It is almost impossible to talk about photographer Tabitha Soren and not mention that she was a former MTV reporter. After 11 years in the news business, Soren said she experienced burnout covering events worldwide and running after celebrities. At 55, she has reinvented herself and settled into the art world as a celebrated contemporary photographer with a desire to explore “more gray areas and more nuances” in her work.
She now interrogates the world in her studio and in the frame of her cameras rather than through her interviews with famous people. If there is one common thread between the journalist she was and the artist she is now, it is her desire to address the human condition, often with a hint of darkness and moodiness.
Her photography, currently on view through December 23 at Jackson Fine Art (and part of the Atlanta Celebrates Photography festival), features three distinct bodies of work, Running, Relief and Surface Tension.
Although different in their stylistic approach, they possess a connective tissue in their quest to explore mentally fraught experiences, from our addiction to technology to our anxiety in the face of the unknown.
In her series Running, each photograph features a person running away, as if fleeing from a threat. We don’t know why, or where they are going, and we sense a struggle that puzzles and disorients the viewer. We are caught in an in-between narrative, a fleeting moment between past and present.
Shot between 2011 and 2014 in various locations, the series viewed almost a decade later resonates with new meaning.
“The isolation in the pictures, the panic, the dread, the wanting to flee during lockdown, all of those emotions are in these pictures, even though that hadn’t happened when I shot them,” Soren said during her artist’s talk at the gallery.
This open interpretation is what makes her work so seductive, and what allows us to interpret her images in a speculative way. It also questions our ability to see clearly when sensing danger.
“The flight response in humans is an adaptive behavior to threat. When we are experiencing fight or flight, we temporarily lose our ability to see,” Soren writes. This conceptual focus to visualize psychological states is recurrent in her work, as seen in her other series Relief.
In this ongoing project, Soren distresses the surface of photographs, using blades, knives and pellet guns, or fire and smoke to burn the prints, referring to a “long and deeply human history of mark making.” Soren says her process is intuitive and harnesses deeper meanings to our interpretation of the image.
These tactile interventions work best when the destruction adds to the overall mood of an image — such as in The Flight of Night, 2020, a poetic rendering of light hitting dark waters, or in St Helena, 2019, where Soren applied deep indentations on the image of a woman seen from behind, her hair pulled up and neck exposed, adding to her implied vulnerability.
In other photographs, however, the destructive marks retain an elliptical quality, raising questions rather than offering answers or meaning.
Her third body of work, Surface Tension, deals with our conflicted love affair with our phones and tech devices. For this series, Soren rephotographed images from an iPad with a large 8 by 10 inch view camera, making visible the fingerprints, grease and smudges — all the human touches — that lie on the surface of our devices.
Shot between 2013 and 2021, the project took form after Soren received an email from her teenage daughter with an electronic goodnight kiss. It triggered a reflection on the importance — and the inherent depletion of — the sense of touch in our societies.
The result is the photograph Emailed Kiss Goodnight, 2016, an alluring rendering of a kiss seen through a cloud of smudges that resemble the blown feathers of a pillow. The idea of intersecting digital source material and analog negative is brilliant, not only because it results in beautiful, painterly abstractions but also because of the fine and delicate quality of the prints.
As in her previous life as a journalist, Soren relied on books, research and statistics to investigate her proposition. And to make her case even more compelling, she used appropriated images — some sent from friends on vacation, others found on the Internet and duly licensed — thus allowing her to question our relationship to reality, authorship and authenticity in the way we communicate visually.
The subject matter varies greatly, from the intimate and personal to world affairs, melting glaciers and street demonstrations. The list is endless.
“I do not think that our soul is equipped to process every problem in the world that we have no hope in solving,” she says.
And this is why Soren’s work is so enticing, resonating deeply within our human desire to connect while triggering a feeling of unease in the way our devices serve to estrange us from the reality of life.
Virginie Kippelen is a photographer, multimedia producer and writer specializing in editorial and documentary projects. She has contributed to ArtsATL’s Art+Design section since 2014, writing mostly about photography. And after living 25 years in the United States, she still has a French accent.