1.23.2012

Photographers on Photographers: Connecting Then to Now by Scot Sothern

© Pavel Titovich

The best photographers, the ones whose pictures are worth looking at, are the ones obsessively looking at the pictures other photographers are making. Currently an endless barrage of images assail us between the blinks from every direction. Everyone everywhere is taking pictures; faces are replaced by iPhones with pictures of faces. In my quest for amazing images I click the mouse, like a shutter, until my neck hurts. Every so often I come across pictures I’d like to put on my wall. I happened across a collection the other day from a talented young photographer whose images took me back to a talented long-dead photographer, and influence from my adolescence.

Early in my evolution as an image-maker, my father, a portrait and wedding photographer pointed me toward Yousuf Karsh an old semi-famous black & white guy who played by the rules and served as the main-man for tutelage and inspiration. I liked Karsh okay, I didn’t really pay attention to photo magazines, lived in a town devoid of cultural hangouts and wasn’t exposed to photography as art. It was business. I was making okay money for a kid, photographing Little League baseball teams; making and selling pictures of tourists in an Ozarkian cave, stalactites above, stalagmites below. I shot them with a Speed Graphic then developed the 4 x 5 film, in my cave-darkroom, slapping it wet into the enlarger. I exposed, developed, dried, trimmed, and inserted into folders 5x7 prints in about ten minutes then sold them for a buck a piece and hoped they didn’t fade before they made it to the parking lot. It was fun but it wasn’t art.

© William Mortensen

My father owned a photobook, Monsters and Madonnas, of rather bizarre photographs by Hollywood glamor photographer William Mortensen. He was the first arty photographer to catch my eye. His images both black & white and in muted colors were printed with texture screens and paper negatives which he pencil-retouched. It was very old-fashioned; many of his pictures looked like illustrations for Shakespeare plays which at the time seemed pretty dorky to me. But still I liked his soft-core nudes; milk maids, witches, and girls in bondage, and I loved his highly-staged photos of grotesque monsters and dark moody creations of torture and madness. It fit right into my 1950s childhood of Hammer Films; vampires and Edgar Allan Poe; teenage werewolves and Frankensteins, and even Mad Magazine; blooming rebellion and middle fingers ushering us baby-boomers into the 1960s.

© William Mortensen

When my pop was still a kid, in the thirties, Mortensen moved to the then artist's community of Laguna Beach, CA, where he opened a studio and school. He published books, instructional and photo, and continued making offbeat photographs. His work was panned in the art world for its sappiness and S&M overtones. He was rudely snubbed from the photo artists elite, f64 purest types. Ansel Adams called Mortensen the anti-Christ. That his work, a precursor of Photoshop, was regarded as near blasphemy only put him higher in my esteem. That his techniques in the darkroom and behind the camera were as good and sometimes better than his critics was not publicly acknowledged. I can still remember reading his instruction on composition and printing, and getting excited about loading a camera and following his Rx. I was a fan and I’m still a fan.

© William Mortensen

And so the other night, clicking the mouse in search of great images I came across a collection that reminded me of William Mortensen. At first glance, of an image that reminds me of another image, I’m programed to brand it derivative and move on. Square format dead-centered pictures of dwarves or transvestites, and unattractive people in front of white backgrounds is at the top of my snooze list. However, there are so many images, so many people with cameras, every style and idea is a shared concept. Is a picture derivative if the maker has never heard of the person they are imitating? And these images that reminded me of William Mortensen did so more on a visceral level. Place and time was right now and a long time ago and I could feel them both.

Pavel Titovich is twenty-eight years old and lives in Belgorod, Russia. He is on Facebook. For me, he captures struggle and beauty in earthy-toned images, erotic and melancholy. Where Mortensen was a Hollywood storyteller and showman, Titovich goes deeper toward a darker realism, all the while putting the same old-fashioned look and feel as the sixty-five year-old photos by an artist he has most likely never heard of. I’d like to put his work on my wall.

© Pavel Titovich

© Pavel Titovich

Leaving home and formal education at seventeen, in the 1960's, Scot Sothern spent thirty-seven unsettled years hustling freelance photography. Scot worked in department stores, churches, bowling alleys, sports events and high school proms. He worked in a cave at a tourist-trap in Missouri, making and selling photo mementos. Traveling with a portable studio, knocking door-to-door in suburban America, he made and sold children's portraits and novelties–photo buttons and key-chain viewers. Scot shot model's portfolios, head-shots, and nude magazine layouts. He spent three years in Tallahassee, Florida, with a photography studio, three seasons with a high school yearbook studio in Los Angeles, and has been employed in three different cities as a darkroom technician.

In 1983, in Saudi Arabia, Scot made industrial training films and photographed the disappearing Bedouin tribes. He worked as an optical camera operator in Los Angeles and New York City. Scot photo-illustrated a series of magazine stories including
"Shopping For God: Religious Cults in America." These essays were represented by both the Black Star and Onyx Photo agencies and published worldwide.

Forced into commercial retirement by the crippling byproduct of a motorcycle mishap, Scot now writes books and has continued making photographs. In 2010 Scot's first solo exhibit, LOWLIFE, was at the Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles. In 2011 Lowlife, the book, photos and text, was published in the UK by Stanley Barker.