Scot Sothern: "Cross Section of Extremes"

I’ve been married three times and all three are atheist, democrats and feminist.  I do consider myself a feminist but I’m aware that much of my work is exploitative. 


Interview By Julian Lucas

On December 3, 2016 at 6:00 pm Mirrored Society will open with a book signing, reading, and exhibition by photographer and writer Scot Sothern.

Scot will be signing copies of his books, Street Walkers and Sad City. He will also read from his stories, personal and fictional, which reveal the interior narrative of the images from both books. Select works from Sad City will be on view, along with new works from All American Girls.

Scot Sothern is a photographer and writer known for his documentary work of prostitutes and the harsh gritty streets of Los Angeles. Scot seeks out areas that are unpopular or opposite of mainstream society, photographing interesting and unique people. His images are raw, striking, and illuminating, leaving the viewer with evoked emotions.  

How did the project behind Street Walkers begin?

Scot: I grew up in my father’s portrait photography studio in the Missouri Ozarks and was groomed to someday take over the family business.  I never really aspired to be a photographer and became one by default, it was the only thing I knew how to do and I was good at it.  In the 1960s when I was an adolescent, I discovered prostitution in shadowy two-dollar whore houses.  In the proceeding years, between girlfriends and marriages, I patronized massage parlors and houses of ill-repute when I had a few bucks and a boner. 

Missouri didn’t work out for me so I split for groovier climes at an early age.  In the middle 1980s I was living in Los Angeles, running wild and working sporadically as a freelance photographer and optical camera operator.  One evening after a nasty spat with my second ex-wife, I picked up a streetwalker.  I had a camera with me and decided to document the experience and I knew immediately this was a project I was going to pursue.  Originally, my intentions were purely sleazy, but it didn’t take long to see that life on the streets for these women was fucked up and nobody seemed to care.  My passions changed from sexual to political.


Tell us about the most memorable encounter you had during this project.

Scot: Over time I don’t think of any one experience more than the others.  A couple of weeks ago, a couple of blocks from Skid Row proper, 3am, I picked up a woman who took me to her room in an old hotel where smack was the theme of the night.  It was sufficiently crummy and she had a little dog who barked at me, loudly, without a break, BARK BARK BARK BARK.  The working girl, who had stopped by another room to buy some heroin, with money I gave her, yelled at the dog, SHUT THE FUCK UP, SHUT THE FUCK UP, SHUT THE FUCK UP.  I made myself comfortable while she brought out her glass pipe and lighter.  All the while: BARK BARK BARK BARK. SHUT THE FUCK UP, SHUT THE FUCK UP, SHUT THE FUCK UP.  She ignited the dope and sucked up smoke and when she exhaled the dog stopped barking and the whore sat on the bed.  That’s kind of memorable. 

Was there ever a time when you educated a prostitute about photography or writing? Was there ever a time when a prostitute educated you about prostitution?

Scot: No, I don’t think I ever educated a sex worker about anything.  I think I learned a lot from them and I’m a better person from the experience.

© Scot Sothern Missy 1985-1991

© Scot Sothern Missy 1985-1991

© Scot Sothern Checkerboard 1985-1991 

© Scot Sothern Checkerboard 1985-1991 

Did you develop any close relationships with any of the females you photographed?

Scot: Every encounter was a one-time thing.  I know photographers who create relationships with their subjects and for them it works.  I think it gets them closer to the subject, more able to depict the real person and get their trust.  I’m in then out, I’m not looking for a relationship. I have my own demons.  I get a harsher reality from quick little adventures that fade to black.

I’m generally more generous than I can afford and I show the women the same respect I would show anybody else.  In the earlier days, in the eighties I had fun with my models now and again.  I came as close to falling in love as one can do with thirty dollars and thirty minutes, before riding off into the sunrise. 

What are your views on feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Scot: I’ve been married three times and all three are atheist, democrats and feminist.  I do consider myself a feminist but I’m aware that much of my work is exploitative.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the feminists who do like my work.  I thought they were going to hate me.  I’m big on human rights and I see great injustice toward women, especially the ones working the streets.  Maybe, if we don’t murder the planet first, women will take the reins and save us from self-destruction.  I think most men are evil plundering pigs.

Your book Sad City consists of an interesting contrast between homeless and party life in Hollywood. Please explain.

Scot: Most of the images in Sad City were shot from the passenger seat of a car, or pickup truck, with drivers willing to follow my point, stopping and going, and making U-turns at a moment’s notice.  Downtown Los Angeles has always intrigued me, and I’ve always loved Hollywood.  Going from one to the other, mostly at night, I get a cross section of extremes.  I can scan the sidewalks and there is always a colorful something to shot.

Do you see yourself equally as a photographer and a writer or does one dominate the other?

Scot: I’ve always been a photographer and I always wanted to be a writer.  Photography is ridiculously easy. Writing is more difficult.  I don’t have a formal education and for the most part, as a writer anyway, I’m autodidactic. I learned photography by osmosis and my father’s tutelage and I learned to write by reading a lot of good writers.  Putting writing and photographs together works well for me.  It’s a great way to say whatever it is I want to say.  I’ve been working on a new project, All American Girls, where I’m writing and photographing and mixing it up with other media, assemblage and painting.  In both art and literature finding a style, that works, or sells, and sticking with it is encouraged, but I never could stay with just one of anything.

©Scot Sothern   Martha

©Scot Sothern Martha

©Scot Sothern       Gates of Hell I

©Scot Sothern Gates of Hell I

©Scot Sothern    Baby Boomer

©Scot Sothern  Baby Boomer

We see you have a new book called Big City that's coming out in 2017. Can you tell us about it?

Scot: BigCity will be my first published novel and it’s very different from everything else I’ve done.  BigCity will be published in March by, Stalking Horse Press, a very cool and eclectic literary press.  I’ve never really done anything that could be remotely considered mainstream, and that applies to BigCity as well.   It’s unique and dark and crazy and funny and occasionally brings me to tears.  I hope it attracts the same kind of audience I’ve had in the past and for that matter, I’d love to see it go mainstream.


Favorite photobook...

Scot: Two books from the seventies were big influences for me... 
Arnold Newman – One Mind’s Eye
Charles Gatewood - Side Tripping

When I was a kid, my father was a fan of Willian Mortensen and had his book “Monsters and Madonnas” which was first published in the thirties.  It was my introduction to photography as art.