Scot Sothern / Barry W Hughes

Lowlife: The Great American Other

originally published in HotShoe magazine, issue 178, 2012
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When I was asked to write about the video for Scot Sothern’s Lowlife it was after a visit to a strip club. I had never been to such a place before, knowing full well the moral bankruptcy and exploitation involved, and it was as I had expected. Sitting in a room surrounded by deluded coked-up men, while semi-naked women intermittently visited our curtained space didn’t make my rum-and-coke taste any better. Watching the stripper pole dance on stage was as erotic as clipping toenails. It was mechanical and cold, predatorial, yet I was at a loss as to who was being exploited – I watched their crocodile smiles, their eyes scanning for the next schmuck to target. Needless to say it wasn’t going to be me. They are lairs of desperation, be in no doubt.

Sothern’s flash-lit monochrome images of prostitutes he’s visited, and his Beat Poet monologue that accompany them on Stanley-Barker’s promotional video for the Lowlife monograph, describe this desperation from the beginning, with his 1973 Toyota station wagon that is as broken down as the ensemble. He goes on to relate the cold mechanics of the predatory proposition, “I could give my twenty dollars to any one of these women. I could buy a quick sex fix and she could buy enough crack to put a smile on her face for an hour or so.” This candour of Sothern’s confessional, his “nasty little secret”, seduces the viewer in much the same way a stripper or prostitute would; tragic narcissism at its keenest. As a viewer one gets voyeuristically excited by the illicit behaviour, Lowlife is a vicarious skinny-dip into The Great American Other: this ain’t Wisteria Lane, or pretty, naked white kids frolicing in a field: this is true Gonzo Photography. Sothern agrees, he is an artist of his time “greatly influenced by coming of age in the times that [Hunter S] Thompson reported on, but I believe it was a multitude of writers and photographers who paved the way for the likes of me.”

Sothern’s monologue in this video is actually the introduction to Lowlife, originally written in 1986. It opens Stanley-Barker’s beautifully produced book, but there is something more metaphysical about hearing the artist’s own drawn-out tones above the lounge-lizard music of Bohren & Der Club of Gore. Sothern recalls trawling El Cajon Boulevard in San Diego spying crack-whores while his little boy sleeps next to him on the passenger seat, before arriving at the boy’s home “Sylvia, my ex-wife, was happy to see me go, but first she wanted money. I made lame excuses. She called me a jerk...” and one may be forgiven for assuming this is his jerk-off story set to jerk-off music, but you’d be wrong. Sothern isn’t a predator or a jerk “I don’t want to sound like I’m rationalizing my actions but I think if you asked my ex or my son what kind of father I was you’d get a positive report. My cynicism and self-knowledge without a doubt informed my work, but again I don’t see my actions as those of an asshole. I think looking at the lives of the prostitutes I’d have to assume that the best part of their day was the time they spent with me. So, I guess, overall I’m refuting that I was ever a jerk, a pseudo-anarchist with a few criminal tendencies, yeah sure, but not a jerk.”

When questioned about authenticity in his work, the painter Francis Bacon often referred to his attempts at capturing ‘the brutality of fact’. And so it is with Lowlife, in his images we are looking at Sothern’s attempts to capture his own reality through the faces of those he encounters. He records through notes and on film the individuals, not just the archetype, but the person; he sees beyond the morality and hypocrisy: “Some of the prostitutes didn’t care what I wanted for my money, but others did ask, now and then, what I wanted the pictures for. My stock answers were, ‘Because I’m an artist,’ or ‘Because that’s what I do.’ They were usually satisfied with that. Interestingly, almost without exception as soon as they knew I wanted pictures they would strip without my asking them to. They automatically assumed that’s what I wanted and for that matter I think that’s how they defined their own worth, in that, one way or the other, sex was all they had to offer.”

It’s hard to find fault with this story, as neither Sothern nor his subjects are under any illusions. Just look at Pepper under that bridge with her pants down and shirt open – this, for once in her life, is her chance to shine in the darkness as “a vision of innocence and purity”. Who are we to question her? People may try to find fault however, and the question of exploitation will emerge, “well if we’re talking about monetary gain I’m sure I paid out more than I’ve gained back” states Sothern, “of course I exploited them but I also paid them for their time and treated them with more respect than they were accustomed to. Everything nowadays is exploited whether its journalism or reality TV. I don’t know that I ever did anything to make anyone’s life any better but it seemed like these people were invisible and I had an opportunity to give them a voice, even if that voice sounds like me.”

So, how do you sell a story like Lowlife to those who haven’t lived a life of Faustian abandon, to a wider audience? Sothern is philosophical, “I think to some extent Lowlife provides a vicarious thrill ride. I would as well like to think I’m building an audience because I’m a good writer and even better photographer with something to say.” This is the crux of the matter, unlike my strip club experience there is nothing mechanical or cold about Lowlife, on the contrary it is full of humanity, the kind that penetrates and genuinely haunts you.