In Conversation: Tabitha Soren

People swipe their digital devices hundreds of times a day, leaving behind trails of smudges and streaks on their screens. A new exhibition of photographs by former MTV journalist Tabitha Soren captures these fingerprints and greasy smears on the surface of images. Focusing on the element of touch, photographs in Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension range from the personal, such as a daughter blowing a kiss to her mother, to the global, with images of the damaging human touch on the environment in places such as the Great Barrier Reef and Greenland. Surface Tension features 20 small- and large-scale photographs, 14 of which are on view to the public for the first time.

Tabitha Soren (b. 1967) is a former Peabody Award-winning journalist for MTV and NBC news. Soren’s work is held in many private and public collections throughout the US, and her first monograph, Fantasy Life, was published in April 2017.

Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension on view February 7 through June 9, 2019, at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Join artist Tabitha Soren and Carrie Cushman, the Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography, for a conversation sparked by the Davis Museum’s presentation of Soren’s exhibition Surface Tension.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019, 6:00pm to 7:00pm , Collins Cinema, Reception to follow in Davis Lobby

All images (c) Tabitha Soren 2018

In your work ‘Surface Tension’ you visit the notion of social media and its relationship to photography can you tell how this project came to life? What was so compelling about this subject matter that draw you in to it?

The devices themselves are something that have invaded my work life and my family life to a degree I never imagined. I’m always fighting with my kids about turning off their machines. That drew me to this project more than merely social media. As a result of these devices in my daily life there is more conflict in it– but they also create tension in a more existential way.

We are human – we’re hairy, oily, messy. On the other hand, our devices are designed to be oleophobic, oil resistant and glabrous, smooth. In a sense, they deny what is best about us and they trick us into aspiring to the perfection of their design. This may be one of the reasons why we feel low and wiped out after using devices all day to get a myriad of tasks accomplished. We as humans are living and dying at the same time and so is much of the material world. But digital culture ignores that conflict and can tell us that there is something physically inferior about us – our oils, hair, tears, saliva – but I disagree. On one level, this project is an attempt to remind us that our humanity is beautiful.

What was the work process and techniques you used to create these vividly beautiful images? In which way did you choose the background image?

At the Davis Museum, all the “Surface Tension” photographs connect the act of the touching on top of the screens to background pictures that also relate to touch. The haptic language of the fingerprints amplify the meaning of what viewers see behind them. This approach is akin to the cold, matter of fact presentation of the Bernd and Hilla Becher photographs of water towers, furnaces and gas tanks. The style of those typologies match the stony, emotionless industrial architecture the Bechers are shooting.

For example, the blue civil rights piece below is made by shooting through the grime on top of my iPad shot into a Ferguson, Ohio protest video screenshot from 2014. The image is about the fatal harm done to Michael Brown through the brutal touch of Ferguson police officers. Unwanted touching is harmful. And in some cases, like with Harvey Weinstein, Larry Nassar and Bill Cosby, it is illegal.

We live in a political moment where it seems reason has gone out the door. Nothing is what it seems. The next image is of Greenland, which is a dazzling place but which is shrinking due to humans shaping the surface of the land. Greenland is only one example of the way human touch causes damage or fire to the very beauty we are in search of by visiting places like the Arctic, Lake Tahoe, the Great Barrier Reef…et al. The perplexing reluctance of the visitors to experience the grandiosity of their surroundings purely and directly once they arrive frequently results in them mediating their much sought-after experience with a camera. This project explores the tension between the difficulty or lack of desire to distinguish between the real and the virtual versus the pursuit of authenticity and truth.

All images (c) Tabitha Soren 2018

All images (c) Tabitha Soren 2018

I think a big aspect of the work is the dissonance between the physical “real” touch we experience in life, vs. the virtual one – which is represented in the finger smudges. Can you tell us more about this idea and how you feel about it?

Touch is the unsung sense — the one that we depend on most and talk about least. Touch provides its own language of compassion, a language that is essential to what it means to be human. The science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to — we need to — connect with other people on a basic physical level. And yet, we spend an increasing amount of time touching technological devices, specifically, screens.

The end result is a very familiar images on the one hand, yet they are screened by the artificial composite of the finger prints and movement that you add to them. I think this familiarity that is abrupt by and outside element is- in a nutshell – what social media is all about. Would you agree?

That’s true. People are becoming far more visual than verbal. We are all using images as language — emoticons come to mind, so does Instagram — but this linguistic use of images requires a complicated dance of the fingers, a repertoire of gestures that work best when invisible and unnoticed.

This next image of the girl blowing the kiss is from a digital JPEG. It is not a tactile kiss, but the large format negative captures the digital substrate. The digital quality is blatantly apparent through the analogue surface marks and 8”x10” film negative.

The background image translates back and forth between two worlds: old and new, analogue and digital, tactile or immaterial. An air kiss is a funny sort of kiss but an LOL is a funny kind of laugh and trading manipulated photographs on tiny digital screens is a funny way to transact relationships.

All images (c) Tabitha Soren 2018

In a way the project is a mirror, or a map to our society’s addictions, habits, norms and culture. In this project we can see what we consume and how we consume it with no words. This project, for me, does not seem to judge the viewer but raise a question about these habits and challenges him to review them and their importance. This might not be a question – but would be interested to hear your point of view on this idea.

That’s right. I want “Surface Tension” to encourage us to see our relationship with everyday technology in unexpected ways, highlighting the marks we leave on glass screens, which we routinely ignore or erase. The subjects pictured beneath the surface record our culture while the smears of fingerprints record our lives, our flitting attentions. They map how we spend our time.

I didn’t intend to create art that makes value judgments about right and wrong behavior but this year, some of my pieces headed in that direction. That said, I also want my work to expose the human experience in all its anarchic complexity – not just the dark side. Creating solidarity by doing work that expresses the similarities of the psychological human experience is ultimately is where my work is going to live.

One of the main key elements in the work is removing the larger context of the original image from its origin location, time, space and framework. As we consume thousands of images daily these isolated moments allow us to take a deeper look in to something that we might have scrolled by with our fingers.

Yes, I hope so. The “Surface Tension” images are both painterly and resolutely photographic. They subvert the whole notion of a façade by bringing emotional depth to the surface and a mournful beauty to specular politics. Art historically, “Surface Tension” can be seen as a critique of the brutal alienation of Thomas Ruff’s internet porn series and Richard Prince’s Instagram paintings. To me, this body of work is in dialogue with figures as diverse as feminist appropriation artist Barbara Kruger and the 19th century British painter of the sublime JMW Turner.

All images (c) Tabitha Soren 2018

All images (c) Tabitha Soren 2018

Before becoming a full time artist, you had a lot of connection to the media and news world. I actually learned that about you only after I was aware of the work – but after learning that things “clicked” for me. Can you tell us a little about your background for those who don’t know and how you think it affected your work as an artist?

As a child, I was an avid recorder of her environment, taking snapshots with my pocket-sized Kodak Ektralite 10. My father was in the air force and my family moved frequently around the USA, Germany and the Philippines. Besides my immediate family, every person in my life changed every three years. I learned over time that if I got pictures of my friends, I could take them with me. When I began her career in television in 1989, I shot my own video footage. I gave up being my own “cameraman” when I began covering politics for MTV News, instead shifting into directing the camera (aka produc¬ing). I was an on-air producer when I was awarded, in 1993, the Peabody Award for Excellence in Journalism for MTV News’ coverage of the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton and George Bush senior. In 1999, I took up a fellowship at Stanford University where I shifted my visual arts practice from 30 frames a second to single frame photographs.

Despite “Surface Tension” being my first museum solo show, I think of myself as a visual artist in different domains for over twenty-five years. My work has long explored the intersection of culture, politics, the body and psychology – even as a journalist.

For our readers out there – what would your biggest advice be for them as young artists themselves?

Make work we haven’t seen before. And scrutinize yourself as much as you do your work. For me, self-scrutiny is a big part of keeping a body of work moving. An Edwardian-era Welsh painter I studied at Stanford named Gwen John (b. 22 June 1876 – 18 September 1939) taught me that. When I first saw this seemingly quiet and controlled self-portrait by Gwen John, with its old master color range and varnish, I felt nothing but struggle.

I wondered why this buttoned up, cameo-wearing woman in a chignon paint one precise hair out of place on her forehead? She showed me that doubt and perseverance–both so evident in her face–can co-exist. That strand of hair grabbed my attention because I look for imperfection. Everything that moves me can be found in the space where things go wrong, or fall short.

I remain struck by the image John presents to the viewer in this self-portrait. She is projecting a power and status that didn’t exist for her–or any female artist–in 1902. I respond to the way John is creating the self she wants on her canvas. Her quiet expression is resolve. You have to decide you’ll persist. I really think that we are all born artists – it’s just that some of us quit.

All images (c) Tabitha Soren 2018

All images (c) Tabitha Soren 2018

Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension on view February 7 through June 9, 2019, at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Join artist Tabitha Soren and Carrie Cushman, the Linda Wyatt Gruber ’66 Curatorial Fellow in Photography, for a conversation sparked by the Davis Museum’s presentation of Soren’s exhibition Surface Tension.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019, 6:00pm to 7:00pm , Collins Cinema, Reception to follow in Davis Lobby

To see more of Tabitha’s work please visit her website



Call For Entry!