Sage Sohier, Animals

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Stanley/Barker (here). Pink iridescent hardcover with 3/4 dust jacket. 254×303 mm. With 104 pages, and 50 duotone reproductions. Includes a short essay by the author and a full page listing of captions. Design by The Entente. Printed by EBS in Verona. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Boston-based Sage Sohier has been photographing people in their environments since the late 1970s. Her usual method is to seek out a human subculture of interest, immerse herself within it to gain acceptance and familiarity, then make pictures from a point of proximity. Projects can take months or years of repeat visits, and the resulting photographs reward the investment of time. They are generally tender, intimate, and revealing. But what sets them apart —and closer to, say, Alex Webb than Stacy Kranitz— is Sohier’s uncanny nose for serendipitous composition.

Sohier’s photographs have garnered the fine art accolades typical of high achievement: gallery representation, museum collections, and a blue chip checklist of awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and NEA grant. But when it comes to photobooks, Sohier is a late bloomer. Her first monograph Perfectible Worlds came out in 2007 when Sohier was 53. Fittingly for a photographer, the images portrayed obsessive hobbyists and collectors. It was five more years until the next book About Face, featuring tender headshots of people with facial maladies. In 2016 came Witness To Beauty (reviewed as a gallery show here), which took Sohier’s mother as its subject, the galvanizing core for her ruminations on beauty, celebrity, and family.

For recent publications, Sohier has turned her attention to the early parts of her archive. Perhaps there was never time to address these photos when she made them, or perhaps they were made before the expansion of photobook publishing possibilities? It’s had to know for sure, but recent events have put Sohier ahead of the curve. The current coronavirus pandemic has given many idle photographers newfound time and motivation to revisit their archives. Look for the resulting photobook boom in the next few years.

Meanwhile Sohier’s book boom is in process. In 2014, she time traveled back to the 1980s, collecting her portraits of gay couples from the early AIDS era in At Home With Themselves. American Seen, beautifully printed by Nazraeli Press in 2017, focused on friends and neighbors in 1980s Boston. Despite its mammoth size and brilliant content, this book somehow flew under the radar of most critics in 2017, to their loss. It’s now out of print and quite expensive.

Like its immediate predecessors, Sohier’s latest book Animals mines her work from the 1980s (with a healthy serving of early ’90s). Why animals? For Sohier, the seed was planted early. “My sister and I were ostensibly raised by poodles on the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia,” she explains in the introduction. These are the very first words in the book and set the stage for all that comes after. The images begin without fuss on the next page, a photograph of a lonely beagle posting watch in a South Boston industrial lot. This derelict scene kicks off a short opening sequence of understated frames, each one depicting house pets in outdoor domestic settings.

The first handful of photographs serve as visual prologue. It’s not until the sixth image that Sohier begins casting her visual spells in earnest. On one level, “Girl with Rabbit and German Shepherd, Laconia, New Hampshire, 1992” is just what the title infers. A girl cradles a bunny while a dog chases spray from a garden hose behind her. But the structure of this photograph supersedes mere description. The graphic stripe of water hitting the dog carries through its metal leash to a stump in the distance. It’s the type of formal element which unifies a photograph, and which lifts great photographs above good ones. The kicker is that this particular line was ephemeral. Water and leash may have aligned for only a split second. Waiting in just the right place at just the right time, Sohier caught lightning in a bottle. An inkling of photos to come. Proving that the first wasn’t a fluke, a few pages further comes a photograph that’s perhaps even better. “Girl In Snow With Pit Bulls” is a gem of well timed execution. Two pit bulls lunge at objects on a wire, the airborne dog’s jaws mangled by monochrome into an ambiguous jumble. The visual discontinuity is so startling that for a moment the viewer forgets to wonder, what is a small child doing near these lethal beasts?

“I found that there is more spontaneity, less self-consciousness, and more chaos when humans and other animals coexist,” writes Sohier in the introduction. The pit bull photograph burns with all three. The reader is wide awake now, and the images continue to entertain for the next several pages, with humans and animals coexisting chaotically in outdoor settings. At first, these show great dollops of surrounding scenery. Remove their animal elements and they might be considered social landscape studies of rural New England. But gradually Sohier tightens her frames around their animate subjects, and introduces fill-flash to the equation. She’s a master of mixed lighting, spreading lush detail into all corners of her frames. Before her lens, outdoor vistas assume the tonal quality of mise-en-scène. Then comes a short series of transitional spaces, back patios, and screen porches. Then…Boom. We are inside. By the book’s midpoint, the photographs have moved entirely indoors, where they stay for the remainder.

Confined spaces lend Sohier’s exposures a claustrophobic sensibility, but also an excitable edge. For it’s in domestic interiors that she’s shines as a photographer. Freed from any duty to document the outer world, she can focus on compositional permutations. The walls have closed in, pent up energy must be released, and ordinary rooms become circus sideshows. Although her photographs are entirely candid, they approach Roger Ballen territory in surreal medley, with acrobatic stunts, odd animal acts, and an air of rugged bemusement. The back half of Animals —mostly shot in 1992 and 1993 when Sohier was in quite a zone— is a hit parade, with one winner after another. What will the next page bring? A child descending from the ceiling to check in on a bird cage? A scattered trail of puppies chasing a diapered toddler? A snarling dog mirrored by the expression of its owner? And so on. Just when one thinks the book can’t get stranger, along comes the first pinball/beanbag/duck/horse/headline photo in recent memory. Are we having fun yet? Sohier surely is. “Life is richer, more vivid, and always more comical [with animals],” she writes in the introduction.

Life goes down better with animals. Yes, on that most will agree. But what of humans? Although Animals is her book’s title and its ostensible subject, Sohier’s primary interest has always been human behavior, and this holds true even in her animal photos. This is decidedly not a study of environmental portraits in the zoological mold of, say, Peter Hujar, Colleen Plumb, Giacomo Brunelli, or Kevin Horan. Nor is it wildlife study a la Peter Beard or National Geographic. Bookmakers such as Rebecca Norris Webb, Ed Panar, Robin Schwartz, and Isabella Rozendaal have all photographed animals in the human environment, yet this is not that type of book either.

Instead, Sohier’s monograph compares most closely to the elephant in the book room, Garry Winogrand’s 1968 The Animals. For Winogrand, zoo visits were something of a ruse, an excuse to shoot what he really wanted to—people—and to organize his photographs later by circumstance. It’s not clear from his photos that he cared much about animals one way or the other. They were merely a visual avenue to analyze the quirks of human behavior.

I won’t put Sohier in such a disaffected box—“Love [toward animals] is unconditional, grief is uncomplicated though deeply felt” is hardly an uncaring sentiment. But, like Winogrand, her photographs cast animals in relation to their anthropoid counterparts. Humans appear in the vast majority of these images (45/50). Whether it’s in a supporting role or the starring one is often ambiguous. By showing a variety of visual permutations, Sohier raises the central question: are animals really so different from humans? And once that issue has been raised, along comes a flood of others. What of fellow humans? What of the other phenomenologically? How should we consider the non-self, regardless of similarity?

Existential conundrums. Like Winogrand, Sohier deflects the unanswerable with 1/500th second flits of absurdity. To some this might seem a cop-out. But to this critic it’s the only sensible response. In the face of the deeper mysteries, to photograph with wit, joy, and happenstance might pave the way toward mutual coexistence. Or, if not up to that task, such pictures might entertain us for the course of a book.

Collector’s POV: Sage Sohier is represented by Foley Gallery in New York (here), Robert Klein Gallery in Boston (here), and Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla (here). Sohier’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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