Interview by Ward Robinson
Scot Sothern has taken photos professionally since his early high school days in Missouri. He hated Missouri. As soon as he could, Scot ran off to Los Angeles to fuck hippie girls, shoot photos, and take drugs. Not necessarily in that order. Since the 70s he has plied his trade across the world, working as a fraudulent portrait studio owner, a door to door child portraitist, a shooter of Saudi mechanic manuals. Scot always comes back to the city he loves the best, LA.
Scot made 40 years worth of personal work before anyone gave him any attention. In 2010 DRKRM Gallery hung his show titled Lowlifes. Since then he has had books published by PowerHouse Books, Soft Skull Press, and Stanley Barker. Scot is best known for a personal project he has been working on since the 80s, shooting photos of street prostitutes in Los Angeles.
At first glance, Scot's personal work fucks you up. Bold, front-lit images describe in uncompromising detail age wrinkles, body parts, destitution, and a lack of better options. They leave no room to hide anything; they feel prurient. But, after you read the stories that he attaches to the photos, a great feeling and empathy are revealed. Scot leads with his own shortcomings. He comes from a place of embracing people at their most unwanted. In Scot's hands, a camera doesn't exploit the vulnerable, it humanizes the shunned and unlucky. He has called himself the patron saint of whores. One day St. Scot will grace a pendant, radiating good juju to all the pussy and dick for sale out there on the street.
Scot has been working on his writing since 1990. He has just published his first novel called 'Big City' on Stalking Horse Press. Get it here
Our interview took place at the House of Pies, Los Feliz CA. Scot had the coconut cream.
Scot Sothern: There’s a lot going on in Los Angeles. I love it here. I came out here first in 1967 right out of high school. I moved around a lot after that but I always came back here, it is home. Even as a kid, my family used to vacation out here because my father was from Long Beach. Something about Southern California, I wanted to live here. I came from Missouri, it was fucked. I remember coming to the Sunset Strip for the first time in 67. It was all hippies, all these chicks everywhere. The Velvet Underground was at the Whiskey, I thought I was in heaven. I never lost that feeling.
Animals: Your dad was a photographer?
Scot Sothern: Yeah. He had a portrait studio. Springfield Missouri, from the 50s until 10 years ago. It was portraits, weddings, baby pictures. I as groomed to take over the business, so I knew photography pretty well by the time I left home. Because I didn’t know how to do anything else, I made my living as an itinerant photographer.
A: You had a portable studio? How does that work, was it like a camper?
SS: No, I had a Karmann Ghia. The passenger side door didn’t work because I had the background on the outside. And I had a case in the back seat with a couple of strobes, a power pack, umbrellas, stands, and a tripod. There was a while in the late 60s where I could go into the neighborhoods and drive around. If I saw toys in the front yard, I’d go to the door and knock with sample pictures. I’d say, “I can photograph your kids for free, and if you like any of the pictures you can buy them.”
I’d go into their house and set up a background, shoot the kids, and I’d go home and develop the and make the prints and sell them. I’d sell an 8x10 for a buck fifty.
When I was still in Missouri and I was 15, I had a girlfriend who was 16 and could drive. I’d go around and photograph little league baseball teams. When I was 16 I worked in a cave in Missouri, it was called Fantastic Caverns. Tourists came from all over to the Ozarks. They had a Jeep pull them part way through the cave on a wagon, and they had to walk the rest of the way out. I had flash bulbs set up just inside the mouth of the cave, and a 4x5 speedgraphic camera. I’d say something stupid to get them all to look and I’d take a group shot. I had a darkroom in the cave so Id deveop the film quickly, and throw the wet negative on an enlarger, and make 5x7 prints that I put into a folder. I’d sell the prints for a buck a piece, and I had to pay them a quarter a picture to let me do it. That was one of my first real jobs. I did a lot of stuff like that forever.
"It was an illustrious career of stupid photography, but I made a living."
A: You were a little photo troll, living in a cave.
SS: Yep. Then I travelled all over, setting up backgrounds in churches. I’d photograph all the members in the church, portraits. It was for a company, and they’d come along a week or so behind me with proofs. And they’d sell the portraits to the people. They weren’t good, they were blue background. I did student pictures too, Hollywood High, Fairfax High. It was an illustrious career of stupid photography, but I made a living.
A: Have you had other jobs, or have you always done photography?
SS: Always photography. I had a studio in Florida, which was another story. I ended up leaving Florida in the middle of the night, it was one of those things.
A: What decade was that?
SS: 70s. I went into Tallahassee with my first wife and started hustling wedding work. I ended up working for a guy who had a space in a department store. There was a local photographer who had done very well, had worked for Life Magazine at one point. He had these wonderful gigantic black and white prints of families. Intricately lit, just beautiful. A lot like Yousuf Karsh photos. Anyway he died. He had had this huge studio in the basement of a different mall. I mean it was huge. It had a big reception area, just really big.
A friend of mine, I never did know how, managed to get the keys to the place after the guy died. We moved in. We lost most of the gear, but mainly it was the space, and two big darkrooms. The first day we were there the manager of the mall came in and asked us what we were doing there. We told him it was all set up with the central office, not having any idea what the central office was. We were there for two years without paying rent. I learned quickly to duplicate this guy’s style. At one point I photographed the governor.
"I spent four years without my own place, bumming around and trying to be a single father at the same time."
A: How did that end?
SS: My partner was crazier than I was. He was the con man, I was the talent. The mall manager walks in with a group of people. They said, “It’s come to our attention that you’ve never paid rent.” My partner joe says, “Well no shit, you think we could afford a place like this?”
They gave us a week, and we took it.
A: They didn’t try to collect money from you?
SS: We didn’t have anything. And by that time we both had creditors trying to collect money from us for any number of things. We had a studio Mercedes, and a van…I skipped out and came here.
A: Are you still in touch with Joe?
SS: I had two good friends named Joe Smith and they both died. One in high school climbed a telephone pole, and grabbed a hot wire. The Florida Joe as gay, and very promiscuous, and we were going from the 70s into the 80s, and he got the plague and died like so many did.
A: That was such a frightening time. In this period you were working as a portrait photographer?
SS: My father had taught me the craft. His pictures were good for what he did. They were nicely lit, the kids were smiling. My father taught me how to make a flattering likeness. Then I began noticing work by guys like Arnold Newman. I realized as a portrait photographer I could get something else out of these people. Rather than a flattering likeness, I could get a true likeness of who this person is, or at least who I project this person to be. Of course as soon as I started getting good as a photographer, I stopped making a very good living. As a hack, I made a good living. Nobody wants to buy an unflattering picture of themselves.
A: When was this?
SS: In the 70s. After Florida I came back out here, and bounced around for a while. I started photographing the hookers in the 80s. Also I got a gig overseas in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years.
"Specifically, it was forbidden to take pictures of the Bedouin women. So I went and bought more film."
A: Tell me about that. That’s when you were photographing the Bedouins?
SS: Yeah. Aramco Oil hired me, they were the combination of Conoco and Arab together. Aramco controlled the oil, which was all Saudi Arabia was at that time. I haven’t been back, but it is very different now from what I gather. There were towns that were nothing more than a couple of oil rigs. Highways where, for directions, people would say, “You turn at the red car,” or, “You turn at the bloated camel.” I went there to make slide-tape training programs of the work that Aramco was doing on offshore oil rigs, and gas and oil separation plants. What I was paid to do, I would photograph workers with a script. I would photograph a worker with a wrench, and put an arrow on the slide that said, “Turn wrench this way.”
In Saudi Arabia, when they discovered oil, they consequently ended up with a lot of money. Unlike us at the time, who were tinkering with things like radios and cars, here were a lot of people who grew up without any of that, and all of a sudden had a lot of that. So Americans and Brits came in to work on things for them. My job essentially was to make Americans and Brits not have jobs anymore, by showing the Saudis how to do things themselves. They did a pretty good job of moving the Americans and Brits out.
Before I went, we had a thing in Chicago where I spent a few days getting ready to go. Aramco told us what we had to do and what we couldn’t do. It was such a different society. One of the things they told us was we couldn’t take pictures of the people, and especially the Bedouins. Specifically, it was forbidden to take pictures of the Bedouin women. So I went and bought more film. We only had one day a week off, and on those days I would drive out to Bedouin country, and photograph the Bedouin women. It was fun. I lived in a camp of 3000 men, maybe 1000 of us were Americans. The rest were Koreans, Filipinos, and Indians, they were in the same camp but it was segregated. Somebody in their section was passing around a blow up doll, and they all got the clap from the blow up doll.
A: It sounds like you’ve always found a way to do your own work on the side of more professional work?
SS: Pretty much. In the 80s when I was shooting the hookers I was making my living, such as it was, as a camera operator. I spent four years without my own place, bumming around and trying to be a single father at the same time. That’s not easy. Mostly I stayed with a friend in Santa Monica. Even as a kid, I had an extreme rebelliousness. I still am raising my fist. In high school I would get thrown in jail for any number of things. I could have taken over my dad’s studio, he made a good living. I had it easy. But the idea of photographing babies and weddings for the rest of my life seemed insane. What would you rather do? Photograph weddings and babies, or go to Los Angeles, and fuck hippie girls, and take drugs? Gee, I wonder what I’m gonna do.
A: Your personal work has a much more straightforward lighting. In a post-Jurgen and Terry world, that lighting is in vogue, but it looks like you were up to that in the 70s. I’m curious, was that because of circumstance or was it your aesthetic choice?
SS: It turned out to be the best way to shoot ‘em. I always thought that if I were to teach photography, I would teach lighting. But then when I started shooting the series that first got me noticed, it was strobe on camera. It also seemed appropriate for what I was photographing, the old ‘Public Eye’ style.
A: Totally. Weegee.
SS: Yeah. Oddly enough, I’ve never gotten back to that kind of portrait thing. I have a friend here in town named Michael Tighe. He is the best portrait photographer I’ve ever known. He did workshops in high school with Arnold Newman. He was shooting portraits in high school of celebrities in New York. He does that same style that I was doing back then as well, the difference was he was doing it with celebrities and I was doing it with babies.
"I’m not smarter, it’s not about what you’re born into. It’s about you’re lucky or you’re not. I want to be a guy that has no secrets. If I’m writing about fucked up people, well I’m one of them."
A: Because the subject matter is already raw, if you got back to the travelling portrait studio and did some elaborately lit pictures of people in that distressed state, that could be interesting.
SS: There is a project I am working on now where each picture is unique. A show I was in at Knowave Gallery recently, I showed a picture of a crack whore, just head and shoulders. I put it in an old-fashioned ornate frame with bubble glass so I could put things inside of it. I put a row of rotten teeth in it, a package of crystal meth that I bought downtown. I’ve been a photographer for so long, I am interested in doing more with the pictures. Also, in the art world, it is hard to sell a picture when people think you can just go and make more of them. So that’s something I am doing. Another thins I am doing, I have a portrait my dad took of a girl maybe 6 years old, a sleepy-time, dreamy picture. A pedophile’s dream. I put that into the picture, and I put one of mine in kind of the same mode in there. I am trying to take some of the stuff my father did back then, and bring it into the now with some of the things that I am shooting. It’s fun.
Also, I’m trying to finish photographing hookers as much as possible. I’m tired of it, and I’m getting old. I was in my 30s when I started and I turned 68 a couple months ago. I’m also trying to spend a lot more time writing.
A: The writing goes a long way to illuminating the photo. What’s the process of finding the words for those photos?
SS: A lot of it is memory, but at the same time my memory isn’t for shit. I can remember stories most of the time, I can remember what happened when I took the picture. I have lots of pictures I can look at and I have no idea…I can’t tell you who they were, where they were, I just know they are in my files, and it look slike my work. I can almost always remember the mood and the feeling and occasionally some of the dialogue. Most of the time the stories are what I think happened. They’re true to the extent that it’s how I remember it, but if someone were to fact check it, it’s only part of it. Most of them are written from a mood or a feeling. I’m glad I’ve done it, people seem to like it. It was a long time before I could get anyone to even look at the work. It’s been less than 10 years that I’ve had the work out in public at all.
I’m reworking a novel right now. I published my first novel three months ago. I always wanted to be a writer. I’ve always been a photographer, but I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It took a while, and I had to teach myself. I graduated from high school in the bottom 1% and never went back to school. I’m an autodidact as a writer.
A: One of the most interesting parts of your writing to me, is how you lead with your flaws. Even if the story doesn’t have to do with you, you find a way to insert your shortcomings. It humanizes the situation.
SS: If I am trying to humanize the women on the street, I have to do the same with myself to make it acceptable or believable. I never wanted to look down on these people, they are there by misfortune, that’s all. I am luckier than them. I’m not smarter, it’s not about what you’re born into. It’s about you’re lucky or you’re not. I want to be a guy that has no secrets. If I’m writing about fucked up people, well I’m one of them. I should put my own fuckedupness in there as well. People don’t do that often enough, men especially. Perfect example. In the last 10 years or so since I’ve gotten noticed, I’ve met any number of women who used to work in the sex trade, as call girls or street girls, dominatrix. I’ve met any number of women, and some men, who tell me they used to prostitute themselves. And I’m one of them. I met this guy a while ago who talked to me about going in the 80s to 42nd street in New York and going to the peep shows, which I did too. He is the first man I’ve ever met who admitted to going to a prostitute. I’m not the only guy who has had sex with a prostitute. Guys will say, “I don’t have to pay for it.” That doesn’t have anything to do with it.
A: I’ve always been drawn to that kind of life. Growing up in San Francisco, there was an area called The Tenderloin. Up through the 80s, and especially when Willie Brown was the mayor, those strip clubs were all whorehouses, there was a block in the Tenderloin where in the middle of the day on a Wednesday afternoon, there would be hookers everywhere. They would walk right into the street. Dudes would be driving around in circles around the block, shopping. There were guys in full, cartoon, zoot suit pimp outfits. Primary color, matching three piece and trench coat with the wide brimmed hat and a zebra hat band. I would go and sit down there and watch them, when I was 18, 19, every now and then I would get a hooker. It was fascinating to me.
SS: It is fascinating.
A: It confused the shit out of me that other people weren’t drawn to that as well. When I was a kid in the 80s and we would go to New York, everyone would go to sleep and I would leave the hotel and walk to Times Square until four O’clock in the morning.
SS: Other people are fascinated by it, we aren’t the only ones. There is this ‘Macho American Guy’ thing, where a lot of guys won’t admit it because they feel ashamed of it, whereas, the women who have worked in the industry don’t mind telling people at all. It’s a man thing, men are fucked up. Of course, in this day and age, middle aged white guys are especially fucked up.
A: Well the pendulum has swung the other way finally, and it’s time for us to take it up the ass. People don’t want to acknowledge that. They can’t contextualize that it’s just their turn.
A: Shifting gears a little. You’ve been drawn to grittiness and the dark and hidden from the gate. Los Angeles, especially from the outside, is seen as a place full of assholes who scrub themselves clean in order to try to squeak through the door of movie fame. Is there a correlation between that sort of falsehood about LA and your decision to turn your lens on the city’s unlucky?
SS: The tour busses don’t go down to skid row. Though, there was a guy doing it. He was having people sign a waiver and doing a bus tour down through South Central. He was an ex-con, I thought it was cool. I have joked about taking people with me on a tour. The Scot Sothern 4am skid row tour. Sometimes people do come with me. Just last week I took a young woman photographer with me. She is 29 and I think she is talented. I asked her to come along with me. This is kind of off the subject, but we’ll get back to it. I’ve always been a lousy fighter, but I have a lot of endurance. Last year I did something you should never do, which has been my rule for always, which is getting high and going out and taking pictures. I was chomping an Oxycontin and going out and taking pictures. Ended up getting robbed, because I was being kind of stupid. Then about a month ago, I had a disagreement with a trans hooker downtown. She wanted more money, she wanted to get all my money actually. I had my window down because I had been talking to her through the window. I tried to take her picture but she wouldn’t let me even though I had given her twenty bucks and then another ten bucks. She still wouldn’t cooperate so I said fuck this thanks anyway and got into y car. As I got ready to rive off she hit me with pepper spray, with a lot of pepper spray. I wasn’t gonna stay around there so I drove a few blocks away. I had water in my car so I dumped the water, which just kind of spread it everywhere. Haha. Anyway I rolled down the window and turned on the AC and drove home. My wife checked out pepper spray on the web at two o’clock in the morning and we were pouring milk all over my head. But the fact is I’m 68 years old, I’m no longer in the shape I was in. I’m no longer able to intimidate you, but I didn’t know that because I’ve always been a tough guy. So I thought, “I should take people with me more often, and ideally I’d have women with me. For one, if I’m photographing prostitutes, they’re not going to get in the car with two guys, but they will get in the car with a guy and a woman. And the younger women, millennials especially, are up for that sort of thing, and are a little but tougher themselves. I’ve started doing that.
A: The Knowave guy Yoshi told me they took your words off the photo before they put it on the wall How did you feel about that?
SS: They’re not the first. I’ve had a number of exhibits with the Lowlife pictures. The ones they were showing were vintage prints I made myself 25 years ago. They’ve been the most opular over time. Originally the DRKRM Gallery was the first one to put me on the wall. He put the words with it. Then when we showed at Little Big Man, not only did he out the words with it, he got this antique paper and a manual typewriter and typed up the pitures and put them up that way It was really cool. The pictures obviouslt work by themselves, but it really adds a lot of dimension putting the words with it. The shows I’ve had, people always take the time to stop and read them even if they are a page long. People like the words. The galleries, there’s one in New York, one in Canada, one in Miami, where they didn’t put the words, the shows went OK. The curators have that option, its their gallery. I do prefer to put the words.
A: Do you find that your work gets misunderstood?
SS: Actually no. I was prepared to have people hate me. I did a couple columns for Vice Magazine, and every so often I’d get these wonderful comments, “Horrible photographer!” and “Asshole!!!” My favorite, I wrote a story about going back to where I grew up. There is this huge Bass Pro Shop, the first one. The guy actually went to my high school. I went there, and they have a gun museum upstairs. I said somewhere in the article, “Nobody ever did anything good with a gun. I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy at Bass Pro Shop.” A guy commented, “Anybody who can’t find anything to buy at Bass Pro Shop is a pussy. Maybe you don’t like guns, but hwat are you gonna do when the bad guy breaks into your house and rapes your wife and children???” That hasn’t happened yet, so I think I’m safe. The thing that surprised me most, feminists seem to like it. I thought they were gonna hate me. But in fact I am presenting women as they are. I’m not making up stories. I’m not writing this corny fiction about a guy who fucks em and leaves em. I’m a good guy. Overall I've been really lucky. I haven’t been misconstrued at all.
"I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy at Bass Pro Shop."
A: Do you find that the writing helps with that?
SS: I think so yes. Absolutely. I talked to a feminist once at a show in Miami, and she said that initially she was ready to hate me, but then after she read the stories she didn’t want to hate me after all. Sure there are people who misunderstand. God, I have people in my family that misunderstand, but in general I’ve had a really good reception.
The book I’m writing now takes place in Branson, Missouri. In a perfect world, I’d publish the novel, and then have a book burning in Branson Missouri for my book. Everything I’ve done has been a fuck you. Because of that I’ve wanted resistance, and the Vice things I did where people would write things about me, I kind of liked it. Yeah. It has been good not to be misunderstood, but I think my initial goal was to piss people off. I think people need to be pissed off.
A: It seems like there is a fine life to me between a guy who is ‘roaming skid row to shoot pictures of the homeless’ and what you do. The difference being a humanizing, a compassionate embracing. Because there is a badassness to even getting into theose situations, that would be the initial misunderstanding of the work that would come up, but the words make it obvious it is a much more a meeting people where they are.
SS: I completely admit the first time I did this I just wanted to get laid. I got there and I thought, I’m a photographer, and there’s this person with me, and I should be taking pictures. It didn’t take much time at all before I realized how fucked up this stuff was. Going to prostitutes as a kid, which I did, it was a thrill. Even now it’s an adrenaline rush to do that stuff. As I talk to people about it I find that most people wouldnever do that because it terrifies them. I’ve always joked that as people drive into certain areas, they lock their doors. When I drive into those same areas, I unlock my doors in case someone wants to get in. It’s really not that scary.
A: Aside from Arnold Newman, who are you inspred by?
SS: In the 70s I was greatly inspired by Arnold Newman, and Pete Turner. Pete was mostly a commercial photographer, but he was doing Kodachrome stuff when almost no one was. He had a big influence on me. My next show is going to be vintage Cibachromes from Kodachrome images I made in the 70s. So he had a big influence. That was back when I was gion gonto the street and grabbing people, and saying there’s a background over there can I take you over there and take your picture. Being the 70s, people would say, “Sure.” It was fucking amazing because you can’t do that now. Charles Gatewood had a big influence on me. He had a book called ‘Side Tripping’, with William Burroughs. I ordered it out of the back of Penthouse Magazine, and I loved it. The writing not so much, because Burroughs didn’t make any sense, but the photographs were good. I followed his work for many years. Last year, I was talking with someone about him, so I went to Wikipedia to find out what he had been up to. Turns out, he went to the same high school in Springfield Missouri that I went to except seven years before I went. I was just aghast. So, I wrote him a letter. Said maybe he knew who I was, maybe not, but I’d been a fan for many years and when I was young he helped me take a different direction. Wanted to say hi to another graduate to possibly the stupidest school in the world. He wrote back. It wasn’t a ‘Hey let’s get together’, but it was nice. Two months later he jumped out a window and killed himself. I think he had something terminal.
"Finally I realized I am writing me, and it isn’t what anyone else is writing."
A: In terms of the writing, when I read your stuff, I think Jack Black, Celine…The bravery of leading with my failures, disappointments, and shortcomings. That is so rare. Who do you look at?
SS: Generally, people like to say Bukowski when they look at me, but I don’t feel that way. There are so many writers. I spent 25 years collecting signed first editions of fiction. I used to go to the readings at Skylight and places like that, and now I’m doing them which is very cool. I like Russel Banks a lot. Kind of mainstream writers, which is strange. When I was young it was JP Dunlevy. As a kid it was Edgar Rice Burroughs. I think in the novel you can see that, fancy flights into nuttiness. I liked Kerouac as a kid, I did like the beatniks. Not so much now, but I did. When I first started writing, I would put a page next to a page of Raymond Chandler, and you would have to say it was Raymond Chandler, and I didn’t know it. It’s Los Angeles, and it’s Los Angeles at night. He has a wonderful description of being on Wilshire and looking up and the Bullocks Wilshire building. I did the same thing in a book I wrote, which is cool, because he did the same thing 30 years before I did it and I’m doing the same thing now. Plus the quick style I have adopted. So, yeah, Chandler is a big influence.
Erskine Caldwell who wrote in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre are my favorites. Jerzy Kosiński is another writer I used to love. He wrote a lot in the 1970s and then killed himself. Best known for The Painted Bird and Being There. I spent a lot of time finding my own style. Finally I realized I am writing me, and it isn’t what anyone else is writing.
A: When did that happen?
SS: Probably 15 years ago. I wrote a lot of stuff until 1990 when I started having physical problems and trouble walking. I was a single father and that took a lot of time, and I took 10 years just reading everything I could get my hands on. 3 or 4 novels a week for a long time. I wanted to teach myself writing.
A: That sounds like a very nice time.
SS: It was.