“Isn’t keeping your personal integrity worth as much as making art? Or, how can you make art when you have given your core self away?”*

Ayana, a dancer and single mom, photographed in a mansion on St. Charles Avenue, 2008
  • Tabitha Soren
  • Ayana, a dancer and single mom, photographed in a mansion on St. Charles Avenue, 2008

Tabitha Soren has her eye on New Orleans. She studies the city as a lifetime project, as not only a tool within her unique artistic vision, but also a sensitive backdrop for family memories. She loves the city with the eyes of a photographer, journalist, music enthusiast, wife and mother. She understands that unlike her own childhood, uprooted every few years within a military family, her children have deep roots and sure footing. New Orleans is home to their grandparents and cousins, the source of holiday and Mardi Gras memories, and a striking dichotomy to their lives in Northern California.

Inheritance 2, Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art
  • Tabitha Soren
  • Inheritance 2, Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

As students at Bruner Junior High School in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Tabitha and I struggled through pubescent misery together. While I do not recall her holding a camera in those days, she influenced, whether she intended to or not, the pictures in my mind. During a period of life when young girls spend their days riddled with insecurity in all forms, we became friends, forever bonded by acne and awkwardness, the desire to be popular and please our parents, and our heights, each of us towering over every boy in school.

We traveled in and out of contact over the years, finding a permanent common ground in the late 1990s when Tabitha married author Michael Lewis, a New Orleanian who writes and lives in Berkeley, California; and I moved to New Orleans with my husband, artist George Rodrigue, a Louisianian who spends the summers painting just south of Berkeley in Carmel Valley.

Esperanza Tree

More than geography, however, it is our parallel inward journey, an adolescent echo perhaps, that binds us. The insecurities are different, a bit embarrassing, for women like us in their forties with supportive partners, loving families, and comfortable lifestyles. With nothing to complain about, we approach life as a private and guilty search for personal success, independent from our husbands.

“My photography is about decay and the struggle against it. And in post-Katrina New Orleans you are reminded on a daily basis how much effort it takes to thrive or even just to maintain an equilibrium. I am interested in how human beings anywhere manage to find meaning in their lives despite the toll time can take on the home, the body, and the heart.” - T.S.
Uprooted, 2006

Tabitha Soren is an example of a woman finding a successful, independent identity apart from her husband. But she’s done this many times — as a television reporter and journalist for MTV News and NBC; as a documentarian of politics and current events in both words and photographs; as a community activist, responsible for earthquake preparedness in her Berkeley Hills neighborhood; and, competing most for her attention, as a mother and photographer.

Katrina Cover, New York Times Magazine

Hurricane Katrina remains a powerful influence on Soren’s artwork. Her photographs in the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art contain a Miss Havisham-type irony, as she captures the devastation with the soft light normally reserved for a wedding day. These images of horror and tragedy are unsettling in their beauty. Soren’s process forces us to look harder, to see these scenes as unique perspectives of a much-photographed time and place.

40th Street, Lakeview, Collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art
  • Tabitha Soren
  • 40th Street, Lakeview, Collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art

Focusing on the subtle movements and purposeful light achieved only through patience and long exposures, Soren shares the world through her eyes, a brain that scouts locations in her sleep, reading the world visually, almost spiritually, capturing slices of time that move just enough to make us wonder if they are now.

Chartres Street, Faubourg Marigny, 2002
Chartres Street, photographed for scale
  • Tabitha Soren / George Rodrigue
  • Chartres Street, photographed for scale

Soren writes about her photograph of Ayana, pictured at the top of this post:

“I knew immediately that positioning Ayana’s very modern silhouette in the middle of the old-world glamour of the mansion would make a striking picture.”

The contrasts between basic opposites —- between today and yesterday, young and old, shadow and light, before the storm and after, California and Louisiana, Uptown and the Ninth Ward, portraiture and furniture, public perception and personal vision —- have inspired Soren for years:

“My photographs of the reconstruction of the dwellings in New Orleans highlight the importance of diversity — not just of race or class - but of sensibility. The choices people make about the place they live tell us an awful lot about those people. In New Orleans, it may say even more because the architecture there is so specific to the place, and the people who live in it are so deeply rooted in the place.

Inheritance 1, Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art
  • Tabitha Soren
  • Inheritance 1, Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

“I suspect that one of the chief consequences of Hurricane Katrina will be a powerful eradication of heterogeneity and a push toward homogeneity. Sameness is cheaper and more efficient, and the loss of diversity comes with a cost that is hard to measure in dollars. Yet, one of the things that made New Orleans so delightful and so important was its diversity. It was one of the few particular places left in America. It was like no other place on earth. Its diversity was unself-consciously attained but, now that it has been dealt such a savage blow, must be self-consciously preserved.

St. Bernard Housing Development, Central City, 2008

“I have been shooting pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina since the New York Times Magazine sent me to cover it in August of 2005. I plan to continue shooting every few months for many years to try to tell the story of the tension between the old and the new, the different and the same, the efficient and the delightful, through the spaces in which people choose to rebuild and live.” -T.S.

Mardi Gras 2010

For years Soren’s reputation as a journalist competed with or uprooted her accomplishments as a fine art photographer. But no more. Today her photographs grace museum walls and magazine covers alike. As with other parts of her life, she comingles these opposites, the journalist’s viewpoint and the artist’s discernment, blending all of it into one highly personal, grounded vision.

Tabitha Soren, 2010
  • Todd Hido
  • Tabitha Soren, 2010

Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)

*From the essay “On Women Achieving Success: Alice Neel” by Nancy Natale

For a related post see “Nature Girl: The Art of Modeling”

View photographs by Tabitha Soren through January 29, 2011 at Wall Space Gallery, Santa Barbara: “Moments of Being,” a group exhibition curated by David Bram, founder of Fraction Magazine

For more photographs by Tabitha Soren visit www.tabithasoren.com