If you want an unflinching view of present-day America, look no further than Magnum photographer Alec Soth and writer Brad Zellar’s self-published LBM Dispatch Series. Drawing from the tradition of Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and Kerouac and Frank’s The Americans, it is a serial journal of photos and writings that unfolds state by state, telling the stories of how we Americans are living today; how we get by, how we chase dreams, how we gather together and connect. As a photographic newspaper or travelogue, the LBM Dispatch bridges the gap between the immediacy of a blog and the beauty and permanence of an art book with each edition edited, laid out, printed and shipped just a week or two after the trip is completed. Empathetic, genuine, humorous and inspiring – the LBM Dispatch is a reminder that America is richer, sweeter and more nuanced than pollsters and cable television pundits would have us believe. Soth and Zellar were kind enough to answer a few questions for ACL about how the project came about and where they plan on taking it.
ACL: I assume that the newsprint format that you use for the LBM Dispatch was a discovery you made with The Last Days of W. What is it about newsprint that feels right for this project?
Alec Soth: Yes, that is true, but there are differences. The Last Days of W. was never a fully-fledged project. In that case I was digging through old photographs and wanted to make something that was modest and impermanent. So newsprint made sense, but it wasn’t actually constructed like a newspaper. With a writer and photographer going out telling stories, Dispatch is much more like a newspaper. And the immediacy of the form also made sense. But the project is much more ambitious than Last Days. That is partly why, in fact, we no longer print on newsprint. The first two issues were done that way, but the quality was just so meager —particularly in the dark values— that we switched to offset printing. This made the whole process much more expensive.
ACL: I love the idea that the LBM Dispatch is inspired by local newspapers. I grew up in a rural logging town in Oregon and our local paper takes itself just as seriously as say The New York Times, which I think is great. I feel like you guys approach the work in the same way. How does this idea or framework of being reporters help propel the stories and trips along.
Brad Zellar: It’s certainly the key to the whole thing. Although we don’t represent ourselves as reporters, our approach to the work is still very much a hunt for newsworthy or interesting stories and characters. I worked at my own local daily newspaper in a small Minnesota town, and the things that interested me way back when —the profiles of local people and the search for colorful or poignant yarns and haunted history— are still the things I tend to look for.
AS: I’m prone to self-indulgence. I’m much more likely to daydream or ponder my own neuroses than investigate the world ‘out there.’ One of the reasons I was interested in joining the photo agency Magnum is that I figured their tradition of doing documentary work would help keep me honest – keep pushing me out into the world. But I go back and forth. My last project, Broken Manual, was definitely inward looking. Afterward, I realized I needed to balance things out. But doing editorial work was increasingly unsatisfying. So Brad and I started our own paper. While it isn’t a conventional newspaper, having that as the backbone of the project does keep me from doing too much navel gazing.
ACL: What has surprised you about the series so far? Either in the process, the finished work or in people’s response to the finished work?
BZ: Quite honestly it’s all been sort of a surprise to me. I’ve always been a traveler, but the collaborative nature of what Alec and I are doing is not something I expected to work, and it has changed the way I think about travel, people and 21st-century America. I guess the most surprising thing, though, is how much fun it’s been, and how consistently interesting and invigorating this country still is.
AS: I’m simply amazed that every time Brad and I go out we find such remarkable stories. It is so easy to think of America as a cliché of freeways, strip malls and chewed over stories. But over and over again we meet people and find places that amaze us. There’s still gold in them there hills.
ACL: Have you discovered a piece of gear, clothing or a travel item that has somehow become important to pulling these Dispatch road trips off?
AS: Well, it’s all about the minivan for me. I own an RV, but that is too big. And a car is too small. We travel with an assistant and need room for equipment. The minivan works. It isn’t overly tricked out, but we can plug in our laptops and phones and do research and file processing while we’re moving. A key aspect of the Dispatch is staying on deadline. This would be tough if we couldn’t work in the van. But I’d also like to throw a bone to Yelp. We eat pretty damn well on these trips. It’s not like the old days of only eating at TGI Fridays.
BZ: I’m such a creature of routine, and need to recreate —on a much smaller scale, obviously— some version of my normal working environment on the road. That means lots of books and the starting point for me is always the old Depression-era WPA Guides to each state. The internet is terrific for the sorts of research and travel we do, but I love having lots of books around for inspiration in the van and motel. I also need music for these trips, and try to put together sprawling mix CDs that reflect the music and culture of each place we visit. The GPS has also been a game changer.
ACL: Is the LBM Dispatch more about places or people?
BZ: I think one of the really remarkable things about this experience is the recognition of how inextricably linked so many people are with the places they live. Each state we’ve visited has had its own, quite distinct landscape, history, and —for lack of a better word— mythology. Or maybe folklore is a better American word. These things very much inform the personalities of the people who live there. I love to hear people talk, but it’s also important to me to try to understand the place that has shaped them. I’ve never felt particularly rooted, but everywhere we go we meet these people who’ve never felt any desire to be anywhere else, and that idea has become more attractive to me all the time.
ACL: What’s a simple truth you have learned about Americans from this project so far?
BZ: It’s corny, but this is really a remarkable and open country. I know so many people who have seen very little of the U.S., but who nonetheless spend tons of money traveling to exotic foreign locations. Every place Alec and I have traveled has ultimately revealed itself to be as complex and colorful —and utterly distinct— as any foreign country I’ve ever visited. The cultural and economic differences —not just from State to State, but even from town to town— is astonishing, and the local histories are endlessly fascinating to me.
AS: America is more full of variety, more eclectic, that it is given credit for. I guess I’d say the same about Americans.
ACL: For my own selfish reasons, I’d love to see an Oregon issue or maybe Alaska. Which states are potentially slated for future issues? Do you see this as a continuing project?
AS: When Brad and I started, we had no idea that this was going to be an ongoing project. So our early decisions were made based on serendipity. As a consequence, we ended up with three northern locations. We’ve since become more strategic and spread out with California and Colorado. Next month we’re going to Texas. We have plans to go to the Southeast and Northwest. But the only way we can do these things is if we come up with funding. We’ve been striking out in the Northwest. If you know of anybody, send em’ my way.
“Almost always —and this is a source of constant wonder to me— the people we meet do not ask many questions about what we’re up to or why we are talking to and taking photographs of them. Our interest in these people is apparently sufficient basis for trust, and often as not if they have a question for us it is a simple one: Where are you from?” – Brad Zellar from LBM Dispatch #3 – Michigan
Words by Al James | Images by Alec Soth courtesy of LBM Dispatch.