September 10, 2012

Down and Out in LA: Scot Sothern's Lowlife

The story is, by now, well known. A photographer begins to frequent prostitutes and make pictures of them. His reasons for this were murky, to say the least, but the resultant images are undeniably powerful, permeated by a sad and visceral intensity. The women that Scot Sothern photographed perform their identities as objects of sexual commerce, but the rawness of his portraits – and they are that – comes largely from the fact that this role is so often imperfectly registered upon the person who occupies it. The dissonance between how these women present themselves as desirable and the inherent fragility of their pose, the ways in which it contradicts the visible person, is pure and terrible. So although they appear shorn of artifice, as if these women had – sometimes in a very literal sense – nothing left to hide, the ways in which they are seen to perform becomes all the more revealing; it is the plain mystery of regarding some other person. 

As is detailed in his wonderfully evocative and precise writing, Sothern was no reformer and a long way from the scrupulous self-possession of the concerned photographer, but his work is all the more important for the unflattering complexity of Sothern’s own involvement with the people in his pictures, who are not reduced to mere social phenomena. They are seen instead as individuals inhabiting a particular situation, the result of choices made and forced. Here the seemingly benign archetypes of victimhood can only serve as a complacent means to deny the human reality of those we would prefer remain hidden, the assumption being that for lives imprinted with such frantic brutality there is more dignity in sustaining our wilful ignorance. Sothern’s work is not a corrective to this, but he does touch on such unspoken prohibitions in very telling ways. His subjects are never equals in this exchange, but the pictures acknowledge this relative disparity in the very way these women are seen; their intimacy, however short-lived (and financially motivated), is in no way contrived.

Too often we fall back on rote theories to explain away what is most troubling about photography, the whole queasy business of looking and being looked at, but Sothern’s pictures are remarkably specific, without a narrative other than the incomplete one of the subjects themselves and their encounter with the photographer in a single, charged moment of exchange. We see real people, living real lives, so utterly present in these photographs that I can barely look at them – or even be sure that I should look. Sothern’s approach is to push this lack of inflection to the limit, in a way that conceals an obsessively pursued set of intentions, concerned both with otherness and also how it might be negotiated. Yet the fact remains that his reasons for making these pictures and our reactions to them are difficult, perhaps even suspect. I don’t think I’m alone in being disturbed by what they have to say about our society and also the medium itself, its subtle evasions. But then again, why shouldn’t the photographer be implicated in what he photographs?

(Sothern has a website and selection of his writing appears here on American Suburb X. There is also a nice interview with him in the most recent issue of SMBH magazine, which can be downloaded here).