Photographs ©Tabitha Soren
Running With Tabitha Soren
Essay by Bryan Formhals
It’s 90 degrees out and sweat is dripping down my face. I’m tired and anxious. I only slept a few hours the previous night and now, I’m standing under the elevated N/Q line in Astoria, Queens, a few blocks from my apartment. I’m getting ready to sprint, Rangefinder slung over my shoulder, Addidas tied tightly.
Standing a few feet in front of me is my friend Katie Friedman. She’s holding a jimmy-rigged pole with a strobe attached to it. A few feet behind her, Tabitha Soren is crouched down looking straight at me through her Phase 1.
“Anytime Bryan,” she says.
I look directly into the camera and start sprinting.
There’s something primal about running. The cliche “running for your life” is one that I don’t really like to contemplate. I can’t run very fast so I’d rather my life not depend on it. But regardless of the circumstance, at this point in my life, there’s nothing about running that sparks my interest. This hasn’t always been the case, however. I was a jock as a kid. I ran around all the time—not very fast—but I was running. It was part of my daily routine.
Then, in my twenties, after adding a few post-collegiate pounds, I started a jogging routine in the hopes of getting back into shape. But I eventually stopped when I discovered the Hollywood apartment I moved into had an exercise bike.The convenience was too inviting. It was around that time, too, that I started taking long walks with my camera, exploring Los Angeles, the first place outside of Minnesota that I’d ever lived.
Tabitha’s “Running” portraits have appeared on dozens of blogs and websites this year. When I first saw them, they didn’t initially grab my interest primarily because they felt too staged. As they continued to appear on my radar, I saw different selections of photographs, and began to look at them more closely.
The act of running had forced emotions out the subjects that we typically don’t see in portraiture. In most portraiture, the subject is directly confronted with the camera. They are, in many cases, intimately aware of its presence, and the exchange they are having with it, and the photographer.
In Tabitha’s portraits, the physicality of running disrupts this intimacy, leaving the subjects more vulnerable and emotionally exposed. But what emotions do people experience when they’re running? For me, that question is dependent on why they are running, and that’s where Tabitha’s portraits add the element of mystery and ambiguity which are the signatures of really great photography.
There are no answers in the photographs. That mystery, and the emotional state of the subjects, is what drew, and continues to draw, me deeper into these images.
It was only after seeing the photographs on a few blogs that I decided to Google the artist to see if she was the Tabitha Soren of MTV News fame.
I quickly found out that yes, indeed, it was the same person. I was in high school in the early 90s and watched MTV like most people. My memory has faded, but I definitely remember Tabitha as an MTV News anchor. Mostly I have a vision of her with her red hair staring at me on the TV that was in my basement as a teenager.
One morning a few weeks later, I rolled over, grabbed my iPhone and saw I had an email from Tabitha with “submission” in the subject line. The majority of submission emails I receive are cut and paste template jobs. Tabitha’s, however,was one of the rare that was personalized and showed that she follows LPV, and wasn’t simply trying to use it to gain more publicity for herself.
Near the end of her message, she made a suggestion that caught me off guard. She asked if I would want to run for her next time she was in town.
“That could potentially make for an interesting article,” was the first thought that crossed my mind. The next , however, was something along the lines of, “Yeah, but you’re going to look like a fool.”
I accepted the offer anyway, and she told me she’d be in touch next time she was in New York. I figured it’d probably never happen so I forgot about it. A month later, however, she sent an email letting me know that she was going to be in town for a group show at Klompching Gallery. It dawned on me that there was no backing out now.
In the days leading up to the shoot I helped her find specific locations and she provided me with wardrobe guidelines (no logos, have a camera, a hat). She needed an assistant, so I put her in touch with Katie, whom I figured would probably be amused.
After the first take, Tabitha gave me a few specific instructions. She wanted me to exaggerate the swinging of my arms, show more emotion on my face, and rather than looking directly at the camera, I was to look off into the distance, as if I were running toward something or someone.
I shook my head in agreement and made a quip, which impressed no one, about taking improv classes a few years earlier. I don’t want to spoil the illusion of the photos, but I will say I wasn’t required to run any long distances. We busted off about 25 frames at that location. The first few were a bit awkward. I reckon the site of me sprinting caught the attention of a few jaded New Yorkers who are accustom to seeing just about everything.
The next location was the exit that leads onto the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge (first photo above.) Tabitha set up on the elevated N/Q station so she had nice a birds-eye view of me. The plan was for me to run into the middle of the street when the light turned red and there were no cars. Katie and I waited on the shoulder, and she signaled to me when it was time to go. I’d sprint and then veer off back onto the shoulder.
We repeated this several times and by tenth run I was starting to get tired and losing both my stamina and enthusiasm for being a subject. Tabitha was wearing me down. I’d basically forgotten about the camera. I was focusing on my sprints and my now aching body.
Tabitha wasn’t getting the shot she wanted, so I continued to run. She would give Katie some instructions, which were then relayed to me. I was certain a cop was going to stop us. As I ran, I started imagining being arrested for breaking some obscure law, and perhaps getting locked up in psychward. I was having a tough time convincing myself that I really wasn’t a bit crazy.
Why was I doing this again? In the name of art? Those were futile questions though because I knew the answers already. I was living in New York and a fantastic photographer wanted to push me outside my comfort zone. Why the hell wouldn’t I do it?
We wrapped it up and decided to head to East River Park in Greenpoint for one last setup. On the way Tabitha, and I talked about photography. In that conversation, I realized that she was a bona fide photography addict. We could have talked for hours about the creative process and what we thought about different photographers.
At one point she asked me about my work. Before this year, I would have had a tough time discussing it primarily because I wasn’t comfortable articulating my ideas, or what motivates me to make photographs. Within the last year though, as I’ve studied more and been more disciplined with my editing, I’ve become more confident in speaking about my photography.
“When did you realize you were good at it?” she asked.
“Well, that I’m not sure about,” I said with a grin. “I do know that I’m motivated primarily by the need for creative fulfillment, and ever since I left Minnesota for California I’ve felt this need to document my experience.”
As we parked and walked to the park I started to think about my role as a subject and how this experience will inform the way I interact with subjects in my own work.
Having a camera pointed at you is uncomfortable, and it makes you self conscious. I’ve always tried to maintain the fly on the wall approach as a photographer because I want to capture unscripted moments. But now that I’ve had the camera pointed at me, I’m starting to understand that there’s an entirely different world of photography to explore, one where photographer and subject collaborate to create something together.
As we arrived at the shores of the East River, the setting sun was barely peeking through a mountain range of clouds, which created an ominous sky over Manhattan.
I was instructed to run toward the water, run toward the city, run toward the setting sun. The metaphors were racing through my mind as the hipsters gawked at me. I didn’t care. I was in the moment.
I’d just had the privilege of working with a talented photographer and a generous human being. Tabitha brought me into her creative world, broke me down, and then made me reveal a part of myself I hadn’t recognized before. I don’t know why she chose me as a subject. That part of the process will remain a mystery. But she did, and she made me run. I’m still trying to figure out where I was running to that day. When I get there, I’ll let you know.
Tabitha Soren is a Berkeley, California based photographer. You can view more photographs from her ‘Running’ series on her website.
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