San Francisco

Fan Mail: Tabitha Soren

For this edition of Fan Mail, Tabitha Soren of San Francisco, CA has been selected from our worthy reader submissions. Two artists are featured each month—the next one could be you! If you would like to be considered, please submit your website link to with ‘Fan Mail’ in the subject line.

Tabitha Soren’s photographs of turbulent water are steeped in her experience and emotion rather than simply being an homage to the beauty or majesty of nature. Like Alfred Steigliz’s photographs of clouds which he called “equivalents” and other Cloudscape photographers, nature is a catalyst for the phenomenological content of the photographer. The way that forms can be seen in clouds is like looking at an inkblot, and water acts in the same way, producing random formations on the surface.

Tabitha Soren, "Panic Beach" series, Oceanscape 15763-4.

Soren says of these images: “For me, the waterscapes are taken in response to the random tumultuousness of the human experience. In fact, I got knocked down quite a bit by the ocean taking these pictures. This project is an invitation to dive into the complexity of life – and into the unpredictability of it.  (It’s not as if we have any choice about the havoc anyway.) But, then, I remembered how much I respond to the beauty AND meaning in J.W.M. Turner’s paintings and to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs.  My oceanscapes are in wild contrast to Sugimoto’s calming black and white seascapes but nonetheless, inspired by them.”

Tabitha Soren, "Panic Beach" series, Oceanscape 00107-8.

“The compelling colors and patterns of the ocean may draw you in but the ferocity and brutality of the water are lurking too.  Each photo attempts to blur the distinctions between earth and sky, and flat and deep, which is how unbalanced I feel when a crisis hits. Rapidity is brought to a still in the image. Like the flow of information on a television screen or in our urban environment, we are normally washed over by the rapids, and encountering stillness gives a moment of peace and reflection.”

Soren’s subjects are set-up as though part of a narrative, but they are not actors, just acting. The confluence of intent and acceptance of the unknown are essential to her process.

Tabitha Soren, "Running" series, 000516, 2012.

“My Running series attempts to explore panic, mortality, resilience and the role of the accident in life.  The images involve a lot of pre-production, but then once the person starts running, I have no idea how the picture will turn out. The images also rely pretty heavily on a mixture of natural and artificial light.  The combination of light sources, planning and spontaneity serve as comment on contemporary photography.  Is it true? and does that matter? The Running photographs are also as much about what is outside of the frame, as what is inside it.  The viewer has to mine their own secrets to fill in the narrative. Finally, when people run their bodies contort and we get a glimpse at emotions that are normally kept hidden.”

What provokes the runners remains out of view in the images, but in reality, it is the photographer who instigates the photographs.

Soren says, “I want the people in my pictures to have something at stake. (Those kinds of people are also the most interesting ones to have in my life.) Life at every moment is terribly costly and terribly beloved.”

Tabitha Soren, "Running" series, 000073, 2012.

A friend of mine asked me the other day if I believed in fate. I thought no, I don’t, you edit your life, you’re given a set of circumstances and you pick from the best.  But then maybe I do. I feel like I’m making choices here in the moment, but perhaps I’m not able to be really free in my decision making. When I asked Soren about her concept of fate, she responded: “In my mind the people in the running pictures are making choices in the moment. All of us are presented with unlucky situations and sometimes, threats to our survival. This is when we see what we are made of. Fight or flight are not the only two options. It takes a great amount of resilience, durability, bravery and understanding to alter your fate.”

Tabitha Soren, "Weathering" series, Mistakes Will Be Made.

Rushing water is metaphor for fate. In a strong current, you can hardly stand on your feet. Water is thick and viscous, resistant to flow, sticking to, revealing, and moving the objects that it encounters. Liquids have surface tension, enabling the ability to float, but also making movement through the surface challenging. Running through water or swimming at the surface is much harder than swimming below. Submarines are fast under water, avoiding the agitation of the surface. Air expands and fills a space but water is virtually incompressible.

“Generally speaking, [my] work speaks to the twists of fate in life that can unhinge us. Whether it’s images of people mid-flight in my series Running or in Uprooted, the ruined scenes of post-Katrina New Orleans, I’m most interested in what human beings can survive — and what they can’t.”

Tabitha Soren "Uprooted" series, Robert Lee Boulevard, Lakeview, 2007.

We often hear of catastrophic floods that sweep away homes and civilians. Our coastal cities are vulnerable because of their proximity to the ocean, but there is something so compelling about the vast water along the land’s edge that drives a huge portion of the world’s population to live there, myself included. New Orleans is where Soren’s husband is from, a city that she describes as “part of the fabric of my life” since meeting him in 1996. The iconic city continues to be rebuilt on tenuous delta land. Living on the coast, there is always a question of how long this place will last, and a compelling need to capture it.

Tabitha Soren, "Uprooted" series, Robert Street, B.W. Cooper, 2007.

A flood is an act of god the insurance policies say, and the story of the great flood that wiped away the sins of the world, the act of vengeful god promised Noah never again by covenant of the rainbow. The River Styx formed the boundary of the Underworld, Dante’s fifth level of hell, the angry water leading the the banks of the Stygian marsh. And yet, being dipped in the Styx made Achilles invulnerable, except for the spot which was not submerged, his heels. The sacred Ganges has purifying powers to Hindus, but suffers from great pollution problems today. The danger of the water’s power seems to be brought under human control, but then we find ourselves needed to re-engineer. We dike, we dam, we harden shorelines, we divert the flow to feed the land, but we seek out the rushing water for the feeling that wells up in us. Water is baptism, water is cleansing, as it is catastrophic. Water is ambivalent; water is a medium for meaning.

Tabitha Soren, "Weathering" series, Who You Might Turn Out To Be.

Soren mentioned, “For me, photography is about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life.  It’s a release of elation and pain. I see my pictures as metaphors for the difficult twists and turns of everyday living.  And even though the visual approach to each series can shift, I feel pretty strongly that they all start from this basic premise.”

Soren grew up around the world with her father in the Air Force and spent her teenage years in Destin, Florida. She came to the Bay area with a fellowship from Stanford where immersed herself in the darkroom, studying under fine art professors Joel Leivick, Alex Nemerov, Robert Dawson, and Lukas Felzman. Images from her “Running” series were recently featured in McSweeney’s Quarterly issue #39.