For the past five years, Tabitha Soren has been asking people to give her their bone spurs — calcium deposits that grow along joints or bones — ever since a baseball pitcher gave her one he had surgically removed after from a repetitive stress injury.
Many will remember Soren as the face of MTV News’s 1992 Choose or Loose voting campaign, back when she was running around collecting interviews with people like Bill Clinton and Tupac Shakur. Since leaving television news in 1999, Soren hasn’t resurfaced as an anthropologist or eccentric collector. The bone spurs are part of her new fine art photography exhibition about the American dream, or, more specifically, about baseball.
Soren’s show, “Fantasy Life,” which opens tonight and is on display through June 6 at Kopeikin Gallery in Culver City, is centered around images of 21 players selected for the Oakland A’s 2002 draft class, whom Soren has followed for the past twelve years. Soren remembers how hopeful they seemed back in 2003, even though she knew few of them would make it in the big leagues and most would retire by age 30. She stayed with them for the rise and falls of their narrative arcs — some had long careers or became coaches; one now owns a pet store; another became a coal miner.
Over the years, she started shooting other teams, minor league players, stadiums and other spaces players inhabit. She expanded her show to include memorabilia and even the pieces of bones pitchers had had removed from repetitive stress injuries in their shoulders.
“It’s just one of the ways these guys make a sacrifice with their bodies,” Soren says of the bones spurs, as her GPS app navigated her to the gallery for an early morning installation. “These are tactile reminders of what they put on the line.”
For Soren, baseball is a prime metaphor for the myth of the American dream — the romantic ideal of the itinerant achiever, the notion that failure leads to success, and the promise that fame and fortune guarantee happiness.
The images are a mix of long-exposures revealing eerie, ethereal settings (silhouettes of trees encroaching on a pyre of pastel fireworks, swirls of misty rain threatening to engulf stark stadium lights); quotidian moments on and off the field (a couple in bed in an apartment with bare walls, a batter seen through the net of the batting cage); and intimate close-ups of the players (one looking with awe into the sun, another sighing within a cloud of coal dust).
Soren says the photos she likes best are those with religious overtones. One image of the Modesto Nuts lined up in the dugout (above) evokes the Last Supper. A black-and-white shot of two hands rubbing talcum powder as light filters in from above suggests a moment of prayer.
So does a striking image of pitcher Jared Burton stretching in a Minneapolis bullpen, the image’s contrasting red dirt and manicured green lawn reminiscent of a Rothko. In the image, one of Burton’s legs is stretched out behind him, the other folded beneath him, his torso flattened over it. His eyes are closed and he clutches a fistful of balls close to his face. In this position, he appears vulnerable, caught in a moment of solitude.
These moments of intimacy, in which the viewer is invited into the world of the photograph, are hallmarks of Soren’s work. “My art boils down to visualizing psychological states,” says Soren, who took up fine art photography after winning a yearlong Knight fellowship at Stanford University in 1997. Her work has appeared in the major magazines like The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair as well as galleries across the country.
Her work isn't documentary photography — she focuses more on using constructed or fictionalized scenarios to reveal deeper truths. Her last show, “Running,” which appeared at Kopeikin in 2013 and established her in the fine art world, featured dramatically lit, isolated individuals running in everyday settings. It’s impossible to know whether the subjects are running from a natural disaster or desperately trying to catch a bus; they exhibit moments of anxiety, or, as Soren said, our instinct of fight or flight.
For “Fantasy Life,” Soren moved away from the struggle of individuals, instead casting a light on American society. “We live in a striving culture,” Soren says. “We take it for granted that someone who separates themselves is to be admired.” Competitive sports illustrates the pursuit of that apotheosis, of meteoric success. But it also illustrates its antithesis — the inevitable decline, the destruction of the idol.
Soren also illustrates the baseball archetype of the restless wanderer, showing handwritten lists on hotel notepads of all the teams the players have been on, cities they’ve lived in; and images of hotel parking lots and undecorated walls. She says there's not much that’s romantic about that itinerant life, especially for minor league players, who are paid very little.
Even those who are well paid, the strain of a physically demanding career and so much time in the limelight can be debilitating. “So many Americans believe the pursuit of fame and fortune is the pursuit of happiness,” Soren says. “But the most wealthy player I have is not the happiest. The more you get paid, the more pressure you have on you.”
Soren’s study of the American dream and its reversal reflects her own experience. In the early to mid-90s, she was a household name, rising to fame as one of MTV News’ first political reporters at only 23. She’s snagged interviews with multiple presidents and huge pop stars, and has appeared in a Beastie Boys video.
After she married the writer Michael Lewis (known for Moneyball, his own project involving the Oakland A's), she decided to give up the frenzy of breaking news in New York City to move to Berkeley, have kids, and explore documentary film. “I was five months pregnant when I covered the impeachment of Clinton,” Soren recalls. “I was done.” Ultimately, she took up a different form of storytelling with still photography, favoring the relative anonymity of the art world with its opportunities for nuance and self expression that she didn't have in television journalism. Her agent jokingly calls Soren her most “downwardly mobile client,” and though Soren says the glitz and noise of MTV was fun in her 20s, she now prefers her life as a fine artist.
She wasn’t thinking of her own abdication of fame as she traveled from stadium to stadium, photographing the rise and fall of baseball players. Still, there is something telling about the fact that she was never a baseball fan, but, through this project, has become a fan of the players. Perhaps it's that shared experience — a kinship, a point of access, an intimate connection — that enabled her to reveal something the rest of us may never have seen.
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