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On View: Tabitha Soren's "Surface Tensions" Leave a Mark in a New Show and Book

By David Schonauer   Thursday September 16, 2021


Some images are touching.

Tabitha Soren’s series “Surface Tension” is about touch, and how we experience the world by swiping the screens of our mobile devices.

Soren photographs iPad screens with an 8x10 view camera to reveal the marks left behind—fingerprints, smudges, and oily residue — attesting to our tactile encounters with digital visual information: How technology touches us, and how we leave traces of ourselves on technology.

Soren began the project in 2014, “pulling news photos from moments of reckoning and emergency, and photographing them again, on a finger-marked iPad,” notes The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino. “Through this quotidian layer of painterly abstraction, these photos speak of the uncanny interaction between our skin, itself a screen for complex fleshly machinery, and the phone, which masks a world of machinery that was built with the express purpose of monetizing everything that our flesh might fear or crave. These two systems, animal and machine, meet on this glassy surface; the marks left behind are the only physical record of the encounter.”


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, we noted in 2019. 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 seascapes.

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 were exquisite."

The “Surface Tension” series will be on view at  Mills College Art Museum in Oakland, California through December 12. (The opening reception is on September 18; on October 6, Soren will be discussing the work with writer and sociologist Sarah Thornton at Mills College.)

There is also a new 64-page book (from RVB Books, Paris) featuring 41 images from the series. A special edition of the book comes with an 8 x11-inch Lambda print of one of the images (edition of 100).

“The photos in Surface Tension metonymize the collective reality of millions of anonymous human bodies—on lunch break, at the bus stop, in line at the grocery store, under the covers—turning repeatedly toward our screens,” writes Tolentino, who has contributed an essay to the new book. “The streaks provide proof of our mundane bestial reality—our hormones, our lunch, our particular whorls and spirals. Yet they also document a space of psychological estrangement, of blinking awake every morning to a stream of hallucinatory images a few inches from our faces."

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