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.