Tabitha Soren’s photos of iPad smudges will make you think about human touch, tech

“Emailed JPEG Kiss Goodnight,” 2016, Pigment Print.
Tabitha Soren
“Emailed JPEG Kiss Goodnight,” 2016, Pigment Print.

Swipe, swipe, swipe.

Click, “like,” share.

Tap, scroll, repeat.


Unless you’re a germophobe, most people ignore the fingerprints that smudge their electronic devices, cleaning off the screens periodically before delving back into the onslaught of digital content that consumes our daily lives.

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But Tabitha Soren was inspired by them.

The former MTV political reporter was so struck by the way that these marks — leftover symbols of our interests and online curiosities — created an artistic display on her iPad that it eventually led to her latest photography exhibit, “Tabitha Soren: Surface Tension,” now on display at The Davis Museum at Wellesley College.

“At first glance it’s bacteria, and sweat, and grime,” Soren said of the project. “But at some point in the process, I started seeing [the marks] as being very similar to the handprints found in Stone Age caves.”

“Surface Tension,” a collection of 20 photographs of images on Soren’s iPad, overlaid by smudges, examines how people interact with handheld devices. At the same time, it contemplates the effects of human touch — both in the digital and physical sense. The exhibit runs through June 9.


Soren first got the idea for the project around five years ago, according to a lengthy profile in Newsweek.

She was traveling on a plane and trying to read on her iPad when she got frustrated by the way the light above made the text difficult to see. Instead of the words, the glare was highlighting the many fingerprints on the screen, the report said.

08soprenpics -, 2018, Pigment Print. (Tabitha Soren)
Tabitha Soren
“,” 2018, Pigment Print.

While the marks inspired Soren to pursue the series, it took her two “false starts” before she finally landed on the current iteration featured at Wellesley, she told the Globe.

The first was done in black and white film, but it didn’t look as contemporary as she wanted it to, Soren said. The second was in color, with the iPad screen off. And while she admits it was beautiful in its own right, it still didn’t capture the desired look.

“If you want to be part of a contemporary art world, you need to make art you haven’t seen before,” she said.


To achieve the detailed images, Soren used an 8-by-10 view Deardorff camera, which she aimed at her iPad.

Each image on her iPad was plucked from Soren’s internet search history, social media, or shared with her by friends. They are titled by the URL where the original images can be found online, according to details of the exhibit.

08soprenpics -, 2018, Pigment Print. (Tabitha Soren)
Tabitha Soren
“,” 2018, Pigment Print.

One of Soren’s favorite pieces from the collection features two men dancing with their shirts off, embracing each other. Like the other photographs, the finger smudges around the screen create a paint-like effect against the intimate moment being shared by the subjects.

“I feel like our political situation is troubled in a way that our differences are being used to divide us, and I feel like this picture is an antidote to that,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday. “There’s nothing political about it, but it’s two people expressing themselves through song and dance, and they’re touching each other.”

Soren, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., said the pieces curated for the Wellesley exhibit were pulled together with the help of Lisa Fischman, director and chief curator at The Davis Museum.

During Soren’s recent visit to Boston to promote her book, “Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream,” a collection of photographs that followed the lives and experiences of minor league draft picks for the Oakland Athletics, Soren met with Fischman at a hotel near Fenway Park.

The pair discussed Soren’s ongoing work with her iPad and the artistic way the smudges left behind by swiping fingers created a compelling visual effect.

Shortly after their meeting, Fischman reached out about working together on the exhibit.

“She said [she] couldn’t get the pictures [I had shown her] out of her head,” Soren said, “and she wanted to do a show.”

In a statement, Fischman called Soren’s work “conceptually elegant, timely, and deeply resonant” and said the way the light captures the marks in each photograph creates a “painterly detail.”

“The project is simple, suggestive, and transformational,” Fischman said.

Soren said while the exhibit has a theme about “touch,” she wants people who see her work to draw their own conclusions from the images and their link to our digital habits.

“I certainly don’t want to tell people what to think or that technology is bad,” she said. “But it’s not bad to question how much our lives are dominated by screens and technology, rather than by intimate relationships with living human beings.”

Steve Annear can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.