Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol is a member of the historically significant Magnum collective of photographers. Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the founders of Magnum, described the collective as, “…a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.” Sobol expands on this vision in his series of photos, at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City’s Chelsea district, titled ‘Arrivals and Departures’ – taken during a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway Mongolian line from Moscow to Beijing. Generally, instead of waiting for things to happen, or just finding interesting things to shoot, Sobol wants to use his camera “…to make contact” and to create “…closeness and intimacy” between himself and those he meets and photographs. Sobol does not want to be “invisible” as a photographer and he attempts to participate in and not just observe the social and interpersonal situations he records.
The Trans-Siberian Railway is the longest railway in the world at 6,000 miles/10,000 km (crossing about 1/3 of the sphere of the Earth) – and presents almost continuous travel for up to 7 days (some breaks lasting five minutes, some a half-an-hour). It was ordered to be built by a Russian Czar to connect Moscow and the Pacific Ocean naval port of Vladivostok (this is actually the longest line of the railway) with extra lines added later. It was Sobol’s initial intention to make human connections on one of the most famous of train trips and to create photographs based on those he met. So, he seems to have wanted to examine the possibilities for interpersonal connections among strangers on one of the longest shared journeys still available but, instead, he found a “ghost” train, almost totally devoid of passengers. He spent most of his time with his camera ‘glued’ to the window for shots of scenery, opting to look for meaningful encounters in cities and villages where the train stopped. Among his favorite experiences was stalking deer with Mongolian hunters, drinking the blood and eating the raw liver of one of the animals they shot (evoking memories of his previous hunting experiences while living for two years in Greenland).
In regard to many of the folks he photographed for ‘Arrivals and Departures’, it seems as if Sobol often goes from a public meeting space where a chance encounter brings him together with a person to a private space (sometimes or maybe always the person’s home) for the photos. Indeed, many of his photos show the participant nude in this private space. The photography experience seems to become one of extraordinary shared trust and we see the lack of invisibility of him as a photographer through the sense of interpersonal engagement that comes through these photos. Yet, it’s interesting to think about the process of both negotiation and trust-building that must go into a situation like this – Sobol is a brief visitor and things have to move relatively fast for him as a professional photographer – why do some folks cooperate with him so readily, let him into their homes and then strip naked for him? Is there some sense of exhibitionism, are they just being nice, are they trying to help him or are they just open-minded people ready for a new experience?
Sobol chooses to work in black and white (he used a digital camera for the first time in this series) because he tries for a more ‘existential’ look and this certainly works in this series. Blemishes, birth-marks, body hair and otherwise barely perceptible shadows become starkly prominent in his photos and add an extra vigor and individual potency or presence which would be missed through the use of color. Sobol seems to prefer nude photography because he wishes to remove the participant from social, cultural and economic contexts.
The most interesting aspect of the show to me involved his use of couples. Ostensibly, with his couples, Sobol wants to show what “…connects us, makes us dependent on each other.” Yet, it’s also interesting to think about the process involved in first proposing that a newly encountered couple pose nude in a loving embrace with each other and then what exactly the emotional states of the couples might actually be during the actual process in which they are being photographed. We have couples who have formed an emotional relationship who are suddenly, perhaps, merely acting the part of a couple which has formed an emotional relationship for the sake of a shot. So the fact that they are lovers and are intensely intimate allows them to pose as a couple acting as if they are engaged in an intimate embrace. Are they, basically, doing the artist a favor and realistically mimicking what would otherwise be real for them? What then is the difference between a ‘real’ couple doing this and a couple of professional models doing this?
We, as viewers, are already removed from any emotion that might be present in a photo of lovers embracing, but here we seem further divorced because the lovers may merely be mimicking moments of love for the camera. So there might not be any emotion contained within the image for us to even try to connect to in the first place. But, this is great – through this process Sobol might be making a statement about one of the most significant limitations of art: the inherent experiential divorce, in virtually every work of art, between the illusion of some type of experience in a piece and the extent to which it can be felt or recognized - the impossibility of truly feeling what is allegedly contained within any image. Art is premised on the impossibility of directly feeling what is being felt in the images we see – this forces us to settle for an ‘interpretive’ instead of ‘experiential’ process from which art derives its meaning for us.
Sobol, however, seems to be sincere in his process and believes that his photos reveal a state of ‘being’ instead of ‘showing’ – it is not a question of Sobol ‘looking’ at his participants, there is, instead, a type of exchange taking place so that he is not telling a story about ‘them’ but of ‘us’ (as he explains on his website). His sincerity in regard to removing the pretense of objectivity becomes clear in his photos and adds a deeper sense of fellow-feeling, compassion and humanity which is directly felt while one looks at the photos.
This show ran from July 16, 2015 to August 28, 2015. Photos may still be viewed through appointment at Yossi Milo, (Chelsea) New York City