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Scot Sothern & John Matkowsky : Pictures From the Dark Side by Andy Romanoff


I’ve been thinking about the space between pictures of everyday life and the pictures that venture beyond. Scot Sothern and John Matkowsky think about these things too,
Scot as a photographer/writer/provocateur and John as a publisher of books that rub up against the question of what’s okay to show the world, and what’s on the other side.

In many people there is an appetite for things society officially disapproves of. Google tells me there are millions of porn websites in the world and I know the stories I tell about the Hollywood movies I worked on are not as interesting to people as the stories about the cheesy sleazy epics of gore and bad taste I did along the way. So today I want to talk about books and pictures that lie beyond the accepted values and take us into the disturbingly uncomfortable. The ones that define the boundaries of the dark side.

Drkrm Editions is John Matkowsky’s online bookstore. Drkrm began as John’s gallery and printmaking space. His statement of intent from those days said it all … “drkrm pushes the edges of what we’ve known and seen before …

The gallery is gone now but before it closed John showed the work of then unknown Scot Sothern, an LA artist who had been pushing the boundaries for decades. Starting in the late eighties, Scot photographed Los Angeles prostitutes not as an artist/voyeur but as a trick, a customer, paying his money and participating in the acts, taking pictures and writing about it. That work, published in a book called Lowlife was called “The year’s most controversial photobook” by the British Journal of Photography. He was 60 years old then and it was the first time the world had noticed his existence.

In the years since Lowlife, Scot’s gaze has gotten deeper and his interests have broadened. In Sad City, Streetwalkers, and Curb Service he explored the intersection of street life, sex and homelessness, taking pictures that were at the same time provocative and non-judgmental. It turned out that behind the demanding photos with the harsh colors and seemingly unplanned frames there was a fine and thoughtful craftsman. No matter if you were first attracted to his work by the lurid subject matter or by the carefully hidden artistry, maybe you bought one of Scot’s books. And then you discovered the stories that illuminated his pictures and cast them in a different light, letting you see them with the deeper humanity of his intentions.

In 2019 Sothern did something new…he made a deeply disturbing book using nothing but a mannequin of a six-year-old girl. The pictures in the book were based on voyeuristic headlines and stories scraped from real life, but the passive and innocent doll made the stories hyper real and collapsed the barrier between imagining and witnessing. Not surprisingly it offended a lot of people.

I wanted to talk with Scot about what he was aiming at in his work, so I caught up with him and John at the Pomona Book Fair. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.


Andy Romanoff : What were you thinking of when you made Little Miss?

Scot Sothern : I read a book years ago by a literary writer named Lydia Millet. She wrote a book called My Happy Life about an innocent, youngish woman who is put through horrible situations, but remains cheerful throughout. She is a Pollyanna in spite of the horrid things that are happening to her. So, I bought a mannequin, Little Miss we called her, and put her in situations that were humiliating and harsh and worse. I put my little mannequin with the Mona Lisa smile through hoops, put her in all these horrid, horrid situations, like being stoned to death, buried neck deep in sand with a pile of rocks on top, and I wrote little stories that went with the pictures.


AR : And then what happened?

SS : The reaction was not always positive. I posted one of these pictures on Instagram recently and lost 60 followers in 24 hours … all because people were offended by pictures of a mannequin! And in a way, I guess that’s good. Because you want a reaction. But I have to be honest, in spite of all the dark work I’ve done in my life, I want to be accepted. I don’t want to stand back and say, oh, fuck them, who cares? That’s really not who I am. I really want people to understand who I am.


AR : What about your latest book, Look at Me?

SS : I did Look at Me because it bothered me that so many photographers were photographing homeless people. They say they’re doing it because they want the world to see homelessness, but all you got to do is drive down any street in Los Angeles to see homelessness in real life. You don’t need anybody to say “This is what it’s like”, we already know.

So, with Look at Me I took the approach that I wanted the pictures to be made from the homeless persons point of view, to see what the people walking by look like to the homeless. I was out on the street among the homeless and I was yelling at people like a homeless person might and then I was taking pictures of the people as they passed by.


AR : Talk to me about getting difficult work like this published.

SS : Fortunately for me, Little Miss and Look at Me were both published by Drkrm Editions. They’re known for outrageous offerings. John Matkowsky loves the darker stuff and he’s willing to publish it when so many other people aren’t.

John Matkowsky chimes in: Well, at Drkrm we deal with the dark part of life. We do books about prostitution, gay sex, stuff like that, so when I met Scot, I got what he was doing right away. I love Scot’s work. I love everything he does. And his work is far from porn. It’s graphic. It shows stuff that no one wants to look at. Because normally, you can have sex, or you can have violence, but you can’t have sex and violence, and often that’s what Scot’s work is. It’s sex and (implied) violence. It’s hard to look at, but he does it. I mean, there are others who are working in that world now. But as far as I know Scot’s the guy that did it first.


AR : We are talking at the Pomona Art Book Fair, and your stuff is sitting out on the table here. What’s the reaction?

JM : Nothing yet. It’s still early. Someone suggested that we open the book to a page that’s kind of provocative so I left a couple books up there like that and we’ll see what happens. If we get thrown out, that’ll be it. I’ll have a badge of honor.


Written by Andy Romanoff

Andy Romanoff – book – Stories I’ve Been Meaning to Tell you
Photos website –

Scot Sothern –

Drkrm Editions –

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