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We swipe our cellphone screens countless times a day, leaving a wake of greasy and visible fingerprints.
Most of the time, we pay no attention to the stuff left behind. We might wipe it off on our jeans or grab a tissue, but former MTV News reporter-turned-photographer Tabitha Soren chose to photograph this innocuous grime. The results of her foray are part of an exhibit, called “Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension,” opening at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum on Feb. 7.
Music lovers who grew up watching MTV in the ‘90s will recognize Soren’s face and name. She interviewed everyone from Mariah Carey to Bill Clinton, and she was the one who asked Tupac to characterize his childhood.
Soren’s love of photography was something found by chance, much like the subject of her Davis show. After covering the 1996 presidential election, she was burnt out and applied for a year-long fellowship at Stanford. After studying art and art history, she knew a return to news wasn’t right for her.
The first seeds of her photography career can be seen in her book “Fantasy Life,” which took 14 years to come to fruition.
In 2003, Soren attended the Oakland A’s spring training to photograph the beginning careers of 21 men drafted that season. The book chronicles the baseball players striving for the American Dream and their frustration in trying to accomplish it.
While her audience has gotten smaller compared to the days of talking music news with millions people, she’s OK with that. At MTV, Soren spoke to viewers who largely fell in the 18 to 25 age group. Back then, she shared a love of music with viewers and had the same cultural references. As time passed, she married and had three children.
“This world feels more real,” Soren said.
In "Surface Tension," Soren turns attention to the impact constant connectivity has on human life, with screen grime the vehicle for her musings.
It started nearly five years ago when Soren was flying across the country reading a book on her iPad. It was a nighttime flight, and under the overhead light she noticed countless fingerprints covering the screen.
“I thought it looked like a Franz Kline painting,” she said, noting the harsh lines under the light had Kline’s familiar abstract quality. “That led me to wonder what would happen if I turned it into my own art.”
Fast forward to the present and Soren’s photos at the Davis Museum have an almost smoky feel to them. The photos are meant to provoke viewers to think about digital technology use and touch.
Is technology making our lives easier? Or does the constant information flow and round-the-clock connectivity erode meaning?
“Digital culture can encourage us to keep each other at an unprecedented distance,” Soren said. “I think about how people in these photographs are actually out of our reach, beyond touch, and yet somehow they are virtually present.”
It took Soren plenty of trial and error to discover her process, but eventually she found a formula. She let fingerprints accumulate on her iPad for varied amounts of time.
“Sometimes I’d take [the iPad] right out of my son’s hands and photograph it,” she said. “But I noticed that if I waited a really long time, the marks started to look soft.”
Then Soren pulled up a visually interesting website or photograph on the iPad. She used a view camera — similar to the one Ansel Adams used in Yosemite National Park — to shoot the device under the lights in her studio. A view camera, which dates back to the mid-1800s, was used because it can produce an 8x10 negative, large enough to blow up and still maintain detail.
The show reflects two of Soren’s passions: social justice and environmental awareness. One photo depicts a PBS Nova piece on Greenland shrinking and another shows the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.
Both photos grapple with the question of humanity’s touch.
The photos “take your thinking in multiple directions,” said Lisa Fischman, director and chief curator of the Davis Museum.
As artists have long produced work reflecting tumultuous political times, and the subject of omnipresent digital technology is one we may see more in the future, explained Nita Sturiale, who teaches interrelated media at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. An unlimited flow of information and unfettered access to it is a new frontier for our culture and we don't yet fully understand the effects.
“There’s a sense that we’re being cooked in the water when it comes to our phones and everything else, and more artists are looking at what it means to take our lives back,” Sturiale said.
But Soren is as interesting as her art. She managed to pull off a career reinvention that many aspire to do. After walking away from a wildly successful career in broadcast news, Soren turned herself into a legit gallery artist, though, it took decades.
“The difference with reporting is that I had to worry about getting the facts perfectly accurate and present them in an objective way,” she said. “Now my work is about an emotional truth.”
“Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension” is at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum from Feb. 7 until June 9.
Tracee M. Herbaugh is a freelance writer who lives in Newton. She tweets at @T_Marie.
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