It’s 1978 and I’m renting a clapboard dump high on a Silver Lake hill looking out toward Hollywood. The guy next door, on the other side of the wall, tells me he used to be a Black Panther and he did time for murder and he steals cars for a living. I ask him if he can get me a car in the $200 price range and he tells me he’ll keep an eye out. He lives with his sister who is a whore and totally blind. I ask her if she’s ever accidentally climbed into a cop’s car but she doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. Late one quiet Friday night, I’m reading and have the door open when the sister next door starts screaming. It’s not my business but it continues for a while so I go next door and knock. The Black Panther opens the door and apologizes for the noise. His sister is on the floor in the middle of the room pulling her hair and beating on her head and screaming. I ask him if she’s alright and he says she will be in a little while. I go back to my place and open a beer and a little while later she stops screaming.
— Scot Sothern
WHAT A PHOTOGRAPH MIGHT MEAN
A conversation between a photographer and a publisher about drive-by shooting
I run a small photobook publishing company called STRAYLIGHT Press. Our latest publication is SAD CITY, by Scot Sothern.
SAD CITY is a collection of photographs that Sothern tore from the streets of Los Angeles as he rode shotgun in a car. They’re drive-bys.
The photos are accompanied by Sothern’s stories, riffs, references and memories.
In producing the book, we wanted to use the images as jumping-off points. We wanted to think about what a photo might do. What it might mean.
The people in the pictures are no one Scot knows, nevertheless they speak volumes to him. Is it their voice or one imposed? Does it matter when photography and truth have been torn asunder?
The people in SAD CITY are food for Sothern’s wandering thoughts; they are fodder for this conversation in which we consider what a photograph might mean, what it might trigger and if it is ever really tethered to a time and place.
The passages in italics throughout belong to Sothern. The rest of the text is our back-and-forth.
Tony Fouhse (TF): Why photograph people from the passenger seat of a car?
Scot Sothern (SC): I was looking for the easiest way to put a series of images together and still retain a hard edge. What could be easier than sitting shotgun with an open window and a camera while somebody else takes direction at the wheel? All I’ve got to do is aim and shoot. It’s a great way to take in Los Angeles. Initially we were calling it Drive-By Shooting.
I also wanted to do something different than the LOWLIFE pictures. You know, photographing unfortunate naked women in black and white isn’t as much fun as it sounds. I love flash guns and SoCal sunlight so I wanted to do color. I choose and composed quickly and I zeroed-in on people and scenery and drama like little single-frame movies.
Funaki’s at the wheel of his pickup and I’m sitting shotgun taking pictures as we cruise the boulevards. We are grown men with families; I’m in my sixties and happily married; Funaki and his bride just had their first baby.
At 2am the clubs let out, and the girls are so sexy my dick hurts. The chick in the white tank top yells at me, “Who the fuck are you? I didn’t say take my picture, Grandpa!” The chick at the end gives me hubba-hubba poses and I thank her from the bottom of my heart.
TF: The photoworld, these days, is awash with comments and opinion about how photographing “The Other” is a slippery slope, one to be tackled with caution and tact. These images seem to fly in the face of that.
SC: In the 1890s a guy named Jacob Riis photographed the slums of New York and published a book, How the Other Half Lives. Riis was far from politically correct and by most accounts he was a racist. He caught a lot of shit from critics for interfering with the lives of others to promote his own objectives, which were nevertheless well intentioned. Ultimately, Riis did a good thing and helped to change the fucked up conditions in the slums. Life nowadays in Skid Row isn’t as bad as it was a hundred and twenty-five years ago but no one talks about the other half anymore, that’s been changed to the one-percent.
I’m 9-years-old crawling on a clay floor through a cave passage not much wider than my head. I hate being skinny and small but here in this Missouri cave I can go places no one else can fit. I come into a closet-sized room where I can stand, with head bowed, and no one but me has ever been here and I feel safe. I turn off the flashlight and I yell into the passageway, “Hey, all you fuckers, come see if you can find me!”
I’m 50-years-old and I’m on my back and a technician pushes a button and the MRI whirs and slides me head first into the tube. My arms are to my sides like a wooden soldier and no more than six inches is above me. I feel like I’m in a coffin. I close my eyes as tightly as my fists and an intercom voice asks, “Are you all right Scot? This first one is about 6-minutes and I need you to stay still.”
SC: I guess I could justify what I do by saying I’m photographing people who don’t necessarily want to be photographed to show the world how dysfunctional and needy America is, but that’s kind of a stretch. Maybe I should show a little more caution and tact? And, of course, I should respect boundaries but at the same time, fuck that, I came of age in the sixties and grew up with a healthy disrespect for pretty much everything. That’s what my work is about.
While the pictures and stories might further my own objectives I think my objectives are empathetic to the suffering that surrounds us.
TF: It’s tricky, isn’t it? I’ve often wondered why photographs, as opposed to, say, songs, don’t ever really compel me to drive fast, get angry, punch someone. I’m sure it has to do with the coldness and, weirdly, the remove of the medium. But I have to agree, we all need our feathers ruffled from time to time and sometimes a certain disrespect for convention is what it takes.
But on another note … for me, these images combined with the stories are about another thing other than the time, place and people pictured. SAD CITY is also about how we look at photographs, how they make us spin stories and think back.
Was this intentional?
SC: I don’t know that it was. On a personal level it was more about how my memory and my imagination travels from time and place. I just kind of wrote the stories that the images set off in my head without a lot of thought to the process.
Images can be a starting point to a range of emotions and memories, just as music can stir both your internal conversation and your visceral reaction. The facts of the image are not necessarily taken as a literal translation. It’s more about the mood and the vicissitudes the picture evokes.
A sad movie can make you cry about a distinct, emotionally connected memory; a pornographic picture can give you a boner that transports you to a long-ago sexual encounter. A good photograph takes you beyond the moment of exposure.