JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against grey and white walls in the back gallery space. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made in the late 1980s. The prints are each sized roughly 3×5 and are unique. A monograph of this body of work was published in 2011 by Stanley Barker and a digital version was released in 2013 by Powerhouse. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: As unlikely as it may sound, and almost since the very beginning of the medium, prostitution has been a surprisingly fertile subject for photographic exploration. Eugene Atget, Brassaï, and EJ Bellocq all made memorable early images of prostitutes and brothels, alternately capturing them with professional reserve and playful intimacy. Mary Ellen Mark thoughtfully documented the sweaty colors of the poverty stricken sex trade in the slums of Bombay, while Philip-Lorca diCorcia theatrically staged his male hustlers in hotel rooms and on the nighttime streets of LA. More recently, Malerie Marder, Jane Hilton, and Tobias Zielony have all gotten in even closer, reconsidering the unthinking stereotypes that are usually applied to sex workers. And if we allow ourselves to expand our prostitution definition to include the adjacent lives of strippers, dancers, transvestites, and other erotic entertainers, this artistic genre expands exponentially, with even more insightful and durably important photographic perspectives coming from various geographies and time periods.
But none of this informed background really prepares us for the unflinching rawness of Scot Sothern’s photographs of late 1980s Southern California street hookers. At first glance, his black and white images look like the lurid visual trophies of a voyeuristic male customer – snapshots of naked women of all shapes and sizes, posed on motel beds, in crash pads and flop houses, in back alleys, under freeway overpasses, all getting paid a few bucks for a few reluctant pics and whatever came next. Like notches on a belt, they seem to reek of the worst kind of exploitation, using money as a lever against down on their luck women, where poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, abuse, and AIDS all linger grimly in the background.
But a closer look at the images and a careful examination of Sothern’s remarkably unvarnished captions gives these photographs an alternate reading. Each picture is accompanied by a short vignette, a paragraph or two that captures the essence of the fleeting encounter between Sothern and his subject, and it’s in these confessional stories that we find a surprising sense of shared vulnerability. While the incidents and details are often graphic and harsh, it’s clear that Sothern has seen these cheap sex transactions with openness and honesty – he’s an involved participant rather than an arm’s length anthropological cataloger, and his tales are full of small connections and hidden tenderness amid the heaviness of the late night squalor. Along the way, he encounters a rich taxonomy of emotions – a constant fear of being beaten, plenty of bottle weary resignation, a few perfunctory wiggling dances, and a pervasive lack of romance. His voice is darkly self-aware, but he consistently sees the plight of his parade of paid companions with authentic dignity and decency.
Photographically, Sothern’s flash lit pictures are remarkably well composed, given the circumstances. A white mask echoes a checkerboard floor, a black one visually interlocks with an abstract painting on the wall, and an unlikely litter of kittens crawls over an ample thigh. A dreary encounter near a dumpster includes a nearby END sign as a linguistic symbol of the reality of the situation, while another uses the graffiti covered walls of a low ceilinged tunnel as an encroaching sign of just how far he and his hired date have fallen. He captures the dead look in many eyes, as well as the cowering fear, the bored resignation, and the fogged out addiction; the few smiles feel going-through-the-motions forced and neither side is particularly enchanted. In fact, the whole endeavor is remarkably unsexy.
In the end, Sothern’s photographs are full of blunt dissonance, and it’s that vitality, however grisly or sad it may be, that makes these pictures stand out. Given the power imbalance of these sex/photo transactions, it’s hard to imagine that Sothern could be at all sympathetic or that I could come away feeling empathy for both sides, but he was and I did, at least partially. These pictures are full of ugly reality to be sure, but Sothern has somehow made them quietly magnetic. There is no idealism here, just the unadorned dead end meetings of folks struggling on the margins, and that frankness is unexpectedly powerful.
Collector’s POV: The vintage prints in this show are priced at $3000 each. Modern prints of the same images are available in editions of 3 for $1500 each. Sothern’s work has not yet reached the secondary markets, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.