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Exhibitions: Tabitha Soren On How Technology Touches Us, and How We Touch It

By David Schonauer   Wednesday February 6, 2019


We we browse websites, we leave traces our ourselves.

Modern society is in fact only now coming to terms with how much we leave behind when we go online — information about our identities, our interests, our travels, and of course our shopping habits.

But we also leave behind physical traces of ourselves in the form of greasy fingerprints left on the screens of our smartphones and tablets. These trails, evidence of our humanness, are the subject of fine-art photographer Tabitha Soren’s intriguing series “Surface Tension,” on view at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, beginning today and running through June 9. The work — shots of iPad screens made with an 8x10 view camera — examines the transactional relationships we conduct with our digital devices.

She looks not only at how technology touches us, but also how we touch it.

Soren, who became famous as an anchor for MTV News and for following Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, turned to photography to look for the kinds of emotional truths that journalism can’t approach: She says her photography “visualizes emotional states.” Her series “Running,” shot between 2010 and 2013, probed the flight or fight response to danger. Her series “Fantasy Life” focused on minor league baseball players and their effort to achieve. Another series, “Panic Beach,” visualized the sense of panic through images of oceanscapes.

“My art work speaks to the twists of fate in life that can unhinge us,” she told The Phoblographer recently. “I am most interested in what human beings can  survive – and what they can’t. I hope my images function like invitations to the viewers’ emotional memory.

Her new series considers how we spend our time online, and how that changes our ideas about what is real and what isn’t

The new series came about while Soren was reading the manuscript of a book written by her husband, Michael Lewis, on an iPad while on a plane flight. “[W]hen I was done, I turned the overhead light on,” she told The Photoblographer. “I was struck by all the swipes my fingers had made on the screen. It looked like a Franz Kline painting. I took of picture of the marks on my iPad with my phone. When I read the next five chapters at home, I photographed the marks on the screen with my Hasselblad on black and white film. I made gelatin silver prints in my darkroom that I thought was exquisite.”

The project evolved into painterly large-format color work. "The color screens do a better job replicating the agitation I feel in my head when I’ve spent too much time with technology,” Soren said.

The tension in “Surface Tension” comes from the contact between the “greasy smears of our embodied selves, so seemingly at odds with the chilly detachment and objectivity of the information that flows towards us, unrelentingly,” notes the Davis Museum. The images invite us to consider how we both cherish and dismiss the image-driven “content” flowing to us online.

Images of cats and porn are part of the online content Soren captures, and in doing so she asks us to think about what we mindlessly consume. “What I was also trying to get at was this mediated life experience that we all have because of our devices,” she said in a recent interview at Dazed. “Instead of calling somebody, you text them so you don’t hear their voice, you don’t hear them try to think of the right words, you don’t hear the sounds that they make as a human being, you just text back and forth and it’s wildly efficient – but I think there’s an intimacy that’s lost there. The videos are a substitute for a real cat and a real sexual partner.”

She addresses the same notion with an image of her daughter blowing a kiss to her online. “She sent me that picture as a way to kiss me goodnight when I was out of town and thought nothing of calling me. Yes, it’s very sweet, but it’s also indicative of where we are in the culture,” said Soren.

“An air kiss, which is a weird form of a kiss, refers to a ‘LOL’ being a weird form of a laugh, and sending around manipulated photographs on digital screens, I think that’s a weird way to transact relationships,” she added. “My age probably has something to do with it, because my teenage daughters are very comfortable with it.”   

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