By Randy Kennedy
For his 42nd birthday in 2011, the photographer Alec Soth asked a friend, the writer Brad Zellar, for an unusual gift: Come out on the road with me, and let’s pretend to work for a small-town newspaper.
Soth’s work, which has been collected by, among others, the Museum of Modern Art, often pokes into America’s lonely corners. He has shot portraits of survivalists and hermits; motel honeymooners; love-starved North Dakota oil boomers (for this magazine last year). So the request wasn’t completely unexpected. But when the two men began driving the back roads outside Minneapolis, where both live, Soth went so far as to print business cards with the name of a fictitious newspaper, The Winter Garden Dispatch. ‘‘Alec likes to take things over the falls in a barrel,’’ Zellar says. Over the last three years, their nonexistent publication somehow became a real one: The LBM Dispatch, a 48-page black-and-white tabloid that Soth and Zellar have put out six times after wanderingas many states — Ohio, New York, Michigan, California, Colorado and Texas — chosen, Soth says, ‘‘mostly serendipitously.’’
The Dispatch reported the news the way a paper would if Sherwood Anderson were the owner, Raymond Carver the copy chief and Emily Dickinson the sports editor, a vision of 21st-century life deeply strange and strangely deep. ‘‘It was all the things I had to leave out — or that got cut out — of my stories when I worked for actual newspapers,’’ Zellar says. This summer they went to Georgia, and after that report is published, The Dispatch, like so many small-town papers, will close for good. ‘‘The whole nature was do-it-yourself, like a lemonade stand,’’ Soth says. ‘‘The longer it went on, the more interest there was, from institutions and magazines, and that started to make it a different kind of thing.’’
But during its brief run, he says, the paper’s pages proudly bore out its unstated editorial stance: ‘‘The United States is a lot more interesting than it’s given credit for.’’