Tabitha Soren with Relief, Photo credit: Laura Plageman

This Friday evening, photographer Tabitha Soren’s solo exhibition Relief will open at Jackson Fine Art in Buckhead. Unlike any exhibition that has come before, the retrospective spans three collections and a decade of development and evolution in Soren’s career.

Her works, which often exist within the gray areas of shared human experience, explore themes of tension and and connection.

Soren, calling from a landline in her Berkeley, California home, told me about her path and shared her artistic motivations in the days leading up to opening night. “I’m always trying to visualize a psychological state,” Soren said. “The connective tissue to the three bodies of work is a certain amount of anxiety, dread, and discomfort.” 

Inspiring a sense of paranoia and uncertainty, works from her Running collection feature archetypal figures in distress. As her subjects flee through settings that are both familiar and yet unknown, these images capture a sense of the perilousness of survival. Do they run from something, or are they running to a destination? Is there a looming threat just out of view? Though Running was completed in 2014, these images have taken on new significance to viewers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic which brought a sense of collective doom to the human experience. 

Following Running, Soren began working on Surface Tension. Developed by experimenting with photographs of photographs and playing with the intersections of media types, these images invite the viewer to consider how viewers might engage with images through technology. Using an 8×10 film camera to document images displayed on the screen of a dirty iPad, the resulting images feature smudges and smears that distort, enhance, accentuate and sometimes seemingly threaten to completely obscure the original image. 

“It makes me feel like it grew over time, it stretched and it means something new. I love those pictures,” said Soren, who explained that the images exist in a sort of closed loop. “The world is 3D, you take a picture and make it 2D, and then you carve into it and turn it back into 3D.”

Soren’s most recent body of work, Relief, will be exhibited for the first time at Jackson Fine Art. In contrast to the digital-on-digital elements of Surface Tension, for these works Soren used tools to inflict damage and physically alter already printed images. The process itself is actually quite stressful as there are so many unknowns when using nontraditional means to distress her photographs, leaving little room for error. 

“By taking a photograph and putting scans on top of it, shooting it, cutting it, setting it on fire, it allows the viewer to relate to it in a way that means something to them. It’s not over-determined by me.” 

This desire to produce subjective and evocative works that ask for engagement from the viewer is perhaps one of the most marked shifts in Soren’s lifelong pursuit of storytelling. To understand why this is such a drastic departure we must go back to the beginning.

Soren’s career began in the late 80s when she was a student at NYU studying journalism and politics. In off hours she became involved with MTV which was, at the time, a powerhouse television channel for music lovers across the globe. First appearing as an extra in a Beastie Boys music video, Soren worked off and on with the media magnate during college until she left to take a short-lived position as an on-air reporter in Vermont. The environment was uncomfortably bucolic and “way too rural” for her liking, so she made the decision to return to New York City where she felt most at home in her skin, landing in a job working as an on-air reporter for MTV News. She convinced the network cover the 1992 presidential elections. Soren soon became a household name. 

“I do feel like I was rewarded professionally for taking a leap of fath,” she recalls. She hosted televised interviews with incredible musicians including Tupac Shakur, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Mariah Carey. Soren’s appearances at events like the Video Music Awards put her in front of 80 million people across the globe. 

Gates of Paradise, Tabitha Soren 2020

Though the success was enjoyable, over time she found herself drawn away from news reporting. Seeking to understand the complexities of life that were deeper than the who-what-where-why of reporting. The news briefs were just that: brief. Air time limits left no room for anything but straight facts, and Soren increasingly felt the desire to ask deeper questions and tell more nuanced stories. 

By the late nineties Soren was ready for a change. For a time she considered pursuing documentary filmmaking, but ultimately decided that the fundraising she would have to do in that industry would not be a good fit. Ultimately, the life of a reporter was one of travel, and though she had grown up moving frequently thanks to her father’s job in the Air Force she came to understand that she didn’t actually desire to live such a transient life. Especially when she became a mother, Soren wanted to build a career doing what she loved and it was not chasing breaking news stories.

Soren applied for and accepted a year-long fellowship to study photography and art history at Stanford. The experience was transformative. She fell in love with the dark room and it set her on a path of artistic exploration.

Now, some 20 odd years later, Soren spends most of her time working on collections of photographs that come to life over the course of five or more years. The slow, contemplative process of fine art photography has suited her. It allows her to be curious and playful, to experiment without predetermining the outcome. She has cultivated a life where she is able to be present with her family while simultaneously gaining the respect and recognition of the art world.

In another show of Soren’s bold ambition, the show at Jackson Fine Art came about because of a bold shot in the dark. After seeing an interview with Radcliffe Bailey and learning of his path from sports to fine arts, Soren considered that he might appreciate some of her recent works in Fantasy Life. The collection relies on the game of baseball to convey themes of vulnerability, luck, and heroism in American life. She sent him a copy of one of her books and from there a friendship quickly blossomed. Bailey mentioned Soren to his friend Anna Walker Skillman, the owner of Jackson Fine Art, and suggested that perhaps the gallery would be a good fit for Soren’s work. 

Soren was blown away by the gesture. “To have someone of his stature –he’s a Blue Chip, very big deal – and the fact that he’s kind and thoughtful and wants to help another person… It was like my head exploded.”

The resulting exhibition, which is the first time these three collections will be shown together, offers a unique perspective on Soren’s career that she says she finds “thrilling.” Grateful for the welcome she has already received in Atlanta, the opening is sure to be a who’s-who of photographers and photography-lovers alike. And though Soren’s work on display utilizes different approaches, mediums, and types of photography, this exhibit will provide a more comprehensive view of Soren’s fine arts career than ever before. “I can’t wait to see how they add up,” said Soren.

Soren will be in attendance at Jackson Fine Art for the opening this Friday, Sept. 16 from 6 to 8 p.m, and she will host an artist talk, guided tour, and book signing on Saturday Sept. 17 at 11:30 a.m. Soren’s work will remain on display through Dec. 23

Isadora Pennington

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.