too close) to the motionless wanderer with his arms dangling at his side, as though beneath his cassock he is stealthily sinking roots into the leafy earth.

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Posted in: Arts + Culture, Exposure, Media, Photography, Social Good

Comments [1]

What makes this picture so interesting is that everybody knows nothing about this man but yet is aware of his existence! How long ago he went about moving his life into the woods, or why he's moving about the woods so silently and reclusively is an entire enigma! But yet we all respect his privacy and short of this picture, he remains a figment of our imagination.
Marcio Wilges

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