Tabitha Soren, Surface Tension

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by RVB Books (here). Hardcover (22.4 x 34 cm), 64 pages, with 41 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Jia Tolentino and a list of thumbnails. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The images from Surface Tension were on view as a museum exhibit at the Transformer Station (in Cleveland, in 2019, here) and at the Mills College Art Museum (in Oakland, 2021, here), among other venues.

Comments/Context: One of the many unexpected transformations that has come along with the digital age of photography has been the physical redefinition of how we interact with photographs. It used to be the case that when we came across photographs in our lives, they were typically prints behind glass in museums or galleries, snapshots in family albums, or reproductions in newspapers or magazines – and in each case, they were generally paper. We now routinely interact with photographs as energized bits behind glass, particularly on our computer screens and smartphones, where our fingers navigate through the flood of available images via touchscreens and scrolling software interfaces.

The larger psychological implications of touching and manipulating imagery in this way aren’t entirely understood just yet – we’re still adapting to interacting with photographs at our fingertips. And while the gestures of these exchanges may seem ephemeral or invisible, they’re not – and this is where Tabitha Soren’s photobook Surface Tension finds its bite. Soren’s photographs were made using a large-format camera pointed at the surface of her iPad, where raking light reveals the detailed residues left by her fingers touching the glass. Each composition in the photobook combines these fingerprints and smudge marks with the imagery she was looking at, collapsing the two layers (underlying digital image and screen surface) into one composite moment of action and reaction.

Close observation of Soren’s interactions offers us not only a physical taxonomy of current user interface methods, but also the hints of an emotional landscape that matches the subject matter of the underlying imagery. We see her tapping (repeatedly), leaving the whorls of her fingerprints in layered piles. She swipes left and right, pinches to enlarge or reduce, pulls images around the screen, and then swipes up or across to move on to the next; if she showed us her login screen (which she doesn’t), the patterns of her fingerprints would undoubtedly reveal her password. Unlike annotations made with a pen or pencil, these marks feel fluid and expressive rather than precise, and often they feel urgent or even frantic, like representations of her level of engagement with the imagery. In many cases, the movement of the marks seems to imply repeated reframing, as if she was tunneling into particular zones in the pictures, looking and enlarging, looking and enlarging, looking and enlarging with obsessive intent.

Soren isn’t the first artist to think about this kind of physical touch as applied to photographs. Laurel Nakadate inked the fingertips of those who touched her snapshots, tracing their compulsive attentions; Thomas Barrow canceled his photographs with brash X marks across the surface; and Allen Ginsberg (and many others) asked portrait subjects to write their stories on his prints in their own handwriting. More recently, both Meggan Gould and Michaela Putz have thought about the surfaces of our digital devices, and the semi-abstract marks that are left behind as we use them.

What’s different about Soren’s approach is that she’s not only mapped the physical touches, but she’s merged them with the underlying imagery in ways that amplify the already charged content of the pictures. Surface Tension starts out with a string of images from the recent California wildfires. The progression of large glossy page turns (where the reader’s own fingerprints add to the artist’s) mimics the digital flow of looking at one image in a news report on her iPad, and then another, and then searching for more, and falling down the rabbit hole of more and more imagery of the same subject. All of the images Soren has found/appropriated were taken at night, so the colors of the fires seethe with unstable intensity, turning trees into dark silhouettes and splashing burning embers into the smoky orange skies. Her greasy finger marks seem to get increasingly active, swirling and scrubbing, adding smeared and distorted effects to the backlit pictures, her physical expressiveness echoing the chaos and unpredictability of the fires themselves.

When her attention wanes, Soren shifts to images of various riots and protests, in particular tracking the events in Kenosha, Wisconsin, but then jumping to other Black Lives Matter and police shooting marches. Again, she seems to intently follow stories, the scenes filled with flares of red, white, and blue lights from police cars, smoke from tear gas, and ominous helmeted lines of riot police poised to control (or disperse) the crowds. In these images, Soren’s finger marks seem to imply tension, anxiety, and frustration, with insistent taps that dot the darkness and wide sweeps that seem to want to erase the conflict.

About a third of the way through Surface Tension, Soren’s subject matter focus breaks down, and she settles into a random jumping from image to image that resembles doomscrolling. The wildfires and BLM protests appear repeatedly, bouncing from one location to the next in quick succession. Along the way, other images of menacing tornadoes, angry Trump mobs, and various police actions are interspersed, creating a manic jumping effect, where one idea compulsively leads to another with an increasing sense of deepening gloom and desperation. This intensity is broken up (and to some extent released) by surface markings that turn toward obscuring abstraction, with sweeps of purple like brushstrokes, green fingerprints that dance through clouds of smoke, red touches that decorate orange flames, and enlarged areas that dissolve into sparkling dots of colored light. As she skips across the imagery, Soren is both a visual witness and a mediated participant, her expressive physical touches offering evidence of her desire to wrestle with these charged situations.

As a photobook object, Surface Tension is thoughtfully executed, with design and construction decisions well-matched to its content. It’s a bigger than normal photobook, which encourages the viewer to dive into the expansiveness of its larger-than-iPad sized imagery, and the glossy paper stock successfully replicates the experience of seeing the images on screen. With only small black borders surrounding the pictures, the photographs feel appropriately enveloping, and the colors and finger marks pop with a feverish intensity.

While the fundamental artistic idea that lies behind Surface Tension is relatively small, it proves to be more intriguing and open ended than we might have guessed. Soren has shown us evidence of an emerging aesthetic, the oily residue of our engagement with our devices creating yet another filter though which we can see the world. Surface Tension offers us a photographic environment that is obliquely participatory, where our personal actions are layered atop more global concerns. It’s asking us to consider not just what we see, but how we respond to that visual stimuli, and it feels like there is more to this than just iPads and messy fingerprints – it’s the possibilities of interaction maps, the distracted scatterjumps from image to image, and the psychologies of attention that might just provide the next steps along this unexpected aesthetic journey.

Collector’s POV: Tabitha Soren is represented by RiseArt in London (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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