Tabitha Soren was driving down Sacramento Street near Stanford Avenue when she spotted a change in a huge tree jutting up in the air.
For months Soren, a Berkeley photographer and former news correspondent for MTV and NBC, had been eyeing the tree. At 60 feet high, with a bifurcated trunk completely covered with leaves and vines, the tree was an arresting sight in the gritty Oakland neighborhood. Soren had long been intrigued by its sculptural qualities, but the tree had always been inaccessible behind a chain link fence.
But on that day, the chain link fence was gone. Soren leaped into action. She got on her cell phone and started calling around to find someone, anyone, who could rush down and be in a picture. Within a half-hour, Soren had found a carpool buddy to pose for her. When he lined up near the tree, dressed in khaki slacks and a brown coat, Soren told him to run. And run again. And run again.
The result is a striking picture of a man falling in front of a tree that completely dwarfs him. It’s not clear how he got there or what he is doing, but a close observer can see him about to land on the ground, his right hand splayed in an awkward position.
The photograph became part of a series named Running, featuring people running through foggy forests, on freeway ramps, on railroad tracks, out of lakes, and in fields. The subjects are in the middle of something, either arriving or leaving, in distress or not.
“What I like about them is the way each subject has a story we want to know about,” said Alice Ranahan, an Oakland art consultant. “Why are they running? What are they running from or to? They are like staged film stills, but we don’t have the benefit of seeing the whole film. In this way there is tremendous mystery surrounding each image. Each subject has heightened emotions that lead us to want to know more about what they have experienced.”
Soren’s Running series is currently on display through June 1 in a solo show at the Kopeiken Gallery in Los Angeles. Some photographs from the series can also be seen May 16-19 at ArtMRKT, an international art fair held at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.
The Running series marks a turning point in Soren’s photographic career.
It brought her representation from LA dealer Paul Kopeiken and a slew of reviews. While her photographs have been featured in the New York Times Magazine, on the cover of McSweeny’s, in Vanity Fair, and in museums and galleries around the country, Soren’s acclaim as an artist is increasing.
That’s a complete turnaround for Soren, 46, who rose to fame in the 1990s when, in her early 20s, she became one of MTV’s first political reporters. With her long red hair, sharp intelligence, and rock and roll vibe, Soren covered the 1992 and 1996 Presidential elections for MTV and became the face of its “Choose or Lose” campaign to encourage 20 million Gen-Xers to vote. She not only snared seven interviews with Bill Clinton — first when he was a candidate and then when he was President — but she interviewed George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole and a slew of musicians like Tupac Shakur and Mariah Carey. Soren was so popular that teenagers used to clamour for her autograph.
All of that is fairly far away now for Soren. She left MTV in 1998, after having married the writer Michael Lewis in 1997. The pair met during the 1996 presidential campaign when Lewis interviewed Soren for The New Republic magazine. At that time, she was the bigger star, grabbing interviews with Clinton and Al Gore while Lewis was stuck talking to “alternative candidates” like Phil Gramm and Steve Forbes.
“Clinton and Dole didn’t deem it important enough to have an interview with him,” said Soren. Lewis later wrote a book about the campaign, Trail Fever, and referred to Soren’s influence in the acknowledgements “Tabitha Sornberger [Soren's original family name] read and improved the author without unnerving his manuscript. Some interviews never end.”
The couple moved to Berkeley in 1999 to teach at Cal; Soren was at the journalism school and Lewis taught at the business school.
“The intellectual curiosity of Berkeley was interesting to us,” said Soren. “It seemed diverse and strange… eclectic and vibrant.” The couple now has three children, 14, 11, and 6.
These days Soren’s time is spent on photography, although she occasionally shoots short technology television pieces for Bloomberg West. She also recently taped a reunion with her MTV colleagues, Kurt Loder and Matt Pinfield for an episode of Portlandia. It featured the trio crashing the MTV studios in New York to demand that management resurrect the station’s music-video format. “It was a lot of fun,” said Soren. (See the video here)
Soren spends a large portion of her day working in a craftsman bungalow near the Rose Garden, part of a complex of historic houses built by Henry Gutterson that she and Lewis purchased in 1999. The bungalow is sparsely decorated, with a desk and computer, but no chair for visitors. The walls are lined with photographs, and a mock-up of a book of her Running series sits on a table. The cottage is a not a place to be comfortable, which seems an apt metaphor for Soren’s work which is all about movement, displacement, and light.
In her current series, Soren is interested in showing people stripped away of protections. Her subjects come from all over – good friends, acquaintances, people she has just met. Soren puts them in a dramatic setting, one she has found through recommendations or by scanning Google Earth, and then tells them to run. She shoots her subjects in motion. Sometimes they face the camera. Sometimes their faces are obscured.
Many of the settings for the photos are local. There is a man running through the mist near Berkeley Lab, a woman getting out of Lake Anza, and a scene shot on Hopkins Street.
“Who the people are is not all that important for the series,” said Soren. “For me it’s all about what people have to overcome in their lives to get through it, to have a meaningful life. The project was more about probing the subconscious, facing down the anxiety, the panic, the hurdles that are put in front of you. And just about any of my subjects can relate to that.”
The pictures suggest a back-story, but don’t reveal what it might be. That is Soren’s intent.
“I do love the viewer participation aspect of this project,” she said. “When you are looking at the pictures people come up with their own (story). They are projecting themselves into the narrative. I feel like so much contemporary art is off-putting and stultifying. If I can visualize some sort of collective narrative or present something about the human condition that is universal, people supply their own stories. That is an interesting way for an audience to become part of a photograph.”
Soren stumbled on photography almost by accident. In 1997 she accepted a year-long Knight Fellowship at Stanford University. Soren was burned out from TV work and had thought she would delve further into documentary filmmaking. In her application, she had proposed exploring narrative structure in a non-linear fashion. But she took a photography class and unexpectedly fell in love with the medium.
She and Lewis went to Paris in 1999, shortly after their daughter Quinn was born, and Soren took photos to accompany a diary Lewis penned for Slate. Then, when Lewis was writing a profile of Lindy Boggs, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, the photography editor of the New York Times Magazine asked Soren to shoot Bogg’s portrait. That launched a period in which Soren and Lewis did a number of collaborations, where he wrote the text and she shot the images. Those included a 2005 story on baseball players and a 2005 cover story for the NYT Magazine on the destruction left after Hurricane Katrina.
As Soren has found herself more engrossed in fine arts photography and less interested in journalism, and Lewis’ fame has grown, the collaborations have become less regular.
“I think it is very important to both of us to have separate identities,” said Soren.
While Soren was once in the national spotlight, someone whose moves and interview questions were closely monitored by fans and foes alike, she seems perfectly content now to focus on her family and photography, which “comes very close to my heart.” The canvas is different, but the work seems more true, she said.
“I am feeling a lot of momentum. It’s the art world. It’s a very small world compared to what I was in before. But I feel good being behind the camera.”
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