Baseball Through Berkeley Photographer Tabitha Soren's Eyes
Berkeley photographer Tabitha Soren explores American ideals of success through the prism of our national pastime.
Inside her studio in the Berkeley hills, Tabitha Soren examines a photograph that she took at an Arizona ballpark. It’s not a sports image that you might expect, such as an action shot of a pitcher coiling into his windup or a runner sliding past the catcher’s tag. Instead, Soren’s photo captures a metal door to the side of the field that has been dented and dimpled by hundreds of foul balls.
“This [picture] is really about all the balls that have gone the wrong way,” says Soren. “To me, it’s a metaphor for how much effort—and how much failure—is built into this game.”
She laughs as she recalls her efforts to get the shot. Foul balls whizzed by, and players looked at her quizzically, wondering why she wasn’t pointing her lens at the action on the field. Soren wasn’t interested in capturing home runs or high fives. She was exploring ideas about strivers—specifically, the uniquely American drive to be recognized as a winner in a field where success comes to very few.
The dented door image is part of Fantasy Life, a collection of photos Soren gathered over 13 years, as she followed nearly two dozen professional baseball players through each stage of their career. The collection is captivating, provocative, and decidedly unglamorous. Between her visits to the dugouts and diamonds of spring training facilities, minor league ballparks, and big-league cathedrals, Soren captured the cheap motels, endless bus rides, odorous locker rooms, grueling reconstructive surgeries, and other gritty details not usually associated with the national pastime. “If there wasn’t that dream of making it to the Majors, I don’t think these guys would have put up with all they do,” Soren says.
Fantasy Life started in 2002, and Soren soon learned that only a small percentage of baseball players drafted by pro teams ever makes it to the Major Leagues. At the time she started shooting, Soren’s husband, author Michael Lewis, was writing Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game about the statistics-driven approach the Oakland A’s took to fielding winning teams on a shoestring.
Lewis had direct access to the A’s then General Manager Billy Beane, his staff, and big-league players, and Soren hoped to document an aspect of the game with similar intimacy—but from a much different perspective. Soren wanted to photograph the 21 players drafted by the A’s that year in the infancy of their pro careers and follow their paths, wherever they might lead.
“I knew that I had access to a really interesting subject, so I wanted to keep taking pictures until [the project] made sense to me,” says Soren, sitting in the backyard of her Craftsman-style studio. “[Eventually], I realized I was looking at how much pressure there is in America to be special, unique, and an individual. We assume it is normal to want something that is the exception to the rule. [Fantasy Life is] about the fantasy of reaching greatness or immortality—not just these 21 specific individuals’ dreams of being in the Major Leagues, but the fantasies that America feeds all of us, and how we behave in reaction.”
Soren was fascinated by how her 21 subjects had spent their lives striving for a big-league
career and that their communities encouraged this long-shot dream. She collected childhood pictures of her subjects and noticed that their Little League team photos had a section for the kids to sign autographs like they were pros.
“The truth is that the likelihood of any of these guys becoming the next Derek Jeter is next to zilch,” she says. “We are told the opposite—that if you work hard enough, you can do it.”
Summer after summer, Soren would reunite with the players. Five of the 21 made it to the Majors. Most banged around in the minors until it was time to hang up their spikes and pursue new ventures—restaurateur, insurance salesman, coal miner. And while many didn’t realize their dream of a Major League career, they were still able to enjoy a different future.
“What was exciting was that many of them were able to redesign their lives after baseball and find themselves in a happy place,” she says. “Spending time with them over the years, I was skeptical about their ability to take an interest in something else besides baseball, because so much of their identity was wrapped up in the game since they were kids in Little League at age six.”
Soren could relate to taking a new direction in life. In the 1990s, Soren was a journalist for MTV News and NBC, interviewing everyone from pop diva Mariah Carey to former President Bill Clinton. After marrying Lewis in 1997, she decided to leave her media career and start a family. The couple moved to Berkeley when they were both hired to teach at UC Berkeley, Soren in the journalism department and Lewis in the business school.
After having three children, Soren found herself in a much different place than when she was a jet-setting journalist. But while her work as a photographer might not receive the widespread attention she got when she interviewed Bill Clinton before the 1992 election, she still receives recognition at a high level. In addition to an acclaimed Fantasy Life exhibition in Los Angeles last year, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, ESPN the Magazine, and Sports Illustrated, and her photos of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s permanent collection.
“In the art world, I don’t get the validation that I did from being on television every day and having people write fan letters and recognize me on the street,” she says with a shrug. “But then, most lives aren’t like that.”
Photos from Fantasy Life can been seen in Safe at Home: A Short Survey of Baseball Art, on display through June 12 at Lesher Center’s Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek. A book version of Fantasy Life is slated for spring 2017 and will feature essays by writer Dave Eggers. To see more of Soren’s work, go to tabithasoren.com.