Scot Sothern's photographs of prostitutes take new form in the book Streetwalkers, released Feb. 13 with an exhibition at Little Big Man Gallery

Interview by Phoebe Ünter

Photographer Scot Sothern’s new book Streetwalkers will be released this weekend. Expect an affordable paperback that’s a couple hundred pages long and full of Sothern’s photographs of prostitutes, which are accompanied by his stories. The book release will coincide with an exhibition of some of these photos at Little Big Man gallery, which opens this Saturday, Feb. 13.

We meet up and take a walk through Skid Row, where Sothern’s been coming to shoot on and off since the ‘70s. He walks slowly, with a cane but without hesitation, as we traverse crowded sidewalks, are offered drugs and occasionally get asked what two white people like us are doing here.

“When most people approach this area by car, they lock their doors, but I keep mine unlocked in case someone wants to get in,” Sothern says, alluding to his method for finding subjects these days: driving around, offering women $20 for a photo, then taking them somewhere to shoot.

I love the photos because the women appear unashamed of their bodies, and while they’re accustomed to performing and posing, some offer Sothern their sillier side, sometimes even donning masks and props and grinning ear-to-ear. Others are fierce or forlorn. Sothern pairs them with backgrounds that capture the cheap LA motel or street grit, and occasionally with something incredibly surreal — the flower-petal-carpeted sidewalk or a patterned wallpaper vortex.

Sothern brings up his reputation for sleeping with all his subjects. While this entire pursuit of photographing prostitutes began because he was visiting whorehouses, the project has morphed into something greater and he no longer sleeps with them. I think the real headline about his relationships with women should be that he’s had three wives — all feminists, atheists and Democrats.

No one asked me to clear his name, certainly not Sothern himself, but I find his intention and demeanor important context for seeing his whole oeuvre as empathetic an absolution, maybe, rather than pure shock value or exploitation (beyond that of any photographer).

He doesn’t claim to have bettered conditions in places like Skid Row, but he does like inserting photographs many people don’t think are pleasant to look at into galleries and art books, forcing people to look at something they’d rather not: “I like the idea of rubbing their nose in it; I have since I was a kid.”

And while the women are clearly subject rather than object, he truly finds them beautiful resolutely in the face of those who ask why he’d bother taking such ugly photographs.

Near the end of our walk, a homeless girl wrapped in a blanket approached us asking for change, imploring that we make it her lucky day. The patron saint of whores pulled out his wallet and gave her a 50-dollar bill, which I later discovered he’d thought was a five. She cried and they hugged and he kissed her on the cheek in the way your aunt would when you’re saying goodbye, see you soon, I love you.