Man Of The Night: Interview With Photographer & Author Scot Sothern
It’s an excellent day for a slice of pie. Ok, so that’s everyday. What makes today so exceptional is that I’m having a slice with photographer, Vice columnist, and Soft Skull Press author, Scot Sothern.
Sothern is soft spoken, with a slight raspiness that tells of the sleepless nights he has spent roaming the Los Angeles underground. 62-years-old, Sothern walks with the help of a cane due to a motorcycle accident he was in a couple decades ago. Still, he maintains a bit of a swagger in each step.
in 1986 Sothern began photographing Los Angeles area prostitutes, something he returns to every now and then. His father was a professional photographer. Following in his footsteps, Sothern has been shooting photos for most of his life. His camera is with him no matter if he's roaming the streets or has a driver cruising him about LA at 4am for his series titled “Drive By Shooting.” His photos are often considered bleak, gritty, and rarely "sexy." They show us a world we pretend to know about, though for most of us our only real exposure has been through fiction. Yet even in his bleakest photos, we're exposed to a multitude of perspectives. We see stretch marks, track marks, and deep emotional scars. Some of his subjects are withered wrecks willing to do anything for a couple bucks. Their leathery skin droops from their bones like a battlefield flag still flying as the war ends. But it would be unfair and inaccurate to say that's all that's there. Sothern also captures a fragility, dare I even say, an innocence, in some of his subjects. At closer look many appear like vases that have been dropped and then super glued together; you see the cracks, but the original structure is still present. It's as though for at least the moment he snaps an exposure, some of his subjects let their guard down. As with all brilliant artists, Sothern's work gives us a raw impression of the artist himself. He doesn't hide his flaws. Like Iggy Pop rolling through broken glass and bleeding before our eyes, Sothern is as punk rock as they come.
What is even more remarkable about Sothern’s images is that he has a masterful command of prose. His book Curb Service is filled with gritty, smart, and enthralling essays, each chronicling an encounter he's had with a lady (or lady boy) of the night. If you can’t tell, I’m a huge fan. It was honor for me to sit down with him and have the following conversation over a slice of German chocolate cream pie:
Deric: Not sure if you want to be considered a "street photographer," though you do uniquely capture the street. In today’s climate of everyone having a camera in their pocket, and being able to bust it out and instantly post a photo online, do you feel strangers are more apprehensive about getting their photo taken these days compared to when you got started?
Scot: Yes. I used to be a portrait photographer. So when I decided to try and do some street pictures in 1974, I wanted to do something different. I would grab people, put them where I want them, compose the shot, and shoot a color photo on Kodakchrome. I did a series of photos like that. Since the shot was set up, I’d only take one exposure. At the time I could grab nearly anyone and they would say “sure” whenever I asked to take their picture. It was just so easy and everyone was fine with it. But now, with generations of guys like me exploiting the hell out of everyone, no one wants to do it anymore. And I don’t blame them. It’s not just street photography, people are photographing a lot of the homeless. During the great depression there were some incredible photographers, I mean they shot some iconic images, documenting people who were down and out. But now, people living like that are embarrassed. I don’t blame them. They don’t want to be exploited. Though that doesn’t stop me from taking the picture… Though as for easier, yes. You could walk out and setup a tripod in the middle of the street and traffic would calmly wait for me to get the shot.
Deric: Back then, it seems professional gear was mostly found in the hands of the pros. I’m venturing there were less “hobbyists” out there do to the expense. Photographers had no choice; they HAD to pay for film whenever they wanted to shoot. That definitely limits the amount of exposures a hobbyist, and perhaps pros as well, could take.
Scot: Absolutely. In 1975 people would see me and say, “Oh, you’re a photographer.” Now everyone is a photographer. I don’t want to be unfair to people now. There are some really fantastic photographers out there. There’s also a lot more crap out there. Today, if you have a camera in your hands, it doesn't mean much to people you come across on the street. The fact that we had limited exposures was also something. Back then we would take 2 rolls of 24 exposures to a wedding, and that’s all the shots we would get. The shots would be planned out on a list and we only had a couple exposures to get each one.
Deric: I love wandering the streets with my camera. I’ll spend an entire day walking across the city and sometimes walk away satisfied even with only one exposure. What I’ve found for myself is that I tend to look at things from more of a social scientist’s perspective. I learn a lot about myself from what subjects I find interesting as well as what subjects I hesitate to take a photo of. I mean, who am I as a white dude with a fancy camera walking through a poor East LA neighborhood?
Scot: One of the things my dad, who was also a photographer, taught me as a kid, was to see everything as a picture. I look at things almost like I look through a viewfinder. The pictures not taken are, I think, as valuable as the ones taken. And the ones where you just have to make an exposure are the one’s you should make an exposure.
In 1979 I sorta went crazy for a year. I slipped a bit. I was driving across country in a funky old Buick. There were no mufflers on it. It was great! I had a deer’s head in the back; don’t know where I got that. I would stop at every state line, take the deer head out of the back, set it next to the state sign, and take a picture. But at the time I couldn’t afford film… So I just did it. That’s... well... kinda crazy. But I did it. It worked for me at the time. It was like performance art for no one else but yourself. I stopped in Las Vegas and ended up with a prostitute. I took pictures of her as well, but that was just fun.
Deric: So what inspired you to start adding words to your images? Kind of cliché question you probably get asked a lot, but who are some of your favorite authors?
Scot: Actually, I’m not asked that very often. I love Phillip Roth. I hate to admit it, but as a kid I got really into the beats. Later it was the obvious like Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Bukowski. While I wouldn’t say they influenced my writing directly, I used to think, “Who wants to read what I want to right about anyways?” But then I found Bukowski and others, and I saw that people love it. People think it’s funny. It’s also kind of underground. But there are so many writers. I learned to write from reading a lot.
Now with the images, I don’t do them and write at the same time. As for the stuff I’ve recently done on Vice, I took the pictures years ago. I also tend to write late at night. I’ll usually sit down and start writing around midnight.
Deric: One of the things I really like about your work is that it provides a historical record of LA that would otherwise go undocumented. For me your photos gave me a window into the city that Mike Davis’s City of Quartz had.
Scot: Well I hope so. I hope I’m contributing to that record. When I was in my twenties, I read a lot of Raymond Chandler. He was a great Los Angeles writer. In fact, when I go back and read my own work, I probably see more of Chandler’s influence than any other author. I don’t think it was intentional, though it’s there.
Deric: Toward the end of Curb Service you wrote a bit about how much prostitutes have changed over the years. For instance, you were driving along and could see a row of prostitutes with their faces lit up by cell phones. Can you talk a bit about what has changed in that world from when you first started photographing them to the present day.
Scot: In some ways I think that when I talk about whores with cell phones – it’s safer. They can get ahold of anyone they need to pretty quickly. That’s to their advantage. They also work in groups more often. You also don’t see the pimps as often, though they’re still there and can call the ladies whenever they want. But there’s also a lot that I see that’s much sadder than it used to be. On Sunday night at 4am you can get on Western and head south from Sunset or Santa Monica and you’ll see the babes, sparsely dressed, walking around in their high heels They’re cute. They’re also asking for a little more money. You can then go from there to downtown and you’ve got these complete wrecks that will do anything for five or ten bucks. They just want to get a fix. I guess that’s always been there, but it seems to be more prevalent. When I first started Curb Service I used to spend a lot of time Long Beach. There used to be quite a stretch down there.
Deric: It’s fascinating how cell phones have not only impacted the art form of photography; they’ve also impacted your subjects in many ways. I’m glad you’re work is finally getting recognized. Some of your work is decades old, but it’s found a contemporary audience. How does that feel?
Scot: Wow. That’s the first time anyone has ever asked me that. It feels fucking fantastic! I wish it would of happened before I was in my sixties, but that’s the way it goes. I mean, I would have preferred to be young. I mean, groupies. You know?
At my house I have a box of rejection slips. There are probably a thousand in there. That’s a lot of rejection. But I kept going. I just kept going. I still haven’t made any money, but all of a sudden people are taking interest. It feels really good. I’ve never done any of this because I wanted to be famous. I did it just because I have to do it. I feel driven. I don’t know how to do anything else. But do I love the recognition? Oh, yeah. It’s great. But I’ve still got a lot I want to do.
Deric: I read that you have a show opening in Miami on October 24th.
Scot: Yes. It’s at the Mindy Solomon Gallery. I’ve been in a two group shows with her in the past. We’re doing this show with UK photographer Muir Vidler. This one is not as dark as the stuff I’ve done in the past. Though I say that, and I think, “Wow, this is so commercial. So mainstream.” Then my wife tells me, “no. Still dark.” Anyways this show features my Drive By Shooting photos. I used to have my wife drive me around at night. I mean, hell; I walk with a cane. Mind as well take photos from the passenger’s seat. She wasn’t very good at breaking the rules so I could get some of the shots I wanted, so for a while I got my son to drive. Then I found a friend, a photographer I really like, who drove me around in his pickup truck. We only did it a few times, but he would spin around and get me right up in someone’s face if I needed.
Deric: Scot, it's been a pleasure. Best of luck with the show!
If you haven't read Curb Service, do yourself a favor and grab a copy.