— tabitha soren (@tabithasoren) April 23, 2017
The book: “Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream”
The author: Photographs by Tabitha Soren; text by Dave Eggers
The vital statistics: Aperture publications, 136 pages, $45, released on April 1
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website, or the writers’ website
The pitch: First things first — If you’ve got time Saturday at 4:30 p.m., jog over to Culver City’s Arcana: Books on the Arts (8675 Wash-
ington Blvd.) to join Soren for an artist talk and Q&A about her work.
Aside from not being disappointed from that invested time, you’ll get a chance to browse perhaps the coolest art-book stores in SoCal that even has its own baseball section.
But first, some background.
This 15-year photo project began when Soren started shooting the Class of 2002 Oakland A’s minor leaguers as they came to spring training straight out of high school and college. She had something of a vested interest: Her husband is Michael Lewis, author of the acclaimed book on the A’s called “Moneyball.”
He wrote about the way the team was assembled. She, admitting to knowing little to nothing about baseball, could document how their careers did or didn’t pan out. And do it in a very artsy way that really has no precedent.
In a previous life, Soren was the MTV political reporter in the mid-’90s and worked at NBC News, but she saw an opportunity to reinvent. Photography, and the art of making pictures, captivated her interest enough to where she went old-school with the platform and development of photos.
As it turned out, these young A’s players included pitcher Joe Blanton and players Nick Swisher and Mark Teahen, who logged double-digit years in the MLB and earned quite a few million dollars for it. But the book also contains photos of other baseball-related occurances that captured Soren’s eye along the way, and they get inclusion as well (such as a shot of that 2013 brawl former Dodgers coach Mark McGwire got into with Arizona manager Kirk Gibson and coach Matt Williams at Dodger Stadium).
The book also includes a five-part mini-novel by Eggers about a Kansa City Royals-drafted infielder named Giovonni “Gee” Fillipacci, who went 1-for-9 with a triple in the only two big-league games he got to plain, ultimately for the Dodgers. Just don’t look him up. He doesn’t exist. It’s a composite of what happens to players who chase their dreams and get into the eye of this “fantasy life” before it spits them back out.
In recent interviews with Andy and Brian Kamenetzky on their ESPNLA podcast, with Joe Posnanski from MLB.com, with Jeremy Schaap for his ESPN Radio podcast and also with Sarah Spain at ESPNw.com, Soren’s step-by-step process is laid out as to what she was trying to achieve and by what methods — and turns out many striking photographs that definitely are not what you’d expect from mainstream shooters.
This gives us the opportunity to take a few broader strokes to see what Soren, 49 and mother of three kids in the Bay Area who still isn’t sure what she knows or doesn’t know about baseball, thinks about other things at it relates to the medium as an art form:
Q: I saw this photo on your website and was fascinated by how you’ve managed to give what is otherwise a classic photo of Sandy Koufax an entirely new perspective, based on this technique you used. Can you explain how you do this, as you did to several other photos in the book?
A: You know that’s Sandy Koufax? I have no idea how you know that.
Q: It’s the number 32, for one, and the classic motion …
A: The motion? Really?
Q: It’s him in mid-pitch taking his arm back to that extreme stretch and bending his back.
A: Wow … That’s cool.
So, this is called a tintype. I was doing research about baseball and looking at a book on Eadweard Muybridge who did a lot of motion studies on horses and runners and there was this whole series on baseball players. They are naked and swinging and hitting and he’s studying what their bodies are doing. But then on the next page there were a series of players did when they made an error. I’m not sure what the comparisons were. So the first recorded baseball contat was in 1846… But it also mentioned that Adolphe-Alexandre Martin was making tintype pictures in France in 1853. When I saw that, a light bulb went off in my head: This would be a great way to have action shots that look like mine. In art photography, the whole point is not to copy what someone else who came before you but think of some new way to tell a story. I knew the narrative of my story was different but I didn’t want to have action shots that looked like they were from ESPN Magazine or Sports Illustrated. We’ve seen plenty of them and they’re very good, but I don’t know we need more of them in the world.
I thought this would be a good way to incorporate some of the history of baseball, to stare the nostalgic stuff in the face and take it head on, but also take my photographs and have my view in a tintype.
In this case I was watching a documentary and froze the TV. I set up my 8×10 cameras with the black hood over you. No one does analogue anymore so you can get them on eBay. I lit the heck out of it wit contemporary flash equipment. So what you do – take a piece of tin, but in this case it was aluminum, which they always use anyway, but the misnomer is calling it tintype. You paint the photographic emulsion on in the dark onto it, it dries, you put in a negative holder, but it’s not a negative, it’s this piece of tin, you put it in the camera in the back, open it, that exposes it to the light, and then you close it.
It took me about six years to learn how to do this with live baseball players.
Q: What grabbed you about this Koufax pose?
A: The awkwardness of it. His hand looks backwards. He’s off balance. I really didn’t even know who this player was. This photograph is from an earlier experiment. There are a lot of bubbles in it and I liked it because it added a texture to it and called attention to the edges are uneven and some blue in there where daylight seeped into it when it was drying. It’s not perfect – and none of us are. There’s an arduousness in making a picture like this. Because when it’s live, you only get one shot at it. I felt like it showed the striving and effort that I was making to accomplish this piece of art as much as this person has sacrificed to get to this point. Maybe for Koufax it was effortless and he never struggled, but I suspect he did …
Q: A lot of arm problems that ended his career prematurely actually …
A: I wonder why. That makes sense. Here’s an example (she takes a copy of the book and flips to page 98 of catcher of A’s catcher Jed Morris trying to stop a ball in the dirt, and page 99, of Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes bending over with trainer George Poulis) where I love the sculptural aspect of this. I was looking up games where there were highlights of injuries in baseball and looking for failure and falls in a dramatic way. The teamwork and bodies making the same shape was powerful to me.
Q: One thing I found on your Twitter account was a link to a piece Scott Simon did for CBS Sunday Morning that had to do with baseball and the power of art. He was using an example of a Norman Rockwell famous painting (called “The Dugout” featuring the Chicago Cubs, whose characters were actually taken from photographs he took first and then painted). Whether it’s painting or photography, baseball seems to be a sport that allows to capture many things on many levels. In general, how do you think of baseball through the prism of a camera – the shapes, the colors, the motions?
A: I became very interested in baseball because of its art, sure. I think it’s the most photographic sport – even if I’m not the expert in sports. The time of year it takes place, the light of spring training in Arizona, that’s hard to beat from dawn to sunset. Photography is all about capturing the right amount of light. What’s challenging about baseball is actually the advertising that’s now in so many of these corporate stadiums. The nicer the stadium, the happier the guys were to play in it, the less happy I was. There is too many adds, with too much texts (that distracts) and corporate neutralness. If you go to one of the smaller, falling-apart minor league stadiums in Iowa, that’s much more photogenic.
The other thing that distinguishes baseball as a form of art – photography has such a great role in the lore and mythology of baseball actually because of the baseball card. That’s a photo and those tell you so much about how things have changed over the years. It’s a typography of what the game looked like and the physiques looked like. If you laid baseball cards out, it might almost be a scientific study and people fetishized that object. I don’t look down upon it all. It gives people a connection to the sport that as far as I know the other sports don’t really have.
Q: Baseball cards really are small pieces of art, and obsession art, and the older the better, right? Then there are the Charles Conlon’s collection of photos are in books now from his shooting from The Sporting News.
A: I felt like there’s a long tradition of people framing the imagine of a baseball game as a still image, so I was comfortable there. The art world people probably think of baseball and all sports as so mainstream and get so much attention already, why would an artist pay any attention to it? But I felt more like an anthropologist. I started out with almost zero knowledge. It might as well have been a tribe in Morocco or street kids who live in a subway. That kind of sub-culture. I was learning something new all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’d go to a game and would be waiting until the end of the game to get the shots of when all the climatic things happen, happy and all … but they wouldn’t play the bottom half of the ninth inning. It took me forever to figure this out – where’s everybody going? It took me long enough to – doh, this happened again.
Q: The book really has pictures, though, of things you don’t normally see, or think of as a subject for something to be called art. They may go unnoticed. A different eye sees it and then you put your own stamp on it.
A: I hope so. That was the intent.
Q: And if this was a 15-year project you must have thousand of photos you didn’t use.
A: I have an archive to say the least. I had a really good photo teacher early on who said every single year, pick the best five photos, clean the negative, save the negative, label it, stick it in an envelope, don’t get them dirty, make prints, put them away … so when the book came, I could do a quick low-res scan and find it. If I didn’t have the help of (publisher) Aperture … when I go to them, I’m the baseball expert now. Nobody knows anything about baseball there. So they could look at the photo without any preconceived baggage about who it was. She could pick a weird picture of a bunch of ice melting on the dugout floor which was there after they dumped the Gatorade on someone, and when I looked at it, I thought of this quote that a manager once said: When we get ‘em they’re in perfect shape, but the next day they’re all melting ice cubes. I thought – Oh! That’s so harsh! They’re deteriorating each day. But I took that picture with that quote in mind. And she like it maybe because it was sort of punk rock and mysterious. To have my inner monologue and her visual reaction combined, that helped a lot.
Q: There’s pictures of gum with tobacco, and metal doors with baseball dents in them, equipment under a grandstand, a stadium light against a dark backdrop and a blue sky with white puffs. … A knotted backstop netting that has been hand-stitched back together. All parts of a game that are there but too often get overlooked but is really human.
A: In some point, after 15 years, you can see meaning in almost anything. I would say, that tangled net, those nets are everywhere and in every photographer’s way. But the tangledness and irregularity of it was maybe a metaphor for how much randomness in their trajectory of going from Single A to the majors if they’re lucky. An injury, a trade, a death in the family, one guy got cancer – even if your ability isn’t that much different from that guy. Everyone assumes that Nick Swisher made $98 million in 12 years that he’s the happiest person on the planet. And he is happy. But his life wasn’t without any struggle. He didn’t want his knees to go out on him. It’s an example of how we’re all living and dying at the same time. It’s natural for fans of the game and Americans in general who are big strivers to just look at a professional athletes as just winners or losers. It’s like what Joe Blanton once said after retiring in 2014 after struggling with the Angels. He went to a winery in Napa and a catcher moved in next door and needed someone to pitch to him, and it was fun again for him to do that, no pressure, and he rediscovered the childlike history with the game and then got a tryout with the Pirates, when the World Series with Royals, then a key player with the Dodgers … that doesn’t always line up that way very often. It’s so random.
Q: So many fans today take baseball photos with their phone. That has to be some sort of art form in itself, whether they share them or not. Recently someone compiled a book of baseball Instagram photos that were submitted to him for this project (in 2013, called “Instant Baseball” by Brad Mangin). It harkens back to a time when fans took pictures with Polaroids that might eventually fade. As a photographer, is there an art form in taking pictures with your phone?
A: I definitely think so. The more people who express themselves creatively, the happier they will be. I think there is a line between how much time one should pay attention to what’s going on around them and then using a viewer to direct your life and how much you pay attention to an actual experience. We’ve all been at Disneyland where someone is with the iPad taping the whole “It’s A Small World” ride and I’m thinking, Are you going to actually go home and watch that? What’s the point? And your kid is really mesmerized and it seems like you’re just trying to distract yourself from your own life at some point. That said, I’m very supportive of people having their own Instagram feeds and their own views of their own photography. I feel like we were all artists when we started out, it’s just that some of us quit early. Those people are using some of that leftover artistic inclination. There’s an audience for almost any kind of picture. When I start a new project, I start out often thinking: What do I want to say? What hasn’t been expressed? I don’t know if that comes from my journalism background, but the work has a real deep intellectual and emotional explanation. A lot of artists aren’t like that at all and they’re work is fantastic. That’s not my process so I don’t feel in competition with people documenting their experiences on their phones. That’s not what I do. As someone with teenage daughters who are taking a lot of selfies, there is a lot of life you can miss out on if you’re always looking through a piece of glass. Actually, I barely take any pictures except for when I’m working. When I’m not working, I’m trying to be present.
== An exceptional piece on the book from LitHub.com.