Sage Sohier, Passing Time

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Nazraeli Press (here). Debossed linen hardback with dust jacket, 11 x 13 inches, 76 pages, with 57 duotone photographs. Includes an essay by the artist. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sage Sohier introduces her latest book Passing Time as a simple byproduct of circumstance. “During the isolation of the pandemic,” she writes, “I had the opportunity to revisit my archive of negatives and contact sheets from the 1980s, and discovered a number of interesting images that I had never printed.” As a pandemic project it’s in good company. The past few years have witnessed a flurry of similarly inspired books, as Covid’s homebound endeavors make their way into print form. 

But the book’s full story begins earlier. Several years before the pandemic Sohier had already begun digging into her archives. Her 2016 monograph Americans Seen (also published by Nazraeli) unearthed previously overlooked negatives from the early 80s, shot in and around her base in Boston. The resulting book was terrific, even if it flew somewhat under the radar. Feeling inspired, she sifted further through old negatives for her next monograph. 2019’s Animals (reviewed here) featured black-and-white work from the 1980s through early 90s, photographed in various settings and loosely organized around the titular theme. Sohier currently works with a color palette and digital tools (as in her 2016 gallery show “Witness to Beauty” reviewed here) and so these rear-view deep dives were opportunities for clean breaks from the present. She could immerse in old negatives with a degree of objectivity, and view them at arm’s length. Whatever she found would naturally morph into a self-contained time capsule.

Passing Time follows a similar formula. The photographs span 1979 through 1985, and a fair number are from the Boston area. In time, place, and subject matter there is some overlap with Americans Seen. In fact Passing Time might be considered a sequel of sorts, following the same general design and raw materials. Both monographs demonstrate exceptional camera skill. Sohier’s ability to seize cohesive compositions from fluid situations was remarkable. That said, there is enough in Passing Time to distinguish it from its precursor. 

For starters, Sohier’s geographic territory ranges further afield. There are photographs from Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Illinois, and multiple states in Appalachia. Sohier traveled widely with her camera, typically during summertime. Even as she roamed through disparate environments, she was often drawn to the same subjects: run-of-the-mill neighborhoods and outdoor gatherings. Passing Time is spiced with factory stacks, vinyl siding, potholes, and rust-belt ephemera. All are buttonholed by Sohier’s lens, then homogenized into monochrome frames. Florida blends into Kentucky into New York. Readers would be hard-pressed to identify specific locales without their captions (listed in a rear index). That’s just fine with Sohier. Her primary concern was not places but people, especially as found in situ. “My rather grandiose ambition,” she explains in the introduction, “was to create a portrait of contemporary America by photographing people in their environments.”

A portrait of contemporary America. That’s a Sisyphean exercise if there ever was one, as Edward Curtis or August Sander would affirm. To embark on such a task required a blend of youth, determination, and naïveté. Sohier possessed all three. She was 25 in 1979, recently graduated from Harvard, and chomping at the bit to make her mark. Greenhorn chutzpah allowed her to plunge in where wiser souls might fear to tread. In many cases, that was literally the doorstep of strangers. “Intruding on people’s personal space could feel awkward,” she writes, “and was never easy to do, but most of the time it seemed that my enthusiasm was contagious and people were able to relax and be themselves.”

Judging by her photos, Sohier’s enthusiasm found its counterpart in the real world. Her subjects appear vibrant and engaged, and only too happy to oblige a curious photographer. Of course, Passing Time is a weighted sample. The hostile reactions, if there were any, did not wind up in the book. Still, what is here presents “a portrait of contemporary America” in a remarkably amiable light. A family in Old Orchard Beach, Maine smiles playfully on a walk with their kite and dog. A group in West Virginia huddles in and around an automobile, gazing back at Sohier with fond curiosity. Even an absentminded couple interrupted on a grocery run seems propitious. Train tracks, smoke stacks, and paper sacks don’t seem to impose any psychic burdens. Perhaps Sohier has just told a joke, or made a self-deprecating comment about her photo equipment? What else might they be smiling about?  

The cheery mood might be ascribed at least partially to youth. As in Americans Seen, many of Sohier’s subjects were children and teens. These are—or at least were, back in the latchkey 1980s— the public antennae of society. While most adults were at home or work, they were out and about in the streets and parks. For a traveling stranger like Sohier, they’d likely be the first locals she encountered. Some would provide entrée to private spheres. Others Sohier engaged on the spot, capturing their happy-go-lucky aura before it could dissipate. Her pictures capture kids riding bikes, splashing in hydrants, blowing bubbles, hanging upside down, generally enjoying their immortal youth. When adults were nearby they took a carefree cue from the younger set. The mood remained relaxed when grown ups found time to catnap in the yard, lounge on an inflatable mattress, or wait around for the sun to dry laundry. If passing time was an art form, these folks had it down.

“I notice a kind of relaxed sensuality in many of the pictures,” Sohier reflects in retrospect. “Time moved more slowly; restlessness led to spontaneous play. Young people back then were fit and lean from running around outside with their friends and neighbors.” The unhurried mood recalls a kinder, gentler era before instant messaging, helicopter parenting, global warming, and doom scrolling. Indeed the title is no accident. Part of Passing Time’s spell is that operates as a literal time capsule, a window into a previous state of mind. It’s only fitting that Sohier made the book during the pandemic. During a period of such intense anxiety and uncertainty, this project must have been therapeutic. Even as we approach normal conditions again, Passing Time still beckons with nostalgic allure. As often happens browsing old albums, life just seemed simpler then. In actuality, of course this is illusory. As someone who came of age in the eighties, I can affirm they were not problem-free. But Sohier’s book does a good job of pushing such thoughts to the background for a passing moment.

Passing Time is currently showing in two physical exhibitions, at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland (here) and Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla (here). I had the pleasure of seeing the Blue Sky show a few weeks ago. As might be expected, Sohier’s photographs look better on a wall than in book form. It’s not really a fair comparison. The gallery photographs are large silver gelatin photographs, immaculately printed, matted, and framed. They reveal numerous small details, expressions, and artifacts which are necessarily lost on the printed page. It may just be my imagination, but Nazraeli’s reproductions feel subdued in comparison, even occasionally muddy. The silver gelatin prints have an open tonality which conveys a fuller expression of the work. They are a good reminder that, even as photobooks occupy an increasingly important slice of the career pie for photographers, they cannot replace exhibitions.

That’s not to disparage the book. It’s a gorgeous production. If you cannot see the prints in person, it’s more than adequate. But seeing this work in exhibition form reinforces my appreciation for Sohier’s mastery. Blown up with detail, they just get better. Perhaps there are more waiting to be unearthed in her archives. I’ll enjoy the passing time until we find out.

Collector’s POV: Sage Sohier is represented by 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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