Scot Sothern is an underappreciated writer and photographer, who after years of obscurity, is now (hopefully) in the first stage of discovery with Lowlife, a gallery show at the DRKRM Gallery in Los Angeles, which features photographs of street prostitutes along with accompanying literary vignettes. He is also my dad (you may have noticed the similarly “u”-less last names), and I’ve been struggling to write something heartfelt as an intro. But then I realized this bit of press is coming very late, and his show closes after this weekend, so I’ve gotta get this fucking interview posted already. So I will keep it short. He is a tremendous father and I love him lots. His work is beautiful, and edgy and funny, and it has been a major influence on my own work as well as my outlook on life, and the time has come for him to see the success he deserves.
View his website here. Some of the images there, as well as within this interview, are not work-safe.
Part 1 (Kittysneezes Want to Know)
Kittysneezes: At this moment in time, what is your favorite song?
Scot Sothern: Well I feel really old saying it, but “The Boxer” by Paul Simon has been pretty much my favorite song since I first heard it.
KS: What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?
SS: Guy I went through high school with back in the Ozarks, Clarence Brewer AKA King Clarentz, sings, writes, and plays the blues. He has albums out. He makes my legs fibrillate.
KS: What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?
SS: A big kinda poster/banner thing of two lady dwarves wrestling, that Linda [my wife] made. A beautiful painting by Pauline Ziegen, a Santa Fe artist whose work I like a lot. A big Cibachrome print of three homeless former hippies at People’s Park in Berkeley, 1986 or 87. We have a nice mix of stuff; nothing that needs to be heavily insured, but it makes me happy.
KS: What’s the strangest thing you own?
SS: Our cat Skeeter who likes to choke himself on the edge of a trash can until he starts coughing and gasping for air. Then he does it again. He also licks plastic.
KS: Of the things you’ve done, what’s your all-time favorite (however you want to interpret that, be it artistic works, actions, whatever)?
SS: It’s a long story which I’ll skim for you: North Florida in the mid 70s, along with my first wife, Danielle, I acquired the keys to an existing photography studio, after the owner died unexpectedly. It was located in a mall with a lot of traffic. The camera room was huge and the darkrooms, one for film and one for printing, were the best. We unlocked the door and moved in. We never paid rent, and with hustled cameras and supplies and a stack of credit cards and waste baskets full of unpaid bills, I became an artist, and a petty crook. I took a lot of pictures and had a pretty good time. In the end, after three years, we had to skip town which was okay because north Florida was slow and stupid and I needed more culture. I’m proud of that part of my life.
KS: Who is your favorite visual artist (excluding yourself)?
SS: Francis Bacon.
KS: What are the two most recent films you’ve seen?
KS: What’re your top 3-5 favorite movies?
SS: Clockwork Orange, Lolita, Natural Born Killers, Badlands, and after that there are just too many to put in any kind of order.
KS: Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?
SS: I thought we already had that question.
KS: What is your favorite game?
SS: I hate them all.
KS: If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?
SS: Start making sense.
KS: What are your five most favorite books in the world?
SS: Lolita, Clockwork Orange, The Tin Drum. Small Island, by Andrea Levy. After that there’s too many.
KS: What is the most boring thing you’ve ever experienced?
KS: If you could name a child anything in the world, what would it be?
KS: What is your favorite meal?
SS: French Onion soup, that I make.
KS: What is reality?
SS: Constipation and nightmares.
Part 2 (Austin Wants to Know)
Austin: I’ll start with an obvious question. Do you think 24 could have gone on forever, or is it for the best that this is the last season? Please refrain from mentioning any spoilers, as I’m waiting for the DVDs before watching Season 8.
SS: I don’t think 24 could go on forever but if it did I would continue watching it. I hope they make movies.
A: What inspired you to take photos of prostitutes?
1. I thought maybe I could get famous in the arty underground, or at least acquire a cult following.
2. I couldn’t afford real models.
3. Sex and cheap thrills.
4. I wanted to make art with a fuck-you attitude.
5. I wanted to end world hunger.
A: Do you remember what the very first photo you took of a prostitute was?
SS: I think 1986. I wrote another story about the first time but this is a different first time. I was living with you and your mother at Berkeley student housing in Albany. You were three or four. Your mother was a student and I was unemployed. The marriage was in ruins. In a rage one night after a bloody verbal bout with your mother, I drove to San Pablo Boulevard to pick up a whore. I guess I figured degenerate sex in the car would make me feel better. I had my camera and a roll of film and my flash attachment with me, so after sex, which did make me feel better, I took some pictures. It was a couple of years later, when I was crashing at my friend Matt’s in the valley, before I developed the film along with another five or six rolls I’d shot by then. I continued the sessions until 1990.
A: When and where were the majority of these photos taken?
SS: Los Angeles and Long Beach where I worked for a couple of years as an optical camera operator. This was the late eighties and the whores were all over the place, at least, they were all over the places I went.
A: What is your opinion on pimps?
SS: I don’t like them. They’re assholes, violent and mean. I didn’t have to deal with them all that often. The few times I did, I acted like a tough guy and so did they. Any time I was in a situation which could have escalated into real violence I quickly made concessions.
A: What has been the general reaction to the show?
SS: So far everyone likes it. The people I’ve talked to seem to go gaga for the literary vignettes I wrote which are posted next to the photos. I think the writing helps to humanize the subject matter. I like that there has been such a favorable reaction, but at the same time I was hoping for some outrage. I’ve had twenty years of rejection from galleries and publishers because the photos and stories were too blatant somehow. Now I don’t even get a single protest. That’s fucked up. Hopefully over time I’ll get more exposure and attract the attention of people who hate people like me and the art I make. In a perfect world I’d open up a heated dialogue or two. I always thought it would be cool to see a burning effigy with my face.
A: It seems that although people appreciate these photos, nobody wants them hanging on their living room wall. How understanding are you of this?
SS: I guess I understand it, but at the same time it kind of irritates me. I have friends who have a large print by Joel-Peter Witkin hanging in their living room. People pay big bucks for self-portraits of Robert Mapplethorpe with a bull-whip stuck up his ass. There are a couple of iconic Viet Nam photos I can think of that really kick you in the nuts. Why not my girls and boys. That’s not to say I think my photos have the same value as a Joel-Peter Witkin or war photographers like Eddie Adams, or, well yeah I guess I do think they should be as valuable as a Mapplethorpe. I’d rather have one of mine on the wall.
A: Do you consider the photos exploitative? And if so, is there anything wrong with that?
SS: Yes, I do think they are exploitative and yes, there are things wrong with that. However, in spite of all the wrong things about the pictures, I think there is somehow a greater good that comes from them. If someone looks at a picture and goes, Whoa, that’s fucked up, then isn’t that a good thing? There are many many whores, all over the world and I don’t think any of them are having a very good time. I’d like to help out a little more, but you know, life is tough. Maybe that’s just my justification for being a lowlife in the first place. I like to think I can be a lowlife and also be an artist and a pacifist, a leftist and a scofflaw, and yet Pollyannaish and idealistic. A fine upstanding citizen. Exploitation, well I guess that’s what it takes to say what I want to say.
A: When did you first know you had a knack for photography, and that it was something you wanted to pursue?
SS: My pop was a photographer with a portrait and wedding studio in Springfield Missouri and I grew up in the studio. I was groomed to grow up and take over this family business someday. I started working at the studio in seventh grade and continued until I graduated from high school and hit the road. I really didn’t want to live in Springfield and photography wasn’t something I really cared about. But I had a knack for it and I knew it and I knew dozens of ways of making a living with a camera. One of the schemes was called kidnaping. When I first came to Los Angeles I drove around in middle class neighborhoods and knocked on doors when I saw toys in the front yard. I’d talk my way in, and set up an impromptu studio and make portraits of the kids, with the promise of a free picture. I’d come back a week later with proofs and a sales spiel. I got by for a while on that, then went to another. Photography was just a way to make a buck.
Looking back I feel like kind of an idiot but until I was twenty-two or so, I’d never noticed that photographers made art. It hadn’t dawned on me that I could have been a photojournalist, or that portraits could be something way more than the smiley head-and-shoulder crap I’d been doing. I was in a drug store thumbing through a photography magazine, for the first time, and I saw a picture made by photographer Arthur Tress, and I had a moment and then I was suddenly conjuring a thousand different photographs I needed to make. I was consumed by photography for the next twenty years.
A: Who are some of your favorite photographers, and who would you consider influential to your own work?
SS: Well at this point it’s mostly old dead guys. In my twenties, a portrait photographer, Arnold Newman, changed everything I knew about photography. Edward Steichen was the god of photography. There was a photographer in the seventies who was quite popular, Pete Turner. He took color photography to wonderful Kodachrome heights before color was groovy in the galleries. After that there are too many to list. Couple of months ago, online, I came across the photography of a young guy who bums around the country taking really terrific photos, Mike Brodie AKA the Polaroid Kidd. He’s worth looking at. I’ve noticed some really good conceptual photography recently. There has always, and will always be, a lot of crap getting kudos for no reason that I can figure. I most admire photographers who make photographs I couldn’t make myself.
A: Which do you like best: photography, music, books, television, or movies?
SS: Books. For me, good writing trumps everything else.
A: Have your photos ever been featured in a gallery before this show?
SS: A couple of times but nothing worth mentioning. I got a lot of rejections and finally in the nineties I quit trying. I kept making pictures but not very often and I sold my darkroom.
A: Lily Tomlin showed up at your opening reception, but this was not necessarily your first encounter with her. Explain.
SS: The circumstances are strange but both my encounters with Lily Tomlin had to do with Lowlife. In 1990 or maybe 91, I had finally stopped the Lowlife project, for medical reasons and because Linda and I got married and you moved in with us for your fourth fifth and sixth years of grade school and I became a stay at home dad. I’d printed a set of the prostitute pictures, about eighty photos, and I managed to get an appointment with the curator at one of the few, at that time, established photo galleries in LA. It was, and still is, a nice space and they have shown a lot of major works. Anyway, I was trying not to babble and at the same time showing this guy the pictures and wondering why he wasn’t responding the way I’d imagined, when an employee came in, interrupting us, to tell him Lily Tomlin was in the gallery and wanted to talk to him about the current exhibit. He excused himself, to go slobber over the celebrity, telling me goodbye, the pictures are okay and I needed to be better known before he could consider the work of any value. I smiled at Lily on my way out. It wasn’t in any way her fault but, for a few years, if she was on television I’d change the channel.
Also, and this is embarrassing but when I was introduced to Miss Tomlin at my opening at the Drkrm gallery, I think I babbled like an idiot and I don’t really know why. I’ve been in LA for a lot of years and celebrity sightings are no big deal and after all it’s not like I was meeting Meryl Streep. Nevertheless, I acted like an idiot and she was perfectly gracious. Life is funny.
A: You’ve taken thousands of photos over the years. Do you have any other series that fit a theme that you would consider creating a show for?
SS: Yeah, I have a few things. Religious cults. The Bedouin tribes in Saudi Arabia. I have a large file of naked girl pictures. One of the really great things about being a photographer was photographing naked girls. Funny thing is, I don’t go to gallery shows when they have nudes because I find them kind of distasteful. I’m even kind of prudish about the subject. I’ve probably got enough naked pictures of your mother for a medium-sized show. How weird would that be for you?
One of the things about my files of negatives and slides, is that each series is very different than the others. Most photographers, artists, directors, writers, once they get noticed for a work, they then continue making each subsequent work a copy of the original because that is what the fans want; more of the same. I never had to do that because I never got noticed, nobody gave a shit what I did so I was able to mix it up.
That said, the series I’d most like to exhibit is called Family Tree. Kodachrome exposures from the late seventies, early eighties. They are not really street pictures but impromptu portraits of people I stopped on the street, or sidewalk, and then posed in front of whatever looked good to me at the time. I think they would make a nice show and I’ve been thinking that for about thirty years. I’ve got one of them, a twenty by thirty Cibachrome of kissing kids on roller skates, in a group show that opened May first and runs to the thirtieth at the New Puppy Gallery in LA. Show’s called Framed Stories and with or without my contribution it’s a great show, in a great space.
A: What is your favorite of your own photos (from this series, as well as the rest of your work)?
SS: My favorite from Lowlife is of a transvestite, half naked under the Hollywood freeway. Her face is amazing. There were other people living under the freeway, and this was in the dead of night and it was an experience I’ll always remember. Sad and scary.
I don’t know if there is a favorite of my other work. To be honest, I’ve always loved just about every picture I’ve taken. Now that I have so many of the images scanned, I like to smoke a little pot and fill the computer screen with my pictures. I’m the same way with my writing. I’ve always been my biggest fan. How else could I face all the rejections, without knowing they are wrong, I’m right.
A: The Lowlife photos also feature accompanying stories of the photos being taken. How much of these stories are true?
SS: A lot of the stories are pieced together from different encounters to make a whole. Some of them, especially the shorter ones, are all about mood and feeling and a line or two of remembered dialogue. Some are exactly as I remember them, but my memory isn’t as good as it once was and never was all that great to begin with. I guess if some publisher offered me a wad of money for my memoir but the deal hinged on the veracity of the text, I’d lie and say, yeah sure, scout’s honor, and then just hope Oprah doesn’t catch wind of it.
A: Speaking of writing, do you, by any chance, have any novels you’ve written that publishers should be pursuing?
SS: I put my cameras away in 1991 and spent the next fifteen years writing fiction. I wrote some books, screenplays, and out of all I wrote there are two novels that should be published, Hog Heaven and Guttersnipe. How do I know they are good? The same way I know the Lowlife photos are good. I do have a good agent in NYC who believes in my writing and is out there slugging for me. I have a three-inch high box filled with rejection slips and yet I’m astounded each time a new one comes in. I realize there are lots people out there writing books and screenplays who are just as astounded as I that their work remains undiscovered and most of those people are lousy writers. But I’m not. My biggest fear is that I’ll get all my recognition and accolades after I’m dead. That would be fucked up.
A: If someone wanted to check out your show at the DRKRM Gallery in Los Angeles, which runs through May 23, is there a particular day people should show up, where they might get something extra?
SS: The show is closing all too soon. I’m doing a reading and book signing to close out the show, on Sat May 22 at 3pm. Otherwise the DRKRM is open Tuesdays through Saturdays normal hours. It’s always a good idea to call first. The DRKRM is having one more show at this location and is then going to be moving downtown to the art district which has become a vibrant scene. One night a month there is a downtown art walk and people turn out in mass. I’m looking forward to it and I will be working with the DRKRM for more shows, which is exciting for me. The DRKRM has a permanent collection of the Lowlife photos and in fact they represent all my fine-art photography so even after the show comes down the pictures are there to peruse on request.
A: How can people outside of the LA area purchase the book that was put together for the show? And can you explain what exactly this book is? I received my copy the other day, by the way, and it’s amazing.
SS: Thanks, it’s really nice to hear that from you. I never finished, but will someday, a memoir about the years photographing the prostitutes. Stories not just about my encounters but also how I was trying, at that time, to also be a good father to you and how I’d been running wild all my life. And the part I haven’t written yet about how my body turned against me and suddenly I could no longer run wild because I could barely walk.
So, anyway, I always wanted to use the photos in the book and because I couldn’t incorporate all the pictures into the stories, I began writing very short, like one line to one page, stories. When John (John Matkowsky, owner the DRKRM) started putting the show together, he found that my literary vignettes worked well with the photos and we decided to put them on the wall next to the photos. And that led to my spending a few nights writing more of these short-short stories and pairing them with the photos and after a while we discovered we had a book. The hardcover, LOWLIFE, Photos and Literary Vignettes, 120 pages, includes a lot of photos and vignettes that were not in the show. I’m pretty happy with it. To order, one can call the DRKRM 323-223-6867, or email the DRKRM firstname.lastname@example.org. Or the books can be ordered directly from the publisher, Blurb, at www.blurb.com.
A: What are you currently working on?
SS: I thought I’d try a series of conceptual pictures, and so far I’m having a good time of it. This is also the first serious digital series that I’ve done and I don’t see myself ever going back to film. I’m glad I learned with film, and in fact learned with medium and large-format cameras. I was taught to approach photography with a discipline, make the shot count, do it quickly, but compose, expose, focus, leave nothing to chance. Making photographs is far superior to taking photographs.
So I guess I still haven’t really explained my new work. Basically, I’m grabbing strangers and making impromptu portraits with an all-American look. Then I’m taking these images and draining the color from these happy melting-pot faces. It is very cynical but also very striking. I’ll probably start posting some of these online in the next month or so.
A: Can you think of any other questions you’d like to be asked?
SS: Other than fine art is there anything I’d like to do with my photography?
I’d like to do portraits of writers for their book flaps. That would be my ideal job, say once a month. I could see myself doing that for the next twenty years.
Do I worry that I’ll only be remembered as a lowlife whore hound?
To read more of Austin’s writings, usually about movies, visit his website at http://wolfsothern.blogspot.com/.