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Baseball Like You’ve Never Seen It Before

By Alyssa Coppelman

Growing up to become a professional baseball player is a common childhood fantasy. But we rarely consider what happens to the few who do manage to achieve this dream—or at least, who get very, very close. With her project Fantasy Life, photographer Tabitha Soren explores the storied beauty of baseball and the quintessentially American mythos ingrained in the struggle to make it in pro sports.

Fantasy Life chronicles the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 draft class. Soren met the 40 players at Spring Training in 2003 by sheer circumstance: Her husband is Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, which tells the story of the team’s 20-game winning streak.

That connection gave Soren initial access to the 40 new players. She then followed them throughout the year and saw how they were affected by trying to make it in the big leagues. “I was interested in the psychological effect that becoming a commodity might have on young, dreamy baseball players, and how being presented with something that would change their whole lives would affect them,” she says.

Baseball player tintype by Tabitha Soren, from her Fantasy Life project
Baseball player tintype by Tabitha Soren, from her Fantasy Life project

Every year, a few thousand players are drafted into Major League Baseball, many straight out of college. Only 6 percent of these go on to play on major league teams. The rest meet with different fates. During the course of the project, Soren witnessed “an alternate reality of bus rides, hotel pools, injuries, friendships forged and broken, marriages forged and broken, constant motion, and very hard work.” Only five of the players she followed realized major-league careers. Some became coaches and others left baseball entirely: one opened a winery, another works as a coal miner, and another sells insurance. Some struggled with poverty and even homelessness.

A former MTV News reporter, Soren’s approach to her project was multifaceted. While she freely admits she’s not a sports fan, what interested her—and brought her to hundreds of games in the 13 years she spent on this project—was that baseball encapsulates so many American ideals that are rarely attainable but motivate so many. The concepts of manifest destiny and the restless wanderer; the idea that achieving fame, wealth, and success (against all odds) will result in happiness; and the belief that if you pull on those bootstraps hard enough, all your dreams will come true—all were aspects of the project.

Image from Fantasy Life, a project by photographer Tabitha Soren that chronicles the often-harsh reality of fighting for a spot in Major League Baseball
Image from Fantasy Life, a project by photographer Tabitha Soren that chronicles the often-harsh reality of fighting for a spot in Major League Baseball

Soren says that “failure is just a step on the road to greatness” is almost a defining principle of baseball, a sport in which hitting the ball a third of the time you’re at bat means you’re extremely successful. That’s a “lot of striking out and walking back to the dugout with your head down,” says Soren. “There’s so much failure built into the game of baseball that I felt it was a metaphor for all of us who are trying to do something extraordinary. And in America there’s a lot of pressure to be extraordinary.”

While these ideas informed Soren’s project, her goal wasn’t to chart who made it and who didn’t. It started as a portrait project, and Soren made both silver gelatin and Chromogenic color prints (C-prints) of her subjects. When she decided to shoot the game itself, she made the unusual choice to use the 19th-century tintype process to record the action.

Tintypes often require long exposures, so it’s difficult to capture action. Soren chose tintypes because it was a popular medium in 1839 when baseball was born, and she had in mind Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies from the 1800s, which included depictions of baseball. The choice of tintypes also ensured that her work, which is firmly rooted in the fine art world, wouldn’t look like traditional sports photography.

Five years and a lot of experimentation later—and using modern-day emulsions that work faster than traditional formulae—she achieved the sharper, clearer images she wanted.

While Soren is an analog shooter, she uses Adobe Photoshop in her process. “It would be nearly impossible to represent the tintypes accurately without Photoshop. They are very subtle objects and very dark, so when I reshoot them for my website or other digital distribution, the sensor in my digital camera goes crazy and overexposes. It’s great to be able to pull out the details of such metallic pictures with the help of Photoshop. My favorites are the template choices in the Curves adjustment tool.”

This image of a baseball player trying to make it in the big leagues is from Tabitha Soren's Fantasy Life photo project

Soren’s pictures show the pain you might suffer when things don’t turn out the way you plan. In photography, however, that can be a benefit. “A jock wouldn’t have taken the pictures that I‘ve taken because they would’ve been following the action a little more,” she says. “Oftentimes because I had the camera pointed the wrong way, I ended up with a more interesting picture than if I’d been consumed by trying to capture the guy sliding into home plate.”

You can see works from Fantasy Life through June 12 at Bedford Gallery at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California. The book Fantasy Life will be published by Aperture in March 2017. You can also follow Soren on Instagram and Twitter.