ANIMAL’s new series asks photographers about that one shot that got away. This week, Scot Sothern describes a missed portrait at a Wiccan cult gathering in the Angeles forest in the ’80s.
I’ve watched about a million pictures go by without lifting a camera. After making pictures for nearly thirty years I quit for fifteen years before taking it up again about three years ago. When I was a kid my father, who was a career photographer, taught me to take mental photographs as a way to practice the craft. I still do it today so I guess I’ve watched a lot of pictures go by without making an exposure.
There is one time in the 1980s, when I let an image get away, that I’ve since thought about. I was working with a friend, a writer, on a series called Shopping For God, taking pictures of religious cults and their minions. It was fun and there was a nice mix of crazy yet safe and amicable people. We were camping, me sleeping in the backseat of the car, in the Angeles Forest along with a couple of hundred fringe types who were having a goof-ball religious convention and gathering; a celebration of like minds. Wiccans and Warlocks, Satanists and space aliens. A lot of naked bodies, feathers, incense and colorful tents. I was snapping away, Kodachrome, when a guy came out of a tent and into my path. His head was large and shaped like a St. Bernard’s. He was white but had black dreadlocks down past his shoulders. He was naked and he had no legs. He wore gloves and walked on his hands and he had an extraordinarily large penis and scrotum which dragged on the ground leaving a trail in the dust. I watched him go by and I didn’t take his picture or ask him if I could take his picture. I saw him around throughout the day, the evening, and the next morning as we were leaving. Had I taken his photograph, perhaps a late afternoon open-shade portrait, it would have been a picture that you could love, hate, or dismiss, not just the image but me, the guy who made the image.
Somewhere in the history of all that is hip and groovy in street photography I think it kind of became a contest after the seventies, fought mostly in black & white, to make the hardest hard-to-look-at exposure; the one that Arbus never got, something with grit and guts to call your own. I always thought of it as a kind of pushy rude muse. You know, being the best in the calloused art of exploitive photography and I was always up for that sort, or sorted, thing. It could be I didn’t make that picture on that day because I wanted to impress the two sexy witches and the one hot vampire I’d been chasing around the mountain, show them what a nice thoughtful guy I am. It’s doubtful I’ll ever encounter a similar picture again, but if I do, I’m going to hit the shutter.
Scot Sothern is a photographer, author of the photo-book LOWLIFE documenting Los Angeles prostitutes and “the Patron Saint of Whores.” I Should Have Shot That! series is illustrated by James Noel Smith.
Check out last week’s I Should Have Shot That: Martha Cooper’s Mary Jo Kopechne.