Jacob Aue Sobol, Arrivals and Departures @Yossi Milo

JTF (just the facts): A total of 53 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the East and West galleries and the small hallway alcove. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 2012 and 2015. 50 of the prints are sized 20×24 (or reverse) and are available in editions of 9+3AP; the other 3 prints are sized 30×40 (or reverse) and are available in editions of 6+3AP. The artist’s project was sponsored by Leica, and a booklet of images from the series has been published by Leica Gallery Warsaw. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: There is something quietly contrarian about deciding to be a photographer of darkness. By its very nature, the medium is a celebration of light, so to overtly revel in the tactile richness and enveloping moodiness of black is to intentionally stand apart from the crowd. In his newest body of work, the Danish photographer Jacob Aue Sobol has embraced darkness with such sophisticated nuance that he has threatened the very hierarchy of masterful photographic blackness. Petersen has been more brash, Metzker more lushly precise, Moriyama more gritty and sultry, and DeCarava more solemn and weighty, but Sobol has brought something new to the study of darkness – a tender feeling for temperature, from the comfortable warmth of skin to the prickly frost of deep winter. His eye for graphic contrast has become his signature, his flash tunneling through shadows, equally at home in both the small void of an armpit and the vast nothingness of the empty night.

The pictures here come from a series of trips Sobol made on the famous Trans-Siberian Railway, starting in Moscow, crossing Mongolia, and ending up in Beijing. Traveling third class, he eschewed the straight shot get-there-fast journey across the continent and extended his trip with repeated stops along the way, jumping off for a few days in out of the way locales, only to pick up the next train coming through. Happily, there are few images of trains, or tracks, or wide vistas shot from the window tourist-style. Instead, Sobol wandered, talked, connected, and stayed the night, taking the pulse of the younger generation in these forgotten towns and tracking the subtle details of West turning to East.

Most of Sobol’s images of people are intimate nudes, made with the up close trust of someone let inside the walls. Tactile and luscious, his prints feel lovingly hand crafted, with zones of dark and light enhanced and reduced, giving the bare skin a gentle burnished patina. At times, the edges and depressions of finger tips, the curves of breasts, and the indentations of collarbones look almost solarized, like Man Ray’s torsos. The dirty soles of feet, the tangled cascades of dark hair, the rumpled sheets, and the cracked leather sofa cushions, they all exude a warmth of touch, where hollows and shadows pull inward, drawing us closer to wrapped arms and shared space, huddled together against the intrusions of cold and night.

As a fresh-off-the-train outsider, Sobol needed connection points, and children must have often provided an entry into the local community. His images of kids run the gamut from bold to tender, from a happy-go-lucky stride across the frozen tundra to a mouth full of too many misaligned teeth. Bulging young eyes stare in goggling wonder at the foreigner, while tiny arms and wary eyes protectively cradle a stuffed pony. His grand image of an improvised game of basketball set against dark rooftops and snowy mountains seems to capture a spectrum of conflicting moods in one frame – the universal joy of play flanked by the heavy gloom of a town out on the margins, far from the bright lights of bustling civilization.

Sobol’s textures are an engrossing genre unto themselves. The roughness of a wool coat, the smooth surface of a briefcase, and a broken finger wrapped in gauze are come together in a symphony of contrasts found on the train platform, while a mysterious object elaborately tied with string, the perforated eyehole pattern in a dress, the bushy white fur of a cat, and the frosted hide of an elk offer the opportunity to get lost in the intricacies of edges and lines. Snow offers a particularly resonant foil for Sobol’s darkness. It blankets the trees like muffling white cake icing, covers an old carriage like filigree, sparkles in the air above an abandoned shed, and drowns a boat in frozen waves. In his hands, snow can be both light and dark – a towering wall of snow bricks looming high over head, dirty like the flashlit corpse of a dead wolf, or a wet blackened path at the station, worn down to the dark concrete. Even hollowed out holes of uniform black can become texture, in the ghostly open windows of an uninhabited apartment building or the yawning arch over a fancy balustrade.

There is so much stylized mood in these pictures, it’s hard not to come away energized and impressed. Sobol has consistently made darkness something exciting – alternately open and bracingly exposed, closed in and claustrophobic, muted and silent, icy and overheated, and instinctively and starkly alive. In short, he’s made it his, and the photographs throb with the confident strength of personal intensity.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows: the 20×24 prints are $3500 each, while the 30×40 prints are $6500 each. Sobol’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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