Into the wild: three years alongside photographer Alec Soth

Minneapolis-based renowned Magnum photographer Alec Soth (1969) creates, what he calls, “large-scale American projects”. Ridden with contradictions from an undoubtedly divided country, his photographs walk the line between fine arts and painstakingly real photojournalism. With ‘Gathered Leaves’, Soth’s comprehensive solo exhibition opening today at FOMU in Antwerp, we delved into our archives – all the way back to 2011 – when we featured directors Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove’s extensive journey through the US alongside Soth himself.

Come to Minneapolis and wear a thick jacket and boots.” Such was Alec Soth’s cryptic reply when Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove requested to shoot a documentary about him. Not knowing what to expect, both directors – not a couple – followed the American photographer for three years, resulting in the film Somewhere to Disappear. This documentary shows Soth working on his Broken Manual project about hermits living in the most remote areas in the US. “It was one hell of a ride,” smiles Uyttenhove. “A crazy road movie for which we drove 30.000 km and journeyed throughout the entire United States from east to west and north to south.” Though the Paris-based Laure Flammarion had previously worked on a documentary about Chilly Gonzales, Somewhere to Disappear was Uyttenhove’s debut. “Besides being a film, it was a real adventure for both of us. An amazing experience to have travelled that much and met all those singular individuals. And being a photography buff, it was awesome to spend so much time with Soth, whose work I adore.”

Anecdotes from their peregrinations include a hermit on methadone freaking out and holding them at gunpoint, as well as being arrested by the FBI. In one scene featuring Tony – a daunting man living in a barred house without windows, who seemed to suffer from paranoia – one might notice the camera shaking. It was Uyttenhove trembling with fear. The low-budget documentary was entirely funded by private money. The directors had difficulties selling their proposal, as they were constantly faced with the questions: “So what are you guys making? Is this a portrait of the photographer or the people retreating from society?” The reply was simply “both”. “We wanted this feature to be as much documentary as fiction; without interviews or the conventional codes of the documentary genre. That is why we treated Alec as a character. For us, it was more about making a poetic film. We took our time to create a slow sense of atmosphere.” Though there is no real narrative development, the documentary does have a sense of rhythm. The camera follows Alec closely in the beginning, yet shots become broader as the documentary progresses, focussing on the wild landscapes. Ghinzu’s guitarist Greg Remy, as well as Rob & L’Aiglon from Phoenix, kindly contributed to the introspective soundtrack.

Uyttenhove assures us that finding the hermits was less difficult than expected: “contrary to what one might think, a hermit living by himself in the woods is connected to society. He has electricity and Internet. Some even have a Facebook account and are members of online hermit communities!” Surprisingly enough, the interviewees were far from reluctant to chat with the crew, visibly in dire need of human interactions. They all had different reasons to retire from society but were all equally interesting. From the extremely shy teenager, to the redneck or tree hugger, the documentary portrays a motley crew, but without ever sinking in the sensationalism of a freak show.