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American Idyll

After an early career in front of the camera, Tabitha Soren shifted to a new role behind the lens and turned her eye on perhaps the most American of games: baseball

In her new book of photographs, Fantasy Life—Baseball and the American Dream, Tabitha Soren captures both the game’s bright beauty and its darker subtexts. A graduate of New York University with a degree in journalism in politics, Soren broke into the public eye in the 1990s as a reporter for MTV News, where she earned a reputation as a cultural conduit between politicians and the “Rock the Vote” generation. But after her marriage to writer Michael Lewis in 1997, Soren moved to northern California and virtually vanished from public life; after studying art and photography at Stanford for a year, she would embark on a second career as a photographer.

It was while traveling with Lewis in 2003 that Soren was inspired to start the project that eventually became her new book, Fantasy Life—Baseball and the American Dream. Lewis had recently completed Moneyball, his book about the Oakland A’s and their use of sabermetrics, and he brought Soren to the A’s spring training. There, she met the draft class of players whom Lewis had written about in Moneyball.

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“When I met these players in their very first spring training,” Soren says now. “They were so full of hope and purpose that it was striking—you were excited for them. I felt like it was a pretty rare opportunity as an artist to be introduced to a group of people all embarking on a journey. The fact that it was baseball was really beside the point.”

Soren’s perspective on the game and its players would be shaped by the fact that, unlike her husband, she wasn’t a baseball fan—Soren freely admits that she didn’t know much about the game. That dispassionate distance kept her from lapsing into sentimentality and allowed her to consider some of the game’s darker elements: the boring, badly paid life of a minor leaguer; the pain of injury and shattered hopes; the intra-club tensions and jealousies. Fantasy Life is not without irony.

“The title, for me, has a myriad of meaning,” Soren says. “There is the whole fantasy baseball industry, so it’s a nod to that. Then there is the fantasy of making it, beating the odds. It’s a very American idea—Americans feel entitled to have an extraordinary life, and to have an extraordinary life you have to beat the odds or be number one or have a miracle life. That propels people into these extraordinary situations that could pay off—but it’s not logical that they will. On the other hand, you have to believe in the fantasy, or you’ll never make it.”

Following are nine images from Fantasy Life, accompanied by Soren’s descriptions of how she got the pictures and what they mean to her.

All images © Tabitha Soren from Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream (Aperture, 2017). For more information, visit tabithasoren.com

CLETE THOMAS, TREVOR PLOUFFE AND RYAN DOUMIT, MINNESOTA TWINS, MINNEAPOLIS, 2013

This is a tintype, which is a very old fashioned photographic technique. You’re making a positive, not a negative, of the image, and I’m taking it with one of those giant 8-inch by 10-inch view camera—you know, the kind with the black cloth over your head. When I discovered that the tintype process invented in the 1850s came into the world about seven years before the first baseball contest existed, I thought it might be an interesting way to create action shots. I really was challenged by having action shots that didn’t look like all the sports photography that you’ve seen 10 thousand times.

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In this picture, they’re just people walking; they’ve just done the National Anthem or whatever you’ve done at the beginning of a game. A lot of my pictures were quite unsettling and show the players as emotionally vulnerable, and I felt I needed a couple of real heroic winner pictures. If you get very close, they look gargantuan and heroic, and that was intentional.

MODESTO NUTS BULL PEN, MODESTO, CALIF., 2014

At the risk of being pretentious, I think of that as a picture of the Last Supper. The fence is the table. I don’t have the right number of people, but I spent a lot of time getting that picture perfectly correct. Nobody had ever really tried to take their picture before because they’re such a small team, and they all thought I was kind of crazy. All the guys thought I was strange because I didn’t really like baseball, and I wasn’t selling these pictures. They didn’t understand the art world museum audience that I had in mind. But I took so long to set up that eventually they just forgot I was there.

STEVE STANLEY, MIDLAND ROCKHOUSES, MIDLAND, TEXAS, 2005

There’s so much about baseball and life that has nothing to do with your hard work or your ability. My interest in that picture stems from the idea that these people’s careers hang on the thread of perpetual self-perfection. The tiniest bit of increase in skill can make all the difference in their careers. The difference between someone who becomes a star and someone who never makes it to the big leagues—it’s an injury, it’s mechanics, it’s being hit in the head by a ball, your hand being reset improperly by the athletic trainer who didn’t know what he was doing.

And then, he’s in the batting cage…. How many times has he swung a bat since he was five years old? But every day, he’s doing it over and over and over again.

JONATHAN JOSEPH, STOCKTON PORTS, STOCKTON, CALIF., 2014

I didn’t know that much about baseball starting out, so approaching this project, it behooved me to feel like an anthropologist. The positions that the players’ bodies get in over and over were really compelling to me, because they were just bizarre. They all had a different weird position, and my idea was to freeze it and see how they’re balancing—you can see how so many get injured. It’s just not natural.

The 21 guys I followed for 14 years had many injuries and many surgeries. And for a while, the doctors would give them the specimens they would take out of their bodies, or the teeth that they had had knocked out. I started collecting them from the guys. To me, they were a metaphor for the amount of sacrifice they’re willing to offer up.

SPLASH AND THE STOCKTON PORTS, 2014

The mascots of these teams fascinate the hell out of me. It’s just a bizarre job. Splash is usually on top of the dugout in these Minor League games, a lot of the time doing these crazy, happy-go-lucky dances and getting the crowds’ spirits up. And underneath very often are these bored exhausted baseball players on their last leg, trying to make it through the season. It took me a very long time to get this shot. The most ridiculous mascots were the Modesto Nuts. There’s a walnut, a pistachio and an almond. And the walnut—the seam in the nut…. He just walks around looking like a giant butt.

From left to right, Seth Streich, Chad Pinder, Ryan Lipkin, Bobby Crocker and coach Brian McArn

JOSE REYES, TORONTO BLUE JAYS SHORTSTOP, WITH TRAINER GEORGE POULIS, TORONTO, 2013

Athletes have this incredible bravado and toughness, yet this picture exposes the vulnerability of all human beings, living and dying at the same time. And that trainer’s ability to empathize with Jose Reyes being hurt was very compelling. I was interested in the parallel movements of the figures. To me, they look like a Greek sculpture.

NICK SWISHER AND JOANNA GARCIA SWISHER, LOS ANGELES, 2016

I hit it off with Nick [Swisher] almost immediately—most people do—so I’d been taking his picture for ages. This was the last picture I shot in the project, and Joanna Garcia Swisher, his wife, really balanced him out. She’s got her own life; she’s got a career as an actress. There was a tenderness that she brings into his life that was a very good thing. I knew his career was waning at this point and his knees were giving way, and I didn’t feel like I needed another home run shot. I had plenty of pictures of Nick Swisher being the hero or doing something funny or him as the media darling that is Nick Swisher. I was just always trying to get the players to do something that they’re not used to doing, and not smiling is very hard for Nick Swisher.

RECORD HIGH TEMPERATURES, RIVERVIEW STADIUM, CLINTON, IOWA, 2003

I think that’s my favorite picture in the book, honestly. I love the different colors of light—I got very lucky. The aperture obviously needed to be very wide open, so the chances of getting something in focus were very slim. That little boy wasn’t going to be running through the outdoor showers forever.

I felt like it was a religious ecstasy painting from the Medici era, all the different saturated colors, with people standing around watching this young boy—that’s where it all starts, that’s where the dream begins. For him to put his arms up, I just couldn’t believe my luck.

That I got this picture, standing outside the stadium, comes from me not being completely involved in the game, from me having something bigger in mind than just the game. Sports is part of the fabric of our society, whether you’re a fan or not, and what the games say about America is a lot more important than the games themselves. These pictures are about baseball, but they’re also about people pushing themselves and striving for greatness in a way that is uniquely American. And that is why people are so interested in sports. We’re all compelled to push, push, push, and try to make things happen. It may not work out. But other cultures don’t always even try. We all trip; we all fall; we all strike out. We’re just trying to stay afloat.

NIGHT ON THE GREEN FIREWORKS, OAKLAND, CALIF., 2014

There’s a certain number of images that I’ve made for this book that really happened just because I was willing to stick around. So, of course, tons of cameras are out during the fireworks, but very few are out after the fireworks are over. What was left of the fireworks in the sky was more interesting to me than the fireworks themselves. For me, it was a metaphor for these players trying to figure out what they’re going to do after they’ve had their heart broken by baseball.

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