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photo-eye Book Reviews: Lowlife

Lowlife, Photographs by Scot Sothern.
Published by Stanley Baker, 2011.
Reviewed by Colin Pantall
Scot Sothern Lowlife
Photographs by Scot Sothern
Stanley Baker, London, 2011. Softcover. 96 pp., 43 black & white illustrations, 8-1/2x7".

Chipped paint, fuzzy television screens and naked women. That sums up Scot Sothern's Lowlife, a series of pictures of prostitutes that Sothern visited in the 1980s. Part romantic, part sleazeball, part concerned, the resulting book is hard to place; a cocktail of the John's eye view, searing documentary and lurid but real text. It's a male point of view but with human characteristics, a vital book that, with its multiple perspectives, escapes the clich├ęs of prostitution photography.

Lowlife is not erotic. There is no titillation here; these are not the kind of pictures you are likely to see on an escort agency website. It's not vernacular dressed as documentary. The women and men are fleshy and physical, sometimes run-down and withered, scarred by abuse, crack, alcohol, AIDS, degraded by the most demeaning work performed in the most run-down neighbourhoods at the most unsympathetic of times.
Lowlife, by Scot Sothern. Published by Stanley Baker, 2011.
Well, sometimes they are, sometimes they're not. Sometimes his subjects are alive and engaging, people living lives to the best of their ability. Sothern gives us pointers to their state with his vivid writing. He describes them as whores and they describe him as a 'motherfucker,' 'cocksucker' and 'White-Bread.' He photographs them and they are bewildered for the most part. That's not what they are there for.
Lowlife, by Scot Sothern. Published by Stanley Baker, 2011.
He says he photographed because he wanted to show the neglected state of the prostitutes. But at the same time, Sothern brings himself down and admits that he was not always the noble documentary-maker. Sometimes he gets a 'boner' and a handjob on the side - he becomes the straightforward John, a participant in an industry. So he's not a photographic hero, he's not wallowing in victim-hood, he resists turning his subjects into a typology and there is no affectation of chance, relationship or empowerment.

Instead he gets the complexity of the prostitutes, people who were, in Sothern's own words, "...far more complex than the cheap sex that defined them."
Lowlife, by Scot Sothern. Published by Stanley Baker, 2011.
Sothern's pictures are on the edge, below the belt but also very personal. They come with a male perspective that is crude and transactional, but they go beyond that. The pictures are about people and the cruelties that are heaped upon them for a multitude of reasons. There are many photographs of prostitutes, but Scot Sothern's are the least simplistic, the least idealised, and for that reason they are the most human. Or are they?—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer, photographer and teacher - he is currently a visiting lecturer in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales. His work has been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Manchester and Rome and his Sofa Portraits will be published as a handmade book early next year. Further thoughts of Colin Pantall can be found on his blog, which was listed as one of’s favourites earlier this year.