Interview: Scot Sothern

© Scot Sothern

Scot Sothern spent 40 unsettled years hustling freelance photography. His first solo exhibit, "LOWLIFE," was held at the Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles in 2010. His first book, LOWLIFE, was published in the U.K. by Stanley Barker in 2011. Scot has since been in solo and group shows on both coasts of the U.S. as well as in Ottawa, London and Basel. The British Journal of Photography called LOWLIFE, "The years' most controversial photobook." Scot writes a twice monthly column, with photographs, "Nocturnal Submissions," for Vice. Curb Service: A Memoir, was published by Soft Skull Press in July 2013. Also in July 2013, PowerHouse Books released An American Lowlife, Photos & Text. Sothern maintains a blog, www.scotsothern.com.

This interview is focused mainly on Curb Service.

fototazo: Why write this and why write this now?

Scot Sothern: I wrote the first chapter in 1991 and the final chapter about six months ago, 2013. The reason it took so long is simple, no one wanted to publish it until now and I'd given up on it, you know, put it in the closet and turned out the light. As to why I started writing it in the first place, I always thought I had something to say about the idiot world we live in and I guess I thought photographing whores and telling the stories seemed like a cool thing to do. Now does seem like a good time to be pushing my views, there are too many right-wing morons and religious fanatics about, but they don't count and they are not as plentiful as they would like us to believe. Marijuana is becoming legal everywhere and eventually we're going to start dialogues about prostitution. I think there is a younger generation who can use books like mine as outrage and cause.

f: How does Curb Service relate to your images? Is it a separate project? A complimentary text? A foundation for understanding the photographs and your approach to them?

SS: The photographs came first but it was never designed as a separate project, I wanted to write the stories, from the first exposure. When I was a kid my favorite books had illustrations spliced throughout, adventure books like Tarzan and a series of comic novels by Max Shulman. In the late nineties and early oughts I was a fan of W.G. Sebald who peppered his novels with found photographs. I always wanted to be a writer and I've always been a photographer so I just did what I do. I've been putting text to photographs since the seventies. I just always wanted to make books the way I always wanted books to be.

I never thought writing about my life, framed by the photographs, as a way for anyone to better understand the photographs, I always expected the pictures to do that on their own. If anything, the text is there to make the work personal, to feel it close to the way I felt it.

f: Did putting your narrative down on paper change or concretize your life narrative in any way that surprised you? What did you discover about yourself by writing this?

SS: I guess I discovered I care a lot more than I thought I did, my anger is valid, and I’m not as funny as I used to be. Writing a book about myself has solidified the person I made of myself. I'll always be that guy who fucked and photographed whores, I’ll always be who I was, more than who I am now.

© Scot Sothern

f: And what did you discover about your photographs by writing this?

SS: Technically I always find flaws in my photographs, but nobody else ever mentions them so I leave it alone. But, discoveries? I don’t think writing has shown me anything about my pictures I didn't already know. The photos, however, informed the writing. I don't think I could have written Curb Service without the pictures.

f: The text is threaded throughout with specifics: song titles, clothing descriptions, hotel room layouts - did you take notes or actively think about writing this book as you photographed over the past decades?

SS: I always wanted to write autobiographical stories and so I made a lot of mental snapshots all my life. However, a lot of those snapshots fade over time so details and even dialogue can become conjecture and imagination. The photographs can sometimes bring up great colorful blocks of memory and at other times I can look at a photograph and have no memory association at all, as if someone else made the exposure.

f: You're a self-taught writer and your writing has the patter of the Beats as well as their rejection of accepted standards, their play with drugs and embrace of alternative sexual practices. Curb Service also recalls the adjectives, analogies and tone of Noir. How have you approached your writing?

SS: I taught myself to write by reading everything, though mostly contemporary fiction. I stopped working regular jobs in the early nineties and spent a decade reading and writing and little else. I read a lot of noir in the eighties which is the same time period I was out taking the Lowlife pictures and I think it just all came together that way. I don't, however, think all my writing clings to Noir and I like to think I have found a voice that is mine alone.

As for the Beats, I'm just in the groove daddy-o. When I was a kid in the fifties, beatnik was all around, Mad Magazine and Roger Corman movies, jazz and rock and roll blew our little minds. Adults were the squares and the values they held onto were nonsense. By the time I was an adolescent in the sixties it was obvious that rebellion was the only way out and accepted standards were stifling America. I jumped in with both feet and never left. I'm irreversibly Beatnik.

© Scot Sothern

f: In the book you write that you had big plans for a career as a fine-art photographer. Was this work created with this idea in mind?

SS: Yes, absolutely. When I took the first picture I knew I wanted it in galleries and museums. I thought, naively, if I could make visceral underground-ish photographs like no one else's I could find my way into the art world and not have to waste my time making a living as a freelance photographer. Of course it turned out it doesn't really work that way and it took two decades to get the work noticed. Nowadays, I'm all over the internet and I'm doing shows in some great galleries. But I'm still not really in the art world the way a lot of other, sometimes mundane, photographers are. I'm not courted by museums and the core of moneyed art collectors aren't lining up to write me checks. Then again maybe I'm just a populist with underground dreams of a mainstream paycheck.

f: Your personal relationship with the prostitutes changes over time, becoming more focused on the images and also, I think it's fair to say, more empathetic and caring. I see this especially in the Daniel Rolnik video interview where he follows you as you pick up prostitutes. Do you feel the images reflect that change? Have the images changed in other ways in terms of how you think about them or create them over the years?

SS: Everything has changed just by the graduation of time but yeah, the experience changed me. I don't really photograph with a hard-on anymore. I'm more focused on the working girls and their lives. The earlier work reflected a darker side of me but now I'm all fucking happy so that's out of the equation. The new work is in color and that alone makes it different from before. It seems we live in more precarious times and I think the color brings that to the surface.

© Scot Sothern

f: You write that, "As I got older I found that a real portrait revealed a real person." In that sense, are these real portraits? How much are the images you, how much them?

SS: As a working portrait photographer in the 1970s my work changed when I discovered Arnold Newman's book of portraits, One Mind's Eye. Up to that time, in my early twenties, I knew how to make flattering likenesses of women, men, and children with posing and lighting, I could coach them into expressions, happy or sexy or serious, but that didn't count and it was too easy. It was during this period I started making pictures of people who weren't paying me, people I'd pluck from the sidewalks. That's when I started looking for something more and finding I could open people up and see what's inside. I also realized I could put people in front of my camera and use them for my own agenda. I'm not at all alone in this and I think it's part of the reason people are more wary of photographers than they used to be.

f: A lot of portraiture and the making of portraiture involves a sexual energy, even with clothes buttoned. The moment of creating an image you're excited about has been related to orgasm. How do sex and photography relate for you and how does including the act of actual sex interact with the act of photographing?

SS: In a lot of ways photography is a sexy art form and portraiture involves contact and often a good bit of sexual give and take, but I never really equated the moment of exposure with sex. For me the excitement, when you snap a great exposure and you know it, feels more like a good hit of dope.

© Scot Sothern

f: Your work creates its energy in part by pushing against sexual norms. I live in Colombia and there are different norms here that - in a real general way - fall closer to your own. I wonder if the way your work challenges sexual convservatism is particular to the United States and makes it a particularly US work of literature, in the vein of frontier classics, the road trip novel, etc.

SS: I’d love to think of Curb Service as in the vein of American frontier classics, but I don’t really think I’m opening up any fronts that haven't already been pounded into the public perception. A lot of writers have punctuated their tomes with middle fingers, you know, and I don't think that's exclusive to America. Luckily, in the US, we can challenge sexual mores and don't have to spend all our time writing from the shadows about political and religious oppression and, by the way, that's probably the nicest thing you'll get from me about the United States.

f: Have you done other work over the last decades in addition to pursuing this work?

SS: I didn't do much photography between 1990 and 2010, and even during my most inspired years I was never all that prolific. A project could mean three rolls of film in a couple of years, but I try to make every picture count and I do have a backlog. Since 2010 when I started shooting digital I've made more exposures than in the previous two decades.

I wrote three novels in the nineties I have no intention of ever showing anyone and I have two later novels which are different in tone than Curb Service, more comic, but still worthy of a good right-wing book burning. I'd like to get them out there someday, but for now I'm busy hawking Curb Service and thinking about an autobiographical novel about my wicked ways in the 1970s. Also I've got a number of photo projects I'm putting together. I want to publish more photobooks with stories; I've found a comfortable niche there.

© Scot Sothern

f: You talk in the book about being worried about dying with your work unfinished and without accomplishment. Has receiving more attention for your work, publishing your memoir, and having exhibitions of this work been what you'd hoped? Has the anger you talk about and show in Curb Service eased with recognition?

SS: Now that I actually have people listening to what I've got to say I'm tapping into the anger more than ever, and if I'm not feeling angry enough all I've got to do is read the front page of a news periodical. If anything I'd like to change about my work I think I'd like to address my anger with a little more humor. Most of the things that make me angry also make me laugh. Is this new recognition what I've been striving for? I’d like to make more money but yeah, I'm happy with the last chapter of Curb Service. I like the way it all turned out.

© Scot Sothern