“It’s not really about running away. It’s about the desire to run away.”
Growing up in Minnesota, photographer Alec Soth fantasized about having a secret cave-like hideout where he could escape from the world. Now in his early 40s, Soth’s captivation with retreat and solitary adventure is revealed in a new documentary, Somewhere to Disappear, which screened Monday night at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival.
Filmmakers Laure Flammarion and Arnaud Uyttenhove drove over 20,000 miles with Soth in 2008 and 2009, capturing his quixotic search across America for monks, hermits, survivalists, and others living a mostly solitary off-the-grid existence. One of the film’s most endearing subjects is a middle-aged man named Clyde Garth Bowles. He lives on a self-created compound in the California desert where he cares with great tenderness for horses, birds, and other animals. “My spiritual theory is my life,” he says.
Soth prefers to travel by car when working, rather than fly into a location. It ups his chances of stumbling upon a serendipitous moment. He also speaks in the film of his longing “to feel carried” when he’s on the road — a reminder that there’s only so much we can plan. But, when we set an intention on the steering wheels of our lives and give way to mystery, we’re gifted with transcendent moments of beauty we couldn’t orchestrate on our own.
The photographs Soth made from these travels are part of a body of work published in Broken Manual. As Soth drove across the country, he kept a list of things he wanted to photograph taped to his car’s steering wheel. It’s a way, he says, of “transforming these ideas in my head into some sort of path in the world.”
For Soth, the film is as much a meditation on a longing to run away as it is about our ultimate need for meaningful human connection. “I don’t want to move my family, and go live in a cave,” he assured the audience.