A photographer known for his documentary work, Scot Sothern is represented by drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles. Sothern has published the memoir Curb Service, two photobooks of LA prostitutes, Lowlife and A New Low, and his most recent, Sad City, which encounters homelessness and addiction. His forthcoming book, Streetwalkers, is a 2016 retrospective of his prostitute photography with an accompanying show at LA’s Little Big Man Gallery.
A 2016 photobook by Scot Sothern, Streetwalkers explores decades of the prostitutes he met on Los Angeles’ streets. Accompanying the photos are short stories and vignettes by Sothern, both personal and fictional in nature, which reveal the interior narrative of the images.
Scot Sothern has been developing his photographic niche since the ’70s, when he began documenting fringe populations on the streets of America. Yet his work was only recently recognized in the art world after his first solo show, Lowlife, was held at Los Angeles-based drkrm Gallery in 2010. Sothern’s striking narrative portraits are distinguished by his interest in unglamorous outcasts, especially LA’s homeless population, drug users and prostitutes. His upcoming book and exhibition, Streetwalkers, will encapsulate 30 years of prostitute photography, compiling new and old images with accompanying short stories from Sothern’s Vice column “Nocturnal Submissions.”
Where are you from?
I grew up in Springfield, Missouri, in the 1950s and ’60s. I left shortly after high school and headed for Southern California looking for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve moved around a bit since then, but Los Angeles is home and where I have spent most of my life.
When did you start making art?
My father had a portrait and wedding photography studio so I was in the darkroom and behind a camera at an early age. Photography for me, at that time, was merely bread and butter and had little to do with art. I was groomed to take over the family business and, while that never happened, photography just felt like the only thing I knew how to do. I always wanted to be a writer and artist, but couldn’t draw or spell, so I figured it was pointless to try. In my late teens, I started painting and drawing on black and white photos thinking maybe I could be Andy Warhol, but I was encouraged to get my head out of the clouds. It wasn’t until later in my mid-twenties that I discovered I could do whatever the fuck I wanted to do in photography and call it art. After that, photography as art trumped all other photography for me, including making a living.
Who influenced you growing up and who influences you today?
All my early influences came from literature. I always loved reading, mostly fiction, and it was the unconventional writers who I liked most. In high school, I liked Max Shulman, who wrote outrageous and sometimes silly satire. I was also big on Mad Magazine and, from that, graduated to the beatniks and guys like Terry Southern, J.P. Donleavy, Anthony Burgess and Jerzy Kosínski. In my twenties I idolized photographers Edward Steichen and Arnold Newman. I really liked Charles Gatewood for his edgy photographs.
How would you describe your style?
I’ve never wanted to have a style that defines me, and I’ve made efforts to do different projects from other angles. Too many creative types find something that works and then stay with it forever. If it sells once then you can sell it over and over again. That said, there are certain things I do that you will see in most of my work. I’m big on improvised moments and never really sketch or plan photographs ahead. I like strong left-to-right compositions and almost always shoot horizontally. I love working with a lot of lights and making low-key dramatic portraits, but most of what I do is with hard sunlight or a single flash. Most of my images come with quick stories that may or may not directly relate one to the other. I guess that is a style. I can’t imagine I’ll ever do a book of photographs without including stories, or a book of stories without pictures.
What’s your story of getting started as an artist?
Getting started as an artist and making any headway or getting noticed as an artist are very different. I’ve been building a portfolio of art since the ‘70s. I just did it because it was the life I thought I had to live. I never had a choice. Of course, I always wanted some recognition, but I was going to do what I did with or without it. Getting noticed as an artist came late to me.
“I discovered I could do whatever the fuck I
wanted to do in photography and call it art.
After that, photography as art trumped all else,
including making a living.”
— Scot Sothern
How does it feel to have accomplished this body of work? What was the process like?
I went from the early ’70s up through the first decade of the new century with all my work getting rejected over and over again. Then in 2010, John Matkowsky at the drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles put up a solo show of my Lowlife pictures and my life changed. Now all my rejected work going back 40 years is coming to the forefront with books and exhibits, and my new work is getting notice as well. I’m grateful and thrilled to have all this new success, but it’s still a bit irritating that I had to wait until I was 60 fucking years old.
What’s your favorite book, film and music right now?
I recently read a novel I liked a lot, All Involved by Ryan Gattis, about the Los Angeles Rodney King riots in 1992. I think it’s a well-timed book and great read. The police have been shooting people on a daily basis. Nothing has changed and the protests and riots seem to fizzle away without fixing anything. Nothing in film at the moment hits me, though there are some great things on television, first and foremost The Leftovers and Fargo. Photographer Roger Ballen has a new book out [with Didi Bozzini] from Oodee Press, The House Project, which is amazing. He has also been directing music videos for Die Antwoord. I really love the video “I Fink U Freeky.” I like the music as well.
What are your interests and passions outside of your art?
I collect signed, first-edition fiction.
How do you feel about the rising creative scene in LA?
It’s hard to think of a Los Angeles art scene in a singular context. The most talented people from all over the world come to Los Angeles to ply their arty trades. That’s a lot of talent and culture and multiple scenes. I like Downtown LA. I don’t go to all that many openings or hang out with the scenesters, but it’s great to know urban LA’s energetic art scene is growing. Downtown Skid Row, however, isn’t a place anyone wants to call home, and I hope the rising creative scene will help rather than banish the homeless.
What’s next for you?
I have a limited edition book, Sad City, of pictures and quick stories with Straylight Press, and we’re taking orders. A show at Little Big Man Gallery and a book in February, Streetwalkers, from powerHouse with pictures and quick stories. I have stuff I’m stirring around, but nothing I’m obsessed with yet. I’m working on a book of images from the ’70s called Family Tree.
Every so often I go to Hollywood Boulevard with a disposable camera. I sit on a tipped-over bucket and yell at tourists and take reaction pictures. I’m having a good time doing pretty much what I always wanted to do.