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I was commissioned to write this a few years ago for the Central European House of Photography in Bratislava (and thank you to all the photo...

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Scot Sothern: A lack of ambiguity

"This woman is already dead so I photograph her ghost. She is one of the many; here in sunny Hollywood, California, murdered by life without the slimmest of a chance. I give her fifteen dollars even though she only asks for ten. The extra five includes my last dollar. That's my donation. I'm down among the lepers and I just gave away my last dollar. I'm a fucking saint. I'm the patron saint of whores"

Following on from the previous post I thought about what is not ambiguous, what is multi-layered but has none of the between-ness that the Host Gallery Blog mentioned. And I thought of Scot Sothern, partly because his pictures are political on several levels, but also because his pictures, which are more of an archive really, do all the things that many acclaimed photographers try to do but in a more concentrated and direct form - one that was incidental to his main activities, which was visiting low-class hookers for whatever reasons.

The pictures are multi-layered but are also voyeuristic in an unnerving way. They do raise questions of ethics and I wonder how people respond to them. Nobody seems to think much of them ( Stan Banos and Doug Rickard are a couple of the exceptions), or at least people are reluctant to show them or comment on them - possibly because they are afraid of getting the "wrong answer" (a consensus can quickly build up amongst independent thinking critics/commentators and bloggers and god help you if you have the wrong answer. I think I might have the wrong answer on this one, but then again at least I have an answer). But I think they are incredible. At the same time, I could fully understand why people don't like the pictures, the way they were made or what and who they represent, not to mention the photographer, his lifestyle and how he made the pictures.

Or am I just mistaken. Are these pictures just exploitative crap? What are they? I'm really fishing for a few comments here, which isn't something I often do. But I feel these pictures and the history and politics from which they emerged (however unfortunate or distasteful) are quite unique. I am probably wrong. So what do you think. Are they

  • Amazing and insightful?
  • Cheap, nasty and exploitative?
  • Nothing special?
  • Loads of this kind of stuff around?

Do feel free to comment at length. I want to know what point I am missing.


Tony Fouhse said...

I've been collaborating with a small society of crack addicts for 3 (going on 4) years. Taking fotos. Believe me, I've heard all the criticisms about exploitation, that I don't belong there, doing what I'm doing.

Simple fact is, there are no rules. Do what you want and let the chips fall. Mr Sothern is doing something. Those attacking this work are probably doing next to nothing, except complaining. If we listened to the nay-sayers and complainers, to those who would have us just represent the world and ourselves the way they see fit, well, where would that leave us?

Any time you frame anything, whether it be with a camera, with words or a paintbrush, you are exploiting. That's a given. Get over it.

If it offends you go look at fotos of sunsets, or flowers, or something.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Tony - I'll stick the comment on the blog with your pictures if you don't mind.

Get over it! Absolutely.

I was more worried that people aren't even complaining about his work - they're just saying nothing.

Maybe that's how all his work deserves, but I don't think so - what do you think.

Unknown said...

His work seems to be as good as the work of Zoe Strauss - whatever that means.

Stan B. said...

Let's look at what this work has going against it. It's about "street people." An automatic three strikes- nobody wants to look at them in person, fewer want to adorn their walls with 'em. The photographs are in B&W- another strike, if possible. As one photo trendsetter remarked, he simply doesn't want to see any more B&W photography that looks like it was shot in the 70's- and this most definitely qualifies. Even Robert Bergman's recently "rediscovered" work on street people (Rapture) had the good fortune of being in color.

And finally, the "ethics" thing. Yes, he "exploited" them- he took their photographs, sometimes even partook of their services. He also hung with them and interacted with them as fellow human beings. Are his ethics any less than Avedon's In The American West? More importantly, is his work any less than the photographic equivalent of Bukowski's...

J. Wesley Brown said...

Hey Colin - Personally, I think they are great and his writing really holds your attention (and I'm not one for writing accompanying visual work usually).

I posted about his gallery show here in LA:


Had Scot not taken these photos, they wouldn't exist and I'm very glad they do. It takes an interesting type of person to make work like this - a type of person very different to myself so I feel like a voyeur looking through it. Perhaps living in the same city makes them more interesting?

I'll be publishing some shots from a yet-unseen, similar body of work by a photographer who's never shown the fruits of a 17-year photographic journey with anyone really in the coming month and will give you a heads up. I think its amazing and would love to get your thoughts.

I agree with Tony - "Do what you want and let the chips fall." Not everyone will like the work and some may hate it but then, some may love it and that's who you were shooting for besides, of course, yourself.

Anyone see this as work a sibling or perhaps father to PLdC's hustlers?

mark page said...

The fella's shining as much of a light on his own life as he is theirs, he enjoys swimming at the bottom of the pond. Nothing new there then, Artists have always loved hookers at least since they got bored with portraying virgins.

Andrew Lamb said...

Are they insightful? How can they be? I never thought that a photo was worth a thousand words. More often, I think it's the other way.

Are they exploitative? Hmm, well was it absolutley necessary for that woman to bare her breasts? Then again, he had paid her.

colin pantall said...

Splendid - thank you all for your comments.

It's not about a sexy subject but sex is in the subject, as are drugs and decrepitude so I'm with Stan on this one.

And I absolutely see the comparison between Hustlers and Lowlife. I don't know what the comparison is, but there is one. And you could throw Boris Mikhailov, Larry Clark, Terry Richardson, Richard Billingham, Juliana Beasley and many many more into the mix. He's lowlife, Mark, so are many people. I don't know if he is shining light on his own life though. Maybe he is. I don't know. How they compare, what their ethics are, I don't know that either. I am so fucking clueless! What do you think?

And I'd love to see the work J.W.

He shows breasts. Indeed. So does Larry Sultan or Mona Kuhn or lots of other people and in a much more flattering 'erotic' way. Is that allowed. What is allowed?

You're all right by the way. And so am I. So thanks for offering up your opinions.

Andrew Lamb said...

Fair points, Colin.

I find Mona Kuhn's work particularly vapid. Lots of pretty (mostly white) people floating around, the countryside, without their clothes on. Ryan McGinley is another exponent of this.

Leni Riefenstahl would have approved.

J. Wesley Brown said...

I guess for me the comparison is that they're both paying prostitutes small sums of cash in exchange for posing, both in LA.

The differences being color vs. B&W, on vs. off-camera flash, men vs. women, the decade, ensuing fame levels and the fact that Scot slept with some of his, I think. Oh, that and Scot's writing abilities.

I don't know - Hustlers seems more LA to me because of their settings, while Scot's could be anywhere, really. That's not a bad thing, necessarily.

Ian Aleksander Adams said...

I don't get it, why can't it be exploitative crap and incredible at the same time?

colin pantall said...

Simple but lovely point, Ian.

diego fabro said...

It's exploitative, but still a really interesting work. He pays for the prostitutes services, raw images, harsh reallity. I think it could be(not sure if it's his intention) a critic to photography, using phtography.
I can see something between Larry Clark and Anders Petersen...if I would fit these images somewhere.