Colin Pantall interviews Scot Sothern for Gomma
...a mix of yins and yangs, prurient and sad, funny and gut-wrenching...
What was the attraction of prostitutes for you – both visually and physically?
Visually the women I photographed mirrored the world they lived in. I just liked the scenario and the backgrounds, and really to a great degree, the subjects and the surroundings was all about composition and light. Like photographing ruins which somehow seem more important that pretty landscapes. Also, they just didn’t look like people and places I’d seen in pictures before. I was attracted to the rawness.
As for my physical attraction, it wasn’t always there, you know, and there were times when I just didn’t allow myself to go any lower than I’d already gone. I didn’t want to be an asshole. There were other times I got excited while taking the pictures, and depending on the subject, I could turn that into a bit of fun.
My father was a wedding photographer, and when he was teaching me, told me to always look at the bride, in the viewfinder, as though through the eyes of the groom, who for that day thinks his bride is the most beautiful woman in the world. I brought that with me, I can’t think of a better way to look at a woman.
How did you approach the picture taking with your subjects?
I’d pull to the curb and they would climb aboard, then I’d negociate a price and depending on my finances and frame of mind we would go to a hour-rate motel or someplace else. Interestingly, I never really pushed, though I never discouraged, the idea of nude photographs but most often they would start to peel as soon as the camera came out, it’s what they expected. Sadly, so many of them felt they had to give something sexual and would get upset if that wasn’t the direction I went. Anyway, I shot with a flash on the camera and I placed them wherever it looked best. I directed them and I tried to bring them up to the surface, you know. I didn’t want either one of us hiding behind a disguise.
What did you want to photograph?
Honestly, I don’t know if I was just making rationalizations to do some crazy shit, but I always told myself I was making a statement. I wanted to photograph a very neglected piece of the world, and I think I fooled myself into thinking the world was going shame itself by looking through my wide-angle lens. I wanted to make polarizing pictures and stir up some shit. I’m still hopeful.
The pictures seem to be a fusion of many different elements? How deliberate or accidental was that? And what are the elements of the series?
I think I can say there was nothing with these photographs that was accidental. The physical elements were there to tell the story; these photos would not have worked on a white background, they needed every element of their dark lives to be there for the narrative.
The other elements, a mix of yins and yangs, prurient and sad, funny and gut-wrenching, were all there before I came around with a camera. The prostitutes were far more complex than the cheap sex that defined them.
The places you photographed in seem very dark and dangerous. Was this the case and if so, do you have an attraction to that kind of danger?
Do nasty, dark, and scary give me a stiffy? Sure. When I was a teenager, in Missouri, I used to drive two lane black-top an hour and a half each way to a whore house called Black Nat’s. The girls were in the bedrooms and the men, who numbered ten or so, were in the bar. The men, black and bitter, took to calling me names, Peckerwood, Richboy, which struck me more funny than dangerous. They allowed me to sit at the bar and chase shots with Old Milwaukee. The girls, for me, were pure visions of wanton sex. They were in their twenties and cost less than ten bucks. I used to get a boner before I’d driven half way there. Would I want to chase that scenario for the rest of my life? Sure, until I can’t boners anymore.
You mention one woman is “already dead so I photograph her ghost.” In what way was she dead and how much was that deadness a part of the series?
Sometimes the whores were just gone like a whiff of dust. I’d talk to them, photograph them and give them money and free advice, but it meant nothing. Anyone could pick them up and anyone could offer them 10 bucks to take a brick in the face and they’d hold out their palm. That has a lot to do with the series. I was looking for something beyond desperation right here in proud America, on the sidewalks we spit on.
Also, AIDs was a shadowy specter constantly looming. I’d just look at some of these still young guys and girls and I knew they had it and they were already gone and they knew it even better than I. Sometimes it seemed like sticks of dynamite were taped to their torsos and the evil motherfucker that taped it there was laughing his ass off. I doubt it made any difference but I carried condoms in my backpack with my camera and flash; used to pass them out like business cards.
Were you consciously photographing a particular time related to drugs or was that a part that arose later?
Every time is all about all drugs. Recently they have taken over Mexico. My prescription drugs blackmail me once a month. The popular drug when I was photographing the girls was crack and in the right parts of town you could pretty much watch people’s teeth drop out. Crack was nasty shit. I drank a good bit but never when I needed to drive. I smoked pot every day and I did crack a handful of times. When I worked there was coke in the work place. I’ve always assume the drug problem is explicit in my photographs. How can anyone look at some of the photographs without thinking, “Wow, that person is really fucked up.”
In an interview for another site, your son asked you a great question: Do you consider the photos exploitative? And if so, is there anything wrong with that?
A fine line, you know. If I’d been asked that twenty years ago, when I made the exposures I would have attempted to build a case, make myself a dark hero. But now, It’s hard to make a case that yeah I’m exploitive but in a good way. I took the pictures and I’m proud of them and if they elicit emotions, I’m a happy guy.
What is non-exploitative about the pictures?
It’s a good thing when someone, anyone, looks at a photo and takes pause to consider the ills of the world. Some of the pictures and girls are quite beautiful. You know, having good time and maybe not headed for doom. Nice girls smiling for the camera. But then again, I don’t really know, I guess exploitation is just one of my talents and I’m obliged to do what I do best.
What is the difference between your photographs and other art/documentary/advertising images of prostitution/addiction?
There is a formalness in the Lowlife pictures, and for that matter, all my photographs. I learned photography back when it was still upside-down and turned-around. I’m rather snobbish about it. I see so many photos in galleries and online that I would have shit-canned. I’d burn the negatives so they couldn’t be traced back to me. I’m a stickler and, for me, it’s all about formal composition.
When I was making the Lowlife photos, Pretty Woman was a hit movie and I don’t think the general public realized to what degree it was a fairytale. I know there is nothing new about photographing prostitutes and there have been many great photographers and photographs that capably show us what needs to be seen. I don’t think mine are better, just a bit more below the belt, you know. Also, more personal, in a self-portrait kind of way.
You have had a lot of rejection of your photographs. Why do you think you’re getting more recognition now?
First off, I don’t think anything in attitudes have changed in the last twenty years that make Lowlife more acceptable now, it’s still the same dumb-ass puritan America. I just couldn’t get anyone in the art world to look at it. Some people know only the wrong people and the all the right people are somewhere else, you know. I made copies and mailed out slide pages for twenty some years. I can measure my rejection slips in pounds. Someday I’ll burn them.
About a year and a half ago I showed the photos to John Matkowski at the DRKRM Gallery here in Los Angeles. John gave me a show and a better attitude. At the time I had paid scant attention to the opportunities for photographers that had popped up over the internet. John showed Lowlife to Doug Rickard at American Suburb X and Doug put them, along with one of the stories from my Lowlife memoir, on the feature page. John also put together a Blurb book with the photos and quick literary vignettes.
I started taking pictures again and I put Lowlife and a handful of new photography projects online and I joined Facebook. I began a self-promotion campaign which is ongoing. It’s not paying my overdue mortgage yet but the outlook is good and I’m enjoying the attention. The internet has been a good friend to me.
How did the book with Stanley Barker Books come about?
I always wanted Lowlife to be a book, a couple of books actually, a picture book with the vignette stories, as well as a memoir of my years 1995 to 2001, when I was making the Lowlife pictures. I started writing in the 1990s, and by the early 2000s I got good at it. I’ve got a couple of novels with a terrific literary agent, Amy Tipton, at Signature Agency, NYC. The exposure I’ve had with the Lowlife photos has also put my writing out there. So I’m in the process of finishing the last chapter of the memoir which I’ve worked on, off and on, mostly off, for twenty years.
Anyway, Amy was talking to a popular photobook publisher who was being difficult, when we got an email from Rachael Stanley and Gregory Barker, introducing themselves as young and ambitious UK photobook publishers who had seen Lowlife, the self-published blurb book, and wanted to publish a high-end limited edition to launch their new imprint, Stanley Barker Books. We said yes and hammered out a deal and the book came out in early September, everybody is thrilled. I think the Stanley Barker imprint will be around for a while doing important books.
How important is the writing in your work?
In most of what I do my writing and my photography are separate entities, though I think they inform each other with a certain knowledge, you know, going back to composition again.
For Lowlife I don’t think anybody would say the pictures don’t work without the words but I think the writing twists the knife in the gut. I think the words add to the sincerity of the photographs; something photo essays don’t always do, which goes back to the self-portrait aspect. Lowlife has become a single amalgamation of photos and words, it doesn’t come any other way.
What can text do for photographs? How does it change the way we see them?
Lot of variables. You go to a museum for a show that doesn’t make any sense until you read the fifty-page explanation about understanding the aesthetics of emotions in third-world ideologies, it doesn’t work, at least not for me.
Text, or titles even, are pointless unless the pictures says something on its own.
I think text with pictures is kind of the same thing as looking at the photos from a different angle, different lighting, or a on a day when you are pissed off at the world or another day when you want to smile and skip through the fucking daisies.
That said, photos and words, moving and fluid, like a good film can take you as close to a subject or idea as you get without taking an actual blow to the head.
What is success?
I feel kind of hokey saying this, but for me, having created a lifetime of words and pictures that will last longer than I do, something my offspring will be proud of, that’s success.
How do you make a living?
When I worked I worked as a photographer going all the way back to the sixties. I can remember working in my father’s darkroom when I had to stand on a chair to reach the chemical trays. Out on my own I usually specialized in people pictures. In the eighties, I was an optical camera operator off and on. For the last decade or so I’ve been on the dole. I had some physical problems and collected Social Security disability. My wife Linda has supported us. I’m ever hopeful I can make living and retirement with the writing and photographs I have done in the past, in the now, and in the future. If I don’t we’re fucked.
What projects are you working on now?
I’ve got another Lowlife show coming up at DRKRM Gallery in LA, November 5 to December 3. We’ll have the new books and maybe do a reading. A lot of the prints are new and they look good, and I’m excited.
When I was younger I was never all that prolific but nowadays I’m a picture machine and I have a handful of new projects. The one with the most steam is called Drive-By Shooting. I sit in the passenger seat of a comfy car and take pictures while the driver does my bidding. Started out shooting Hollywood Boulevard and that expanded to all of Los Angels, my home, and absolute heaven for a guy knows how to sling a camera. It’s street photography and it has attitude and it’s in color.
More recently, I’ve been doing drive-by flash photos, gonzo and up close, with a good and fearless driver, in the dark ante meridiem of LA; places a guy my age shouldn’t go. It doesn’t quite give me the lowlife stiffy of yore, but still a nice buzz, a social agenda, and pictures you don’t want to turn your back on. That’s what matters most.
Scot Sothern - Lowlife is out now
Scot Sothern - personal website
Colin Pantall writes from his blog