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In the studio with Tabitha Soren

The fine arts photographer, who became famous as an MTV News reporter during the network’s 1990s heyday, relishes a quieter, but no less creative, life in Berkeley.

By Jennifer Vineyard  

A simple metal door attracted Tabitha Soren’s eye. It had just what she wanted—it had aspects of a still life, its reflections caught the landscape, and above all, it was the embodiment of a metaphor. The door was covered with little dents from years of foul balls, and to Soren, it looked like “a tally of failure,” and it was part of “very American psychological state” of what she was trying to capture with her fine-art baseball project: how we strive for greatness, how we react to losing. Instead of shooting the game then underway, she turned her lens on the battered door, prompting the athletes to holler at her, “Your camera’s pointed the wrong way! The game’s over here!”

Tell Soren she’s doing anything the wrong way, and she’ll laugh. She values her mistakes, especially the many she made in adapting antique tintype methods to the demands of action photography. (It required her printing them in complete darkness, without the traditional red light, which found her dropping some and getting fingerprints on many more.) She says that making these mistakes gave her common ground with the baseball players who are the subjects of her new book, Fantasy Life, since she was focusing on life’s imperfections. “Derek Jeter had plenty of mistakes and failure on the way to being Derek Jeter,” she notes.

When Soren first started lugging camera equipment around the Oakland A’s field back in 2003, she never imagined she would spend the next 15 years shooting the players to create baseball’s version of Boyhood. Originally, her husband, Moneyball writer Michael Lewis, dragged her along to minor league spring training to hang out with Oakland A’s owner Billy Beane. “What I loved about Billy is that he knows endless information about music,” Soren said. “I don’t have a lot of people in my life who can talk about a Patti Smith B-side, and go into music minutiae in a way I hadn’t experienced since hanging out with Kurt Loder.” It was a side she felt was dormant. She wasn’t a baseball fan, but when she saw the hopeful looks on the rookies’ faces, she thought of doing a portrait series, and then later, it became more of an anthropological study, checking in on 21 athletes throughout different stages of their careers. One became a coal miner. Another opened a luxury pet store. And one straight-up ghosted her, and she never found him again, despite her background in investigative journalism. Starting July 20, the San Francisco Arts Commission will display 180 photographs from Fantasy Life, featuring intimate portraits of players including Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, who both went on to the Major League.

It didn’t occur to Soren until recently that in tracking the players’ second acts, she was also creating one for herself. She’d taken photos most of her life—every time her Air Force dad was relocated, and the family along with him, Soren documented her new bedroom, “a Duchampian approach to my shag rug,” she jokes. Later, when she worked as a reporter and producer at MTV News, she took occasional shots of her subjects. One day, portrait photographer Mary Ellen Mark visited her apartment and saw some images Soren shot in Bosnia, and one in particular—six kids who had to share one doll—caught the photographer’s eye. “I’ll never forget it,” Soren says. “She said, ‘Wow, that’s a great shot.’ And my heart just burst.”

Soren’s interest in photography became more professional, and she started taking lighting classes after work. Eventually she left MTV News to accept a fellowship at Stanford. “I feel like the West Coast had a more varied definition of happiness and success,” she says. “It was just an easier place to be happy.” For example, she says, people in Berkeley, where she and Lewis have raised three children, never thought less of her for carving out a new career. “They didn’t know who I am, or that I even had a previous life. It doesn’t bother me if they don’t know me as the girl in a Beastie Boys video. Thank god, they’re much more evolved and less pop-culture-centric.” She sees photography as a shift in telling stories from one visual medium to another—and “still seeking a certain amount of truth but in a more subtle and nuanced way.”

“I think what people are confused about with me is why would someone take themselves off television,” she says. “And that, I think, should have them questioning themselves more than anything.” She has “a lot of talks” with her daughters about the Kardashians, but that doesn’t stop them from wanting to buy the eye shadow.

Those talks have informed her latest project, Surface Tension, which juxtaposes the gleam of technology with the grime of human bodies, now on view through June 10 at the Minnesota Street Project in Dogpatch. It’s about how we lose track of time when we’re on social media, but our residual fingerprints provide a record of where we’ve been and how we interact with others. “If you spend too much time focusing on screens, you lose a bit of humanity in your life,” Soren says. “I think we could all use a break.”

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