Twelve years in the making, the exhibit Fantasy Life is photographer Tabitha Soren’s attempt to “portray the dreams and myths of a nation through baseball.” Soren constructed the project around her perception of Manifest Destiny—“that the American people have special virtues and an irresistible destiny to accomplish greatness.” Born in San Antonio, Texas, and raised in a military family, Soren has put down roots in a state where the philosophical-minded tend to contemplate such things. Discussing the nineteenth-century westward expansion of the country, she says that “in America we assume that we are destined for greatness in the way that the settlers assumed that they would go out and settle the West. That’s why California has played such a special part in the project itself.”
Prior to becoming a photographer, Soren spent ten years as a television journalist, interviewing the likes of Tupac Shakur and covering the 1996 presidential campaign and the 1998 impeachment of President Bill Clinton for MTV News and NBC. For a generation of music-video lovers, she was a household name, smart, witty, and ideally suited for a medium that mixed breaking news with celebrity culture. Then a Knight Fellowship took her to Stanford, a move that ultimately pushed her out of one career and into another. She found the transition from shooting video at thirty frames per second to concentrating on one frame at a time “very natural”—and found the noncommercial aspects of fine-art photography liberating. Whereas the job of the photojournalist is to follow the action, “to witness and document what’s going on around you, as an artist it’s your job to make sense of what’s going on around you.”
Beginning in the spring of 2003 with the forty-member Oakland A’s 2002 draft class, Fantasy Life interrogates the notion of Manifest Destiny: “I was interested in both the opportunity of Manifest Destiny, how these guys experience it, and I was interested in the pressure this assumption puts on all of us.” As a result, “my pictures don’t tend to be very heroic. It’s not about hero worship.” Shooting both film and digital and even creating tintypes in an effort to capture brilliant action shots, Soren found that the picture in the outfield “of somebody doing nothing could actually be much more powerful than someone sliding into home.”
All of California’s major-league teams are represented in Fantasy Life, and many of the minor-league teams are as well—from the Bakersfield Blaze to the Lancaster JetHawks, from the Modesto Nuts to the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes and the Stockton Ports. She logged hundreds of days and nights in the dugouts, on the buses, and inside the private worlds of players’ homes. This level of intimacy and unusual access made the project possible. Baseball players, she found, are “restless wanderers,” living a life of motels and tour buses, seeking to overcome ordinariness and achieve a level of individuality that approaches
a meaningful life, sacrificing job security and financial stability to chase a greater reward, when the reality is that only 10 percent of those drafted ever make the majors. More often than not, the destiny they’re chasing remains a fantasy.
A self-taught photographer, Soren knew she was setting herself up for a difficult exhibit when she started curating Fantasy Life. “It’s not actually in fashion right now to have gelatin silver prints with color digital prints with tintypes and artifacts. And then I threw in a couple of sculptural elements as well.” But she found a willing partner in the Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles, which displayed the exhibit from April to June 2015. A collection of unexpected curiosities—specimens of bone spurs accompany close-up photos of chewed gum and a series of comparison portraits of the twenty-one players she followed from 2003 to 2014—Fantasy Life showcases baseball, that dogged pursuit of fame, glory, and a ticket to “The Show,” as the one fantasy that’s the most elusive of all: greatness.