A photographer, a writer and a mysterious recluse collaborate on story about running away

Alec Soth, Brad Zellar
Alec Soth and Brad Zellar in Soth's office, which includes a circus poster and an Osama bin Laden pinata. Both claim to have collaborated with Lester B. Morrison on "The House of Coates" but neither have seen him for a while. The book is about Morrison's habit of running away from society, and they say he has once again gone underground.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The new book, "The House of Coates," by Minneapolis writer Brad Zellar is lavishly illustrated with photos of places on the edge of society. Published by internationally acclaimed Minnesota photographer Alec Soth, the photos are not the work of Soth, but supposedly a mysterious recluse.

"Let's see," Soth said, as he turns the pages of a copy of "House of Coates."

Sitting in a St Paul storage room that also serves as Soth's office, he and Zellar leaf through a copy of "The House of Coates." It's a green, spiral-bound volume that looks a little like a cloth-covered lab results book. Inside, there is a mixture of text and pictures apparently taken with disposable cameras.

"I mean, I'm not sure if there is a single picture in there that's truly in focus for starters," Soth laughs.

Soth is famed for his lush photographs captured with a large format camera. He peers at the images of hotels, houses, and businesses around the Pine Bend refinery near Rosemount just south of St. Paul.

He says they came from a man named Lester B. Morrison.

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"The pictures almost look like they are underwater," Soth said. "This feeling like he is a submerged man in this other world, and yeah, it's kind of haunting."

"The House of Coates" is the story of how Morrison spent the hard winter of 2010-2011 in hotels along Highway 52.

It's an area Zellar knows well. He said it's the kind of place that a certain kind of man goes when he wants to escape, to drop away from society. Zellar knows from personal experience.

"I've had times where as a grown man I have run away. An eight-month stretch a couple of years ago in Vermont," he said. "Just me and my dog."

Zellar's disappearance caused a stir among his friends at the time, but now he's back. He admits he has also made his own escapes to the strip along Highway 52. In the book, he writes eloquently about some of the places tucked away in the shadow of the refinery.

"There was an old Cessna on the roof," Zellar reads aloud "The airplane didn't fly anymore It wasn't going to fly anymore. The airplane on the roof was just another bad idea that someone had once had. The place was a dark strip motel called the Airliner, and the airliner was done for. The sign out front was no longer legible and the owner now rented rooms by the week on month."

It is here that Lester B. Morrison went to muse about his life.

"Have you ever had the feeling that there wasn't a soul left on the planet that remembered your name, or face, or the sound of your laugh?" Zellar continues in the text. "That was a Lester question, and the answer was 'Yes.' "

It's a poignant portrait of a lost soul hovering on the edges of society. But there is one question which keeps coming back: who is that lost soul? Lester B. Morrison? Or Brad Zellar?

"That's what I am wrestling with in this book," Zellar said. "Who is he?"

People who follow Soth's work may remember the commentary credited to Morrison on Soth's recent "Broken Manual" project. Soth traveled the length and breadth of the U.S. to photograph people, primarily men, who are trying to live off the grid, to sever ties with society.

"And Lester was one of these characters I met early on who was devising a manual on how to run away," Soth said. "We sort of collaborated with his text."

At the time, some observers wondered if Morrison was actually Soth, but Soth denies this. Both Soth and Zellar claim to have met him. You can even find pictures of Morrison online, or someone who says he is him, with Soth at a Minneapolis gallery opening.

Online commentary also hints strongly that fans believe the pictures in "The House of Coates" are Soth's too. Soth says no. He keeps his face straight, but eventually he grins. Zellar admits there are elements in his story which do have a fictional feel to them.

"The House of Coats" is the latest publication by Soth's company Little Brown Mushroom, which produces sought after limited run artbooks and 'zines. It printed 1,000 copies of this book.

"One thing I should say, as the publisher of this, is that this bad boy, it is almost sold out already," Soth said. "I mean we are holding copies for the book signing for local people, but it's virtually gone already."

He and Zellar will sign books Saturday afternoon from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Midwest Hotel, 2144 University Avenue West, St. Paul. It's the kind of hotel Morrison prefers, Soth said.

They both doubt Morrison will be there. Once again, Lester has gone to ground, Soth says.