Photography, says Scot Sothern, wasn’t so much an interest, when he was growing-up, as something he was born into. His father owned a photographic studio, for portraits of weddings and baptisms; and Scot’s earliest memory is tied to a photograph.
‘My first clear memory correspond to a photograph and because of that I’m not sure if it’s a memory I would even have if not for the photograph to ring the memory bell in my head.
‘My father was a photographer with a wedding and portrait studio in the Missouri Ozarks and back in the fifties when I was about four years old cowboys were all the rage for boy tots like myself and portraits of little boys dressed in cowboy drag became de rigueur. I remember we were out on a farm and my dad wanted to set me on a rail fence, I guess the way cowboys were supposed to do. Anyway, it was too high and I didn’t trust my balance and freaked out when my dad set me there and so he had to take me down and let me stand in front of the fence instead. I remember him being irritated that I was acting like a pussy.’
Last year, Scot released Lowlife, a collection of his photographs and writing of his experiences amongst prostitutes in the 1980s:
’When I pulled off the freeway into San Diego, I had a single twenty dollar bill in my wallet. My car, a 1973 Toyota station wagon, rattled my teeth and died in idle. At stops I had to divide my right foot: heel on the brake, toes revving the accelerator. I had barely enough gas to get back to Los Angeles.
‘On El Cajon Boulevard I drove slowly and studied the street walkers. In their eyes I could see desperation-induced madness, premature death. In my eyes they could see my craving for the nasty little secret I kept from friends and family. I could give my twenty dollars to any one of these women. I could buy a quick sex fix and she could buy enough crack to put a smile on her face for an hour or so.
‘In the passenger seat, belted and buckled, frail and beautiful, my four-year-old son, Dashiell, slept curled around his best friend, a pillow-sized stuffed facsimile of Hulk Hogan. It was Sunday night and my weekend with my little boy was over.
‘When we arrived at his mother’s house, Dash awoke. He cried and clung tightly, arms around my neck. He didn’t want me to go. His mother Sylvia, my ex-wife, was happy to see me go, but first she wanted money. I made lame excuses. She called me a jerk and pried our son from my embrace. I took my twenty dollars and drove back to El Cajon Boulevard.’
Henry Rollins described the book as:
’Scot Sothern has taken his camera into a world that only a microscopic fraction of the human population knows exists. Sothern is not a mere voyeur, he wades deeply into zones most never will and renders his subjects with dignity and compassion. Lowlife is a moving and compelling piece of work.’
Vice said Lowlife was a “beautiful book”, while novelist and screen writer Barry Gifford wrote:
’Lowlife is brutal stuff. A vicious slice of the American pie. A camera Lucida of la bas, as the French say. It doesn’t get much further down and straight to the being than this. A cautionary series of tales that’s seguro.’
While Lowlife puts Sothern in the top rank of documentary photographers, he has also produced a large body of impressive portrait and drive-by photography, which marks him out as an artist with a compelling, epoch defining vision. I contacted Scot to ask about his work, and the processes through which he creates his art.
DM: When did you start taking an interest in photography?
Scot Sothern: Other than a way to make money (I started making and selling little league pictures at fourteen) and worked for my father from junior high on up through high school, I never thought of photography as having any impact on me or anybody else. I didn’t fall in love with it until I was older and then after discovering I could use it as communication and I could call it art, it became a more important part of my life. Unfortunately, when that happened is when I stopped making money with it. Hustling portraits and having a regular job became secondary.’
DM: What was your inspiration?
Scot Sothern: ‘Well, you know, I came of age in the sixties and was inspired by what was then the underground of politics, rock and roll, literature, film, art, and drugs. I adopted the lifestyle and stayed with it.
‘Nowadays I’m inspired by the both the youth and old farts still holding their middle fingers up at the establishment. You know, power to the people, motherfucker.’
DM: You find beauty in things and lives other discard / over look, what’s the attraction? Are you bringing out something within yourself?
Scot Sothern: ‘I like to make pretty pictures but that doesn’t mean the subject has to be attractive. If you look at a turd in the right light and circumstance it becomes a pretty turd, you know. If you photograph it with compassion it becomes a companionate turd. The attraction, for me, is all about romance. I find it romantic being out there, especially in the ante meridian, somewhere no one else wants to go, someplace nobody wants to see, it’s like fucking in candlelight.’
DM: How do you take a photograph?
Scot Sothern: ‘I don’t want to sound flippant, but really, I just point the camera and pull the trigger. All the technique and technical stuff is automatic, I don’t really give it a lot of thought. I learned it all when I was very young and now I’d getting old and it’s just the way I see.
‘I almost always work fast and regardless what the photograph is for, it’s improvised. I never plan ahead more than a minute or so, usually it’s seconds.’
DM: It’s that spontaneous?
Scot Sothern: ‘Well, yeah, it’s spontaneous, but I look for places that trigger that spontaneity.
‘When I was a kid my father taught me to be always on the lookout for pictures, and now I do it with or with out a camera, and even with a camera I let a lot of them go by, that’s kind of how I edit.’
DM: How would you describe your work? What themes attract you?
Scot Sothern: ‘I do a lot of different things, but the work that gets noticed is the scary and tawdry stuff, and that’s okay. I think my pictures are often unique and sometimes powerful and I think I’m one of the best photographers doing the kind of thing that I do, and I’m attracted to the same themes as everybody else, sex and death; good and evil.’
DM: How close are you to the people you photograph?
Scot Sothern: ‘Ninety-nine percent of all the people I’ve photographed I never saw again after clicking the shutter. But if the pictures are any good then I think I made an emotional connection. I’ve got way more empathy than I ever wanted, I started picking up strays when I was a little kid, I hope it shows in the work. Intellectually connected, well I don’t know. We’re all just lab rats.’
DM: Describe some of your best work, and the difficulties you faced in creating these photographs.
Scot Sothern: ‘I don’t know what I could call my best work, but I have two favorite photographs. Two kids kissing in a roller rink, Tallahassee, Florida 1975, is a photo I’ve always treasured. I was making Kodachrome exposures for a series called Family Tree and I was at a roller rink. It was probably a Saturday night and filled with kids at that age where sex and tribal acceptance is everything. Every few minutes the music would stop and the lights would go out, and the kids would make-out for thirty seconds or so before the lights came back up. I saw a boy and a girl together and in the same frame I saw a boy and a girl alone. So, I focused ahead of time and then when the lights went out I make the flash exposure. It’s a nice picture.
‘The other picture is from Lowlife. A transvestite hooker, named Pepper, flashing her tits at me under the Hollywood Freeway. I focused on her in the dark as well. For me these two pictures say everything anyone would want to know about my work.
‘Actually, last week I made a pretty cool picture. I decided to start a new series, photographing prostitutes again like the Lowlife photos from the eighties. I want to call it Lowlife 2: A New Low. So I picked up a hooker in Hollywood around two-thirty AM, after the bars let out and the horny misfits are still looking to get their rocks off. I gave her some money and she directed me to a quiet neighborhood where I saw a pedestrian tunnel, so I parked and we got out and it was one of those times where everything was just kind of waiting for me. So, I took a couple of pictures and then drove her back to where I found her. Life should be so easy.’
All photographs copyright Scot Sothern.