This Week In Photography Books: Scot Sothern

by Jonathan Blaustein

I’ve had quite the morning so far. The alarm went off too early, as my wife left for work too soon.

It was nearly 10 below zero outside, so my bare feet froze as I lugged my daughter to the car, well before the sun was up. Crunch crunch crunch went the snow beneath my slippers.

What kind of idiot doesn’t put on winter boots before going outside in that?

(This guy.)

Back indoors, and it was time for drama with my 8-year-old. He’s been giving us the business lately, as he’s smack-dab in the middle of a spoiled-brat-phase.

I saw it coming.

Since his birthday in October, it’s been an unending string of presents. Birthday. Halloween. First Hanukkah. Second Hanukkah. Third Hanukkah. First Christmas. Second Christmas.

You get the point.

Both sets of Grandparents treat him like the Second Coming, and all his best friends are feral, so it’s no wonder he went off-the-rails. Now, we’re tightening the reins, and he’ll be back to himself in no time.

But in the midst of our spat this morning, I made sure to mention that even though he’s getting in trouble a lot lately, his transgressions are relatively minor. He’s still an amazing kid: kind, loving, thoughtful, and obedient.

Just not as much as we’d like.

I told him that genuinely bad kids do genuinely bad things. The kind of things he couldn’t imagine. (Thank God.) Because if he really knew what the world was like out there, beyond his happy bubble, he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

But sleep he does, in his nice warm bed, with the heat turned up against the sub-zero cold.

We had that talk this morning, not two hours ago, and then I settled into my work-day and unpacked a book that had just arrived. Sometimes they sit in a pile for months, the few things people send me.

But this one was from Tony Fouhse, the photographer behind Stray light Press in Canada, and I knew it had to be interesting. I met Tony at the NY Times Portfolio review a few years ago. He was standing in a crowd of Canadians, and they happily chatted about the kinds of wild meat they’d eaten in the bush.

One guy said he liked Lynx. Said it tasted like chicken. They all agreed. These guys, I said to myself, are tougher than I am. I am soft, and weak, and perhaps that’s not the worst thing in the world, when the alternative is eating bobcat.

The book Tony sent is called “Sad City,” by Scot Sothern. I don’t know the artist, but I think I’m friends with him on Facebook. The name made me think of Vice Magazine, but I’m not sure that’s correct.

(Branding these days. Who doesn’t get caught up in that web.)

Anyway, the book grabbed me by the shorties from the word go. Holy Crap, is this a powerful object. Many people will hate such a thing. I get it.

But me, even though I live a somewhat pampered existence, I’m always on the lookout for people who are keeping it real.

The photos start in some nameless city. Street people. Down on their luck. Homeless. The kind of images people consider exploitative. The kind of pictures that better people use to raise money for the downtrodden.

This is no such book.

The stories start straight away, with titles above. They’re written in the first person, and while I know that people can make up all sorts of things, I trust that the artist/author is speaking from the heart.

He was a bad seed, growing up. A hoodlum. The kind of kid my young son cannot imagine, thankfully. He stole, and fought, and lived on the streets. He burned houses down, and watched girls get gang-raped in a drunken stupor. (Or does calling it a “train” imply consent?)

He reveled in the naïveté of his neighbors, who were foolish enough to leave their doors unlocked.

Some of the pictures correspond to the stories. He writes of looking right into the eyes of a beautiful hooker while she gives a john a hand-job. That comes after the photo.

Other times, the story comes first. Is that nattily-dressed, old school hustler walking down the street, in his Shaft-esque black leather jacket Hack Jackson, mentioned on the previous page?

We’re certainly meant to think so.

At first, this could be any major American city. But one story mentions the beach. Another speaks of Silver Lake. Then I know we’re in LA. The very next page shows us stars on the sidewalk: Hollywood.

I’ve been doing this long enough to know that these things are not accidental. These narrative hints. They’re done with care, slowly unspooling what we’re meant to know. (Editor’s note: when I photographed the book, I noticed the word California in the background on the book’s inside cover. So he did hint from the beginning. My bad.)

I read every story, and you regulars know I’m always happy to skip ahead when I’m bored. The photo of the handless Vet, juxtaposed against mannequin hands in a head-shop window made me stop cold.

This is a terrific combination of imagery and text. It speaks of the hard streets, from the perspective of one who knows. Sure, this time, he was cruising in the passenger seat.

Blazing by.
Click. Click.

But I would not want to mess with Scot Sothern. (Nor his friends.) And the fact that he’s willing to lock elements of his life onto the page for our prurient interest?

I appreciate it.

Like I said, the dude keeps it real.

Bottom Line: Edgy, dark look at life on the streets of LA

Go Here To Purchase “Sad City”

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Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 1 Comment On This Article.

  1. Love his previous B&W effort LowLife, which was very much up close and personal. When I heard he was shooting color snaps from a car, I really didn’t expect much- sounded like something to do to pass the time.

    Well, the photos don’t stand on their own as much, but wound together into this colorful, still life, film noir “narrative,” it reads like a 21st Cent. pulp novel. Looks like he pulled off yet another must get…